Steamboat Williams

This article was written by Jeremy Watterson

When he debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1914, pitcher Rees “Steamboat” Williams became the first of only 10 men born and raised in the state of Montana to play Major League Baseball.1 In 1916, Williams would lead the National League in games finished. When his playing days were done, Williams retired to the lake country of northern Minnesota where he built two resorts that functioned as summer vacation getaways and fall hunting destinations.

Rees’s German mother, Anna Gephardt, immigrated to America by herself at age 16 around 1869.2 Working in New York for a time, by 1874 Anna was a cook attached to Colonel Nelson A. Miles’s 5th Infantry in Laredo, Texas. After travelling by boat up the Missouri River to Fort Benton, Anna would call Montana home for the rest of her life.3

While working as an Army cook, Anna met a Welsh soldier named William C. Williams.4 Their union produced three children: Elmer J. Williams, born November 16, 1886, a daughter who died when she was quite young, possibly before Rees Gephardt Williams was born in Cascade, Montana, on January 31, 1892. Anna and William divorced a year or two after Rees was born. William Williams was later killed in a coal mine in Pennsylvania.5

On June 8, 1897 Anna married a cattleman, Frank E. Woodworth, in Helena.6 Woodworth had worked alongside Charlie Russell before the cowboy artist laid down the reins and picked up the brushes. The newlyweds made their home on the Woodworth ranch near Adel, Montana.

In 1910 the Woodworth/Williams family was farming near the Soldier Creek Schoolhouse. Around this time, 18-year-old Rees began playing baseball for a team made up of the neighboring ranches against the Cascade town team. Williams would next pitch for Cascade, making the 16-mile horseback ride twice a day for 35 cents pay, which barely fed his horse.7 One of the most ardent supporters of the Cascade ball team was Montana legend “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, the first African American woman to carry the U.S. Mail. “For each game she prepared buttonhole bouquets of flowers for each player from her own garden, with larger bouquets reserved for home-run hitters. Any man speaking ill of the local team in her presence could expect a bouquet of knuckles in his face.”8 In the only known photographs of the Cascade ball team around this time, Fields appears in both, while Williams is absent.

In March of 1912, Rees Williams was at spring camp in Utah with manager George M. Reed’s Great Falls (Montana) team, defending champs of the Union Association. Two weeks later, he was one of five pitchers on staff when the Electrics returned north.9 Williams made his professional debut pitching five innings of relief on opening day. He surrendered two runs on two hits, while striking out three.10 Making his first home start on May 23 against Butte, Williams doubled en route to a 5-3 victory, “his slab work was the biggest feature of the game.”11 Working mainly in relief, Williams appeared in 41 games (40 on the mound). League officials neglected to keep pitching records, but the author’s research shows Williams won at least 14 games. Williams’s .966 fielding percentage placed him fourth among pitchers.12 Despite having two of the top three batters in Howard Murphy and Frank Huelsman, Great Falls finished third in the standings behind Missoula and Salt Lake City.13

Back with Great Falls for 1913, Williams was on the opening day roster for new manager Herb H. Hester.14 Williams and catcher Art “Buck” Weaver made up a pre-season battery on April 2 in front of 1,200 fans in Grand Junction, Colorado, against the Chicago White Sox.15 The first appearance of Williams’s signature nickname shows up in an Ogden newspaper in early April quoting a letter from manager Hester in the Great Falls Tribune. “‘Steamboat’ Williams [is] in the pink of condition and [is] working great.”16 The Missoulian, however, would claim he was more of a mud-scow than a steamboat.17 At one point the author theorized that the origin of the moniker may have been the result of the young hurler showing up to play ball in Great Falls after hitching a ride on one of the many vessels travelling the downstream stretch of the Missouri River from Cascade. If true, the stunt surely would have resulted in some ribbing from his teammates.

Williams won his first start of 1913.18 He went on to win a total of 18 (with four shutouts) for a staff that included four of the league’s top pitchers in Flame Delhi, Bernie Duffy, Williams, and Roswell “Red” “Rube” Hildebrand.19 Williams would be among the top in the league in pitcher’s fielding percentage, committing just one error in 31 games.20

On July 3, Williams pitched a game against Harry Trekell and Missoula in which manager Hester was ejected by umpire Ralph Frary for “violent ravings.” Hester and his fellow Electrics used “language which should not [be] permitted on the field,” as it “hurt[s] the game and cut[s] down on gate receipts.”21 It was reported the next day that Williams had been sold to the St. Louis Cardinals for $2,500.22 Salt Lake City manager John McCloskey recommended Williams to Cardinals skipper Miller Huggins.23 Two days later, “piloted by that effective coal-passer, ‘Steamboat’ Williams,” the Electrics “sailed through nine innings of classy baseball and emerged victorious over” the Missoula Highlanders.24 Two weeks after his sale to the Cardinals, Williams was struck by a line drive for the last out of the eighth inning in a game against the Helena Vigilantes that broke a finger on his throwing hand.25 The papers relayed he would be out of the game for a week, but Williams didn’t return for 17 days. Pitching in his return against Stoney McGlynn and the league-leading Salt Lake City Skyscrapers, Williams allowed only six hits, but two were home runs that came on grooved first pitch fastballs. The first clout by team captain Frank Huelsman was heralded as the hardest hit ball of the season. The second was a game-winning three-run “zowie!” off the bat of McGlynn that hit the roof of a house beyond the outfield fence.26

Trailing Salt Lake for most of the season, Great Falls won the 1913 Union Association pennant in the final week.27 Great Falls’ championship was due at least in part to the deflating total loss of Salt Lake’s $4,000 grandstand in what was believed to be arson. The fire started in multiple locations and eye witnesses described seeing two men fleeing the scene shortly before the alarm sounded. The phone lines and electricity in the vicinity had also been tampered with. A man by the name of A. “Sharkey” Fredding was arrested and held without bail on suspicion of having something to do with the blaze. Fredding and an associate had been kicked out of the ball park earlier in the day.28 Coincidentally, the Electrics were in town and had defeated the Skyscrapers earlier in the afternoon to pull to within half a game.29 Steamboat Williams reported to the Cardinals on September 14 with eight games left in the season including two doubleheaders, but failed to make it into a game.30

All indications point to Williams breaking camp from St. Augustine, Florida, with the Cardinals in 1914, but he didn’t appear in a game until halfway through the season. Working with catcher Frank Snyder in a July 12 blowout at the hands of the Miracle Braves, Williams pitched the last two innings. The rookie walked four while giving up two runs on two base hits, while also collecting his first career strikeout. It would be another 64 days of riding the pines before Williams got into his second game. In another lopsided loss against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Williams was the fourth pitcher utilized by Huggins. He worked the ninth, surrendering two runs on three hits. Williams worked another single inning on September 19 coughing up a run as the Phillies routed St. Louis, 7-0. Steamboat Williams made his first big league start in the second game of a doubleheader on the second-to-last day of the season against the Cubs. Working with catcher Paddy O’Connor, he pitched five innings, giving up three runs on six hits including a homer to Tommy Leach. Williams struck out in his only at bat of the season, as Hippo Vaughan won his 21st game for the Cubs. The following day, Williams was on the mound for the Cardinals as the 1914 campaign came to a close. Working the final frame, he recorded his only scoreless outing in five attempts.

Williams was lent by the Cardinals to the St. Paul Saints for 1915. Appearing in 27 games for manager Mike Kelley, a close friend of Huggins, Williams went 15-6. He posted a career best 2.18 ERA, which was good for third in the American Association. His best effort of the season came on April 19, as he two-hit Milwaukee and the Sporting Life called him, “a recruit twirler.”31 On April 30 Williams hurt his arm. “Reese [sic] ‘Steamboat’ Williams is out of the game for some time to come. While pitching a game for St. Paul the other day he threw out a ligament and, according to reports, is unable to raise his arm, much less pitch.”32 It would be a month and a half before Williams would pitch again, and he lasted just two innings.33 After leading for much of the season, the Saints finished a couple games back of their rivals from downstream, the Minneapolis Millers.

On December 20, 1915, Rees married Percy Augustus “Peg” Fulton at her home at 546 Laurel Avenue in St. Paul. The newlyweds returned to Cascade for the winter.34

Back in camp with the Cardinals in 1916, Sporting Life named Steamboat “one of the pitching finds of the season,”35 as he had “burned up the American Association.”36 Prior to opening day, a two column photograph of Williams ran in the Duluth Herald under the headline, “A.A. Recruit Looks Good to Cardinals.”37 Steamboat Williams appeared in 36 games with the Cardinals in 1916, and would make the record books leading the National League in games finished with 21. The righty, who stood 5-foot-11 and weighed 170 pounds, won his first big league game pitching three scoreless innings of relief on April 24 against the Reds, his teammates plating four runs in the last two frames. His first big league hit came off Boston’s Tom Hughes on May 22. Williams added five complete games, winning two of them, including another game off the Reds on July 5 in which he gave up a single run.

Williams was back with St. Paul in 1917, breaking camp from Beaumont, Texas.38 In an exhibition game on April 7, Williams and the Saints held the Chicago Cubs to four hits for a 2-1 victory.39 Healthy the whole year, Williams enjoyed the best season of his career at age 25. He appeared in 51 games, leading the Saints in wins (22, with at least two shutouts) and innings pitched (265) while posting a 2.82 ERA. St. Paul again finished in second place, this time to Indianapolis.40

Pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1918, newspapermen had fun with the headline, “A Saint now a Brewer.”41 Appearing in just 18 games as World War I cut the American Association season short, Williams was 4-10. At the tail end of July, Williams and teammate Joe Riggert joined the Duluth team in the Twin Ports league.42 Working in the steel town and playing ball in the industrial league, Williams pitched for the Maintenance Men against Rip Hagerman and the Furnace Men at Morgan Park in Duluth, striking out eight in defeat.43

Williams and other former major leaguers became quite the Sunday draw in the north country of Minnesota during the war. Local papers used he and fellow MLB veterans Claude Hendrix and Cy Falkenberg to hype games that were a welcome distraction.44 “Reese [sic] (Steamboat) Williams of the Steel Plant league, who will be one of the Duluth twirlers, is owned by the Milwaukee Brewers and is called the ‘Iron Man.’ This sobriquet was bestowed upon him in 1917 when he pitched sixty-four games for St. Paul. Williams has a heap of ‘smoke’ and a fast hop.”45

1919 saw Williams split time between Milwaukee and the eventual champs in St. Paul. Between the two teams he appeared in 44 games, going 15-18. After toppling the Midwestern competition, the Saints travelled to the west coast to play the Vernon Tigers, champions of the Pacific Coast League.

The best of nine series (same as the World Series at the time) took place on the west coast, as the PCL season finished after that of the AA. The series went the limit. Dan Griner won three games for St. Paul, but Williams’s fellow Union Association alum and Montana product, Wheezer Dell, won the deciding game for Vernon.46 Author R. Scott MacKey summed up the series, “Not only did Vernon players taunt and bait umpires and opponents, they started several fist fights as well. At the close of the series, a riot erupted and American Association umpire Jim Murray was beaten by Vernon fans. Eastern writers labeled the Tigers and their fans ‘thugs’ and ‘hoodlums’ who damaged the good name of baseball.”47

On March 13, 1920, Williams signed back with St. Paul after wintering at his cabin in north Minnesota, logging the land that would eventually become his summer resort and hunting camp, Pine Grove Lodge.48 On June 20, 1920, Williams pitched in the second game of a doubleheader against rival Milwaukee that was witnessed by the largest crowd in Brewers history to date, 14,112.49 From June 26 to July 1, the Saints pitching staff recorded 45 consecutive shutout innings. The 1920 St. Paul Saints are widely regarded as one of the best minor league teams ever assembled. Compiling a record of 115-49 and repeating as American Association champs, they had three pitchers who won more than 20 games, and one who won 19. Williams went 20-6 with a 3.34 ERA over 46 games.

Williams was back with the Saints for his fifth season in 1921, but struggled to a 6-14 record that saw his ERA balloon to 5.17. He pitched some semi-pro games at the close of the season, striking out 10 in as many innings for Milville (Minnesota) against Lake City in late September of 1921.50 Williams later formed half the battery as Young America (Minnesota) shutout St. Cloud for the amateur state title.51

After appearing in four games for the Saints in 1922, Williams “jumped to the outlaw ranks” with Eveleth (Minnesota) of the Mesaba Range league on May 13.52 On August 11 “Steamboat Williams pitched high-class ball all the way, holding Hibbing to six scattered blows and never being in danger.”53 September 15 saw Williams pitch Evelteth to the Mesaba Range league title, scattering three hits while shutting out Hibbing who failed to get a runner past first base.54

Williams’s major league record of 6-8 is dwarfed by his minor league achievements. He appeared in 305 minor league games, earning at least 116 victories over eight seasons.55

Steamboat Williams was an arm-for-hire in the competitive semi-pro leagues so popular in Minnesota until at least 1924. His last engagement appears to have been with Stillwater in the Friendly Valley league. In 1925, he and wife Peg seem to have settled into the lake life at Pine Grove Lodge on the south shore of Sand Lake near Max, Minnesota.

In 1945 Williams sold Pine Grove Lodge, or lost it in a card game—the story depends on who you talk to—and built Sand Lake Lodge near Deer River, Minnesota.56 While living across the inlet of Sand Lake at his newly built cabin, Rees told Pine Grove’s new owner, Roger McDonald (once removed from the card game), that the origin of his nickname came not from the ball field or time spent on the Missouri River, but from his ability to put away a steaming boatload of mashed potatoes at the supper table.57

Peg died May 19, 1972, and her husband followed on June 29, 1979 at age 87. The pair lay buried at Olivet Cemetery in Deer River, Minnesota, under a common headstone depicting the outdoor life they enjoyed so well.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Skylar Browning and verified for accuracy by the BioProject fact-checking team.

 

Notes

1 The first Montanan to suit up with a MLB team is irrefutably Cincinnati mascot and Marysville native, Frank James ‘Brownie’ Burke. Though born elsewhere, some would argue that Alex Remneas or Wheezer Dell could lay claim to the distinction of being the first Montanan to make the majors. Newspapers of their day would also hail Jimmy St. Vrain and Jack Kibble as the first Montana boys to make good. The ten who were born and raised in Big Sky Country: Jeff Ballard, Tyler Graham, Rob Johnson, Joe McIntosh, Dave McNally, Kameron Mickolio, Jim Otten, Herb Plews, Curt Schmidt, and Williams. Two other men weren’t born in Montana but played high school ball there: Les Rohr and John Leister.

2 "Montana, County Births and Deaths, 1840-2004," database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:33S7-9B2L-CC?cc=1930397&wc=Q678-... : 20 October 2015), Lewis and Clark > Birth certificates 1868-1889 vol 10 > image 496 of 645; citing various county recorder offices.

3 Anna died in 1929, and is buried along with her husband Frank at Hillside Cemetery north of Cascade.

4 Wm. C. Williams was born in 1852.

5 Rowe, Jean Conrad, “Mountains and Meadows,” Blue Print & Letter Company. Great Falls, Montana, 1970.

6 According to records available on familysearch.org, Anna, age 32 of Cascade, born in Germany divorced daughter of John Geppert, and Rose Pelvat wed Frank Woodworth, age 34, born in Sterling, Ilinois. Son of Leonard Woodworth, and Neattie Jenkins. Frank passed away in 1921 and buried along with his wife at Hillside Cemetery north of Cascade. "Montana, County Marriages, 1865-1950," database with images, FamilySearch(https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:F3QS-GTB : 7 December 2014), Frank E. Woodworth and Anna Geppert, 08 Jun 1897; citing Marriage, Helena, Lewis and Clark, Montana, county courthouses, Montana; FHL microfilm 1,906,339.

7 Rowe, Jean Conrad, “Mountains and Meadows,” Blue Print & Letter Company. Great Falls, Montana, 1970.

8 George Everett, “Mary Fields: Female Pioneer in Montana,” Wild West Magazine, February 1996.

9 “Great Falls Will Train in Zion,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 31, 1912; “Baseball Notes,” Evening Standard, April 6, 1912.

10 “Great Falls Defeated by Zion,” Evening Standard, April 15, 1912.

11 “Young Pitcher Makes Good,” Evening Standard, May 24, 1912; “New Catcher and Young Williams Form an Effective Battery,” Salt Lake Tribune, May 24, 1912.

12 “Official Averages of Players in Union Association,” Salt Lake Tribune, November 10, 1912; Sporting Life, “The Union Association,” November 30, 1912.

13 “Union’s 1912 Season Closes; Salt Lake is Second in Race,” Salt Lake Tribune, September 9, 1912.

14 “Roster of Union Association Clubs to Date,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 30, 1913; “Revised Roster of Union Association Clubs,” Evening Standard, April 23, 1913; “Union Association News,” Sporting Life, May 3, 1913.

15 “Great Falls Shut Out,” Evening Standard, April 4, 1913.

16 “Electrics Are Getting In Form,” Evening Standard, April 11, 1913.

17 “As for Steamboat,” Daily Missoulian, July 3, 1913.

18 “Salt Lakers Meet with Defeat,” Ogden Standard, May 1, 1913.

19 “The Union Association,” Sporting Life, November 22, 1913.

20 Ibid.

21 “Hester’s Violent Ravings Cost Great Falls a Game,” Daily Missoulian, July 3, 1913.

22 “Two Games Today,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 4, 1913; “The Union Association,” Sporting Life, July 19, 1913.

23 “National League News in Short Metre,” Sporting Life, September 27, 1913.

24 “Succession of Bad Boots Gives Electrics Another,” Daily Missoulian, July 6, 1913.

25 “Great Falls Loses to Helena,” Ogden Standard, July 16, 1913; “Great Falls Takes First from Ogden,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 23, 1913; “The Union Association,” Sporting Life, August 2, 1913.

26 “M’Glynn Hits Over Fence, Winning Game,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 2, 1913.

27 “Salt Lake Put Out of Race by Ogden,” Ogden Standard, September 11, 1913.

28 “Grandstand at Ball Grounds Destroyed, Ogden Standard, September 6, 1913.

29 “Big Grandstand at Ball Park Destroyed,” Salt Lake Tribune, September 6, 1913.

30 “Cardinal Changes,” Sporting Life, September 13, 1913; Rowe, Jean Conrad, “Mountains and Meadows,” Blue Print & Letter Co. Great Falls, Montana, 1970; “The Union Associaion,” Sporting Life, July 19, 1913; “National League News in Short Metre,” Sporting Life, September 27, 1913.

31 “American Association,” Sporting Life, May 1, 1915.

32 “Bees Didn't Quit Like Some of Rooters-y Plugged on and Won,” Salt Lake Telegram, May 5, 1915.

33 “American Ass’n,” Sporting Life, June 26, 1915.

34 “Williams Takes St. Paul Bride,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, December 21, 1915.

35 “In National League Camps,” Sporting Life, April 8, 1916.

36 “St. Louis Cardinals,” Sporting Life, January 22, 1916.

37 “A.A. Recruit Looks Good to Cardinals,” Duluth Herald, April 18, 1916.

38 “Sport Summery,” Grand Forks Herald, March 7, 1917.

39 “St. Paul Noses Out Cubs; Wilson Hurt,” Tulsa Daily World, April 8, 1917.

40 “Team Standing,” Tulsa Daily World, September 18, 1917.

41 “Saint Now Brewer,” El Paso Herald, February 14, 1918; “A Saint Now a Brewer,” Washington Herald, February 19, 1918.

42 “Two Association Men Coming to Steel Town,” Duluth Herald, July 30, 1918.

43 “Charley Hall Finishes Season with Detroit,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, July 30, 1918; “Big Mound Men In Fast Game,” Duluth Herald, August 5, 1918.

44 Duluth Herald, September 20, 1918.

45 Sandy Macdonald, “Batting Champions Will Swat in Superior-Duluth Contest; Many Star Performers Are In Lineups,” Duluth Herald, September 18, 1918.

46 “Association Has Enough of Post-Season Series,” Chattanooga News, October 28, 1919.

47 MacKey, R. Scott, Barbary Baseball: The Pacific Coast League of the 1920s (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2001).

48 “Rees Williams to Play with Saints,” Duluth Herald, March 13, 1920.

49 “Milwaukee Splits With St. Paul Before 14, 112,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 21, 1920.

50 “Hot One Taken By Millville,” Wabasha County Herald, September 22, 1921.

51 “Happenings in Gopher State,” Caledonia Argus, October 7, 1921.

52 “Pitcher Jumps to Eveleth,” Duluth Herald, May 13, 1922.

53 “Steamboat Williams Holds Hibbing While Eveleth Wins,” Duluth Herald, August 11, 1922.

54 “Eveleth Hurler Allows 3 Hits in Title Contest,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 16, 1922.

55 Stan Johnson, “When We Were New,” Oral Interview dated March 13, 1976; At age 84, Williams told Johnson that he played with Chattanooga, and with Des Moines in the Western League before it “finally got so I couldn’t throw a baseball so good anymore.” Baseball-reference has a Williams with the 1923 Des Moines Boosters (Western League) who went 2-1 over 10 games.
Online records indicate Williams suited up for a single game in 1924 for the Birmingham Barons, but the author could find nothing about how or why.

56 Conversation with Sand Lake Lodge proprietor, Wayne Gerlitz, September 11, 2017; Conversation with Pine Grove Lodge proprietor Wayne Wahlstrom, September 20, 2017; Rowe, Jean Conrad, “Mountains and Meadows,” Blue Print & Letter Company. Great Falls, Montana, 1970.

57 Conversation with Pine Grove Lodge proprietor Wayne Wahlstrom, September 20, 2017; letter dated October, 4, 1991in the Pine Grove Lodge collection signed by Joan.