Earl Williams, 64, NL’s top rookie in 1971

Mr. Williams’s career spiraled down quickly.
Associated Press/file 1975
Mr. Williams’s career spiraled down quickly.

NEW YORK — Earl Williams, a slugging if ambivalent catcher and infielder — ‘‘My favorite position is batter,’’ he once said — who won the National League rookie of the year award in 1971 but whose promise went unfulfilled amid a welter of minor controversies, died of leukemia Tuesday at his home in Somerset, N.J. He was 64.

Playing for the Atlanta Braves in his first two full seasons, Mr. Williams hit 61 home runs — including 33 in his rookie year — and drove in 174 runs, impressive numbers for a player still in his early 20s.

He was only the second catcher, after Johnny Bench in 1968, to win the top rookie honor in the National League.


But Mr. Williams was traded to the Baltimore Orioles of the American League before the 1973 season, and his career spiraled down so quickly that he was out of the big leagues for good by the time he was 29, an age when many players are entering their prime.

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Mr. Williams spent three years at Ithaca College studying journalism, leaving just short of graduation to play ball. He was drafted by the Braves in 1965.

The Braves traded Mr. Williams to Baltimore, where he butted heads with the Orioles’ equally temperamental manager, Earl Weaver, who died last month. They clashed over Mr. Williams’s arriving late for games, resisting catching instruction, yelling at umpires, and heckling fans.

Before the trade to the Orioles, Weaver had once said that if he had Earl Williams, the Orioles would win the pennant. Mr. Williams later acknowledged that the pressure on him to perform in Baltimore was enormous, and that he felt it especially because he was black.

The fans he argued with, he said, were calling him offensive names. Asked by The New York Times in 1981 if race had been a factor in his becoming something of a pariah, he said, ‘‘Being a black person has to have an effect on everyone’s career.’’


Mr. Williams finished his career with a .247 batting average, 138 home runs, and 457 RBIs.

After leaving professional baseball, he worked for more than 20 years as a warehouse supervisor for a cosmetics and pharmaceutical company.