It isn't everyone who can claim they were traded straight-up for arguably the greatest center fielder who ever played in the big leagues. But Charlie Williams could.
A former spot-starter/long reliever who appeared in eight big league seasons from 1971-1978, primarily with the San Francisco Giants, Williams began his career with the Mets and is best remembered as the player who was shipped west by New York in exchange for Willie Mays on May 11, 1972.
A hometown selection born in Flushing who grew up not far from Shea Stadium, Williams passed away at the age of 67 on January 27 in Port Orange, Florida. An obituary published January 30 in the New York Times said he died from complications related to surgery for blocked coronary arteries.
His career record of 23-22 with a 3.97 ERA are mediocre at best, and it's fair to say that his sole claim to fame is his inclusion in the Mays swap. According to those who knew him, Williams took that notoriety with humility and humor.
"He always kidded around that they traded Willie Mays for him, instead of vice versa," his brother-in-law, Paul Eggermann, told the Times.
Gary Lavelle, a former teammate on the Giants from 1974-1978, said it was the kind of fame that Williams accepted without bitterness.
"From a standpoint of being traded for a guy like Mays he was always going to be remembered for that, getting traded for a legend," said the former pitcher of 13 seasons when reached by phone.
"I think it was just something that he accepted, and his goal was to be a big league pitcher and do the best that he could do."
The deal was orchestrated primarily at the request of Joan Payson, the Mets' owner at the time. She'd marveled at the future Hall-of-Famer's exploits while roaming the center field pasture of the Polo Grounds for the New York Giants from 1951 until their move to San Francisco following the 1957 season. She reportedly directed the front office to acquire his contract from the Giants after the then-41 year-old started the year hitting .184 in 49 at-bats.
Memorably, Mays homered his third at-bat as a Met against his former club but did little else afterward, batting .238 in 404 at-bats over two seasons before retiring following the 1973 season.
After being taken by New York in the 7th round of the 1968 amateur draft out of Parsons College, Williams put himself on the map in 1970 by going 12-5 with a 3.25 ERA in Double-A for the Memphis Blues. In 26 games, 24 of them starts, Williams allowed 136 hits in 158 innings with 61 walks and 128 strikeouts.
After a strong showing in spring training the following year, Williams made the club to start the 1971 season. His big league debut came April 23 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago in relief of Jerry Koosman, and with runners on second and third and the Mets down 2-0, Williams induced Jim Hickman to hit into a fielder's choice that nailed Glenn Beckert at the plate before retiring Hal Breeden on a force-out at second.
He pitched 2.2 innings that day, giving up four hits and four runs (two earned) and didn't figure into the decision as the Mets won 7-6 in 12 innings. Pedestrian performances like this pretty much summed up his career.
Williams did have his moments though.
His first big-league win that year, June 2 against his future employer, the Giants, came in impressive fashion. Entering the game in the 4th inning, Williams spun five innings of scoreless ball while permitting only two hits—a single to center field to the first batter he faced, Tito Fuentes, and a bunt back to the mound by Chris Speier the following inning.
The 5-2 victory at Candlestick Park came at the expense of future Hall-of-Famer Juan Marichal, who took the loss after entering the game with an 8-2 record. He would go on to a record of 18-11 with a 2.94 ERA that year, with 18 complete games and four shutouts.
Williams would stick around with the varsity club for the duration of the '71 season, finishing 5-6 with a 4.78 ERA in 31 games, nine of them starts. His only complete-game victory came August 3 against the Cincinnati Reds, allowing eight hits and one walk with eight strikeouts as the Mets won 9-4 in the second game of a double header. He held Big Red Machine stalwarts Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez a combined 1-for-10 that day, with the only hit among them a harmless single by Perez.
Despite marginal success, Williams was optioned to the minors to start the 1972 season and spent most of the year with the Giants' Triple-A farm club in Phoenix following the deal. After recording a 6.65 ERA in 12 games with the Giants in 1973, Williams broke through the following year, going 1-3 with a 2.78 ERA over 100.1 innings with only 31 walks. Two years later, he recorded a 2.96 ERA over 85 innings.
But he never came close to those numbers after that. In 1977 he went 6-5 with an ERA of 4.00 and allowed more walks, 60, than strikeouts, 41. And in 1978, his final year, he went 1-3, 5.44, with 28 walks and 22 strikeouts.
Those wondering how Williams did against Mays after the trade would be disappointed—he never pitched against the living legend he was dealt for. And in nine overall matchups against the Mets from 1974-1978, Williams pitched 11.2 innings and surrendered 13 hits and five earned runs for a 3.75 ERA, with eight walks and four strikeouts. He had no decisions.
Despite his lack of success, Williams was much desired among autograph hounds due to his linkage to Mays.
"We get baseball cards in the mail every day from people wanting an autograph from my brother," his sister, Barbara Eggermann, told the Daytona Beach News-Journal.
Despite so-so numbers, Lavelle remembered Williams as a ballplayer who got the most out of his ability.
"He was a hard worker and when called upon he did his job," he said. "He was a gamer; he'd go after hitters and he wasn't afraid of anybody."