The Milwaukee Braves drafted Earl Williams out of Montclair High School in the first round of the August 1965 Legion Draft … as a pitcher.
That convinced Williams to give up a basketball scholarship at Ithaca College and stick to the diamond.
Fast forward seven years — the Braves were in Atlanta and Williams was making waves in the Major Leagues … as a catcher.
In fact, he was so good at the plate, and so-so enough behind the plate, that the man who became known as Big Money would cop the 1971 National League Rookie of the Year Award.
So, how did a young man go from hardwood standout to Big League squatter, with a bright future?
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It’s a long story …
First, the Braves liked Williams’ bat more than his arm after eight minor league starts, so they asked him to give up pitching.
Then, after five years in the minors, he caught on in Atlanta with the big club, coming in as a reserve infielder and available outfielder.
Then, Braves starting third baseman Clete Boyer got into a bitter feud with management that spring and was cut loose by June.
Then, Williams and fellow youngster Darrell Evans split time at the two corner infield positions to fill Boyer’s void.
Then, Evans locked down the hot corner after a little while, leaving first for Williams.
Then, manager Lum Harris needed a pinch hitter in the eight inning of a game on May 23, and he brought in Williams. Harris left the youngster in the game … at catcher.
Where Williams had never played a professional game.
Runners took advantage of the green backstop early on, but Williams hit enough to stay in the lineup and kept the game going behind the plate well enough to stay back there. By season’s end, the rookie had thrown out 28% of would-be base-stealers — not superstar level, to be sure, but about 28% more of base runners than you (probably) or I (definitely) could throw out.
Also, by season’s end, Williams had smacked 33 home runs and driven in 87 runs, numbers that got noticed back then, when power was a little tougher to come by.
And so, the high school basketball star had become an NL ROY, as a catcher.
Williams appeared on a 1971 Topps Braves Rookie Stars card that summer (as a first baseman) with Oscar Brown. Topps did better by the youngster in 1972, though, giving him a nifty looking solo card with that gaudy All-Star Rookie trophy of theirs.
And, on the back, his proper (for awhile, at least) position designation, and a testament to his all-around abilities and versatility: CATCHER.
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