Friday, August 26, 2011

Negro League legend Willie 'Curly' Williams left a lasting impact on many

Another eagle has ascended to the soaring skies and taken the legend of the Negro Leagues with him. Willie “Curly” Williams, infielder for the Newark, Houston and New Orleans Eagles of the Negro Leagues from 1945-51, died Tuesday in Sarasota, Fla. He was 86.

I had the good fortune of spending an entire day with Williams in September, 2007 as the city of Newark, New Jersey featured an all-day tribute to the Newark Eagles. Streets in Newark were named after former Eagles legends and the players were honored by the mayor in a private ceremony at the baseball stadium in Newark. Later in the day, the players spoke at the New Jersey Historical Society before being celebrated on the field before a Newark Bears game.

Willie "Curly" Williams (r.) with the author in 2007
Williams radiated as he spoke about his glory days in Newark, holding nothing back about both the highlights and hardships of his career. For a few short hours, Williams transformed into a man of his youth sixty years prior, as he spoke with such vigor about his life in baseball.


Born May 25, 1925 in Holy Hill, SC, Williams was a shortstop for the 1946 Negro League Champion Newark Eagles which featured future Hall of Famers Leon Day, Larry Doby, and Monte Irvin. The departure of Irvin to the New York Giants in the following years opened up the shortstop position for Williams.

With the reins of shortstop secured in his hands, Williams flourished, earning a selection to the 1950 East-West All-Star game in Comiskey Park. By the following season, Williams signed with the Chicago White Sox organization and reported to their Class-A Colorado Springs affiliate.

For Williams, like many black players in the 1950’s, playing minor league baseball in a small town was a cold reminder of the isolation they faced due to Jim Crow segregation.

“I went out to Colorado Springs, ain’t too many black people in Colorado," Williams said during a 2007 interview in Newark. “They found a preacher’s house for me to stay in. One black preacher was in that town; they found that house and that’s where I stayed the whole season.”

Williams climbed the ladder of the White Sox system, advancing to AAA the following season. He thought that an invitation to spring training with the parent club would follow in 1953. Sadly, that invite never arrived.

"I thought I should have got a better shot at the Major Leagues, and I didn't get it. I was madder than anything about it. I didn't even get an opportunity to go to spring training with a Major League team. After playing in Toledo I thought I could have gone to spring training the following year,” Williams said in a 2008 interview with MLB.com.

Williams headlines with the Toledo Mud Hens / April 4, 1952 Toledo Blade

As one door closed for Williams, another opened, this time in a distant place, Canada. He played north of the border from 1953-1963, including an eight-year run with Lloydminster that earned him the title Mr. Baseball. He found something in Canada that he couldn’t find in the United States, peace.

“We had so much fun there and everybody was accepted, you know, didn't have problems going any place we wanted to eat. [They were] just wonderful people.  [I] may not have made a whole lot of money, but people were excited and they enjoyed you and would invite you to their homes,” Williams said in an interview with Jay Dell-Mah.

In addition to playing in the Negro Leagues, minor leagues, and Canada, Williams also starred for the Mayaguez team in the Puerto Rican Winter League from 1949-50. Upon his retirement from baseball, he moved to Sarasota, working 27 years as a crime scene investigator for the coroner’s office. In 2009, Topps gave Williams his first baseball card ever in their Allen and Ginter set.

2009 Allen and Ginter Willie Williams / Topps
His image and voice continue to resonate in my mind as I reflect on our day together in Newark. The clearest memory I have of Williams, besides the open invite to be a guest at his home in Sarasota, is the story he told that moved everyone in the room to tears. The picture he painted about enduring the harsh realities of segregation while in Colorado had a profound impact on all who were within earshot of his interview.

“I went to spring training in Avon Park with the Colorado team. They had a place with a preacher for me to stay. [There was] a café with my table in the kitchen. Every time that door swung open, all I could see [was] all my teammates out there. They had a table for me set up in the kitchen. That hurt. And what hurt so bad, they had a Mexican guy for my roommate; he could go in there. At night, I just cried and it made me feel better,” said Williams.

I cried a bit and gave Williams a hug after he told the story. He pulled out a kerchief and dried his eye. The memory of him sitting in the kitchen of the restaurant, only to see his teammates in the dining area while the door swung open has stuck with me every time I’ve thought about our meeting. I hope that the opportunity to tell his story, while painful, made him feel better to share it with us.

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