Penn Hills man helped history play out in Negro League
Tuesday, February 06, 2007
By Kevin Kirkland, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Wallace Williams knew Satchel Paige. He was a friend of Josh Gibson. But if the Negro League's top pitcher and slugger were alive today, they'd probably have to ask: "Who the heck is Wallace Williams?"
"They didn't know my name," said Williams, who turned 100 in December. "They only knew Bucky."
In fact, Williams' name was the one spelled correctly in a Pittsburgh Courier sports story on June 21, 1930, when he and Gibson helped the Pittsburgh Crawfords defeat a semipro team sponsored by a woodworking shop:
"Leading the attack against the Woodmen was Bucky Williams and Josh Gipson, with four hits each."
It was the first of hundreds of mentions for Gibson in the weekly paper. He and Paige went on to lead the Crawfords to two pennants, then Gibson won nine in a row with the Homestead Grays. Paige and Gibson were the first and second Negro Leaguers, respectively, to be inducted into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame.
For Williams, it might have been the only time he was mentioned. The Penn Hills man appears in none of the Crawfords' or Grays' team photos and never saved newspaper clippings. Luckily, someone did. Box scores and clippings show that he played shortstop or third base for the Crawfords from 1928 to '32, the Grays in 1936, and the Crawfords again in 1937 and '38, according to baseball historian Wayne Stivers of Plano, Ill. Williams also played for the Pittsburgh Keystone Juniors, the Pittsburgh Monarchs and a black team sponsored by the Edgar Thomson Steel Works, where he worked as a ladle liner for 30 years, retiring in 1971.
Williams won no pennants, has no souvenirs and never was paid much during his career. But he has won acknowledgment as one of the oldest survivors of the Negro Leagues and has been named an honorary member of the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City. He participated in several events last summer connected with the Major League All-Star Game in Pittsburgh.
"I sign more autographs now than I ever did then," he joked as he signed one recently.
At 100 years old, he has good days, bad days and fading memories of his diamond days. In interviews several years ago, he recalled getting a rare hit off Paige and fielding a bunt and throwing out Cool Papa Bell, one of the fastest base runners ever. He doesn't remember those plays anymore, shaking his head at the idea of hitting one of Paige's "Long Toms."
"He was so fast. No one was better than Satchel Paige," he said.
Wallace "Bucky" Williams was born on Dec. 15, 1906, in Baltimore, the third of Mathilda and Joseph Williams' eight children. When he was 6 months old, his family moved to Formosa Way in Homewood. He attended Holy Rosary and Crescent Elementary schools, dropping out after seventh or eighth grade.
He has played baseball for as long as he can remember, starting at Homewood Field, now called Willie Stargell Field. He said he was always a good fielder and hitter -- mostly singles and doubles, few home runs. But he was not very quick on the base paths.
Williams' sandlot career seemed to mirror that of the Rev. Harold Tinker, who played for the Monarchs, Edgar Thomson, then the Crawfords. He remembers Tinker, who died in 2000, as "Hooks," a nickname that came from his bowed legs.
Tinker was the Crawfords' player-manager in 1928 when he discovered a big 18-year-old from the North Side. By 1930, Josh Gibson, Tinker, Williams and the rest were the best sandlot team around, drawing hundreds and sometimes thousands to Ammon Field in the Hill District. Passing a hat could net each player a dollar or two, often much less, Rob Ruck wrote in his book, "Sandlot Seasons."
Gibson jumped to the big time in July 1930, when Grays owner Cumberland Posey made him part of that Negro League dynasty. The Crawfords jumped, too, when numbers banker Gus Greenlee bought the team in 1931. Greenlee, who also owned the Crawford Grill, was willing to pay top dollar for stars like Paige and Gibson, but they squeezed out Tinker and others who weren't willing to quit their jobs.
Williams shows up occasionally in the Crawfords' box scores through 1932, Stivers said, but then apparently went back to the Edgar Thomson team. Playing home games about a block from the mill in Braddock, he met Marjorie Carey of Swissvale. Soon, he noticed that she was coming to their away games, too. In 1936, he married her at St. Benedict the Moor Church in the Hill District. They had one child, David, and moved to Swissvale.
In 1936, Williams' name showed up in box scores for the Grays. A year later, he was back with the Crawfords, and Gibson had been traded to the Grays, who promptly began their nine-year streak of pennants.
Williams was apparently with the Crawfords when the team folded in 1939. In the 1940s, he played for a city league team called the Monarchs. A Monarchs team photo is the only one he has from his diamond days. Later, after moving to East Liberty, he was an umpire when his son played in the East End Little League Association. His wife died in 1976, and he eventually went to live with his son in Penn Hills.
"He used to talk about baseball all the time," David Williams said. "Then, about 10 years ago, he just stopped."
Williams has no colorful anecdotes, and no bitterness that black ballplayers such as he never got a chance to play in the Major Leagues. Playing with and against the best of the Negro Leagues was enough, he said.
His eyes gleam when he's reminded of one old story, how his Edgar Thomson team once defeated the mighty Homestead Grays. He laughed when a reporter wondered if stars like Gibson, Buck Leonard and Judy Johnson played that day.
"They were all playing. They were awful good players. We beat 'em all right."