SABR

Dewey Williams

This article was written by Terry Bohn.

Right-handed-hitting catcher Dewey Williams played in parts of five major-league seasons, including 59 games with the Chicago Cubs’ last World Series team, in 1945. He had a reputation as an outstanding defensive catcher. When he was signed by the Cubs in 1944, a newspaper reported, “Dewey Williams throws so swiftly and accurately from a squat that he is the best catcher since Gabby Hartnett.”1

However, throughout his career he had difficulty hitting major-league pitching and was often described as a “light-hitting receiver.” When he was acquired by Seattle of the Pacific Coast League after his major-league career ended, a local sportswriter provided an apt description of Williams’s skills: “He is a smart, aggressive catcher, a good handler of pitchers, and the owner of a strong throwing arm. He is also the owner of a weak bat.”2

Dewey Edgar Williams was born on February 5, 1916, to James Stanton and Callie (Mathews) Williams in Durham, North Carolina. James worked in a textile mill, first as a laborer, then as a machinist, and later as a watchman. Dewey had an older brother, James, and two younger sisters, Margaret and Doris. He was raised and educated in Durham, where he developed a love of baseball. Williams played high-school and American Legion baseball but was originally passed up by professional scouts because, at 6 feet but only 160 pounds, he was considered too lanky to be a catcher.

In 1937 Williams was signed by the Macon, Georgia, team in the South Atlantic League. He began as an outfielder under manager Milt Stock, but when given the opportunity to catch, was able to showcase his defensive skills. He hit a respectable .272 in his first season. One of the people who saw him play was Paul Richards, the player-manager of the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association and was a former big-league catcher who later became a major-league manager and general manager. Williams played in 14 games for the Crackers at the end of the 1937 season. He continued in 1938 with the Crackers, who finished in first place with a 91-62 record. He missed about a month of the season after undergoing an operation to remove his appendix. He played in 75 games, batting .251.

As the Southern League champion, Atlanta faced Beaumont of the Texas League in the postseason Dixie Series. The baseball used by the Southern League had stitching that was raised higher than the ball used by the Texas League. On October 9, in a game in Beaumont, the Texas League ball was being used. Cracker pitcher Leo Moon was having trouble gripping the foreign ball, leading to difficulty controlling his breaking pitches.

A Beaumont batter hit a foul ball down left-field line, where Williams was warming up another pitcher. Williams, either accidentally or intentionally, exchanged baseballs. Now using the more familiar Southern League ball, Moon induced the next batter to hit into a double play, and Atlanta went on the win the game.

Williams played for Richards and the Crackers for the next two seasons. Richards still caught regularly and Williams served as his backup. Dewey also demonstrated his versatility. During his stint in Atlanta he played every position except shortstop and pitcher. Injuries and illness limited him to 29 games in 1939. Williams missed some time in June because of a knee injury, and in August he was hospitalized for what was described as an infected throat.3 Fully healthy in 1940, Williams batted .259 in 99 games for Atlanta.

Williams married Martha Helen Marrs, a nurse, in Decatur, Georgia, on October 29, 1939. In 1941 they had a daughter, Catherine, and the couple divorced sometime in the early 1950s.

Connie Mack, the manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, thought Williams might be his catcher in the future. In December 1940 Mack traded Flea Clifton, a former major-league infielder now playing for an Athletics farm team, to Atlanta for Williams and assigned the catcher to the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Athletics’ affiliate in the International League. Williams struggled at the plate, batting just .170 in 20 games, and was sent down to Williamsport of the Eastern League where he finished the season.

Because Toronto, now affiliated with the Pittsburgh organization, was short of catchers because of wartime manpower shortages, Williams started the 1942 season with the Maple Leafs. Again he struggled with the bat and was farmed out, spending the rest of the year with Elmira in the Eastern League. But Maple Leafs manger Burleigh Grimes liked Williams and he responded with a strong season in Toronto in 1943, hitting .241 in 89 games. Grimes called Williams “one of the best throwing catchers I ever saw.”4 Williams always credited Grimes and Paul Richards as being the two men most responsible for his success in baseball.

Williams began the 1944 season at Toronto very strong, hitting .313 by late June. The Chicago Cubs were in desperate need of a catcher, having lost their three main catchers, Clyde McCullough, Bob Scheffing, and Mickey Livingston, to military service. Williams’ first manager in Macon, Milt Stock, was now a Cubs coach, and he recommended Williams. The Cubs purchased Williams from Toronto for $25,000 on June 27, and immediately he became the team’s regular backstop. He led National League catchers in caught-stealing percentage throwing out 23 of 46 baserunners (50 percent).

In 1945 Mickey Livingston returned from the service, and he and Williams platooned most of the season, with Dewey usually getting the start against left-handed pitchers. He batted .280, by far his major-league high. When not playing he contributed to the team in other ways; he was considered to be the team’s best bench jockey.5 Williams was behind the plate when the Cubs clinched the 1945 pennant with a 4-3 victory over Pittsburgh on September 29. He had entered the game as a late-inning defensive replacement, and in the ninth the Pirates had runners at second and third with two outs. Williams called for a curve from relief pitcher Paul Erickson, who struck out pinch-hitter Tom O’Brien to end the game and send the Cubs to the World Series.

Livingston and Paul Gillespie did the catching for the Cubs in the World Series. Williams made just two appearances. In Game Five he pinch hit for shortstop for Lennie Merullo and struck out against Hal Newhouser. In the tenth inning of Game Six he replaced Livingston behind the plate and caught the last three innings. He grounded out to second against Dizzy Trout to lead off the 12th inning in his only plate appearance. Later in the inning, Stan Hack hit an RBI double to give the Cubs an 8-7 win and tie the Series. Williams watched from the bullpen as the Tigers won Game Seven, 9-3, to take the Series.

In Game Seven many of the Cubs players disagreed with manager Charlie Grimm’s decision to start sore-armed Hank Borowy. Williams warmed Borowy up in the bullpen and said, “He just don’t have it. If he pitches, there goes our money.” Borowy was knocked out in the first inning and Williams took it upon himself to warm up reliever Hy Vandenberg. Instead, Grimm brought in Paul Derringer who, according to Williams, “got the shit knocked out of him” and surrendered three more runs.6 Chicago was now down five runs in the first inning, a deficit the Cubs would not be able to overcome.

Williams went to spring training with the Cubs on Catalina Island, California, in 1946, but with their three main catchers back from World War II, he did not make the team. He was optioned to the Cubs’ top minor-league team, Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League, where he spent most of the season. When the Cubs’ top catcher, Clyde McCullough, broke his finger in late August, Williams was recalled, but he played in just four games.

He found himself buried in the depth chart among Cub catchers in 1947, but was with the team on Opening Day, April 15, the day Jackie Robinson was scheduled to make his major league debut. Outfielder Dixie Walker, Robinson’s teammate with the Dodgers, opposed allowing Robinson to play, and contacted players from other teams in the National League about going on strike if Robinson played. According to a 1997 ESPN report, if Robinson took the field, Walker was to send a signal to the other teams to initiate the strike.7

The facts about the alleged strike plot remain in dispute. Williams told ESPN he and his Cub teammates were waiting for a call from Walker, confirming that Robinson had taken the field. Williams was quoted as saying “Everybody in the clubhouse was sitting around waiting for Dixie to call, which we thought for sure he was going to do.”8 Walker never called and the Cubs played their opener against the Pirates in Pittsburgh.

A few days later Williams, who hadn’t played in a Cubs game yet that season, was optioned to Rochester of the International League. Despite hitting just .221 in 71 games, he got one more shot at the major leagues. Early in the 1948 season, Cincinnati’s regular catcher, Ray Mueller, broke his ankle, and Williams was purchased by the Reds. He played in 48 games, hitting just .168. This wrapped up Williams’s five-year major-league career, in which he batted.233 in 193 games.

While with the Reds, Williams served one of the more unusual suspensions in baseball history. In a game against Brooklyn on July 17, he threw wild to second base trying to cut down a base stealer but contended that he was interfered with by the batter, Gil Hodges. Williams turned around and grabbed home-plate umpire Frank Dascoli in order to plead his case, and was ejected from the game. He was suspended for five days by National League President Ford Frick. However, because Cincinnati had only one other healthy catcher, Ray Lamanno, Frick allowed Williams to remain with the team in uniform and be ready to come into the game if Lamanno was injured. Dewey served out his suspension sitting in the clubhouse, reading the newspaper, and listening to the games on the radio.9

At the end of the 1948 season, Cincinnati sold Williams to Tulsa of the Texas League. In what was now becoming a common theme, the Reds said, “Williams played well defensively last season, but could not hit major-league pitching.” He hit .271 for Tulsa in 1949 and was drafted by Seattle of the Pacific Coast League after the season. In Seattle he was reunited with his former manager, Paul Richards. Williams was now having trouble with Triple-A pitching, and after hitting .196 in 17 games with Seattle, he was shipped back to Tulsa. For the next four seasons, Williams bounced around in the minor leagues, playing for Tulsa again in 1951, Milwaukee in 1952, Toledo in 1953, and Memphis in 1954 before getting his release from Memphis in midseason.

After his release a friend told Williams about a semipro league in North Dakota and the province of Manitoba. The four-team Manitoba-Dakota, or ManDak, League, included Minot and Williston, North Dakota, and Brandon and Carmen, Manitoba. The teams in the ManDak League were made up of former major and minor leaguers, stars from the old Negro League, college stars, and local talent. Williams signed with the Williston Oilers in 1954. To supplement his meager semipro salary he also worked with the National Tank Company as a roustabout in the area’s booming oil business.

Shortly after his arrival in Williston, Williams was involved in a knifing incident that nearly cost him his life. On August 20, 1954, he was attacked by two assailants on the city’s main street, receiving stab wounds to his chest and abdomen. He was hospitalized under 24-hour police guard, and remained in serious condition for some time before recovering. One of the attackers, Paul Jackson, described as a drifter from Tennessee, later pleaded guilty to assault and battery and was sentenced to one year in the state penitentiary.10

There remains some mystery about the incident. Shortly after the stabbing, Williams acknowledged knowing Jackson and said the attack arose from a “personal grudge.” Williams said, “He’s been following me for a month or more. I know he was hired to do it.” Williams added that Jackson “showed up in Toledo where I visited after leaving the Memphis ball club … then he followed me here.” He also acknowledged knowing more than he would say, but was holding back some details “to protect members of his family.”11

Williams played for the Minot Mallards in 1955 and 1956, but returned to Williston for the 1957 season. The ManDak League folded after that season, and Williston became a team in the semipro Western Canada League in 1958 and the Canadian-American League in 1959. Williams remained with the Oilers during those two years but after the 1959 season, now over 40 years old, he retired from baseball.

On September 21, 1957, Williams married Jackie Nichols, a woman with three young children whom he legally adopted. Shortly thereafter, Catherine, his daughter from his first marriage, came to live with them. He found employment with Montana Dakota Utilities and worked part-time for the Williston Parks and Recreation Board umpiring baseball games in the evenings and on weekends before retiring in 1982.

Williams enjoyed retirement while remaining involved with civic activities in the community. He was an avid gardener and spent time at his lake cabin, where he enjoyed the wildlife and water birds. He was a Master Mason, a Shriner, and a member of the local Elks and Moose lodges. He and his wife were members of First Union Church, were he was an active participant, especially with the youth of the congregation.

In 1980 Williams attended a reunion of the 1945 World Series team in Chicago. There was a banquet, and an old timer’s game between the 1945 Cubs and the 1945 Tigers. (The Cubs lost to the Tigers again.) Williams, now nearing 65 years old, was the only former Cubs catcher on hand, so he had to catch all three innings.

In 1984 and 1989, the Cubs won the National League Eastern Division championship and plans were made to fly Williams and the other surviving 1945 Cubs players to Chicago for the World Series. However, the Cubs were eliminated in the League Championship Series both times, so those plans were canceled.

Williams died on March 19, 2000, at the age of 84. He was survived by his wife, Jackie, and his four children, daughters Catherine and Penny and sons Steve and Al. At the time of his death Dewey had 13 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. He was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Williston.

Dewey Williams was remembered for giving helpful advice about baseball to many of the young boys in the Williston area. One of the youngsters, a tall, gangly pitcher, went on to pitch at the University of North Dakota and with the Mobridge (South Dakota) Lakers in the Basin League. The youngster, Phil Jackson, never played major-league baseball, but became better known for his career in basketball as a player and coach of the world champion Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers.

 

Sources

Kurt Eriksmoen, “Chicago Cubs Catcher Lived in N.D. for 46 Years,” Bismarck (North Dakota) Tribune, December 23, 2007.

Dewey Williams player file, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York.

Email correspondence with Williams’s daughter, Penny Borg.

Ancestry.com.

Familyseasrch.org.

 

Notes

1 Baton Rouge (Louisiana) State Times Advocate, July 21, 1944.

2 Seattle Daily Times, December 7, 1949.

3 The Sporting News, August 17, 1939.

4 The Sporting News, September 23, 1943.

5 The Sporting News, September 27, 1945.

6 Bruce Allen Rubenstein, Chicago in the World Series,1903-2005: The Cubs and White Sox in Championship Play (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006), 180.

7 ESPN first aired the story on February 28, 1997. Keith Obermann repeated this information on his CNBC show, Countdown, on April 13, 2007.

8 Bangor (ME) Daily News, “Players Planned Strike at Robinson’s 1st Game”, February 28, 1997.

9 The Sporting News, July 28, 1948.

10 Milwaukee Sentinel, January 18, 1955.

11 Aberdeen (South Dakota) American News, August 22, 1954.

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