When I was a child, I dreamed of being a big league ball player like Billy Williams. Now I dream of being Buck O’Neil. Without Buck O’Neil, Billy Williams might haven never played an inning in the majors.
Billy Williams was unquestionably one of the greatest Cubs ever. Nicknamed, “sweet swinging” Billy Williams for his effortless yet powerful swing, the Baseball Hall of Fame summarizes Billy’s career:
Over an 18-season big league career (1959-76), 16 spent with the Cubs, Williams had 2,711 hits, a .290 batting average, 426 home runs, hit 20 or more home runs 13 straight seasons, and once held the National League record for consecutive games played with 1,117.
“Billy Williams is the best hitter, day-in and day-out, that I have ever seen,” said longtime Cubs teammate Don Kessinger. “He’s unbelievable. He didn’t hit for just one or two days, or one or two weeks. He hit all the time.” . . .
“The leader of the Cubs is, of all people, the quiet man of the clubhouse, Billy Williams,” wrote Chicago sports columnist Bill Gleason. “Billy Williams, who seldom speaks in a voice that can be heard beyond his own cubicle, who wouldn’t say ‘Rah! Rah!’ if (Cubs owner) Phil Wrigley promised him a $10,000 bonus for each ‘Rah,!’ is the man to whom the Cubs look for leadership.
“He combines the dignity of Ernie Banks, the determination of (Ron) Santo, and the competitive fires of (Randy) Hundley, and he plays every day, every night.”
Yet, Billy Williams’ big league career almost never happened. Williams came up in the Cubs minor league system in 1959 at a time when racism was especially despicable and inhumane. In his book, Billy Williams: My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs, Williams describes the humiliation African-American ballplayers endured:
I would help entertain fans at the ballpark by playing baseball to the best of my ability, but then I was not allowed to eat in the restaurants or stay in their hotels. My black teammates and I had to rely on our white teammates to bring us a sandwich in the back of the bus after they were done enjoying their casual meal in a segregated restaurant.
Finally, Williams could endure the racism no more. He made the decision to quit baseball. He told a teammate he was done and took a train home to Alabama.
With Billy’s decision to quit, Buck O’Neil entered the story. O’Neil had been a legendary player and manager in the Negro Leagues. By 1959 he was working for the Cubs as a scout. When the Cubs management learned that Billy Williams had gone home, they contacted O’Neil to ask him if he knew Billy. O’Neil responded, “I know who he is. I have been to his parents house and sat around with them. And I have eaten at their house.” Indeed, it had been O’Neil who first spotted Billy Williams’ talent.
So O’Neil agreed to immediately make the long drive down to southern Alabama. Williams describes what happened when O’Neil got to his house:
Baseball’s Buck O’Neil
At first, Buck didn’t say much. He simply said, “How do you feel, boy?”
I said, “I’m doing pretty good Buck.”
Buck said, “Got a call yesterday from John Holland. The Cubs think a lot of you. You’re playing good. They think that one day you might be in the major leagues because your scouting reports are good. What do you think?”
I said, “Buck, I have had enough. I don’t want to go back there anymore to play any baseball. I have enjoyed the time that I played. But I just don’t want to through the stuff that I have been going through off the field. You know, waiting for the white guys to bring me sandwiches, staying in separate run-down hotels, and things like that.
Buck knew all about discrimination in those days. I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know himself firsthand. He had experienced it himself throughout his entire life. Buck had also managed the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Leagues, and he had a lot of players who had been homesick and wanted to go home. But I repeated “No, I am not going back to San Antonio.”
At that point, Buck said, “Okay,” and then he talked to my dad before he went back to his hotel. The next day, Buck came back to our house and we talked again. It must have been around 3 or 4 o’clock in the afternoon.
There was a place down there in Alabama called Prichard Park. That’s where all of my colleagues and guys who were in my class went to play ball. . . Buck said to me, “Come on, boy. Let’s take a ride.” . . .
Once we rolled up into the park, everybody there recognized Buck as a big-league scout. Then people noticed I was with him and they started pointing and saying, “There’s Billy! Hey how are you doing? You’ve been off to play ball, right?”
I said to them, “Yeah, but I am home now.”
Then the fellas said, “Wow! How did you get a chance to play pro ball? How did you get an opportunity to sign and play professional baseball? I bet it’s great. Man, I bet you are having a good time playing baseball, doing something you always wanted to do. . .
Buck just shook his head up and down at everything those guys were saying to me at Prichard Park. You could tell he was loving that influential kind of talk from my friends. He could not have scripted the comments any better. There must have been 10 or 12 guys saying things like that to me, making a big deal about me playing professional baseball. At that point, I started looking around at the guys from my hometown. Most of them were scuffling, trying to make ends meet, trying to make it with scarce job opportunities around town.
At that point, I said to myself, “Well, you know baseball, ain’t that bad. And waiting to get a sandwich at the back of a bus from a teammate ain’t that bad.”
Of course, it was that bad. It is unthinkable that such racism existed – – and continues to exist in some ways – – in our country. But O’Neil was successful in persuading Billy to return to San Antonio.
Once Williams returned to San Antonio it was only a matter of weeks before he had the opportunity to play in the majors. From San Antonio, he was called up to Triple-A where he hit .476 over a five day period and was called up to the majors.
But for Buck O’Neil’s wise influence, Billy Williams would have quit baseball a few weeks shy of the major leagues.
The story of Buck O’Neil and Billy Williams hits me differently today than it did when I was playing sandlot baseball myself. When I was growing up, I would have given anything to be a big league ball player. I loved playing baseball. But now, all these years later, I no longer dream about playing professional baseball. Instead, I long to be Buck O’Neil. And longing to be Buck O’Neil is, in the end, a bigger dream than being a professional athlete. How many men and women have the wisdom and talent to put our arm across the shoulders of young, gifted, men and women and encourage them to keep going when they feel like quitting? And what a difference a pastor, a coach, a friend can make who has the wisdom to encourage someone to not give up.
Today the Cubs have retired Sweet Swinging Billy Williams’ number. As long as baseball is played in the friendly confines of Wrigley field, Billy Williams’ name and number will flutter from the right field foul pole above Ryne Sandberg and Greg Maddux, while Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, and Fergie Jenkins wave from the left field pole. And that is as it should be. I’m glad that Billy William’s number has been retired. But if I owned the Chicago Cubs, I would have a seamstress stitch the name of Buck O’Neil in small silver thread in a corner of the pennant of Sweet Billy’s flag. And Williams would be the first to agree with the decision. Without Buck O’Neil’s long drive and wise words, Billy Williams would never have rounded the bases at Wrigley nor plucked a baseball out of the air from just above the ivy.