Chapter 2 ary of the seventh-grade class, and the following year he was voted president and a class favorite of the eighth grade. He entered the ninth grade at Byng High School in 1967, one of sixty freshman. Byng did not play football-that was unofficially reserved for Ada, whose powerful teams annually competed for the state title. Byng was a basketball school, and Ronnie picked up the game his freshman year and absorbed it as quickly as he had baseball. Though never a bookworm, he did enjoy reading and made As and Bs. Math was his favorite subject. When he was bored with textbooks, he plowed through dictionaries and encyclopedias. He grew obsessive with certain topics. In the midst of a dictionary binge, he would pepper his friends with words they'd never heard of, chiding them if they did not know the meanings. He studied every American president, memorized countless details about each one, then for months talked of nothing else. Though he was steadily growing away from his church, he still knew dozens of verses of Scripture, which he often used to his advantage, and more often used to challenge those around him. At times, his obsessions wore thin with his friends and family.
Ron Williamson was born in Ada on February 3, 1953, the only son and last child of Juanita and Roy Williamson. Roy worked as a door-to-door salesman for the Rawleigh home products company. He was a fixture in Ada, trudging down the sidewalks in coat and tie with his heavy sample case filled with food supplements, spices, and kitchen products. He always carried a pocketful of candy for the kids who eagerly greeted him. It was a hard way to make a living, physically grueling and with long hours of paperwork at night. His commissions were modest, and soon after Ronnie was born, Juanita took a job with the hospital in Ada.
With both parents working, Ronnie naturally fell into the lap of his twelve-year-old sister, Annette, and she could not have been happier. She fed him, cleaned him, played with him, pampered and spoiled him-he was a wonderful little plaything she'd been lucky enough to inherit. When Annette wasn't in school, she was babysitting her brother, as well as cleaning the house and preparing dinner.
Renee, the middle child, was five when Ron was born, and though she had no desire to care for him, she soon became his playmate. Annette bossed her around, too, and as they grew older, Renee and Ronnie often tag-teamed against their motherlike guardian.
Juanita was a devout Christian, a headstrong woman who had her family in church every Sunday and Wednesday and whenever other services were offered. The children never missed Sunday school, vacation Bible school, summer camp, revivals, church socials, even a few weddings and funerals. Roy was less devout, but nonetheless adhered to a disciplined lifestyle: a faithful church attendance, absolutely no alcohol, gambling, swearing, card playing, or dancing; and complete devotion to his family. He was strict with his rules and quick to yank off his belt and deliver bold threats or an actual lick or two, usually to the backside of his only son.
The family worshipped at the First Pentecostal Holiness Church, an energetic, full-gospel congregation. As Pentecostals, they believed in a fervent prayer life, the constant nurturing of a personal relationship with Christ, faithfulness to the church and all aspects of its work, diligent study of the Bible, and a loving embrace of other members. Worship was not for the timid, with vibrant music, fiery sermons, and emotional participation from the congregation, which often included the speaking of unknown tongues, on-thespothealing, or "laying on of hands," and a general openness in expressing, loudly, whatever emotion the Spirit was pulling forth.
Young children were taught the colorful stories of the Old Testament and were prompted to memorize the more popular Bible verses. They were encouraged to "accept Christ" at an early age-to confess sin, ask the Holy Spirit to enter their lives for eternity, and follow the example of Christ with a public baptism. Ronnie accepted Christ at the age of six and was baptized in the Blue River, south of town, at the end of a long spring revival.
The Williamsons lived quietly in a small house on Fourth Street, on the east side of Ada, near the college. For relaxation, they visited relatives in the area, stayed busy with church work, and camped occasionally at a nearby state park. They had little interest in sports, but that changed dramatically when Ronnie discovered baseball. He started playing with the other boys on the street, pickup games of a dozen varieties and endless rule changes.
From the beginning it was obvious that his arm was strong and his hands were quick. He swung the bat from the left side of the plate. He was hooked on the game from day one, and was soon bugging his father to buy him a glove and a bat. Spare money was scarce around the house, but Roy took the kid shopping. An annual rite was born-the early springtime trip to Haynes Hardware for the selection of a new glove. And it was usually the most expensive one in the store.
When he wasn't using the glove, he kept it in a corner of his bedroom where he erected a shrine to Mickey Mantle, the greatest Yankee and the greatest Oklahoman in the major leagues. Mantle was idolized by kids throughout the country, but in Oklahoma he was godlike. Every Little Leaguer in the state dreamed of being the next Mickey, including Ronnie, who taped photos and baseball cards of the Mick to a poster board in the corner of his room. By the age of six he could recite every Mantle statistic, as well as those of many other players.
When he wasn't playing in the streets, Ronnie was in the living room, swinging the bat with all the force he could muster. The house was very small, the furnishings modest but irreplaceable, and whenever his mother caught him flailing away and barely missing a lamp or a chair, she ran him outside. Minutes later, he was back. To Juanita, her little boy was special. Though somewhat spoiled, he could do nothing wrong.
He was also very confusing. He could be sweet and sensitive, unafraid to show his affection to his mother and sisters, and, a moment later, bratty and selfish, making demands of the entire family. His mood swings were noticed early in life but were the cause of no particular alarm. Ronnie was simply a difficult child at times. Perhaps it was because he was the youngest and had a houseful of women doting on him.
In every small town there is a Little League coach who loves the game so much that he is constantly on the prowl for fresh talent, even that of an eight-year-old. In Ada, the guy was Dewayne Sanders, coach of the Police Eagles. He worked at a corner service station not far from the Williamson home on Fourth Street. Word reached Coach Sanders about the Williamson kid, and he was soon signed up.
Even at such an early age, it was obvious Ronnie could play the game. And it was odd because his father knew very little about baseball. Ronnie had picked it up on the streets. In the summer months, baseball began early in the day as the boys gathered and talked about the Yankee game the day before. Only the Yankees. They studied the box score, talked about Mickey Mantle, tossed the ball around as they waited for more players. A small group meant a game in the street, dodging the occasional car, breaking the occasional window. When more kids showed up, the street ball was abandoned and they headed for a vacant lot for serious games that would last all day. Late in the afternoon they would drift back home, just in time to clean up, eat a bite, put on a uniform, and hurry over to Kiwanis Park for a real game.
The Police Eagles were usually in first place, a testament to the dedication of Dewayne Sanders. The team's star was Ronnie Williamson. His name first appeared in the Ada Evening News when he was just nine years old-"The Police Eagles used 12 hits, including 2 homers by Ron Williamson, who also had 2 doubles. "
Roy Williamson was at every game, watching quietly from the bleachers. He never yelled at an umpire or a coach, nor did he yell at his own son. Occasionally, after a bad game, he would offer fatherly advice, usually about life in general. Roy had never played baseball and was still learning the game. His young son was years ahead of him.
When Ronnie was eleven, he moved up to the Ada Kids League and was the top draft pick of the Yankees, sponsored by the Oklahoma State Bank. He led the team to an undefeated season.
When he was twelve, still playing for the Yankees, the Ada paper followed the team's season: "Oklahoma State Bank scored 15 runs in the bottom of the first inning. . . Ronnie Williamson had 2 triples" (June 9, 1965); "The Yankees went to bat only three times. . . but the booming bats of Roy Haney, Ron Williamson and James Lamb told the story. Williamson tripled" (June 11,1965); "The Oklahoma State Bank Yankees scored twice in the opening inning. . . Ron Williamson and Carl Tilley got two of the four hits. . . each being a double" (July 13,1965); "Meanwhile the Bank team bounced into the second place nest. . . Ronnie Williamson had two doubles and a single" (July 15, 1965).
In the 1960s, Byng High School was about eight miles north and east of the Ada city limits. It was considered a country school, much smaller than the sprawling Ada High School. Though the neighborhood kids could attend Ada High if they chose, and if they were willing to make the drive, virtually all opted for the smaller school, primarily because the Byng bus ran through the east side of town and the Ada bus did not. Most of the kids on Ron's street chose Byng.
At Byng Junior High School, Ronnie was elected secret
But Ronnie was a gifted athlete, and thus very popular in school. He was elected vice president of his freshman class. The girls noticed him, liked him, wanted to date him, and he certainly was not shy around them. He became very particular about his appearance and fussy about his wardrobe. He wanted nicer clothes than his parents could afford, but he pushed hard for them anyway. Roy began quietly buying himself secondhand clothes so his son could wear better ones.
Annette had married and was living in Ada. In 1969, she and her mother opened the Beauty Casa, a hair salon, on the ground floor of the old Julienne Hotel in downtown Ada. They worked hard and soon built a brisk business, one that included several call girls who used the upper floors of the hotel. These ladies of the evening had been a fixture in the town for decades, and had taken their toll on a few marriages. Juanita could barely tolerate them.
Annette's lifelong inability to say no to her little brother came back to haunt her as he constantly wheedled money out of her for clothes and girls. When he somehow discovered that she had a charge account at a local clothing store, he began adding to it. And he never thought of buying the cheap stuff. Sometimes he would ask permission; often he would not. Annette would explode, they'd argue, then he would con her into paying the bill. She adored him too much to say no, and she wanted her little brother to have the best of everything. In the middle of every fight, he always managed to tell her how much he loved her. And there was no doubt that he did.
Both Renee and Annette worried that their brother was growing too spoiled and putting too much pressure on their parents. At times they lashed out at him; some of the fights were memorable, but Ronnie prevailed. He would cry and apologize and make everybody smile and laugh. The sisters often found themselves sneaking him money to help buy things their parents couldn't afford. He could be self-absorbed, demanding, egocentric, downright childish-the obvious baby of the family-and then, with a burst of his oversized personality, he would have the entire family eating out of his hand. They loved him dearly, and he loved them right back. And even in the midst of their bickering they knew he would get whatever he wanted.
The summer after Ronnie's ninth grade, a few of the luckier boys planned to attend a baseball camp at a nearby college. Ronnie wanted to go, too, but Roy and Juanita simply couldn't afford it. He persisted; it was a rare opportunity to improve his game and maybe get noticed by college coaches. For weeks he talked of nothing else and pouted when things looked hopeless. Roy finally acquiesced and borrowed the money from a bank. Ron's next project was the purchase of a motorbike, something Roy and Juanita were opposed to. They went through the usual series of denials and lectures and claims that it was something they simply couldn't afford and too dangerous anyway, so Ronnie announced he would pay for it himself. He found his first job, an afternoon paper route, and began saving every penny. When he had enough for the down payment, he bought the motorbike and arranged monthly payments with the dealer.
The repayment plan was derailed when a tent revival came to town. The Bud Chambers Crusade hit Ada -big crowds, lots of music, charismatic sermons, something to do at night. Ronnie went to the first service, was deeply moved, and returned the next nightwith most of his savings. When they passed the offering plate, he emptied his pockets. But Brother Bud needed more, so Ronnie returned the next night with the rest of hismoney. The next day he scraped up all the loose cash he could find or borrow and hustledback to the tent that night for another rowdy service and another hard-earned donation. For the entire week, Ronnie somehow managed to give and give, and when the crusade finally left town, he was flat broke.
Then he quit the paper route because it interfered with baseball. Roy scraped together the money and paid off the motorbike.
With both sisters out of the house, Ronnie demanded all the attention. A less beguiling child might have been intolerable, but he had developed an immense talent for charm. Warm, outgoing, and generous himself, he had no problem expecting unwarranted generosity from his family.
As Ronnie was entering the tenth grade, the football coach at Ada High approached Roy and suggested that his son enroll in the larger school. The kid was a natural athlete; by then everybody in town knew Ronnie was an outstanding basketball and baseball player. But Oklahoma is football country, and the coach assured Roy that the lights were brighter playing on the gridiron for the Ada Cougars. With his size, speed, and arm, he could quickly develop into a top player, possibly a recruit. The coach offered to stop by the house each morning and give the kid a ride to school.
The decision was Ronnie's, and he stuck with Byng, for two more years anyway. The rural community of Asher sits almost unnoticed on Highway 177 twenty miles north of Ada. It has few people-fewer than five hundred- no downtown to speak of, a couple of churches, a water tower, and a few paved streets with some aging homes scattered about. Its pride is a beautiful baseball field, just past its tiny, Class-B high school on Division Street.
Like most very small towns, Asher seems an unlikely place for anything noteworthy, but for forty years it had the winningest high school baseball team in the nation. In fact, no high school in history, public or private, has won as many games as the Asher Indians. It all began in 1959 when a young coach named Murl Bowen arrived and inherited a long-neglected program-the 1958 team did not win a game. Things changed quickly. Within three years Asher had its first state title. Dozens would follow. For reasons that are unlikely to ever become clear, Oklahoma sanctions varsity baseball in the fall, but only for those schools too small for football. During his career at Asher, it was not unusual for Coach Bowen's teams to win a state title in the fall, then follow it up with another in the spring. During one remarkable stretch, Asher qualified for the state finals sixty straight times-thirty years in a row, fall and spring.
In forty years, Coach Bowen's teams won 2,115 games, lost only 349, hauled home fortythree state championship trophies, and sent dozens of players to college and minor-league baseball. In 1975, Bowen was named the national high school coach of the year, and the town rewarded him by upgrading Bowen Field. In 1995, he received the same award again. "It wasn't me," he says modestly, looking back. "It was the kids. I never scored a run. "
Maybe not, but he certainly produced enough. Beginning each August, when temperatures in Oklahoma often reach a hundred degrees, Coach Bowen would gather his small group of players and plan the next assault on the state play-offs. His rosters were always slim-each graduating class at Asher had about twenty kids, half girls-and it was not unusual to have a squad of only a dozen players, including an occasional eighth grader with promise. To make sure no one quit, his first order of business was to pass out the uniforms. Every kid made the team.
Then he worked them, beginning with three-a-day practices. The workouts were beyond rigorous-hours of conditioning, sprinting, running bases, drilling in the fundamentals. He preached hard work, strong legs, dedication, and, above all
, sportsmanship. No Asher player ever argued with an umpire, threw a helmet in frustration, or did anything to show up an opponent. If at all possible, no Asher team ever ran up the score against a weaker school.
Coach Bowen tried to avoid weak opponents, especially in the spring, when the season was longer and he had more flexibility with the schedule. Asher became famous for taking on the big schools and beating them. They routinely thrashed Ada, Norman, and the 4A and 5 A giants from Oklahoma City and Tulsa. As the legend grew, these teams preferred to travel to Asher, to play on the pristine field that Coach Bowen maintained himself. More often than not, they left on a quiet bus.
His teams were highly disciplined and, some critics said, very well recruited. Asher became a magnet for serious baseball players with big dreams, and it was inevitable that Ronnie Williamson would find his way to the school. During the summer leagues, he met and became close to Bruce Leba, an Asher boy and probably the second-best player in the area, a step or two behind Ronnie. They became inseparable and soon were talking of playing their senior year together at Asher. There were more scouts, both college and professional, hanging around Bowen Field. And there was an excellent chance of winning the state titles in the fall of 1970 and the spring of 1971. Ron's visibility would be much higher just up the road.
Changing schools meant renting a place in Asher, a huge sacrifice for his parents. Money was always tight, and Roy and Juanita would have to commute back and forth to Ada. But Ronnie was determined. He was convinced, as were most baseball coaches and scouts in the area, that he could be a high draft pick the summer after his senior year. His dream of playing professionally was within reach; he just needed an extra push. There were whispers that he just might be the next Mickey Mantle, and Ronnie heard them.
With covert help from some baseball boosters, the Williamsons rented a small house two blocks from Asher High School, and Ronnie reported in August to Coach Bowen's boot camp. At first, he was overwhelmed by the level of conditioning, the sheer time spent running and running and running. The coach had to explain several times to his new star that iron legs are crucial to hitting, pitching, baserunning, making long throws from the outfield, and surviving the late innings of the second game of a doubleheader with a thin roster. Ronnie was slow to see things this way, but he was soon influenced by the fierce work ethic of his pal Bruce Leba and the other Asher players. He fell in line and was soon in great shape. One of only four seniors on the team, he was soon an unofficial captain and, with Leba, a leader.
Murl Bowen loved his size, speed, and rocket throws from center field. He had a cannon for an arm and a big power swing from the left side. Some of his batting-practice shots over the right field wall were remarkable. When the fall season started, the scouts were back and soon taking serious notes on Ron Williamson and Bruce Leba. With its schedule loaded with small non-football schools, Asher lost only one game and walked through the play-offs for another title. Ron hit. 468 with six home runs. Bruce, his friendly rival, hit. 444 with six homers. They pushed each other, both certain they were headed for the major leagues.
And they began playing hard off the field as well. They drank beer on the weekends and discovered marijuana. They chased the girls, who were easy to catch because Asher loved its heroes. Partying became a routine, and the clubs and honky-tonks around Ada proved irresistible. If they got too drunk and were afraid of driving back to Asher, they would land at Annette's, where they would wake her up and usually want something to eat, apologizing profusely the entire time. Ronnie would beg her not to tell their parents.
They were careful, though, and managed to avoid trouble with the police. They lived in fear of Murl Bowen, plus the spring of 1971 held such great promise.
Basketball at Asher was little more than a good way for the baseball team to stay in shape. Ron started at forward and led the team in scoring. There was some interest from a couple of small colleges, but none from him. As the season was winding down, he began receiving letters from pro-baseball scouts saying hello, promising to watch him in just a few weeks, requesting schedules, asking him to attend tryout camps during the summer. Bruce Leba was getting letters, too, and they had a grand time comparing their correspondence. Phillies and Cubs one week, Angels and Athletics the next.
When the basketball season ended in late February, it was showtime in Asher. The team warmed up nicely with a few walkovers, then hit full stride when the big schools came to town. Ron began with a hot bat and never cooled off. The scouts were buzzing, the team was winning, life was good at Asher High. Since they usually faced the ace of their opponent's staff, Coach Bowen's players saw great pitching every week. With more scouts in the bleachers, Ron proved with each game that he could handle anybody's pitching. He hit. 500 for the season, with five home runs and forty-six RBIs. He rarely struck out and walked a lot because teams tried to pitch around him. The scouts liked his power and discipline at the plate, his speed to first base, and, of course, his arm. In late April, he was nominated for the Jim Thorpe Award, for the outstanding high school athlete in the state of Oklahoma. Asher won twenty-six, lost five, and on May 1, 1971, defeated Glenpool 5-0 to win another state championship.
Coach Bowen nominated Ron and Bruce Leba for all-state consideration. They certainly deserved it, but almost took themselves out of consideration.
A few days before their graduation, with a drastic change in life facing them, they realized that Asher baseball would soon be behind them. They would never be as close as they had been during the past year. A celebration was needed, a particularly memorable night of hell-raising.
At the time, Oklahoma City had three strip clubs. They selected a fine one called the Red Dog, and before heading out, they took a fifth of whiskey and a six-pack of beer from the Leba kitchen. They left Asher with the loot, and by the time they arrived at the Red Dog, they were drunk. They ordered more beer and watched the strippers, who grew prettier by the minute. Lap dances were called for, and the two boys began burning through their cash. Bruce's father had laid down a strict 1:00 a. m. curfew, but the lap dances and the booze kept pushing it back. They finally staggered out around 12:30 a. m. , two hours from home. Bruce, driving his new souped-up Camaro, sped away, but stopped suddenly when Ron said something that upset him. They began cursing each other and decided to settle the matter then and there. They spilled out of the Camaro and began fistfighting in the middle of Tenth Street.
After a few minutes of slugging and kicking, both grew weary and agreed on a quick truce. They got back in the car and resumed their drive home. Neither could remember the cause of the fight; it was just one of the night's details forever lost in a fog. Bruce missed an exit, took a wrong turn, then, very lost, decided to make a long loop on some unknown country roads, heading back, he thought, in the general direction of Asher. With the curfew blown, he was flying across the countryside. His cohort was comatose in the backseat. Things were very dark until Bruce saw red lights approaching rapidly from the rear.
He remembered stopping in front of the Williams Meat Packing company, but wasn't sure what town was nearby. Wasn't sure of the county, either.
Bruce got out of the car. The state trooper was very nice and asked if he'd been drinking. Yes, sir. Did you realize you were speeding?
They chatted and the officer seemed to have little interest in writing a ticket or making an arrest. Bruce had convinced him that he could drive safely home, when suddenly Ron stuck his head out the back window and yelled something incomprehensible in a thick, slurry voice. Who's that? the officer asked.
Just a friend.
The friend yelled something else, and the state trooper told Ron to get out of the car. For some reason, Ron opened the door away from the highway, and when he did, he fell into a deep ditch.
Both were arrested and taken to jail, a cold, damp place with a shortage of beds. A jailer threw two mattresses on the floor of a tiny cell, and there they spent the night, s
hivering, terrified, still drunk. They knew better than to call their fathers. For Ron, it was the first of many nights behind bars.
The next morning the jailer brought them coffee and bacon and advised them to call home. Both did with great hesitation, and two hours later they were released. Bruce drove his Camaro home, alone, while Ron, for some reason, was forced to ride in the car with Mr. Leba and Mr. Williamson. It was a very long two-hour ride, made even longer by the prospect of facing Coach Bowen.
Both fathers insisted that the boys go straight to their coach and tell the truth, which they did. Murl gave them the silent treatment, but did not withdraw their nominations for postseason honors.
They made it to graduation without further incident. Bruce, the class salutatorian, gave a well-honed speech. The commencement address was delivered by the Honorable Frank H. Seay, a popular district court judge from next door in Seminole County.
The Asher High class of 1971 had seventeen students, and for all of them graduation was a significant event, a milestone cherished with their proud families. Very few of their parents had the opportunity to attend college; some had not finished high school. But to Ron and Bruce the ceremony meant little. They were still basking in the glory of state titles and, much more important, dreaming of the major-league draft. Their lives would not end in rural Oklahoma.
A month later, both were named all-state, and Ron was runner-up for Oklahoma player of the year. In the annual state all-star game, they played before a packed house, which included scouts from every major-league team and many colleges. After the game, two scouts, one for the Phillies and one for the Oakland A's, pulled the two aside and made them off-the-record offers. If they would agree to a bonus of $18,000 each, the Phillies would draft Bruce, and the A's would take Ron. Ron thought the offer was too low and declined. Bruce was beginning to worry about his knees, and he, too, thought the money was low. He tried to squeeze the scout by saying he was planning to play for two years at Seminole Junior College. More money might persuade him, but the offer stood.
A month later, Ron was selected by the Oakland Athletics in the second round of the free-agent draft, the forty-first player chosen out of eight hundred, and the first picked from Oklahoma. The Phillies did not draft Bruce but did offer him a contract. Again he declined and headed to junior college. Their dream of playing together professionally began to fade.
Oakland 's first official offer was insulting. The Williamsons had no agent or lawyer, but they knew the A's were trying to sign Ron on the cheap.
He traveled alone to Oakland and met with team executives. Their discussions were not productive, and Ron returned to Ada without a contract. They soon called him back, and on his second visit he met with Dick Williams, the manager, and several of the players. The A's second baseman was Dick Green, a friendly sort who showed Ron around the clubhouse and field. They bumped into Reggie Jackson, the unabashed superstar, Mr. Oakland himself, and when Reggie learned that Ron was the team's second-round pick, he asked what position he played.
Dick Green needled Reggie a bit by replying, "Ron's a right fielder. " Reggie, of course, owned right field. "Man, you're gonna die in the minors," he said as he walked away. And with that the conversation was over.
Oakland was reluctant to pay a large bonus because they projected Ron as a catcher but had yet to see him catch. Negotiations dragged on with little money being offered. There were discussions at the dinner table about going to college. Ron had verbally committed to accept a scholarship from the University of Oklahoma, and his parents pushed him to consider that option. It was his one chance for a college education, something that could never be taken away. Ron understood that, but he argued that he could always do college later. When Oakland suddenly offered him $50,000 as a signing bonus, Ron just as suddenly grabbed the money and forgot about college.
It was big news in Asher and Ada. Ron was the highest draft pick ever from the area, and for a brief period the attention had a humbling effect on him. His dream was coming true. He was now a professional baseball player. The sacrifices by his family were paying off. He felt led by the Holy Spirit to get things right with God. He went back to church and in a Sunday night service walked to the altar and prayed with the preacher. Then he addressed the congregation, and thanked his brothers and sisters in Christ for their love and support. God had blessed him; he indeed felt lucky. As he fought back tears, he promised to use his money and talents solely for the glory of the Lord.
He bought himself a new Cutlass Supreme and some clothes. He bought his parents a new color television. Then he lost the rest of the money in a poker game.
In 1971, the Oakland Athletics were owned by Charlie Finley, a maverick who'd moved the team from Kansas City in 1968. He fancied himself a visionary but acted more like a buffoon. He delighted in shaking up the baseball world with such innovations as multicolored uniforms, ball girls, orange baseballs (an idea with a very brief life), and a mechanical jackrabbit that hauled fresh baseballs to the home plate umpire. Anything for more attention. He bought a mule, named it Charley O. , and paraded it around the field and even into hotel lobbies.
But while he was hogging the headlines with his eccentricities, he was also building a dynasty. He hired an able manager, Dick Williams, and put together a team that included Reggie Jackson, Joe Rudi, Sal Bando, Bert Campaneris, Rick Monday, Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, Rol-lie Fingers, and Tony LaRussa.
The A's of the early 1970s were without a doubt the coolest team in baseball. They wore white cleats-the first and only team to do so-and they had a dazzling array of uniforms, different combinations of green, gold, white, and gray. California cool, with longer hair, facial hair, and an air of nonconformity. For a game that was by then over a hundred years old and demanded that its traditions be worshipped, the A's were outrageous. They had attitude. The country was still hungover from the 1960s. Who needed authority? All rules could be broken, even in such a hidebound place as pro baseball.
In late August 1971, Ron made his third trip to Oakland, this time as an Athletic, a member of the club, one of the boys, a star of the future, though he'd yet to play a game as a professional. He was well received, got the pats on the back and the words of encouragement. He was eighteen years old, but with a round baby face and bangs down to his eyes he looked no more than fifteen. The veterans knew that the odds were stacked against him, as they were for every kid who signed a contract, but they nonetheless made him feel welcome. They'd once been in his shoes.
Less than 10 percent of those who sign pro contracts make it to the big leagues for just one game, but no eighteen-year-old wants to hear it.
Ron loitered around the dugout and the field, hung out with the players, took in pregame batting practice, watched the rather thin crowd file into Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. Long before the first pitch, he was led to a prime seat behind the A's dugout where he watched his new team play. The following day he returned to Ada, determined more than ever to breeze through the minors and crack The Show at the age of twenty. Maybe twenty-one. He'd seen, felt, absorbed the electric atmosphere of a major-league ballpark, and he would never be the same.
His hair got longer, then he tried to grow a mustache, though nature failed to cooperate. His friends thought he was rich, and he certainly worked hard to give that impression. He was different, cooler than most folks around Ada. He'd been to California!
Throughout September he watched with great amusement as the A's won 101 games and clinched the American League West. Soon he'd be up there with them, catching or playing center, wearing the colorful uniforms, long hair and all, part of the hippest crew in the game.
In November, he signed a contract with Topps Chewing Gum, giving the company the exclusive right to exhibit, print, and reproduce his name, face, photo, and signature on a baseball card.
Like every boy in Ada, he'd collected thousands of them; saved them, swapped them, framed them, hauled them around in a shoe box, and saved h
is coins to buy more. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Roger Maris, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, all the great players with the valuable cards. Now he would have his own!
The dream was rapidly coming true.
His first assignment, though, was Coos Bay, Oregon, Class A in the Northwest League, far from Oakland. His 1972 spring training in Mesa, Arizona, had not been remarkable. He'd turned no heads, caught no one's attention, and Oakland was still trying to figure out where to play him. They put him behind the plate, a position he did not know. They put him on the mound, simply because he could throw so hard.
Bad luck hit late in spring training. His appendix ruptured, and he returned to Ada for surgery. As he waited impatiently for his body to heal, he began drinking heavily to pass the time. Beer was cheap at the local Pizza Hut, and when he grew tired of that place, he drove his new Cutlass over to the Elks Lodge and washed things down with a few bourbon and Cokes. He was bored and anxious to get to a ballpark somewhere, and for some reason, he wasn't sure why, he found refuge in booze. Finally he got the call and left for Oregon.
Playing part-time for the Coos Bay-North Bend Athletics, he had 41 hits in 155 at-bats, an unimpressive average of. 265. He caught forty-six games and played a few innings in center field. Late in the season, his contract was assigned to Burlington, Iowa, of the Midwest League, still Class-A ball, but a step up and much closer to home. He played in only seven games for Burlington, then returned to Ada for the offseason. Every stop in the minor leagues is temporary and unsettling. The players earn very little and live off meager meal money and whatever generosity the host club might offer. At "home," they live in motels offering bargain monthly rates, or cluster in small apartments. On the road, along the bus routes, it's more motels. And bars and nightclubs and strip joints. The players are young, rarely married, far away from their families and whatever structure that gave them, and so they tend to keep late hours. Most are barely out of their teens, immature, pampered for most of their short lives, and all are convinced they'll soon be making the big bucks playing in the big ballparks.
They party hard. Games start at 7:00 p. m. Over by 10:00. A quick shower, and it's time to hit the bars. Staying out all night, sleeping all day, either at home or on the bus. Drinking hard, chasing women, playing poker, smoking grass-it's all part of the seedier side of the minors. And Ron embraced it with enthusiasm.
Like any father, Roy Williamson followed his son's season with great curiosity and pride. Ronnie called occasionally and wrote even less, but Roy managed to keep up with his statistics. Twice he and Juanita drove to Oregon to watch their son play. Ronnie was suffering through his rookie year, trying to adjust to hard sliders and sharp curveballs.
Back in Ada, Roy received a phone call from an A's coach. Ron's off-field habits were of some concern-lots of partying, drinking, late nights, hangovers. The kid was being excessive, which was not that unusual for a nineteen-year-old in his first season away from home, but perhaps a strong word from the father might settle him down.
Ron was making calls, too. As the summer wore on and his playing time remained marginal, he became frustrated with the manager and staff and felt he was being underutilized. How could he improve if they left him on the bench?
He chose the risky and seldom-used strategy of going over the heads of his coaches. He began calling the A's front office with a list of complaints. Life was miserable way down in A ball, he simply wasn't playing enough, and he wanted the big shots who'd drafted him to know all about it.
The front office had little sympathy. With hundreds of players in the minors, and most of them miles ahead of Ron Williamson, such calls and complaints quickly wore thin. They knew Ron's numbers and knew he was struggling.
Word came down from the top that the boy needed to shut up and play ball.
When he returned to Ada in the early fall of 1972, he was still the local hero, now with some California edges and affectations. He continued his late-night routines. When the Oakland A's won the World Series for the first time in late October, he led a boisterous celebration in a local honky-tonk. "That's my team!" he yelled repeatedly at the television while his drinking buddies admired him.
Ron's habits changed suddenly, though, when he met and began dating Patty O'Brien, a beautiful young lady and former Miss Ada. The two quickly got serious and saw each other regularly. She was a devout Baptist, drank nothing, and didn't tolerate bad habits from Ron. He was more than happy to clean up and promised to change his ways. In 1973 he found himself no closer to the big leagues. After another mediocre spring in Mesa, he was reassigned to the Burlington Bees, where he played in only five games before being transferred to the Key West Conchs of the Florida State League. Class A. In fifty-nine games there, he hit a dismal. 137.
For the first time in his life, he was beginning to wonder if he would make it to the big leagues. With two very unimpressive seasons behind him, he had quickly learned that professional pitching, even at the Class-A level, was far more difficult to hit than anything he'd seen at Asher High School. Every pitcher threw hard, every curveball broke sharper. Every player on the field was good, some would make it to the big leagues. His signing bonus had long since been spent and wasted. His smiling face on a baseball card was not nearly as exciting as it had been only two years earlier. And he felt as though everyone was watching him. All his friends and the fine folks of Ada and Asher were expecting him to fulfill their dreams, to put them on the map. He was the next great one from Oklahoma. Mickey cracked The Show at nineteen. Ron was already behind schedule.
He returned to Ada, and to Patty, who strongly suggested that he find meaningful employment in the off-season. An uncle knew someone in Texas, and Ron drove to Victoria and worked several months with a roofing contractor.
On November 3,1973, Ron and Patty were married in a large wedding at the First Baptist Church in Ada, her home church. He was twenty years old, still a prospect as far as he was concerned.
Ada saw Ron Williamson as its biggest hero. Now he'd married a beauty queen from a nice family. His life was charmed.
The newlyweds drove to Mesa for spring training in February 1974. A new wife added pressure to finally make his move up-maybe not to triple A but at least to double A. His contract for 1974 was with Burlington, but he had no plans to go back there. He was tired of Burlington and Key West, and if the A's sent him back to those places, then the message was clearthey no longer considered him a prospect.
He pushed harder in training, ran more, took extra batting practice, worked as hard as he had back at Asher. Then, during routine infield practice one day, he made a hard throw to second base, and a sharp pain shot through his elbow. He tried to ignore it, telling himself, as all players do, that he could simply play through it. It would go away, just a little spring-training soreness. It was back the next day, and worse after that. By late March, Ron could barely toss a ball around the infield.
On March 31, the A's cut him, and he and Patty made the long drive back to Oklahoma. Avoiding Ada, they settled in Tulsa, where Ron got a job as a service representative with Bell Telephone. It wasn't a new career, but rather a paycheck while his arm healed and he waited for some baseball person, someone who really knew him, to call. After a few months, though, he was doing the calling, and there was no interest.
Patty got a job in a hospital, and they went about the business of getting themselves established. Annette began sending them $5 and $10 a week, just in case they needed help with the bills. The little supplements stopped when Patty called and explained that Ron was using the money for beer, something she did not approve of.
There was friction. Annette was worried because he was drinking again. She knew little, though, of what was happening in the marriage. Patty was very private and shy by nature, and never really relaxed around the Williamsons. Annette and her husband visited the couple once a year.
When Ron was passed over for a promotion, he quit Bell and began selling life
insurance for Equitable. It was 1975, and he still had no baseball contract, still no inquiries from teams looking for neglected talent.
But with his athletic confidence and outgoing personality, he sold a lot of life insurance. Selling came naturally, and he found himself enjoying the success and the money. He was also enjoying late hours in bars and clubs. Patty hated the drinking and couldn't tolerate the carousing. His pot smoking was now a habit and she detested it. His mood swings were becoming more radical. The nice young man she'd married was changing. Ron called his parents one night in the spring of 1976, crying and hysterical with the news that he and Patty had fought bitterly and separated. Roy and Juanita, as well as Annette and Renee, were shocked at the news and hopeful that the marriage could be saved. All young couples weather a few storms. Any day now Ronnie would get the phone call, get back in a uniform, and resume his career. Their lives would be on track; the marriage would survive a few dark days.
But it was beyond repair. Whatever their problems, Ron and Patty chose not to talk about them. They quietly filed for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences. The separation was complete. The marriage lasted less than three years.
Roy Williamson had a childhood friend named Harry Brecheen, or Harry the Cat, as he was known in his baseball days. Both had grown up in Francis, Oklahoma. Harry was scouting for the Yankees. Roy tracked him down and passed along his phone number to his son.
Ron's powers of persuasion paid off in June 1976, when he convinced the Yankees that his arm was fully healed and better than ever. After seeing enough good pitching to realize he couldn't hit it, Ron decided to play to his strength-his right arm. It had always caught the attention of the scouts. Oakland had continually talked of converting him to a pitcher.
He signed a contract with the Oneonta Yankees of the New York-Penn League, Class A, and couldn't wait to get out of Tulsa. The dream was alive again.
He could certainly throw hard, but oftentimes had little idea where the ball was going. His breaking stuff was unpolished; he'd simply not had enough experience. Throwing too hard too quick, the soreness came back, slowly at first, then practically a full-blown limpness. The two-year layoff took its toll, and when the season was over, he was cut again.
Again avoiding Ada, he returned to Tulsa and sold insurance. Annette dropped by to check on him, and when the conversation shifted to baseball and his failures, he began crying hysterically and couldn't stop. He admitted to her that he had long, dark bouts of depression.
Once more accustomed to life in the minors, he fell into his old habits, hanging around bars, chasing women, and drinking a lot of beer. To pass the time, he joined a Softball team and enjoyed being the big star on a small stage. During a game, on a cool night, he fired a throw to first base and something snapped in his shoulder. He quit the team and gave up softball, but the damage was done. He saw a doctor and put himself through a strenuous rehab program, but felt little improvement.
And he kept the injury quiet, hoping once again that a good rest would have things healed by spring.
Ron's final sally into professional baseball came the following spring, in 1977. He again talked his way into a Yankee uniform. He survived spring training, still as a pitcher, and was assigned to Fort Lauderdale in the Florida State League. There he endured his final season, all 140 games, half of them on the road, on the buses, as the months dragged by and he was used as sparingly as possible. He pitched in only fourteen games, thirty-three innings. He was twenty-four years old with a damaged shoulder that wouldn't heal. The glory of Asher and the Murl Bowen days were far away.
Most players get a sense of the inevitable, but not Ron. There were too many people back home counting on him. His family had sacrificed too much. He'd bypassed college and an education to become a major leaguer, so quitting was not an option. He had failed at marriage, and he was not accustomed to failure. Plus, he was wearing a Yankee uniform, a vivid symbol that kept the dream alive every day.
He gamely hung on until the end of the season, then his beloved Yankees cut him again.