"After Jackie": Billy Williams

Hall of Famer Billy Williams shares about how he nearly quit baseball and about the help he received from Rogers Hornsby.

Originally Published: April 12, 2007
By Cal Fussman | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "After Jackie: Pride, Prejudice and Baseball's Forgotten Heroes" by Cal Fussman. Copyright (c) 2007 by Cal Fussman. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books. Click here for information on how to purchase the book.

After Jackie
WE WERE COMING back from a road trip to Victoria, Texas. The year was 1959. I was with the San Antonio Missions. All summer it had been the same old stuff. You stop at a restaurant and you can't go in and eat. You can't do this, because you're black. You can't do that. When we got back to San Antonio, I turned to my roommate, J.C. Hartman, and I said, "J.C., take me to the train station."

"What are you gonna do?" J.C. said. "Go home?"

"Yeah," I said. "I'm tired of this ---."

I knew this was the way of the world. But I felt I didn't have to go through it. It may sound strange since I came from Alabama, but I guess Mobile was a little different. I hadn't gone through that stuff where I was living. You knew it happened, but not where I grew up. You knew where you could eat. But there was no comfort zone in the Texas League. Once you got a real taste of the way it was, you just got fed up.

"If you don't take me," I told J.C., "I'm gonna go grab me a cab."

"You're serious, aren't you?" He was surprised, because I was really starting to swing the bat well.

"Yes," I told him. "Dead serious."

And I got a cab down to the train station and bought myself a train ticket and went straight home to Mobile.

Well, I'd been home about four or five days, mostly doin' nothin', when I looked out the front window of the house, and there was Buck O'Neil in his Plymouth Fury pullin' into the driveway. Buck always drove a Fury. I said to myself, "I'm in trouble now."

Buck understood people. He'd seen the situations of a lot of guys who played in the Negro Leagues, and so he came with a little plan. He said, "Billy, how you doin'?" As if nothing had happened, as if I hadn't left San Antonio and come home.

"I'm doin' fine," I told him.

He said, "Why don't you and me go down to the park tonight and watch some of these young kids play?"

That evening we got in that Fury and went down to the park. Everybody I went to school with came over and they're all saying, "Hey, it's Billy! What are you doin' back here? You're playin' professional baseball! That must be great. Goin' around the country. Gettin' meal money."

With all these people around idolizing you, it was hard to say, "Yeah, you get meal money, but you can't even spend it. Somebody else has to go into the restaurant and spend it for you."

Buck's plan worked, though. Without saying anything, he showed me that I was in a position that a lot of other people wished they could be in. Within two days, I said, "Buck, I'm ready to go back."

At the time, the minor leagues weren't set up like they are now. Now it starts with A-ball. Back then, you started all the way down at D-ball and there might be two Double-A clubs and two Triple-A clubs. San Antonio was Double-A, Texas League. All those players on all those teams were trying to get to the majors. And back then there were only eight teams in the National League and eight teams in the American. There were so many ballplayers, and only a few could get there.

And if you were black, the teams did everything they could to take strength away from you. The black player would be the first one the bus picked up in the morning and the last one to get dropped off home at night. And he had to perform twice as good as his white counterpart. There was an old saying: "You got to be a play-yuh." They weren't going to pay you $6,500 to sit on the bench.

When I was in Double-A ball, the Cubs front office sent Rogers Hornsby through the entire minor league system to see what kind of players they had. Rogers was one of the great hitters in baseball. He was a rough guy who played in the back in the '20s. I once heard a story about when he was managing. When he wanted to change a pitcher, he'd walk to the top step of the dugout, point at the bullpen, and say, "You, go in. " Then he'd look at the pitcher and say, "You, come out. " Wouldn't even walk out to the pitcher's mound.

He came to our club, and we all worked out for him. Afterward, he had us sit in the stands. He'd look at a guy and say, "You can go get a job right now. You can't play baseball." Then he'd look at the next guy. "You can't play." Ron Santo and I are sitting there scared stiff. Hornsby goes, "Santo, you can play some defense. You're gonna get some hits in the big leagues." Then he comes to me: "Williams, you can hit in the big leagues right now. You just need to work on your defense." I let out a breath, and Hornsby says, "All you other guys can go get jobs cause you can't play."

Here he was, this tough old white guy from the 1920s, but he didn't see color at all. He just saw me as a player who could possibly help the Cubs. And he wanted something to do with that, which was great.

We'd go to the batting cage, and he'd bring a chair and just sit and watch.

After a while, he'd say, "I want you to hit 10 balls hard in a row. If you don't reach 10, we start all over again." I'd hit, hit, hit, hit -- then miss one, and we'd start all over again. Hit, hit, hit, hit, hit -- miss one, start all over again.

He'd say, "Try to see the ball hit the bat." Now, you can never really see the ball hit the bat. But the closer you get to that point, the better you're following the ball.

Hornsby was looking at me about as carefully as one human can look at another and just not seeing my color. He only saw my swing. An old-school white guy. And he's helping me become what I can be in the big leagues. He's helping me take somebody's job. Those were the moments that gave me hope.

There was another moment. It happened when I first came down to spring training in 1957. I looked around and saw Buck O'Neil carrying this clipboard, this chart of players. That made me comfortable. I figured, hey, this guy's got authority here. It was just a clipboard. A clipboard. But it meant a lot.

-- Billy Williams