COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Whenever the Cubs took the field in 1961, there was an aura of anticipation throughout Wrigley Field.
Billy Williams, the Cubs rookie outfielder, had taken Chicago by storm and was eventually rewarded with the National League Rookie of the Year Award -- collecting the hardware 50 years ago this week. The hard-hitting leftfielder from Whistler, Ala., had come a long way since 1956 when, as a 17-year-old youth, he signed with the Cubs for the price of a bus ticket.
Up for brief trials with the Cubs in 1959 and 1960, Williams finally made it "big" in 1961.
Billy batted a solid .278, while scoring 75 runs and collecting 147 hits. Adding to his consistency, Williams showed off his power by smashing 25 homers and driving in 86 runs.
Not bad for a 23-year-old player who didn't get around to the game until his senior year in high school.
Adding to his rookie success, Billy was always unselfish when it came to playing different positions. "I want to get in there and play every day," Williams said. "I prefer left field, but I will play anywhere the coach needs me."
He will always be remembered as "Sweet Swinging Billy Williams" in Chicago, referring as much to his disposition as his melodic way with a bat.
"When he was hot, it was as though they had put a giant tee in front of him, with the ball on it and said 'Here Billy, hit it,'" a long-time Cub fan observed. "The ball came off his bat more like a drive from a golf club."
In 1987, Williams finally got his due by graduating from the ivy fence of Wrigley Field into the Hall of Fame.
Needing at least 310 votes – 75 percent of the 413 ballots – Williams received 354 votes (85.7 percent) of the ballots cast by senior members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," said Williams. "It hasn't sunk in yet. I can truly say its one of the most exciting moments of my life."
Billy easily had Hall of Fame statistics – a .290 batting average with 426 home runs, 1,475 runs batted in and 2,711 hits in 18 seasons. He also played in 1,117 consecutive games.
"I guess the smile on my face tells it all. 'Wait until next year' is now a phrase of the past."
Jonathan Coe is the fall 2011 Public Relations intern for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum