Friday, June 22, 2012
122. Curly Williams: A Good First Impression That Lasts and Lasts
For the second week in a row I've been fortunate to have two guest authors take the writing reins from me and highlight a player that they felt needed the Infinite Card Set "treatment." Besides offering a another perspective, writing style and different players than I would have chosen, it also gives me a break from writing and researching. You see, a few weeks ago my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and the past couple of weeks have been spent back in New Jersey visiting her in the hospital and trying to gather up all the loose ends that a sudden illness always exposes. That's enough about all that now, but I'd like to thank last week's author, Gary Bedingfield and this week's, Jay-Dell Mah, for pinch hitting for me when I needed them.
Last year when working on the Satchel Paige All-Stars story I came across a really interesting website dedicated to baseball in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The proprietor of the site, Jay-Dell Mah, has graciously accepted my offer to be a guest author here at the Infinite Baseball Card Set.
Willie “Curly” Williams had a knack of making a good first impression. In Triple-A with Toledo, in the White Sox organization, Williams won three steak dinners and a savings bond for a triple which knocked in the first runs of the 1952 season for the Mud Hens. With Colorado Springs the previous season, he belted a game-winning two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning as the Sky Sox scored seven times for a season-opening victory.
In Canada, the admiration was long-lasting. “Curly Williams was one of the finest gentlemen that I ever met”, said Slim Thorpe the Saskatchewan team’s president. “He was always helping the kids. We'd get these young college boys and Curly was in there talking to them, showing them how to do it.”
The youngest of seven children, Williams, whose father died when he was just six months old, grew up in Orangeburg, South Carolina where he became widely recognized for his athletic achievements both in baseball and football. As a teenager Williams won a spot on the local Orangeburg Tigers (along with his life-long buddy Modie Risher, once touted as a successor to Roy Campanella) who often competed against barnstorming Negro League teams. It was during his Tigers tenure in the latter part of the 1940s that the famous Newark Eagles of the Negro National League took notice. He became the Eagles’ shortstop both in Newark and, upon the team’s re-location, in Houston and New Orleans. In 1950, as a member of the Houston Eagles, he was selected to play in the Negro League’s East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
A few months later, in winter ball in Puerto Rico, with Mayaguez, the left-handed swatter attracted interest at the major league level especially after a memorable six-day stretch in which he clubbed seven home runs.
The White Sox came calling. The 5’10”, 175 pound shortstop was assigned to Colorado Springs in the Western League and further impressed with a .297 batting average and .547 slugging percentage. But, not feeling anywhere near comfortable with continued sleights against black players, Williams left the club to head back to the Negro League Eagles, now in New Orleans, and hit .351 with 11 home runs in less than half a season.
Convinced to return to the White Sox system, he lined up with Toledo for the start of the 1952 campaign. Williams’ recollections of Spring Training at Avon Park, Florida, didn’t focus on the diamond, but a restaurant kitchen. The kitchen where he was forced to sit for his meals while his white teammates enjoyed the service on the other side of the door at tables in the eatery. He didn’t get to stay at the team’s hotel either. The club found a preacher in the community who agreed to house Williams.
In July, a trade found the infielder in the St. Louis Browns’ farm system, assigned to Scranton of the Eastern League and then the first black player to sign with San Antonio in the Texas League. But, Williams decided to go north, not south, in 1953. He crossed the border to Canada to play in the ManDak (Manitoba-Dakota) League with dozens of other former Negro Leaguers including future Hall of Famers Willie Wells and Leon Day. The integration of the majors and the subsequent decline of the Negro Leagues had reduced playing opportunities for black players and many found a home in the ManDak circuit. The 1950 league champion Winnipeg Buffaloes sported an all-black lineup.
When Williams took the field with the Carman, Manitoba, Cardinals it must have seemed like a Negro League reunion. Under playing-manager Chet Brewer, the club featured, among others, Joe Atkins, Lyman Bostock, Willie Hutchinson, Lester Lockett, Chick Longest, Benjamin Lott, Walter McCoy, Jimmy Newberry, Andy Porter, Herb Souell and Williams, who, in spite of a late start almost won the home run crown blasting 12 in fewer than 200 at bats.
In 1954, he returned for a final season in Negro ball with the Birmingham Black Barons and again was among the loop’s top sluggers.
The following summer it was back to Canada, this time to a small prairie town – Lloydminster – split by the provincial border between Alberta and Saskatchewan. He felt so comfortable he kept coming back to put on the Meridians’ jersey.
“(In Canada) we were treated so well up there that's why I stayed up there so long ... We had so much fun there and everybody was accepted, you know, didn't have problems going any place we wanted to eat. Just wonderful people. May not have made a whole lot of money but people were excited and they enjoyed you and would invite you to their homes."
In his first season in Lloydminster, he hit .280 and, as a third baseman, led the league in fielding. The following year, he was in the top five in average while producing an on-base percentage of .457. Again, he led the league in fielding, this time at shortstop.
Williams was a perennial all-star who also took a turn as manager of the club. In his first full month at the helm, in 1961, he led the Meridians to 25 wins in 32 games, including tournament victories at Lacombe and Lethbridge. Curly loved the big tourney at Lacombe. In the 1960 event he reached base 14 times in 15 appearances. In the 1961 go-round, Williams had three hits and scored twice in the semi-final match as a warm-up for the final in which in homered, tripled and doubled, drove in four runs and scored a pair.
Curly retired after the 1963 season and ten seasons in Canada. Fittingly, he went out with a blast -- a .391 average.
Williams played with and against many of the giants of major league and Negro league baseball – Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Don Newcombe and Monte Irvin.
"Such a nice man, beautiful, just beautiful", said Risher "too nice sometimes. I used to get on him about it, telling him you can't be the saviour for everybody".
In 1997, the Sarasota, Florida Council declared "Curly Williams Day" in honour of his efforts to raise funds (through the Curly Williams Foundation) to provide college scholarships for needy students.
Williams was also a major figure in winning pension benefits for many Negro Leaguers who had, based on their color alone, been denied an opportunity to play in the majors.
He died in August, 2011 at Sarasota, Florida at age 86.
Jay-Dell Mah is a former radio and television news reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto. Since his retirement from the CBC, in the late 1990s, baseball research has been a prime activity. His web site – www.attheplate.com – documents semi-professional and amateur baseball in Canada (mainly in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and the northeastern United States from the early 1900s to the mid 1970s. A highlight of his baseball career came in the summer of 2010 with induction into the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame. In late 2010, he was selected as one of the top 100 most influential figures in baseball in Canada. The native of the prairie border city of Lloydminster, is co-author of Black Baseball Players in Canada: A Biographical Dictionary, 1881-1960 (McFarland & Company, 2009). He’s a member and former webmaster of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. Mah now lives in the British Columbia interior community of Nakusp.