As Lou Rodophele went to lunch this week, one seat at the table remained empty. Thursday was the day the “Lunch Bunch” met, and for years without fail, one of baseball’s legendary managers was at the helm of the gathering. This holiday season was a painful reminder that their skipper, Dick Williams, is no longer around to hold court at their weekly get-togethers.
“This year was the first year we didn’t get Norma and Dick’s Christmas card,” said Rodophele. “His card was the first one to go out. Like clockwork, you were going to get it the day after Thanksgiving.”
Rodophele was headed to Sally’s Diner in Las Vegas on July 7th, 2011, to meet with the rest of the crew as per their normal routine. While in transit, Rodophele received a call that would quickly change the mood of the afternoon.
“I was on the way, my cell phone rang. I didn’t answer it as I was driving,” he said. “Ten minutes later, I get to the restaurant, I look at the number, and it was Dick’s number. I called and Norma answered. At the time, she said, ‘Dick won’t be at lunch, he’s getting chest pains and [his son] Mark drove him to the hospital.’”
Shortly thereafter, a distressed Norma Williams called back with the grave news. “She called me back and she was completely distraught that he just passed away. She just didn’t have any desire to go on,” he said.
Three weeks later to the day, Mrs. Williams passed away. “Norma was just a lovely person. She had a stroke prior to Dick passing, probably a year before. She was making a lot of progress, but I guess after Dick died, she didn’t want to eat, her will to live [diminished]. … She called me after Dick passed and said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do without him.’”
As the major news outlets commemorate the passing of Williams over the next few days, it has provided Rodophele an opportunity to reflect on his cherished friendship with the Hall of Fame manager. Rodophele was introduced to Williams by his good friend, the late Angels pitcher, Bo Belinsky at the premier for Play it to The Bone in Las Vegas.
“Bo called me and said, ‘I want you to meet me at Mandalay Bay, I’m going to be in a movie.’… As I walked in, I met Bo and I said, ‘Hey there’s Dick Williams; he must be in the movie too!’ Dick came up behind us and Bo introduced me to him, and Bo introduced me to him as his doctor,” he said. “Dick, with his sense of humor said, ‘[He] must be your proctologist.’ We started having lunch together with a couple of other guys once a week, and that’s how I basically got to know him.”
While their conversations over lunch would cover any topic you could think of, invariably with the presence of such an accomplished baseball man, the conversation would turn to baseball. Rodophele discovered that Williams had tremendous clarity in recalling events that happened years ago.
“Dick was a great baseball guy. You would talk baseball with Dick and he could remember games thirty years ago, the inning, the outs, who was on base, the situation, etc. It was unbelievable,” he said. “I would never argue with Dick on a baseball issue. I respected his opinion.”
In late 2007, Williams finally received the nod for the Hall of Fame. The “Lunch Bunch,” quickly mobilized for a trip to Cooperstown.
“They voted on a Sunday and on Monday Norma called me and said, ‘Lou, we did it! He got in!’ We were all excited, all the guys. We immediately made plans to go to the induction ceremony,” he said. “We had shirts made up that said “Dick’s Lunch Bunch” with his name and number on the back in bright yellow, like the Athletics. We had a big banner made. We had 15 of us; it looked like we were having a rally. Dick acknowledged us in his induction speech. It was a great time, a very memorable weekend.”
So enamored was Williams with Cooperstown, that he requested for it to be his final resting place. Rodophele recalled Williams’ wishes for his remains post-mortem. “I told my son Rick, when I die, I want you to cremate me, put my ashes in your pocket just like they did in the Shawshank Redemption, and walk around Doubleday Field and drop my ashes all around.” His son dutifully carried out his wishes earlier this year.
Williams, who earned a reputation of a strict, no-nonsense manager, revealed through these weekly meetings a gentler side that many never saw.
“There was a soft side to Dick. People that knew him intimately would know that,” said Rodophele.
“One year, he made all of us oatmeal cookies. Now who would picture Dick Williams in the kitchen making cookies?” asked Rodophele. “I said to him, ‘Dick, this is a side of you that I’m sure not many people have seen.” He said, ‘No, you’re right.’ I said, ‘I’m not a big fan of oatmeal cookies, but those cookies were absolutely delicious!’” To this, Williams glowingly replied, “My mother’s recipe.”
“We still talk about those cookies today,” said Rodophele.
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