SABR

Johnnie Williams

This article was written by Rory Costello.

“Honolulu Johnny” Williams was the first man from Hawaii to play in the majors – he was born in 1889, when the islands were still a kingdom. The righty pitched in four games with the Detroit Tigers in 1914. Williams was also one-quarter Hawaiian on his mother’s side, making him the first big-leaguer with Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry. His dark complexion gave rise to speculation in later years that his Detroit teammate, Ty Cobb, did not want to play with him -- but this appears to be a canard. At the time, the newspapers reported that he was suffering from malaria. Williams continued to play in the minors through 1916 and later played for local clubs after returning to Hawaii. In his early days at home, his nickname was spelled “Johnnie,” but as a pro, the newspapers wrote “Johnny” more often, and it remained that way in later years.

Williams’ father, James John Williams (1853-1926), was a British immigrant who came to the United States when he was about a year old. His parents settled in Cleveland, but after working in San Francisco, J.J. became a prominent photographer in Honolulu. His subjects included King Kalakaua -- a friend and known baseball fan -- and Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1888, he founded Paradise of the Pacific, the forerunner of today’s Honolulu magazine.[1] Williams Photography also remains a going concern after well over a century.

J.J. Williams married Julia Agnes Wills in 1883. Julia, who came from the island of Maui, had a Hawaiian mother named Agnes Mailolo Kupihea. She bore nine children, including four other boys (James, Cornelius, Alfred, and William) and four girls (Hazel, Mele, Ivy and Camellia).

In January 1914, after Johnny Williams signed with the Tigers, Sporting Life provided “some very interesting dope on the young man. He comes of a base ball family. His father at one time played on the Cleveland Forest City Club, before the days of the present National League. He has three [sic] brothers, all of whom have been playing star ball, either at home, with the famous Honolulu Athletic club, or in the Coast League.”[2] Further documentation is lacking for any connection J.J. Williams may have had with the Forest Citys, as well as the brothers’ possible pro baseball careers. The Williams boys figured frequently, though, in Hawaiian newspaper coverage of the local baseball scene around 1910.

One of Johnny’s sisters, Hazel, also enjoyed playing baseball. In 1914, she said, “If you think I can’t play ball and that I am not some twirler myself, you ought to see me at work.”[3] Another sister, Mele, married Hans L’Orange, manager of a sugar mill in the Waipahu section of Oahu. L’Orange “recognized Waipahu as a baseball town and he supported 24 ball teams at the plantation to keep the workers and the community entertained.”[4] A field that bears his name was built in Waipahu in 1923, and Hans L’Orange Park is still in use today.

For detail on Williams’ early baseball days, much information (though fuzzy in spots) comes from an article by longtime Honolulu Star-Bulletin columnist Red McQueen. McQueen wrote a Williams retrospective upon the old pitcher’s retirement from his Honolulu city job in 1959. More than 20 years before Sid Fernandez emerged, he said, “[Williams] was the greatest pitcher ever developed in the Islands. A product of the sandlots of Honolulu, he first unveiled his prowess in grammar school at Kaahumanu, then went on to establish himself as something on a phenomena [sic] at St. Louis and Punahou.”[5]

These were and are two of the foremost schools in Honolulu. St. Louis School (formerly St. Louis College) claims two other big-leaguers, Hank Oana and Benny Agbayani, among its alumni. Punahou’s most famous graduate is President Barack Obama. In 1907, Williams was a freshman at Punahou, which was then known as Oahu College.[6] Williams also made a name for himself as a pitcher in Commercial League ball with the Schumann Carriage team and with the Honolulu Athletic Club, which competed in the Honolulu Senior League. In 1907 coverage, the Hawaiian Gazette showed him on the mound for the St. Louis College Alumni team, which it noted were “the old H.A.C.s.”[7]

In early 1910 (McQueen remembered it as 1911), Williams pitched brilliantly in a series of games against a team featuring many semi-pros from the cruiser USS New Orleans, which was visiting Hawaii. He was with a local team called Barry’s Beauts, which represented the National Guard of Hawaii. That squad also included Charlie En Sue Pung, a Chinese-Hawaiian outfielder who had been invited to the San Francisco Seals training camp in 1906. Williams, who also batted cleanup, threw a no-hitter on March 27. He won again, 4-3, on April 3. [8]

Word got back to the West Coast and Charlie Graham, owner of the Sacramento Sacts (as they were then known) of the Pacific Coast League. Harold “Babe” Danzig, who played six games in the majors with the 1909 Boston Red Sox, was with Sacramento in 1910 and 1911. He also had a connection to Hawaii, being married to Jean Center, the sister of George “Dad” Center of the Outrigger Canoe Club. Danzig got the credit for discovering Williams for the pros.[9]

On May 20, 1911, Sporting Life reported that Sacramento had imported Williams from Honolulu. He went 1-2 with a 2.42 ERA in three games for the Sacts. The July 1 issue of Sporting Life noted that Sacramento sought to transfer him to Tacoma in the Northwestern League, which purchased his contract. There were several transactions between those teams that year, but later accounts show that Williams got his seasoning that year with Victoria, also in the Northwestern League. There may have been a loan agreement; baseball-reference.com shows no Williams playing for Tacoma that year, whereas a “J. Williams” went 5-14 for Victoria.

Williams made the Sacramento roster in 1912. He appeared in 40 games, starting 27 of them, and had a record of 9-16, 3.45. In April, there were reports that manager Joe O’Rourke planned to take the team to Honolulu at the end of the season. “Dusky” Williams (as Sporting Life dubbed him) made the suggestion and made arrangements with his brother-in-law.[10] A September follow-up on the trip said, “Pitcher Johnny Williams has the players all wild over the good things he promises in Hawaii.”[11]

The Hawaiian enjoyed by far his best pro season in 1913 for Sacramento. In 40 games (30 starts) for manager Harry Wolverton, he was 17-7 with a 2.03 ERA. After a four-hit, 7-1 victory over Portland on July 24, Sporting Life noted that he was sought by a half-dozen major league clubs.[12] Not long before, the paper described his stuff: “He is possessed of a great speed ball, sharp breaking curve, and has the happy faculty of being able to curl himself around the ball and shoot it to the batter with the body only half turned toward the batsman. This delivery is extremely difficult to solve.”[13]

A 1914 report gave further insight on the pitcher’s repertoire. “Williams ... has invented a curve, which he has not named, but which bears a closer resemblance to Eddie Summers’ famous knuckleball than any curve yet shown by a Detroit pitcher. Williams found this delivery while pitching in the Pacific Coast League last season, and he used it almost exclusively when his arm tired or became sore from work at the other forms. During the latter part of the season he depended upon it almost entirely, and he says he has yet to find a batter who can hit with any degree of success when opposing it.”[14]

On August 13, Sporting Life wrote, “Sacramento will undoubtedly sell Johnny Williams, as otherwise he is certain to be drafted.”[15] Detroit had already shown its interest, to the reported tune of $12,000. Scout Deacon McGuire had the authority to raise the ante if necessary.[16]

By October, Williams was already described as a Detroit pitcher. He married Alonza Rico of Los Angeles on November 8, 1913.[17] She was reportedly wealthy -- although another item said she was the daughter of a court bailiff.[18] The newlyweds spent the winter in Honolulu, where Johnny was said to have been keeping in shape by surfing, then something largely unknown on the mainland.[19]

Along the same lines, before the 1914 season, the Detroit Free Press alleged that Williams had gone barefoot until he was 16 years old.[20] This sounds similar to a tale about the third Hawaiian in the majors, Hank Oana, which Oana dismissed in 1934 by saying, “What do they think we are out there? A lot of wild men of the woods?” Another Free Press story about Williams made it sound credible, though. The subhead read, “Hawaiian Pitcher Is Swimmer, Pitcher, Guitar Player, Crack Shot, and Uses Feet as Well as Many Use Hands.”[21] Williams could grip and throw suitcases with his toes.

The Tigers held their 1914 spring training camp in Gulfport, Mississippi -- though Williams was trying to sell them on the idea of his hometown.[22] “Honolulu Johnny” made the roster, and his big-league debut took place at home on April 21. “Badly Smeared” was the Los Angeles Times headline -- the Cleveland Indians scored four runs off him in the first inning, as he walked three and gave up three hits. He managed to retire the side, but manager Hughie Jennings gave him the hook after that, and the Tigers came back to win as Harry Coveleski went the rest of the way.

In March, while still in camp, Williams had been confined to his bed for several days. The malady was supposedly nothing serious.[23] Yet the effects lingered. A July report in the Pittsburgh Press said that he was “trying to shake off a malarial illness that has been with him ever since he struck Gulfport and from which he has never fully recovered ... Jennings hates to let him go without a thorough trial.”[24]

On May 31, Williams pitched against the Cuban Stars at Detroit’s Mack Park. He “hurled a nice game of ball ... but errors behind him the way for the five runs scored by the Islanders, who won the contest 5 to 1.”[25] It appears that he did not travel with the club much of the time; another July report described him as “laid up in Detroit.”[26]

Finally, on August 1, he was fit enough to return to action. Williams started against the great Walter Johnson of the Washington Senators and lost, 3-0. It was a scoreless duel through seven innings, but the Tigers made two costly errors, one by Williams himself and the other by shortstop Donie Bush. The Free Press observed that the strong outing “leads to the belief that he will be a regular winner from now on.”[27]

Jennings gave the rookie another start four days later at Detroit, but he was gone after 1 1/3 innings, having allowed seven hits. The Yankees went on to rout the Tigers, 14-4. Williams’ last appearance took place on August 19 at Philadelphia. He came on in relief in the eighth inning, and though it is not entirely clear from the box score, it looks like he gave up the game-winning triple to pinch-hitter Chick Davies. He finished his big-league career at 0-2 with a 6.35 ERA in 11 1/3 innings pitched. In the past, some baseball encyclopedias showed his record at 0-3, a discrepancy that must have resulted from the August 19 game.

Although he made little impact on the mound, Williams did make a minor contribution at the margin to his club. According to an August wire service report, Hughie “Ee-Yah” Jennings, who “made himself and the Tigers famous the country over by his unusually weird method of [third-base] coaching, has found a new source of supply for his stuff. Hughie coaches in Hawaiian. He has taken a course in the Hawaiian language from John Brodie Williams. . .‘Weeki-weeki!’ yells Hughie now, and the Tigers know he means ‘Watch out!’”[28]

In early September, the Tigers sent Williams on loan to Sacramento. From the sound of things, his malaria --a disease whose hallmark is relapses -- was still bothering him.[29] Just a few days later, because of poor attendance, the Sacramento team moved to San Francisco, where they were known as the Missions. Since the long PCL season extended well into October, Williams posted a 3-6 record, with a 3.09 ERA. He also scouted a fellow pitcher from Hawaii named Bill Inman, who got into one game for San Francisco.

The unproven suspicion that Ty Cobb may not have accepted Williams as a teammate deserves examination. Red McQueen’s retrospective included this aside: “Maybe it wasn’t in the cards for a dark complexioned person to make good among such southerners.”[30] The unknown author of a Williams sketch in his file at the Hall of Fame library in Cooperstown extrapolated, and one might take this notion at face value.

On the other hand, as noted in SABR’s biography of Hank Oana, “The public image of The Georgia Peach as virulent bigot has become ingrained over decades. . .Yet while there is ample evidence of Cobb’s prejudice, he often behaved in ways that defied the caricature.” Cobb may have crossed paths in Japan with Oana, another part-Hawaiian, part-Caucasian player; some accounts give him a hand in scouting Oana for the San Francisco Seals.

Author Joel Franks devoted a sizable passage to Williams in his book Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball. At one point, Franks wrote, “According to a piece published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1914, Cobb himself requested that Williams fling [Cobb’s] travel bag by foot and was pleased with the results.” If people of color were truly anathema to Cobb, one wouldn’t imagine such easy familiarity -- he might have treated Williams more like a porter. Alternately, he may not have considered the Hawaiian a nonwhite. Looking back again, no contemporary stories show any animosity toward the Hawaiian on Cobb’s part. Neither was Williams mentioned in the various Cobb biographies, including the one deemed definitive, Charles Alexander’s 1984 work. On another note, the 1914 Detroit article that talked about the barefoot Williams also gave a good bit of space to his disparaging remarks about the Japanese and Chinese players he’d faced at home.[31]

In late 1914, the San Francisco franchise moved to Salt Lake City. Things didn’t go well there in 1915 for Williams. Sporting Life reported, “Honolulu John Williams has departed from the Coast League. Hereafter he will do his pitching for Omaha. And at one time this dusky twirler appeared to be the one best bet in the Pacific Coast League.”[32] Williams refused to accept his transfer to Omaha, though, and instead he signed with the Los Angeles Angels of the PCL.[33] Overall, he was 7-12 with a 4.05 ERA in 52 games.

Los Angeles released Williams, and as of April 1916, he was still trying to hook on with another PCL club.[34] He wound up signing with St. Joseph (Missouri) of the Western League. Against Class A competition, he went 19-16, 2.80.

In the spring of 1917, Manager Walter McCredie of the Portland Beavers wanted to make a deal with Lincoln of the Western League to obtain Williams.[35] Instead, though, the pitcher joined the Hawaiian Infantry during World War I. After returning home, in 1919 he headed a team of local all-stars that traveled to Japan. During the tour, according to Red McQueen, he started -- and completed -- 18 of the 21 games.

Williams worked for the Honolulu office of Standard Oil in the 1920s and played for the company’s team in the Commercial League. He also pitched for Waikiki and the Wanderers in the Hawaii League. Old friend Bill Inman told McQueen of a memorable no-hitter Williams pitched for Waikiki against an Army All-Star team on Maui, sometime in the early 1920s. McQueen’s column also showed a picture of Johnny shaking hands with Babe Ruth at old Honolulu Stadium when the Babe visited; this could have been either 1933 or 1934.

The 1930 census showed Williams as a machinist. He then took a job in the City and County of Honolulu’s refuse division, working first as a dispatcher and then as a collector for 23 years before retiring in 1959. He and his wife, Nina Aylett Williams, a retired schoolteacher, moved to Long Beach, California. (Evidence of how his first marriage ended is currently not available.)

When the Hawaii Islanders joined the PCL in 1961 after the franchise shifted from Sacramento, Williams was there for the home opener on April 17 at Honolulu Stadium. Sacramento columnist Vincent F. Stanich was invited to present a plaque inscribed “The Sacramento Union Salutes Johnny Williams.” Stanich recalled that Williams was visibly moved -- “He responded in a half-choked fashion.”[36] About two and a half years later, on September 8, 1963, Williams died at Kaiser Hospital in Los Angeles after a stroke. He was also suffering from heart disease and diabetes. His obituary noted that he was survived by Nina and several siblings, but did not mention any children.

Johnny Williams was 24 when he made his big-league debut. In addition to his draining illness, the major-league edge may already have been gone from his stuff when he joined Detroit. Nonetheless, he has a little niche in baseball history as a trailblazer for the Aloha State -- two generations before statehood was even granted to Hawaii -- and for the game’s ethnic diversity.

Mahalo to Bobby Command in Hawaii for sharing his insights. Bobby’s sketch about Williams in the Bullpen at baseball-reference.com showed several fruitful avenues of research.

Photo Credit

Hawaiian Gazette, April 29, 1913: 3.

Sources

www.la84foundation.org (Sporting Life online)

www.ancestry.com

http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ (Hawaiian Gazette and Honolulu Evening Bulletin online)

Johnny Williams file at National Baseball Hall of Fame and Library (includes death certificate)

www.baseball-reference.com

www.williamsphotography1883.com

Franks, Joel S. Asian Pacific Americans and Baseball: A History. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2008.

Notes




[1] “From Our Files – May Archives.” Honolulu magazine, May 2011. Forbes, David W. Hawaiian National Bibliography, 1780-1900: Volume 4. Honolulu, Hawaii: University of Hawai’i Press, 2003. Hannavy, John, editor. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography: Volume 1. London, England: Routledge: 2007.

[2] Bruske, Paul Hale. “Detroit Duly Delighted.” Sporting Life, January 31, 1914. 14.

[3] “Pitcher Williams’ Sister a Player.” Sporting Life, June 27, 1914. 24.

[4] Luoma, Bill. Works & Days. West Stockbridge, Mass.: The Figures & Hard Press, Inc.: 1998.108.

[5] McQueen, Red. “Hoomalimali: Johnny Williams Retires.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, undated article from 1959 in Williams file at the Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

[6] Catalogue of Oahu College, 1906-1907. Honolulu, Hawaii: Hawaiian Gazette Co., Ltd.: 1907. 62.

[7] “Diamond Heads Versus Saints.” Hawaiian Gazette, February 22, 1907. 5.

[8] Stevenson, V.L. “Barry’s Beauts Defeat Sailors.” Honolulu Evening Bulletin, March 28, 1910. 7; Stevenson, V.L. “Barry’s Beauts Win Again.” Honolulu Evening Bulletin, April 3, 1910. 9.

[9] “A Rising Kanaka Pitcher.” Sporting Life, July 19, 1913. 19.

[10] “The Pacific Coast League.” Sporting Life, April 27, 1912. 9.

[11] “The Pacific Coast League.” Sporting Life, September 13, 1913. 19.

[12] “Pacific Coast League.” Sporting Life, August 9, 1913. 18.

[13] “A Rising Kanaka Pitcher.”

[14] “Miscellaneous Sport from Everywhere.” Eugene Register-Guard, May 5, 1914.

[15] “Players Likely to Go Higher.” Sporting Life, August 16, 1913. 19.

[16] “American League News In Nut-Shells.” Sporting Life, July 19, 1913. 20.

[17] “American League News In Nut-Shells.” Sporting Life, February 14, 1914. 11.

[18] “American League News In Nut-Shells.” Sporting Life, October 25, 1913: 10. “News Items Gathered From All Quarters.” Sporting Life, November 22, 1913: 17.

[19] Bruske, op. cit.

[20] Batchelor, E.A. “John Brodie Williams’s First Pair of Shoes Was Size 11.” Detroit Free Press, March 2, 1914. 10.

[21] “John Brodie Williams Is Man of Many Talents.” Detroit Free Press, April 6, 1914. 8.

[22] Batchelor, E.A. “Wants Major Club to Train at Honolulu.” Detroit Free Press, February 28, 1914. 10.

[23] “American League News In Nut-Shells.” Sporting Life, April 4, 1914: 14.

[24] “John Brodie Williams Is Most Expensive Player In The League.” Pittsburgh Press, July 15, 1914.

[25] “Cubans Take Second Game from Locals.” Detroit Free Press, June 1, 1914. 9.

[26] “American League Notes.” Sporting Life, July 25, 1914. 10.

[27] “Ought to Help Detroit.” Detroit Free Press, August 4, 1914.

[28] “Weeki-weeki!” Hedges Herald (Hedgesville, Montana) August 11, 1914: 2.

[29] “American League Notes.” Sporting Life, October 24, 1914. 16.

[30] McQueen, op. cit.

[31] Batchelor, “John Brodie Williams’s First Pair of Shoes Was Size 11”

[32] “Pacific Coast.” Sporting Life, July 3, 1915. 23.

[33] “Pacific Coast.” Sporting Life, July 24, 1915. 19; “Williams Is Now Angel.” Los Angeles Times, July 1, 1915. Section III-1.

[34] “Pacific Coast Points.” Sporting Life, April 29, 1916. 22.

[35] “Portland May Get Williams.” Sporting Life, March 31, 1917. 8.

[36] Stanich, Vincent F. “Sacramento Solons enter by old exit.” Sacramento Union, April 7, 1974.

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