It took six ballots, but Billy Williams was finally elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987—eleven years after he played his last game.
Many thought the decade-long wait was an unjustified limbo for an 18-year big leaguer who recorded 2,711 career hits, a .290 lifetime batting average, 426 home runs and .853 career OPS. That’s more career hits than Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams and only 162 hits shy of Babe Ruth—who played four more years in the big leagues than Williams.
Williams also had more career home runs than Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Orlando Cepeda, Carlton Fisk and Duke Snider, while posting a very respectable lifetime batting average along the way.
So what caused the delay in his induction? A quote from his autobiography may hint at the answer. “People say I’m not an exciting player. I go out there and catch the ball and hit the ball and play the game like it should be played.”
It didn’t help that the Cubs seldom even sniffed the playoffs during his career.
There wasn’t much showboat in Williams’ game, but there sure was a lot of substance. Here’s a look back at six career chronicling cards of the six-time All-Star and sixth-ballot Hall of Famer.
1961 Topps RC
It wasn’t a fast and furious start to Williams career, who received just 33 at-bats in 1959 and 47 in 1960 for the major league club. Because of the sparce at-bats, Williams didn’t shed his rookie status until 1961, when he had 529 at-bats and burst onto the Chicago scene with 25 home runs, 86 RBI and a .278 batting average.
It was a rookie season that turned more heads than just the Cubs. Williams was voted the Rookie of the Year and used the success as a springboard for the rest of career.
His 1961 Topps RC is a hard one to find well-centered, but if you can, a high grade one can fetch $500-$800 or more for graded mint examples. If you’re just looking for a raw, ungraded copy for your collection, you can find one in the $20-$50 range.
Other key rookies from 1961 Topps include teammate Ron Santo and Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal.
1969 Topps “League Leaders”
The Chicago Cubs of the 1960s were not devoid of stars by any means, showcasing a lineup that featured Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo—who all hit more than 25 home runs in 1968. They also had a 20-game winner in Fergie Jenkins on the mound, but the star-studded roster never translated to postseason success. In fact, the Cubs playoff drought spanned Williams’ entire 16-year career in the Windy City.
Williams and Santo also tied for the second-most RBI in the National League with 98, but the Cubs still missed the playoffs again, finishing in third place. Banks also added 83 RBI that season, finishing in the top-10 in that category.
Two of the three offensive stars for Chicago were also featured on the 1969 Topps “League Leaders” for RBI, as Williams and Santo both finished with 98 RBI each. Willie McCovey was the only player to drive in more than 100 that year, finishing with 105.
This Leaders card can usually be had for just a few bucks in good shape.
While the 1969 Topps Baseball set features only one iconic rookie card (Reggie Jackson), it’s a sought after set due to a clean design and second year cards of Nolan Ryan and Johnny Bench.
Entering the 1970 season, Williams had played in 982 consecutive games—which was only three shy of the National League record at the time. Williams easily surpassed that mark a few games into the season, finishing with 1,117 games played in a row from 1963-1970.
Fatigue certainly could have been an excuse that season for Williams, but instead he went on to have one of the best seasons of his career. The Cubs outfielder went on to sport a .322 batting average, as well as career-highs in home runs (42) and RBI (129). His 137 runs scored led the league, as did his 205 hits and 373 total bases.
When the consecutive games played streak came to an end on September 2nd, 1970, Williams stood alone as the iron man of the National League. Almost five years later to the day (September 3rd, 1975), Steve Garvey started his own streak of 1,207 consecutive games, which still remains a record in the National League.
With Topps dominating the baseball card space in the 60s and 70s, Kellogg’s released a set in 1970 that featured Williams and some of the biggest names in baseball. It’s become a popular set among collectors, but is still an affordable option for those seeking to add a Williams.
When Williams joined the Chicago Cubs team in 1959, seven-time batting champion Rogers Hornsby was employed as a scout and coach for the organization. Although Williams first two seasons were spent platooning, Hornsby still predicted that the young Cub would one day win a batting title.
In an interview with Jon Shestakofsky, the Hall of Fame’s Vice President of Communications and Education, Williams elaborated on what winning the batting title in 1972 meant to him.
“I was really proud of that simply because this was a prediction by Rogers Hornsby. He (Hornsby) said, ‘One day, you’re going to win the batting title,’ and once I’d done it, I really thought about him,” Williams said.
Williams had been close on a couple of occasions, but confirming the confidence Hornsby had in Williams years prior was an accomplishment in itself.
His 1972 Topps card won’t break the bank—most ungraded ones go for less than $10 online. If you’re looking for a high-grade copy, you can expect to spend $200-$300. It also commemorates a season where Williams led the league with a .333 batting average, while adding 37 home runs and 122 RBI. Williams also recorded a league best OPS of 1.005 for the season, pacing the circuit in slugging percentage (.606), total bases (348), OPS+ (172).
After spending his entire career in Chicago, Williams was traded to the three-time defending World Series champion Oakland A’s prior to the 1975 season. At the age of 37, Williams didn’t miss a beat—launching 23 home runs and adding 81 RBI.
Despite his success and supporting cast, the Chicago Cubs never reached the postseason during Williams’ 16-year tenure. His trip to the postseason with Oakland would be his first, but the A’s would fall short of making it four titles in a row thanks to an upstart Red Sox team that would sweep the series in three games.
Oakland would finish in 2nd place in the A.L. West in 1976, so the 1975 postseason proved to be Williams only taste of the playoffs.
1975 Topps Baseball has become a classic set for collectors thanks to a “groovy” design that was on par for the 1970s vibe. While the cards don’t come with bell-bottoms, 1975 Topps features an excellent crop of rookie cards that includes George Brett, Robin Yount, Jim Rice and Gary Carter.