“I’ve never heard that before,” I replied, still learning the finer points of the game.
“You bet,” Charlie nodded, “And make sure you bring some Chap Stick, too.”
“What the hell’s that for? I don’t use Chap Stick.”
“Not for your lips, ya dumbass – it’s for your driver. It takes the spin off the ball when you tee off and straightens your drive like you wouldn't believe.”
“Are you serious?”
“Tell ya what – I’ll bring the Chap Stick. You just go out and play your game. I wanna get in ol’ Sherm’s pocket.”
Fun. Hijinks. Shenanigans.
That was Charlie Williams.
Charlie was born in Flushing, NY on October 11, 1947. He grew up in Great Neck, Long Island and played ball for Parsons College in the mid ‘60s. (Many of you may not have heard of Parsons – it’s a fascinating story of an Iowa-based party school that went bankrupt and closed its doors by 1973.) He was the New York Mets seventh round draft pick in 1968, making the big club within three years. Didn’t have the greatest rookie season at Shea – didn’t even make the team coming out of spring training in ’72. While Williams’ claim to fame is being the player traded to San Francisco for Willie Mays one month later, oh, there was so much more to Charlie.
* * * * *
When you hear the cliché about the one guy that keeps everybody loose in the clubhouse, that was Charlie. Always cracking wise, always busting chops, always making those around him laugh. Except on the golf course. The boy could flat out swing. At least a four handicap in his day. We all knew he was unbeatable. Didn’t stop some of our teammates from trying to take him down, though. We played a round once during Spring Training, 1973, me, Charlie, our teammate Ronny Bryant, along with Davy and “Peanuts” Lowrey, a former Giants coach who was in town that week. It wasn’t even close. Man, Charlie aggravated Ronny so badly that Bryant grabbed his own pristine set of MacGregor clubs – bag and all – and chucked it into the pond right beside the 18th hole.
I’ll never forget Charlie’s middle name – Prosek – P-R-O-S-E-K. He caught so much grief over that in the dugout. Of course, it was merely a family surname somewhere along the line. Boys just being boys.
Charlie rode the Phoenix-to-San Fran shuttle quite a bit in ’73, spending a week here, a month there with the parent club but made the Giants for good in 1974. As a pitcher, Charlie had average stuff for a major leaguer. Straight fastball, good slider, decent curve ball. When he realized that big league hitters had his pitch selection figured out, Charlie developed an impressive knuckle ball. After grabbing a few pointers from Phil Niekro whenever the Atlanta Braves were in town, Charlie was able to mix the pitch into his repertoire, which kept the batters somewhat at bay, adding a few years to his career.
Charlie didn’t come out with us a whole lot. Spent much of his time off-the-field with his wife, but when we did hit the town, it was a blast. He drove this sleek, beige 1973 Mercedes SLC 450. After games sometimes, we’d grab dinner at this Bay Area Mexican restaurant, then buzz down San Mateo Boulevard toward The Polo Club, a cool ballplayers’ hangout where the owner took care of us whenever we stopped by.
Like many relief pitchers that aren’t working every game, boredom sets in, and no one on our club knew how to occupy their time on the bench better than Charlie. He was always pulling pranks – gave the best hot foot in the league back then, I’ll tell you that much.
“Here’s what ya do,” Charlie once told me, “You take your chewed bubble gum, stick it on top of his shoe, take a cigarette, stick it to the gum, plant a book of matches beside the lit cigarette. Move outta the way slowly and enjoy the show.” Everyone enjoyed Charlie’s show – except maybe our catcher Dave Rader, a regular recipient of the classic gag.
Charlie remained with the Giants for a couple years once I left the club after the 1976 season, ending his career with, interestingly enough, the Charleston Charlies, the Houston Astros’ AAA affiliate, at the end of the ‘70s.
As the years passed, Charlie and I fell out of touch. He missed the Giants’ pitchers’ reunion at A T&T Park in 2008. We were told that he had family obligations, but we all knew the truth; Parkinson’s had begun to get the best of him, and Charlie, while fun-loving and open-minded, was also a very proud man – he didn’t want his brothers in arms remembering him in that sense.
The last time I heard from Charlie was earlier this year. I received a phone call out of the blue from John Cumberland, a former Giants teammate of ours. “Hey, JD,” “Cumby” laughed, “I’m in Florida playing golf. Guess who’s trying to beat me for $2 a hole?” The moment I heard that familiar, albeit older cackle in the background, I knew the answer. Cumby placed me on speaker.
“Charlie, you scammin’ the guys again, you bleep bleep bleep,” I barked into the phone.
“Bleep bleep bleep,” Charlie laughed back, “Right back at ya, ‘D. Heh-Heh-heh!!!”
Charlie Williams was 67 on Tuesday before he passed. He wasn’t a heart-to-heart talks kind of buddy, but he was a drinking buddy, a golf buddy, an occasional bullpen buddy, and someone that brings a knowing grin to my face at the sound of his name and the memory of his existence on earth.
The next time you see a ballplayer jumping around the dugout with burnt shoelaces hanging from his spikes, please think of Charlie.
I think he would’ve dug that.
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