Monday, March 19, 2012

112 Lefty Williams: Baseballs, Booze and Black Sox

Continuing with the post-scandal career of the Black Sox... Buck Weaver in my mind was the most tragic character from the whole scandal because he, unlike the other 7 players, apparently did not take money or agree to fix the world series. Pitcher Lefty Williams, however, is tragic in his own special way.

Back in 1919, Williams was on the way to being one of the best left handed pitchers in the American League. After a few faltering years with the Tigers he settled down with the White Sox and went 17-8 in 1917, 6-4 in 1918 and 23-11 in 1919 and led the league in games started with 40. His E.R.A. was consistently under 3.00. He, along with Eddie Cicotte were the heart of the White Sox pitching staff and his career was only getting better. In the 1920 season, his last before he and the other crooks were booted out of the game, Williams won 22 games. Cicotte, Jackson, Risberg and Gandil's careers were winding down and you can see how they would have been tempted to take the cash, but Williams was in his prime and through his greed and poor judgement a great career ended before it began.

Originally uninterested when he was approached by Chick Gandil to throw the series, Williams supposedly relented after being informed the fix was in anyway. Lefty received only half of the promised $10,000, but this still was almost double his regular season salary (Lefty's wife claimed the grand total he received for his part was actually $150). He and the other players may have tried to call off the fix half way through, but when Lefty’s wife was threatened (even this much-repeated part of the story may be made-up) he went ahead with it. Williams lost 3 games in the series and it was in part his atrocious and suspicious play that the series came under close scrutiny.

After his banishment he stuck close with some of the other banned players in their failed attempts to form a barnstorming team that capitalized on their infamous reputation. This all came to naught when first fans heckled and ridiculed the crooked ballplayers and then word came down from the commissioners office that any man taking the field against or with any of the 8 men out were subject to banishment themselves from organized ball. Now even the lowliest town-team didn't want to risk the future careers of any of their ball players for a game against the Black Sox.

Realizing his career as a major league ballplayer was over, Lefty began to live the life of a hired-gun ballplayer, one-game stands with what ever team could meet his price. With his wife Lyria in tow, Williams traveled the country making stops in towns from Minnesota to California. In 1926 Lefty accepted an invitation to join Buck Weaver and Chick Gandil in the outlaw Copper League.

As I talked about in the Chick Gandil story, the Copper League was made up of rough and tumble wild west mining towns and with the arrival of Hal Chase in the early 1920's had become a haven for blacklisted ballplayers. By the time he showed up in Douglas, Arizona in the spring of 1926, Lefty had turned into a surly, dark figure with a serious drinking problem. He fit right in.

Williams joined his former teammate Buck Weaver who was managing the Douglas Blues, but his time there only lasted through June when he left to join the Fort Bayard Veterans team where he was probably promised more money. Fort Bayard was a former New Mexico Army post that was converted into a hospital for veterans suffering from tuberculosis and other debilitating injuries brought on by being gassed in France during the first world war (remember that the great Christy Mathewson died from T.B. after being gassed during a training exercise). Fort Bayard also featured Chick Gandil who also jumped from the Douglas team the previous season. By most accounts Lefty was an ace pitcher who only seemed to get better as he drank between innings. I'm not sure whether the booze added anything to his fastball but opposing players said it sure did make him more intimidating. As ace of the Fort Bayard team, Lefty was given more leeway when it came to team rules - he would sometimes skip showing up for games he knew he wasn't scheduled to pitch and instead spend the day at his favorite speakeasy concentrating on his drinking.

To underline the fact that Lefty was still in his prime as a pitcher, in August he tossed a no-hitter against Weaver's Douglas Blues, sending the last 20 batters back to the bench in order. Sure it was only semi-pro but a no-hitter is still a no-hitter and factor in that Lefty was probably far from being in-shape due to his heavy boozing. At the conclusion of the season Lefty joined a Copper League all-star team and toured parts of Mexico before returning to Fort Bayard where he and his wife spent the winter months.

Despite Judge Landis' strenuous efforts to shut down the Copper League, or at least get them to expel the crooked ballplayers, the league continued for the 1927 season. Williams continued to dominate the league and as Lynn Bevill records in the excellent "Outlaw Ballplayers in the Copper League 1925-1927", at the midpoint of the season Lefty was 5-2 with 23 strikeouts and just 7 walks. As he did the year before, Lefty continued playing ball after the Copper league season and toured the southwest and Mexico with a barnstorming team, this time called the Juarez Brewers.

After the barnstorming trip I have been unable to find any more evidence of Lefty playing ball again. Around this time he and his wife Lyria turned up in Southern California where they opened up a nursery business in Laguna Beach. I don't know one way or another but I am guessing his alcohol intake probably subsided because the business seemed to do well. Like most of the other Black Sox, Williams never spoke about his part in the fix and died in 1959 at the age of 66.

I just wanted to give credit again to a few sources that besides first-hand contemporary newspaper articles, were the best places to glean hard-to-find information regarding the post 1920 lives of the Black Sox:

After The Black Sox: The Swede Risberg Story by Alan Muchlinski. Simply excellent chunk of research that shines a light onto the later years of Swede and his former teammates who he played against.

Outlaw Baseball Players in the Copper League: 1925-1927 by Lynn Bevill. A M.A. thesis published online that is the best source I've found that really explains the role of the Black Sox in the Copper League but also does a great job at telling the story of the towns and how the league operated. No list of sources would be complete without a big thanks to this site dedicated to the Black Sox. The authors downloadable pdf of every existing outlaw and semi-pro game featuring a member of the Black Sox is just a monumental achievement and unbelievably helpful in tracking the movements of the eight men.

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