Right-handed pitcher Al Williams was once traded for his future manager. His career was cut short by a sore arm and his life was cut short by a car wreck.
Almon Edward Williams was born on May 11, 1914, in Valhermoso Springs, a North Alabama hamlet near Huntsville. He was the youngest of eight children born to Wallace Williams and Ada Cordelia Burrell. Six of the children survived to adulthood. Wallace was a Cherokee whose family had taken refuge in the highlands of Virginia, Tennessee, and Alabama to escape the Trail of Tears, when most of the tribe was forcibly removed to a reservation in the nineteenth century. Ada was one-quarter Indian, but mostly Irish, a blue-eyed blonde. Their son Al’s hair was so light that he was called “Snow” when he was a boy. It turned light brown as he grew up.
Scratching for a living, Wallace moved to Ellis County, Texas, a leading cotton-producing area, around 1921 and found work as a tenant farmer. While the family was always poor, their prospects turned even grimmer when Wallace was badly hurt by a tornado in the late 1920s. He never recovered his health and died a week before Christmas, 1932. His older sons supported the family, but the teenaged Al attracted notice for his baseball and basketball talent.
Bardwell High School boosters offered Ada a free place to live if she would move to the town so her youngest son could play for its teams. Al grew to be a lanky 6-foot-3 and was a star in both sports. He drew college scholarship offers but had to go to work to contribute to the family finances. He picked up a few extra dollars playing semipro baseball and basketball.
In 1933 Paul Richards, the second-string catcher for the World Series champion New York Giants, who lived in nearby Waxahachie, invited Al to join his offseason semipro basketball team. Al agreed to play—if Richards would become his pitching coach. There was little money to be made in basketball, but an athlete could make a living in baseball—a handsome living if he advanced to the major leagues. In 1933, at the bottom of the Great Depression, the rookie Richards earned $4,500 and collected a World Series share that doubled his salary—equivalent to more than $150,000 in 2008.
Williams played basketball for Richards during the next two winters. Richards later became a big-league manager who was renowned for his magic touch with pitchers. Williams was one of his first projects. Richards recommended the 20-year-old to Earl Mann, president of the Atlanta Crackers in the Class A Southern Association. Atlanta signed Williams and farmed him out to the Portsmouth Truckers of the Class B Piedmont League.
In his first professional season, 1935, Williams recorded an 11-9 record with a 3.21 ERA for the Truckers, and won one game for Atlanta after a late-season call-up. Despite Williams’s inexperience, Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics was interested. Paul Richards had been traded to the A’s, but he did not get along with the venerable manager. Between baseball seasons Richards wrote a sports column for the Waxahachie newspaper. On December 5, 1935, he told his readers how he had recruited “Ichabod” Williams, then added, “The climax of this real-life drama was written just the other day when a bulletin from the Philadelphia Athletics baseball club briefly announced the following: ‘Paul Richards, A’s catcher, has been traded to Atlanta for Almon Williams.’”
Mack sent Williams back to Atlanta in 1936. The Southern Association was just two steps below the majors, classified 1-A. (AA was the highest level then.) With Richards as the catcher and cleanup hitter, the Crackers won 25 of their first 30 games and cruised to their second straight pennant. By midseason Williams’s record was 9-2 and he had reeled off a streak of 24 consecutive scoreless innings. He finished 17-7 with a 3.32 ERA, fifth best in the league.
Atlanta faced fourth-place New Orleans in the first round of the postseason playoffs. In the opening game, Williams relieved starter Bud Thomas in the seventh and pitched no-hit ball the rest of the way as Atlanta won, 7-4. He relieved again in the third game, but was touched for three runs in an 8-1 loss. With New Orleans leading the series three games to one, Williams started the crucial Game Five and was the losing pitcher as the Pelicans eliminated the pennant winners.
The 23-year-old Williams was one of several rookie pitchers Connie Mack took to spring training in Mexico City in 1937. Philadelphia had finished last for two straight years, but Mack said, “I think we’ve got a chance. Not a chance to win the pennant, but a chance to surprise a lot of people who think we’ll be doormats.” The club had a decent outfield of Bob Johnson, Wally Moses, and Lou Finney, with the speedy Bill Werber at third base, but they were surrounded by a cast of youngsters and aging journeymen.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt threw out the first ball when the Athletics opened the season at Washington on April 19. Mack’s starter, rookie Edgar Smith, gave up three runs in the first three innings. Williams relieved and shut out the Senators until the A’s won it in the tenth. In a post-game radio interview, Williams asked the announcer, “Can they hear this down in Waxahachie, Texas?” The announcer assured him they could. Williams cracked, “Hello, Mom.”
Williams got his first start five days later and beat the Senators again, 6-4. United Press sportswriter George Kirksey described the rookie: “Long skinny Texan with an arm of steel. Developed control throwing rocks at jackrabbits near his home in Waxahachie.” (Kirksey, who came from Hillsboro, Texas, near Waxahachie, was later a prime mover in bringing major-league baseball to his home state as part-owner of the Houston Colt .45s.)
Williams and fellow rookie pitchers George Caster and Bud Thomas helped boost the surprising A’s into first place. They stayed there until May 23, then crashed into a 3-26 streak that dropped them to the bottom of the standings. George Kirksey had gotten one thing wrong: Waxahachie’s jackrabbits had little to fear because Williams’s control was atrocious. He was demoted to the bullpen after just three starts and was optioned to Atlanta in June.
Williams posted a 4-5 record for the Crackers with a 5.59 ERA before Mack called him back up in September. He started five times in the final month, winning twice. He finished with a 4-1 record for the A’s, but his ERA was 5.38 and he walked 49 batters in 75 1/3 innings. The club lost 97 games and finished seventh.
When 1938’s spring camp opened in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Mack said, “We will have some problems, but there is much about this team to give me encouragement. … Right now I wouldn’t trade our pitching staff for anybody in the league except possibly Cleveland’s.” The Lean Leader was again blowing smoke to try to sell some tickets. He was headed back to the bottom of the standings.
After opening the season in the bullpen, Williams got his first start on May 18 against Cleveland’s 19-year-old sensation, Bob Feller. Williams gave up four runs in three innings as the Indians beat Philadelphia, 7-2. He pitched poorly in his next three starts and went back to relief work for most of the rest of the season. He did his part for the Athletics’ 53-99 record; he lost all seven of his decisions. In 93 1/3 innings he walked 54, struck out just 25, and posted a 6.94 ERA. By September his “arm of steel” was hurting and the “hard-luck curver” was sent home before the season ended. His big-league career was over at age 24.
Williams had used some of his baseball earnings to buy a gas station in San Augustine, Texas, that was run by his older brothers Herman and Garland. Herman’s wife, Audrey Nichols, had grown up near the Williamses in Waxahachie. Al fell in love with Audrey’s beautiful younger sister, Ruby. She was not yet 19 when they eloped and were married just before spring training in 1939.
Philadelphia sold Williams to Washington and the Senators sent him back to the Southern Association with their Chattanooga farm club. The Lookouts, managed by the future Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler, locked in a seesaw pennant race with Atlanta, Memphis, and Nashville. Williams got off to a strong start and made the midseason All-Star team. He took his new bride with him on a trip to Atlanta, where he had pitched in parts of three seasons and had spent several winters playing semipro basketball. Ruby was shocked when the Atlanta fans booed him as he walked onto the field at Ponce de Leon Park. Ruby remembers her husband taunting the crowd by pointing to the scoreboard and forming his fingers into a zero. Then he shut out the home team.
He finished with a 14-9 record and a 2.86 ERA as Chattanooga won the pennant by 1½ games and the players split an $8,000 bonus. Williams started the opener of the first-round playoff series against fourth-place Atlanta, but was knocked out in a five-run second inning as the Crackers won, 6-2. Atlanta went on to sweep the Lookouts in three games.
The next spring, Williams’s elbow became so painful that he could not pitch. After a succession of doctors failed to heal his arm, he went to work for the Gulf Oil Corporation in Port Arthur, Texas, and joined the company’s baseball and basketball teams. He did not play professional ball in 1940. In 1941 he tried to come back with the Port Arthur club in the Class D Evangeline League. He compiled a 6-4 record with a 3.21 ERA. Paul Richards, now managing Atlanta, gave his protégé a tryout, but Williams did not stick with the Crackers.
He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, stationed at Ellington Field in Houston. Al and Ruby’s only child, Nelda, was born in 1943. Williams went back to his job at the Gulf refinery after the war. He was looking forward to retiring to his farm in San Augustine. But in July 1969 he was injured in a car crash while riding with a friend. He died in the hospital at Groves, Texas, on July 19, 1969, at the age of 55. Al Williams is buried at Shiloh Cemetery in San Augustine County.
This article is adapted from Warren Corbett’s The Wizard of Waxahachie: Paul Richards and the End of Baseball As We Knew It, to be published in 2009 by Southern Methodist University Press.
The Sporting News, various issues.
The Daily Light, Waxahachie, Texas, 12/5/1935.
United Press/Logansport, Indiana, Pharos-Tribune, 5/13/1937.
Nelda Williams Columbo, e-mails, August 2008.