Bill McWilliams appeared in two major-league games for the Boston Red Sox in 1931. That was the start of his professional baseball career. After wrapping up his time in the big leagues, following the four days that embraced his two games, he went to the minor leagues, where he played for 10 seasons. In the minors, he appeared in 1,157 games. He collected almost a hit per game – 1,117 (95 of them home runs) for a career .274 batting average. McWilliams was primarily a third baseman, but in his final season (1941) he played at second base and in the outfield.
Not a lot was known about McWilliams. The National Baseball Hall of Fame maintains a player file of everyone who ever played major-league baseball, and many others associated with the game as well. Some of these files are voluminous. McWilliams’s file contains one page. And that one page is a reproduction of an advertisement placed by SABR offering to waive membership dues for a year for information leading to the whereabouts of McWilliams. Headed, “This Man is WANTED in 50 STATES for BIOGRAPHICAL DETAIL,” the “wanted poster” carries this admonition: “WARNING: DO NOT APPROACH THIS MAN UNLESS ARMED WITH A BIOGRAPHICAL QUESTIONNAIRE.”
We have been able to piece together a little. William Henry McWilliams was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on November 28, 1910. His father, Thomas McWilliams, was manager of the Wales Hotel in Dubuque. His mother, nee Clara Etta Northrup, already had borne two daughters, Ina and Harriet, when they welcomed William to the family.
Ten years later, the McWilliams family was living in Chicago where Thomas McWilliams was now employed as a hotel clerk. Whether this represented a demotion of sorts from his job as a manager a decade earlier, we do not know.
After eighth grade, Bill McWilliams attended De Paul Academy and then spent a year and a half at the University of Iowa. He also played ball on the sandlots of Chicago, where he was scouted even by the legendary John McGraw as he played third base in a game there. An Associated Press dispatch from San Antonio in April 1930 reported McGraw as saying, “His father sent me a nice letter about him. Said he thought maybe the boy had the makings of a ballplayer and wanted me to find out. If not, he’s going to send him back to school. I’m going to do my best to get his name on a contract.”1 McWilliams was described as “a husky lad from the Chicago sandlots” who was able to “make hard ones look easy” around third base.2 McWilliams is listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, blond with blue eyes.
If indeed McGraw tried to get McWilliams’s name on a contract, he apparently did not try hard enough.
His time in professional baseball took him to an extraordinary number of ball clubs in the course of a decade, and affiliations with more than half the big-league clubs of the day. It all began with him coming to the Boston Red Sox straight out of the University of Iowa in the summer of 1931. It was the first year the Red Sox wore uniform numbers. He was issued #27.
The Boston Globe reported that he had “worked out with the Red Sox in Chicago during the recent Western trip and so impressed Manager Collins that he was signed.”3
Collins was Shano Collins, the manager of the Red Sox in 1931. He had taken over as Sox skipper following the disastrous 1930 season in which the team was 52-102, and – with a record that bad — in eighth place. It was the sixth year in a row they’d finished last in the league.
The Sox manager was, in the words of Boston sportswriter Burt Whitman, “frankly and openly…out to get as many new and many promising young men as they can pick up in any hill, corner or dale of the country.”4
McWilliams made his debut in the second game of the July 8 doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Babe Ruth had helped win the first game with his 21st homer of the season; New York won, 13-3. New York had a 6-1 lead after seven. Boston scored two runs in the top of the eighth, and McWilliams had a chance to help add to the total, but when he pinch-hit for Ed Morris, he struck out.
The Red Sox moved on to Washington and had another doubleheader, against the Senators, on July 11. Boston lost both of those games, too. In the first game, McWilliams pinch-hit for pitcher Bob Kline in the top of the ninth. With two men on basehe grounded into a double play and Boston lost, 7-1.
McWilliams lost his chance to impress, not that he was given that much of a chance. He did turn up three years later playing in the major leagues, but it was for Detroit and in another sport — the Detroit Lions of the National Football League.
The team was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak when McWilliams had his two at-bats and Collins was still hopeful of an improved finish in the standings (they did finish in sixth place). Perhaps he simply didn’t see enough hope for a contribution from McWilliams, who had – after all – never even played in the minor leagues.
McWilliams wasn’t used again, and was apparently inconsequential enough that we cannot find mention of his departure from the team in either the Boston Globe or the Boston Herald. He next showed up in baseball the following year.
McWilliams played for three teams in three different leagues in 1932, and two other teams in two other leagues in 1933. He had the most success in 1932 with the Class-A Western League’s Tulsa Oilers, affiliated with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, appearing in 43 games and hitting .248 with five home runs. In Class-B ball, he appeared in 21 games for the Three-I League’s Decatur Commodores (affiliated with the Detroit Tigers) but hit .143 with just two extra-base hits, both triples. And he appeared in one Double-A game, for the St. Paul Saints, with one hitless at-bat.
In 1933, it was Class-C ball with the Middle Atlantic League’s Springfield (Ohio) Chicks, where he hit .359 with 14 homers in 76 games. Springfield was affiliated with the Washington Senators. He also appeared in an even 50 games for the Class-A Williamsport Grays, a Philadelphia Athletics affiliate. He hit .282 with two homers.
By this point, he’d been associated with five different major-league organizations or farm systems.
In 1934, McWilliams spent the first of three seasons with the St. Paul Saints again. The American Association team saw him hit .246 with 13 homers in 140 games.
In the fall of 1934, McWilliams played for another major-league team – the NFL’s Detroit Lions. He’d played a year of football at Iowa before turning to baseball fulltime. He was a wideback on the team, and played in five games (three more than as a big-league baseball player). Alternating with halfback Ernie Caddell, who saw most of the action, he had six attempts to advance the football and gained a total of 16 yards, thus averaging a little less than 2.7 yards per carry. It wasn’t much, but it was a positive contribution at the major-league level which is more than can be said for the strikeout and GIDP he recorded for the Boston Red Sox
He didn’t play football in 1935, but in November 1936 signed with the Chicago Cardinals. He was described at the time as “one of the best kickers in football.”5 He saw no action, however.
“I found baseball and professional football did not mix well,” he said a little more than two years later, “so I had to give up plans for a gridiron career. Baseball’s my game. Chief trouble was that after I’d play baseball all summer, I never really had enough time to get in top shape for football. Consequently, I’d have to take a football pounding before I was ready and was inclined to get injured.”6
McWilliams didn’t appear in any other NFL game, but he did return to the Saints and played 1935 and 1936 there, improving his stats each year over 1934: in 1935, he hit .280 with 13 homers and in 1936, he hit .306 with 14 homers. As it happens, St. Paul was a Chicago White Sox affiliate in 1935 and a Boston Braves affiliate in 1936. That upped his total to seven different major-league baseball team affiliations.
He added an eighth – the Chicago Cubs – in 1937, when he played for three teams in one season again: Dallas, the White Sox affiliate in the Texas League, where he hit .243 in 33 games; Memphis, for 32 games where he hit .269; and the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League (another Cubs affiliate), where he hit .314 with his only homers of the year — nine – in 54 games.
The year 1938 saw him on the move again, with Williamsport once more (36 games, .286), the Hollywood Stars (45 games, .192), and Baltimore in the International League (.133 in 13 games).
In 1939, he was in the Brooklyn Dodgers system, playing the full year for Elmira.(265, 11 homers, 136 games). He played most of 1940 in Springfield, Massachusetts, batting .314 in Eastern League action (111 games), but played 16 games for Dayton (.193).
He began the 1941 season as playing manager for Dayton, but for only part of the season. He hit .236 in 50 games, but he also played for Durham (63 games, .259) and Springfield again (.243 in just 10 games). That was his last season in organized baseball. He had indeed played in 1,157 games, albeit in 14 different uniforms. There were four years in which he had played for three different teams each year. This was a well-traveled ballplayer by the time it was all over.
McWilliams had married on March 29, 1941, to Loraine Kiefer. They had three children – Carol, Thomas, and Frances.
He had started playing baseball on the sandlots of Chicago. After his professional career was over, he ultimately found himself in charge of those same sandlots. He lived in Chicago for 35 years and retired as playground director for the City of Chicago Park District.7
McWilliams retired to Texas, living in Tyler, and died in Garland, Texas, on January 21, 1997. He is buried in Garland.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed McWilliams’s slim player file and his player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), April 2, 1930: 15. Why a letter such as that captured the veteran McGraw’s attention we do not know, though both player and the veteran had surnames that started with “Mc.” Perhaps it was simply a well-written letter than struck McGraw at the time in just the right way.
3 Boston Globe, July 15, 1931: 24.
4 The Sporting News, July 16, 1931: 5.
5 Chicago Tribune, November 5, 1936: 27.
6 Bob Ray, “The Sports X-Ray,” Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1937: A14.
7 Bill Lee, The Baseball Necrology (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2003), 270.