Williams broke into the majors in 1959, not long after Jackie Robinson, Buck O'Neil and others blazed the trail for other players of color. Not only were fans attracted to Williams because he produced big numbers (426 career home runs, a .290 batting average and a 133 adjusted OPS) but they also loved his friendly personality.
On the 63rd anniversary of Robinson's debut, Williams sat down with Answer Man at Wrigley Field to recall the highs and lows of a Hall of Fame career.
David Brown: Why should Buck O'Neil be in the Hall of Fame?
Billy Williams: For what he meant to baseball. Not only the Negro Leagues but you look at the players that performed under him [in the minors] and went and played in the major leagues. You're talking about Ernie [Banks], you're talking about Gene Baker, you're talking about Lou Johnson. George Altman. He put a lot of guys on the major league map. He's part of the great tradition of baseball. The documentary "Baseball" showed how much he had to do with exposure for the game.
DB: The Negro Leagues Hall of Fame in Kansas City has suffered since Buck O'Neil passed. What are some of the solutions to keeping it viable?
BW: Major League Baseball knows what Buck has done for the Negro League Hall of Fame. A lot of people are fond of Buck. They know how he worked so hard. When his funeral was in Kansas City, the Kauffmans donated $1 million to the museum. But they are in trouble. They need to raise funds to keep Buck O'Neil's spirit alive.
DB: As I understand it, the Negro Leagues kept going for years after Jackie Robinson broke in. Did you think that there might always be a Negro League, or did people assume that it meant the end someday?
BW: About 10 or 15 years ago, I went to a play over on the South Side. The play was called "Mr. Rickey Calls a Meeting." It had a Sammy Davis Jr. character, they got Joe Louis and they got Paul Robeson, all talking about the transition of bringing a black guy into the National League. So they ask Sammy and he says it's great. Let's bring him to the major leagues because it will open doors for a lot of blacks.
They ask Joe Louis and he says the same thing. "I love it. We're going to have a guy playing in the major leagues and later on, there's going to be a lot of blacks coming to the big leagues.
So they ask Paul Robeson, who was a scholar, and he says, "I wouldn't do it." And it took people aback. They asked why and he said, "Because, pretty soon there won't be a Negro Leagues. They're going to pluck all the good players from the Negro Leagues." You see, after church on Sunday was when a lot of people went out to celebrate the blacks play the game. Over in Comiskey Park, they had over 40,000 people for an All-Star Game. So Paul Robeson said, "I wouldn't do it. After all of these guys go to the major leagues, you won't have no more Negro League tradition." And that's what happened.DB: You were a little boy when Jackie Robinson was a rookie. Do you remember the day it happened?
BW: I was like 8 years old. Didn't enter my mind. It was something that a lot of people talked about. A lot of people [pauses] ... a lot of people, when they talk about bringing Jackie Robinson to the big leagues, they [ignore] that Branch Rickey (far right) was a guy who liked to make money like anyone else, OK? But he looked around and saw the attendance drop and he said, "How can we get the attendance up?" He looked at all the places like Comiskey Park with all these blacks coming to games. And they saw the excitement of these players — stealing bases, hitting and running, doing a lot of things to make baseball more exciting.
This is another reason why they brought Jackie into the big leagues. It was practical. But I'm glad it happened. It gave me an opportunity. As I look out there and see the culture of baseball, a lot of blacks and Latins, it's given me a lot of joy to know that Jackie started that. If Jackie hadn't come in '47, me and Ron Santo wouldn't have played in Double-A and all those years in the big leagues. We wouldn't have played together at all, [shoot].
DB: Did you know Robinson very well?
BW: Mmm, hmm. He used to work for NBC and when he used to do the games on the weekend, he would come in and stand around the batting cage and we'd have conversations. Matter of fact, the last time I saw Jackie, it was here and Operation P.U.S.H. had a day for him. After the parade, we were over at a [friend's home] and Jackie was over there in a wheelchair. He was a diabetic and his hair was white. When I looked at him, I saw a lot of scars from the years and the things he endured while playing the game of baseball.DB: It shortened his life.
BW: Sure it did. A lot of abuse, he had taken. And his wife. But he knew what he had to do, to strengthen himself and make it possible so all these things could happen. He got it done.
DB: How important was he to the Civil Rights movement at large?
BW: He's one of the first ones that brought about integration in any way. He was a great trailblazer for the Civil Rights movement. He believed in that. Everywhere he went, he was trying to improve the relationship between blacks and whites, Jackie was in the middle of it. At that time, he no longer wanted to turn the other cheek because he had done that all through his playing career.
BW: I've read where the percentage of blacks in the game is dropping, that the kids are playing basketball or whatever. Hopefully, these academies in the RBI leagues develop a lot more blacks into the game. But, if you go around to different ballparks, in any ballpark you'll look at the No. 42. If anyone asks me what that means, I'll tell them the history of Jackie Robinson.
DB: How close did you come to managing?
BW: Came real close. If I had gone to manage Triple-A. I remember when Dallas [Green] was here one September and he asked me to go manage in the Instructional League and I did that in Arizona. I did that in 1987 and ran that and did a pretty decent job. Dallas [Green] still didn't have the confidence I could do it. But after playing big-league baseball and being a student of the game for so long. Dallas wanted me to go to Triple-A and I didn't want to do that. After I didn't do that, it kind of went by the wayside. If I had gone to Triple-A, it could have happened. I don't know.
DB: You just didn't want to "play ball" anymore?
BW: Yeah. I didn't want to play ball no more [laughs]. You know, when you look around and you see guys who have played the game of baseball and all of a sudden they have a chance to manage in the major leagues without having to go to the minors — why did I have to do it? That's what I looked at. My sixth sense told me I could have done a great job on the major league level. So I said, "I don't want to go." Herman Franks often would tell me that, if I had gone, I would have been managing the Cubs. I don't know that. I don't know that.DB: What do you remember about the '62 All-Star Game?
BW: That was the year we [started having] two All-Star Games. And we had an All-Star Game here and I played in that one. Some of the favorite words I've heard came from the [NL] manager Fred Hutchinson. He was the manager that year and he told me to go pick up Stan Musial at the airport. How 'bout that? A young kid, just the second year in the big leagues.
DB: What kind of car were you driving in those days?
BW: Well, they didn't know I could hit home runs then. That was the thing. Singles hitters drove Chevrolets. I was driving a '62 Biscayne Chevrolet. Home-run hitters drive Cadillacs. When I used to go to San Francisco, [Willie] McCovey used to pick me up and he had a Cadillac.
DB: When did you get a Cadillac?
BW: You know when I got a Cadillac? After I retired from baseball. And I kept it one year. I wasn't a Cadillac guy. I worked for Bauer Buick here and I always drove Buicks. Wildcat Buicks. I had about four or five of those. And the Bleacher Bums always kid me with that. "Bucket Seat," they'd say.
DB: You seem too humble for a Cadillac. It's kind of a showy car.
BW: I never wanted one. It's a big car and it was an economical car. A lotta people think, just because it's a big car that it used a lot of gas but it don't. I had a Cadillac for one year, after a Buick was stolen, and that was it. And then I went back to — what did I get? — another Buick. So I was a Buick guy.
DB: Are you still today?
BW: No, I got an old Mercedes now that I bought in 1987. I still got it in Arizona and I drive a Yukon Denali.
DB: Retirement question. What kind of golfer are you?BW: People think I golf all the time but I can play ... presentable golf. I can shoot in the 80s. Just good enough to get me some strokes and win some money. In the '50s and '60s, I was glad to see Fergie Jenkins (right) come over because we did the same things. He was a hunter, I was a hunter. Of course, Ernie was into golf at that time and I think that, because he was into it, I did it too. But if I had a choice, I would go fishing.
DB: Are you a world-class fisherman? Lakes and streams? Deep-sea?
BW: Anywhere there's a fish, I go. I like bass fishing which — there's a lot of ponds in Chicago here. I'll go out to a lake in [west suburban] Naperville and go with my grandkids and catch four-, five- and six-pound bass. Grandkids have ball. And when I go back down South, I do a lot of variety. Redfish, speckled trout, bass, sheephead. Anything that bites, I like to get a little play.
DB: Are you at your happiest when you're fishing?
BW: I am. On the baseball field, I'm happy there, but when I go fishing, I'm real happy. I was thinking about fishing this morning coming into the ballpark. When I ride up Lakeshore Drive — I've been fishing there many times and caught a lot of lake trout. It's just enjoyable walking up there, thinking about fishing. Matter of fact, in Arizona, a lot of people don't think there's good fishing out there. But there are several lakes where me, Fergie and Pepitone used to go. We had a great time. One time, we caught maybe 100 bass out there.
DB: You grew up in Alabama. Could you identify at all with Forest Gump?
BW: When he'd talk about shrimp, because I ate a lot of shrimp [laughs]. My mother cooked shrimp all kinds of different ways. Mobile is a seaport town and we ate a lot of seafood. We'd go fishing, we'd catch our fish and we'd eat our fish. It was a ritual on Saturday morning for all my family — my grandfather, my brothers, my uncles, my father — to go fishing and then the ladies of the family would clean the fish and fry them up. Somebody would make a big pot of coffee — I'm from a coffee-drinking family and that's what we did. We ate fish and drank coffee.
DB: What happens the day Ron Santo makes the Hall of Fame?
BW: We're going to celebrate. We've had a long time to get ready for it. I'd like to see that happen. With Ernie, myself and Fergie, we're all in there. Teammates. We all believe it, as do guys who played against Ronnie (above, right) like Brooks Robinson, that he should be there. They really think he deserves it. I think it's right around the corner.
Follow Dave on Twitter — @answerdave.
* * *
Previous Answer Men (and Woman):
* * *
2009 • Shane Victorino • Carlos Pena • Jay Bruce • Joe Nathan • Joe Maddon • Joakim Soria • Joey Votto • Tom Glavine • Adrian and Edgar Gonzalez • Chris Volstad • Paul Konerko • Edwin Jackson • Mark DeRosa • Tim Lincecum • Dave Righetti • Pedro Martinez • Denard Span • Cal Ripken
- Jackie Robinson
- Billy Williams