That Willie "Curly" Williams was largely ignored by Major League Baseball in the early 1950s isn't surprising. While Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier and players like Willie Mays and Monte Irvin also had established themselves as stars, many teams still refused to sign African-American players until deep into the decade.
Most of the southern-based Minor Leagues also remained segregated, so it's easy to categorize Williams' career as collateral damage. But the South Carolina native doesn't see it that way. Sure, there was a great deal of anger when he was younger. But Williams, who'll turn 84 in May, looks back on a career that spanned nearly two decades as special even if he didn't reach baseball's summit.
Williams began his career by spending parts of eight seasons in the Negro Leagues. He made his biggest contributions to the game, though, between 1953-63 in Canada, playing in the Manitoba-Dakota, Western Canada and Northern Saskatchewan leagues, where he gained quite a following in becoming one of that country's most dominant players.
"I was up in Canada for nine or 10 years, and it was wonderful playing up there," Williams said. "It was great. Our league [the Negro League] had just about broken up. I went up there, and I found a home. I really enjoyed my time there."
Williams' career began in 1945 when he hit .333 for the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League. He was a staple in the Eagles' infield for the better part of a decade while also spending time playing for Mayaguez in Puerto Rico. He even won a championship in Puerto Rico, teaming with future Braves hurler Lew Burdette.
While playing for Newark, Williams had a chance to see Cool Papa Bell at the end of his storied career, watch Willie Mays blossom into a star, play with Larry Doby and barnstorm with Satchel Paige.
"I wanted to get a hit off Paige so I'd have something to brag about, but I never got one," Williams said. "I couldn't believe it. Even at his age I never got a hit off him, maybe just a fly ball.
"The best player I ever saw was Willie Mays. I saw him in the Negro Leagues, the best I ever saw. And I still have the uniform Larry Doby gave me."
Williams played well enough in Puerto Rico for the White Sox to sign him and send him to Colorado Springs of the Class A Western League in 1951. According to attheplate.com, Williams hit .297 in 64 at-bats that season, prompting Chicago to bump him up to the Triple-A American Association in 1952. He split that year between Toledo (which moved to Charleston, W. Va., during the season) and Scranton of the Class A Eastern League. Attheplate.com reports that he combined to hit .228, though he batted .268 after moving to the Eastern League.
As a slick-fielding shortstop, Williams thought he did well enough to earn an invitation to Major League Spring Training in 1953, but the invitation never came.
"I wasn't too bitter, just angry," Williams said. "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.
"It was disappointing. That's the only thing I regret. I never had a chance to go to Spring Training. It hurts to think about it, but it's all over now. When I got to Toledo, I was getting up there in age and I had already lost six or seven good years by then. When I was playing in the Winter Leagues and in Puerto Rico, I was in my prime. I thought I should have been signed then."
Williams didn't let the snub from the White Sox in the spring of '53 keep him off the field, though. He joined the Carmen Cardinals of the ManDak (Manitoba-North Dakota) League, embarking on a wonderful Canadian career. Williams played one season in the ManDak League, where scores of former Negro League players flocked during the years their league was falling apart.
He hit .286 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs in 199 at-bats for the Cards but went back to the Negro National League in 1954, playing for Birmingham. The following season, he began a nine-year run with the Lloydminster Meridians that eventually earned him the title of Mr. Baseball in the city on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
"My best years in baseball were up there," he said. "I hit over .300 every year. There were a lot of college players up there, too, mostly from California. Money-wise, it wasn't great, but it was a good place to play baseball.
"I played with a lot of good guys like Ron Fairly and Don Buford. Guys like Len Tucker [the first African-American signed by the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1953], too. I never had a bad year up there. That's why they named me Mr. Baseball."
Williams' career came to an end in 1963, when he served as player-manager for Lloydminster. He hit .391 that season, according to attheplate.com, and the team won the NSBL title.
"That was about Class A level at the time," he said. "It was a different type of baseball. It was mostly guys from Canada that last year, and you didn't get too many good players from Canada. It was a different league that year."
Upon retiring, Williams joined the coroner's office in Sarasota, Fla., where he spent the next 27 years working as a crime scene investigator.
"It was an exciting job, but nothing to brag about," he said.
His playing career, well, that's a different story. Williams played with some special people and accomplished a great deal during his 18 years in the game. He was overlooked then and is largely overlooked now, too, but his was a career certainly worth remembering.