Looking Back: Vols Pitcher Became a Black Sox

By Bill Traughber / Nashville Sounds | July 10, 2017 1:04 PM ET

  One of the darkest chapters of baseball history is the betting scandal, which involved the 1919 Chicago White Sox. One of the White Sox best pitchers was Claude "Lefty" Williams. It was Williams' behavior in the 1919 World Series that eventually got him banned from baseball.

   Williams had an outstanding year for the Nashville Vols in 1913. He had the best record at 18-12 for the seventh-place club. The left-hander appeared in 37 games while striking out 144 in 258 innings. Williams also allowed 219 hits and 59 walks.

   Williams made his major league debut at the end of the 1913 season with a call-up to Detroit. He appeared in five games, starting four and registered a 1-3 mark. Williams was with Mobile of the Southern Association in 1914 with another season-ending call up to Detroit recording one loss in one start.

   After a brief stay in the minor leagues, Williams caught on full time with the White Sox in 1916 where he was 13-7 and appeared in 43 games (26 starts). The following season he was 17-8, but pitched briefly in Chicago in 1918 as he worked in a shipyard during World War I. He was 6-4 in 15 games.

   During the spring exhibition season of 1919, the Chicago White Sox played a game at Sulphur Dell against the hometown Vols. Williams was making a homecoming as the Nashville Banner wrote:

   The clatter of big league hoof-beats break the silence in the Dell today as Kid Gleason (White Sox manager), with his army of White Sox lines up against the Vols. Of particular interest to local fandom is the fact that a one-time Vol hurler is billed to adorn the slab for the Sox machine in the person of Claude Williams, better known as "Kid" Williams. Between Gleason and Williams the kid colony is well represented.

   Williams made a great record while with the Vols and attracted the attention of major scouts. "Kid" Williams, a youngster for fair when he joined the Vols, set the Southern League on fire with his offhand flinging and was quickly spotted by the critics to gambol in major league pastures before his career was much further underway. Today we find the"Kid" in the spangles of the powerful White Sox machine, and a box mainstay for the Chicago American League pennant entry.

   Along with Williams, the Chicago eight players banned from baseball by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis were Joe Jackson; pitcher Eddie Cicotte; first baseman Chick Gandil; shortstop Swede Risberg; third baseman Buck Weaver; utility man Fred McMullin and outfielder Happy Felsch. Each player, except for Cicotte, appeared in the game on this 1919 Nashville spring day. 

   More than 1,000 fans entered the Sulphur Dell gates to see this exhibition game not realizing they were about to see a major league team to be caught in disgrace. Williams was the starting pitcher for the Sox while his Vols' counterpart was hurler Joe Decatur.

   Williams left the game after five innings with the Sox ahead 2-1. Chicago fell behind 3-2 going into their last at-bat. Pinch-hitter McMullin reached first on a single after two outs. Nemo Leibold walked and Weaver singled, scoring McMullin and tying the score. Collins then doubled to right center, scoring Liebold and Weaver for the final runs of the game. The White Sox won the battle at the Dell 5-3.

   Williams gave up four hits in his five innings, while Jackson reached base on one hit in five plate appearances. Williams would compile a 23-11 record for 1919, which would be his personal best in his sixth major league season. Jackson, a fierce rival of Ty Cobb, concluded his 12th season, finishing fourth in batting with a .351 average.

   The Fall Classic of 1919, featured the heavily favored White Sox against the National League champion Cincinnati Reds. The Reds won the best of nine series, 5-3. Williams was 0-3 with a 6.64 ERA compared to his 2.41 ERA for the regular season. During the final game of the series, Williams was knocked out in the first inning after giving up four runs. Jackson hit .375 with one home run in the Series.

   The gambling scandal broke in September 1920 after several months of rumors, while the White Sox were in a pennant chase with Cleveland. When the eight Sox were indicted by a grand jury, they were immediately suspended. The Indians won the 1920 pennant by two games against the now-depleted White Sox roster.

   Williams and Jackson were off-the-field friends as well as roommates, and it was established that Williams received $5,000 from the gamblers as his first payment of $10,000. Williams' regular salary pitching for the White Sox was $2,600. Jackson maintained his innocence until the day he died in spite of a written confession he made before the grand jury, which was later "lost."

   The Chicago trial ended in August of 1921 with all involved acquitted. Newly appointed Commissioner Landis expelled all eight with a lifetime banishment from major league baseball. All the players maintained their innocence while they benefited from a favorable jury.

   Williams had a 22-14 record at the time of his 1920 suspension. After his banishment, Williams toured the country playing semi-pro games. He spent his later years in Laguna Beach, Cailf., where he operated a garden nursery business. Williams died in Laguna Beach at age 66 in 1959.

   Actor James Read portrayed Williams in the 1988 movie Eight Men Out about the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Traughber's Tidbit: In a July 1958 game, rookie Leon Wagner was playing in left field for the Giants when a ball hit by Cubs' batter Tony Taylor apparently bounced into the Cubs' bullpen near Wagner. He noticed that the Cubs' relief pitchers began scattering and staring under their bench. Wagner assumed the ball had rested there. He was wrong. His opponents tricked him as the ball actually stopped 45 feet further down the foul line in a rain gutter. By the time Wagner realized that he had been duped, Taylor had sprinted around the bases for an inside-the-park home run.                  

Tidbit Two: In 1963, while playing for the Washington Senators, Jimmy Piersall celebrated his 100th career home run by running the bases backwards and sliding into home plate. The league later made it a rule that running around the bases backwards was illegal. Piersall would hit his final career home run in 1967 with a total of 104.

Tidbit Three: On sale now is the book "Nashville Baseball History: From Sulphur Dell to the Sounds." The paperback book consists of 227 pages, 33 chapters covering 19th century Nashville baseball through the Nashville Vols and Nashville Sounds through First Tennessee Park. There are 86 illustrations and the book can be purchased at Parnassus Books (Green Hills), Barnes & Nobles, Amazon and Summer Game Books. Nashville baseball enthusiast and Sounds first general manager Farrell Owens wrote the foreword to the book.

If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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