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My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs
By Billy Williams, Fred Mitchell
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2008 Billy Williams and Fred Mitchell
All rights reserved.
I am taking the first train out of here. Heading back home to Alabama. Baseball just isn't any fun for me anymore.
That was my mindset in 1959 when social conditions and racial tension at Class AA San Antonio, Texas, left me weary, angry, and frustrated. Sad thing was, I was tearing the cover off the baseball then, hitting around .320, and playing well, challenging Carl Yastrzemski for the Class AA minor league batting title. That's where I first got the nickname "Sweet Swinging Billy Williams."
But I was not accustomed to being treated like an animal away from the baseball diamond. I couldn't take the bigotry, discrimination, and overt racism.
Back in my hometown of Whistler, Alabama — just outside of Mobile — black people and white people lived in the same neighborhoods, frequented the same stores and restaurants. Sure, there was a level of discrimination, but much more subtle. My mother worked for white folks as a domestic and had no problems. I tried to understand the rules of segregation in San Antonio, but I certainly didn't like them.
I would help entertain fans at the ballpark by playing baseball to the best of my ability, but then I was not allowed to eat in their restaurants or stay in their hotels. My black teammates and I had to rely on our white teammates to bring us a sandwich in the back of the bus after they were done enjoying their casual meal in a segregated restaurant. Jim Brewer, a white pitcher who befriended me in the minors, often made sure I got some food delivered to me. He later pitched in the big leagues and enjoyed some success, playing 17 years with the Cubs, Dodgers, and Angels. He died tragically in a car accident in 1987 at the age of 50.
The South Atlantic League, the Carolina League, and the Texas League were among the several minor league systems that were not fully integrated until 1964. It took several demonstrations and boycotts by black fans in the South before players of color were more widely accepted and treated with more respect. And, of course, it took the enforcement of civil rights legislation by the federal government in the 1960s to really force the action.
The Carolina League was first integrated in 1951 by a ballplayer named Percy Miller Jr. who played for the Danville (Virginia) Leafs. I helped integrate the Texas League after future big leaguers Manny Mota, Felipe Alou, and Hank Aaron had spent time there in the early- and mid-'50s.
Ed Charles, who was a member of the 1969 World Series champion Mets, played nine years in the southern minor leagues and withstood incredible discrimination and the sanctions of Jim Crow in the South.
Our minor league team was called the San Antonio Missions, which had previously served as the Class AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The Missions became associated with the Cubs in 1959, but only for a four-year period of time. Unfortunately, I was a member of the Missions at the start of that time frame when race relations had not yet evolved. Nowadays, San Antonio is the largest metropolitan area without baseball at the major league or Triple A level. The Missions are now the Class AA affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
The despicable and inhumane treatment got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore. I shared my frustration with my roommate and teammate, J.C. Hartman, who had gone through the same type of treatment as I had.
I said, "J.C., take me to the train station. I don't want to stay here anymore."
That comment hit J.C. like a ton of bricks. He knew how much the game of baseball meant to me and to all of us on the team.
J.C., who was born in another small town in Alabama named Cottonton, said, "Why? Are you going home? I'm not doing that. I'm not taking you to the train station."
We argued back and forth until I finally convinced him that I was leaving, whether he took me to the station or not. So J.C. drove me there and I said, "I'll see you later," when he dropped me off, even though I had no plans at the time of ever returning.
Grady Hatton, a former big league infielder who played for 12 seasons, was our manager in San Antonio in 1959. After I left the ballclub, he asked J.C., "Where's Billy?"
J.C. found it very difficult to tell Hatton where I was.
Finally, he confided, "Billy's gone home and he's not coming back. Billy said he can't take the abuse anymore."
Hatton then immediately called Cubs general manager John Holland back in Chicago.
Meanwhile, I sat back in my seat on the train headed to Mobile on that blistering hot summer day, sweat dripping from my forehead and my shirt drenched with perspiration. There was no air conditioning on that train, yet I thought to myself, "Damn, I feel good."
When I finally arrived in Whistler, I stood in front of our house, which had 75 to 80 steps leading up to the front door. We lived in an area of our close-knit community known as "Baptist Town."
The only other person I had told about coming home was my older brother, Franklin. I am one of five children, and some people considered Franklin to be the best athlete of the family. When I had talked to him on the phone from San Antonio, he kept saying to me, "The fish are biting and the weather is great." Those inviting comments made me want to come home even more.
But I kept wondering what I was going to say to my father. After all, he and I used to sit glued to the television, watching Major League Baseball games and always talking about my dream of one day becoming a big-league ballplayer.
We had a screened-in porch in front of the house and my father was sitting there, just rocking. He looked up and was surprised to see me at home, of course, with my suitcase in hand. I immediately told him that I couldn't stand it in San Antonio anymore. I told him about the discrimination, about how the black ballplayers were the first ones picked up in the wee hours of the morning and the last ones to be dropped off at our separate hotel after the games.
I told my dad about the incident in Corpus Christi, Texas, when J.C. Hartman and I tried to eat in a restaurant. The guy behind the counter said: "We will feed you boys, but you have to go back in the kitchen to eat."
At first, my father got on me a little bit about quitting baseball. He said, "You've got an opportunity to do something with your life."
I told my dad that all the black ballplayers were driven across the tracks to a beat-up building called the Manhattan Hotel, while the white players were allowed to live in a much nicer facility.
I told my dad I would rather get a job back home doing pretty much anything else than to go through the humiliation I was going through in San Antonio. He said he understood, but I could tell he was hurt and disappointed that I was giving up on a dream. Our dream.
It certainly was not as if Whistler, Alabama, was any great majestic mecca. But it was home to me. It was my comfort zone. My hometown, by most objective accounts, was an impoverished southern outpost near the dock of the bay, not too far from Mobile. But it was rich in terms of beautiful people, beautiful trees, and beautiful memories.
There were shabby boarded-up shanties, desolate dirt roads, and abandoned shelters converted into churches, where the inner strength, faith, and purposefulness of the humble congregations belie the frailty of the makeshift structures.
Elder residents in my hometown still know me as "Jessie May's Boy," and I return periodically to pay my respects. My mother, the former Jessie May Moseley, passed away in 1977 and my father, a former sandlot ballplayer of some local renown, called our old Williams residence at 2939 Pyton St. his home until the day he passed away.
In 1987 my grade school principal, Mrs. Lilly A. Dixon, passed away. I mentioned her in my Hall of Fame acceptance speech. She always talked about the "good, better, best" idea. My high school football coach, Virgil Rhodes, passed away. And the lady who delivered me passed away. She was 93 years old. My father passed away when he was 92 years old. He lived a good, long life, and he got to see me perform in the major leagues. He enjoyed what I enjoyed.
I suppose, looking back now, that my father had suffered and endured a great deal more discrimination and humiliation than I had when he was a young black man growing up in the South. It had not occurred to me at the time that he must have had so many dreams deferred because of racism and segregation. It was his dream to see me one day make it as a big-league ballplayer to escape the cycle of unfulfilled promise. No doubt he lived somewhat vicariously through me and my brothers during an era of enhanced opportunities, even though they presented themselves in relatively modest terms in the late 1950s in America.
John Holland had been pretty close to my family. I had been to spring training with the Cubs the previous year, so he knew who I was.
Holland previously had been involved with the minor league Oklahoma City Indians of the Texas League when he inherited them from his father in 1936. In 1942 he sold that club and went into the Army. After his discharge, Holland became general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. Then he came over as the Cubs' GM in 1956, taking the place of Wid Matthews. Holland served as the Cubs' general manager from 1957 — 74 before serving in other management positions in the organization.
So you can see, Holland was quite familiar with the way things were done in the minor leagues in the South during those days.
Right away, Holland knew to call Buck O'Neil, the legendary scout who had touted and signed many black ballplayers, and said, "Hey, we've got a good player in the organization by the name of Billy Williams."
Buck said to Holland, "I know who he is. I have been to his parents' house and I have sat around with them. And I have even eaten at their house."
I was spotted originally by O'Neil, the same eagle-eyed talent seeker who discovered my friend and former Cubs teammate Ernie Banks, also a Hall of Famer. Ivy Griffin later signed me to a contract when I was just 17, just two days after I finished high school in 1956. I turned 18 a couple of weeks later. I got $1,500 to sign. That's when I reported to Ponca City, Oklahoma, and stayed at a family's home. I also befriended Bobby Walton in Ponca City. There were four of us black ballplayers who stayed at this family's home. I got a big room in the front of the house. Future Cub players Lou Johnson and Sammy Drake also stayed in that house. When the rest of the older players went on the road to play games, they left me at home. We played home games at Conoco Park and I got five or six pinch-hits. I remember that they gave us $2.40 a day for meal money.
Being away from home for the first time, I saw a lot in Oklahoma. I went to rodeos and met a lot of new and fascinating people.
I advanced to Double A San Antonio in 1959 and that is where the discrimination really started to unnerve me. I remember I was on a bus coming from Albuquerque, New Mexico, thinking about my life and what I was going to do. I remember saying to myself, "Is this what life is like outside of Whistler, Alabama? Will I be subject to this kind of treatment wherever I go? Life seems so much simpler back home."
Holland told Buck to drop everything he was doing right then and go down to Whistler and find out what was wrong with me.
My wife, Shirley, and I were going together at that time and Shirley was mad at me because I didn't call her to tell her I was quitting baseball to come back home. Shirley grew up in nearby Plateau, Alabama. Buck arrived in Alabama about two days later. I was sitting on the steps of the porch, and I looked up and saw this car coming. Buck always drove a Plymouth Fury. I noticed it wasn't an Alabama license plate; it was a Missouri license plate. So I am thinking that I am really in trouble now.
But I was trying not to give it a second thought. In my mind, at that moment, I wasn't going back to San Antonio. No way.
At first, Buck didn't say much. He simply said, "How do you feel, boy?"
I said, "I'm doing pretty good, Buck."
Buck said, "Got a call yesterday from John Holland. The Cubs think a lot of you. You're playing good; you're hitting the ball good. They think that one day you might be in the major leagues because your scouting reports are good. What do you think?"
I said, "Buck, I have had enough. I don't want to go back there anymore to play any baseball. I have enjoyed the time that I played. But I just don't want to go through the stuff that I have been going through off the field. You know, waiting for the white guys to bring me sandwiches, staying in separate run-down hotels, and things like that."
Buck knew all about the discrimination in those days. I wasn't telling him anything he didn't know himself firsthand. He had experienced it himself throughout his entire life. Buck also had managed the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Leagues, and he had a lot of players who had been homesick and wanted to go home. But I repeated, "No, I am not going to go back to San Antonio."
At that point, Buck said, "Okay," and then he talked to my dad before he went back to his hotel. The next day, Buck came back over to our house and we talked again. It must have been around 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon.
There was a place down there in Alabama called Prichard Park. That's where all of my colleagues and guys who were in my class went to play. And that is where I spent many hours playing ball myself over the years. They happened to have a game going on that night. That afternoon, at my house, Buck said to me, "Come on, boy. Let's take a ride."
I had always played sandlot baseball in neighborhood clearings such as Prichard Park and Mitchell Field. I remember local legends around there such as Ed Tucker, the owner of an area semi-pro team; Edward Scott, who later scouted for the Boston Red Sox; and Jessie Thomas, who scouted and signed Hall of Fame slugger Willie McCovey for the San Francisco Giants.
By about 6:00 or 7:00 we made it down to Prichard Park, where the guys naturally were playing baseball. Buck hadn't said much to me in the car about me wanting to quit professional baseball. We were just riding and talking baseball in general. Once we rolled up into the park, everybody there recognized Buck as a big-league scout. Then people noticed I was with him and they started pointing and saying, "There's Billy! Hey, how are you doing? You've been off to play ball, right?"
I said to them, "Yeah, but I'm home now."
Then the fellas said, "Wow! How did you get a chance to play pro ball? How did you get an opportunity to sign and play professional baseball? I bet it's great. Man, I bet you are having a good time playing baseball, doing something you always wanted to do."
One of the guys reminded me of the times we would hit home-run balls that would break the windows in the house of Simon Brown, who lived just beyond the right-field fence at the ballpark. Instead of getting mad at us for breaking his windows, Simon Brown would always say, "I predict one of you guys will play in the big leagues."
Buck just shook his head up and down at everything those guys were saying to me at Prichard Park. You could tell he was loving that influential kind of talk from my friends. He could not have scripted their comments any better. There must have been 10 or 12 guys saying things like that to me, making a big deal about me playing professional baseball. At that point, I started looking around at the guys from my hometown. Most of them were scuffling, trying to make ends meet, trying to make it with scarce job opportunities around town.
At that point, I said to myself, "Well, you know, baseball ain't that bad. And waiting to get a sandwich at the back of a bus from a teammate isn't that bad."
Still, I knew that becoming a big hit outside of Whistler was going to be no minor feat. Black ballplayers of the past had already made huge sacrifices so that players like me could even have a chance to play Major League Baseball, including the legendary Jackie Robinson.
When I was a kid growing up in Mobile, the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians used to come down there to play exhibition games. I got a chance to see Jackie Robinson. I didn't meet him at the time. Then when I came up with the Cubs on August 6, 1959, Jackie was working for NBC and we used to talk about baseball around the batting cage. But I guess the most significant time that I saw Jackie was when the Operation PUSH organization had a day for him at their headquarters in Chicago.
Afterward, a Chicago doctor had a big party for Jackie and his family and I was there. I can remember looking at Jackie and his hair was as white as snow. He was in a wheelchair and I guess he was about at the end of his time. When I looked at that individual and I knew the history of what he went through after playing the game of baseball and coming up in the minor leagues ... you begin to see the scars and the stuff he had to endure.
I signed a contract nine years after Jackie became a Major League Baseball player. With all of the stuff I had to endure, I knew he had to be a strong individual to go through the stuff he did. He had a strong mind and a strong will because he knew that everything was on his shoulders. Jackie believed it was a great opportunity for him.
Pioneering black ballplayers such as Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, and Jackie made it possible for minorities to play in the big leagues. Black players back then had to be good enough to be stars. There were no black players on the bench in those days.
Excerpted from Billy Williams by Billy Williams, Fred Mitchell. Copyright © 2008 Billy Williams and Fred Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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