This article was written by Dixie Tourangeau
A cursory glance at Jimmy Williams’ record does not capture his colorful 20-year path through minor- and major-league play. His final statistics reflect a slightly above-average player — but his solid career was speckled with historic participation and achievements, including one possibly unbreakable record.
James Thomas Williams was born on December 20, 1876, in St. Louis, Missouri. His parents, David L. and Mary A. Williams, were both born in Wales. Within three years. the family (which then included children Maggie, Dave Jr., James, and Lizzie) moved to Denver, Colorado. Breadwinner David first ran a coffee and spice shop, according to the 1880 U.S. Census. Another sibling, Victoria, was born in 1881.
After a childhood of sandlot ball in the Mile High City, teenaged Jimmy made his way 110 miles south to Pueblo as early as 1892. He joined a semipro club there called the Rovers, an offshoot of the town’s Rover Wheel and Athletic Club. Outside of Denver, bustling Pueblo was a baseball hotbed in the Centennial State, which was less than five months older than Williams himself. Growing mining and ranching communities brought recreation into focus; baseball was part of that mix with horseracing, cycling, and boxing.
By 1895 Williams was the Rovers’ regular third baseman. It was a paid squad that played on weekends and featured the keystone duo of Zack and Bill Dean, African-American brothers who had been playing for the Pueblo Blues, a black team. Colorado was an oasis of integrated play at the time.
Pueblo’s seven league opponents took repeated pastings as Williams’ bat improved and his handling of balls at third base brought him local acclaim. His grand slam during the 20 to 2 crushing of the Central City Gilpins inspired this in the Pueblo Daily Chieftain game notes, “Jimmy soaks it harder than anyone when he hits it on the nose. If he would wait a little better and not go after so many bad ones, he would be as reliable a hitter as anyone on the team.”
Williams was still only 18. He also played for the Streetcar Employees team, a clue as to his weekday job. In September it was noted, “Jimmy gets more solid with the crowd every game. Batting, fielding and baserunning, Jim is strong in all departments.” But after a mid-September game the Rovers won 11 to 10, it was noted that Williams “failed to get a hit mostly because he was too anxious to kill the ball.” The Rovers ended 19 and 2, and Williams ranked third on the club in average and extra-base hits.
Williams was back with Pueblo in 1896 in a six-team league that slowly dissolved. Pueblo won its share thanks to his numerous home runs and the team’s good pitching, but by early August only Leadville survived. Williams traveled there and joined the Blues in the mineral-rich high country. In August Leadville journeyed 400 miles south to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to play its “Browns.” Third sacker Williams was hitless but “had a whip that sent the ball across the diamond like lightning,” said the Daily Citizen. Leadville won 14 to 4. Albuquerque took the next four games but Williams impressed the crowd with his bat and fielding. In mid-October Albuquerque residents got ready to celebrate the city’s “Carnival of Sports,” several days of activities including a seven-game baseball series with a Texas League all-star squad from El Paso. Williams was invited to join the host Browns and settled in at the hot corner.
In late March 1897 Williams found himself on the professional roster of the St. Joseph, Missouri, Saints of the Western Association. This unstable league then comprised four Iowa teams, three from Illinois and St. Joe, the westernmost member. The Saints had disbanded the previous July while cemented in last place for a second season.. St. Joe was known as a farm club for the Kansas City Blues of the higher-grade Western League, managed by former big-leaguer Jim Manning.
Williams played third base in preseason games and started the year in right field, but after the first series with rival Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he became the Saints’ shortstop. Williams drilled a dozen home runs in his first 20 May games and added ten more by July 1. He was simply “Homerun” Williams to Saints rooters. In July he slumped and also suffered an ankle injury. Yet by season’s end, he had belted 31 homers and more than 60 extra-base hits overall. As he reached the majority age of 21, he was a stocky five-feet nine and 175 pounds. “Button” was a seldom-used early nickname that referred to his height.
Manning secured Williams for 1898 and his bat powered the Blues from seventh place to the Western League pennant (88–51). His .343 batting average was second in the league behind teammate Jimmy Slagle’s .378 mark.
By 1899 the easygoing, heartland-raised Williams was a known commodity: he could hit, run, and field. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Bill Watkins was looking for new blood for his becalmed crew. For the 1899 season he found five buried treasures. Williams came aboard with Wisconsin flychaser Clarence “Ginger” Beaumont and hurlers Sam Leever, Jack Chesbro, and Tom “Tully” Sparks. William Gray had covered third base for Pittsburgh in 1898 but hit only .232 and fielded a poor .882. With the arrival of Williams, Gray moved back to the minors.
Watkins himself was promoted “upstairs” after 22 games and outfielder Patsy Donovan became manager. He saw Williams (.354) and Beaumont (.352) put on one of the greatest rookie hitting displays in baseball history. Williams’ average placed fifth in the NL, behind four future Hall of Famers. He was also third in slugging, home runs (9), hits, and total bases. Only veteran slugger Ed Delahanty (.410, 137 RBIs) and semi-rookie Buck Freeman (25 homers) hit with more consistent power. Williams topped the league with 28 triples. Though most record books credit him with 27, he was not given a triple for his first major league hit in Cincinnati in his second game. Bill Dammann gave up the questionable hit when Cincy outfielder Elmer Smith mishandled a fly to left. No hometown news outlet charged Smith with an error, yet some box scores neglected to give Williams a triple. The next day Williams’ second NL hit was another triple, off rookie Frank “Noodles” Hahn, whom Williams claimed to have “killed just about every time up” the year before in the minors.
After a slow start, Williams’ superb rookie season was only warming up — for the greater portion of his rookie year he hit above .380. He reminded Pittsburgh fans of Jake Stenzel, a free-swinging outfielder who hit wicked line drives to all fields for them during the mid-1890s. Stenzel closed out a short career as Williams began his.
In May-June Williams had a 26-game hitting streak, which was finally stopped by fellow rookie Charles “Deacon” Phillippe of Louisville. Later Williams slashed out a 27-game streak, again halted by Phillippe, on September 8. With all the great Pirate hitters in the last 106 years, Williams’ 27-game mark is still a franchise record, as is his rookie triples mark, a number that may never be surpassed.
Had the Rookie of the Year award been given then, Baltimore’s tireless Joe McGinnity (28–17) might have won it, but Williams, Freeman, and Cincy’s Hahn (23–8) had solid portfolios.
During his first off-season as a big-leaguer, Williams worked in Denver as a collector for minor-league friend Charley Reilly, who had bought the American Filter Company. When he returned to Pittsburgh in 1900, his team had undergone major change. Fearing NL contraction, Louisville’s Barney Dreyfuss first bought into and then bought out Pittsburgh owners William Kerr and Phillip Auten, merging his best players with those already in the Smoky City as part of the “buy-in” deal. Most of the 1900 Pirate lineup were former Colonels, including Honus Wagner, Phillippe, and hardnosed manager-outfielder Fred Clarke.
Noting Williams’ strong 1900, The Sporting News proclaimed him “king of third basemen” by early May, saying he had surpassed Boston’s Jimmy Collins because of his improved fielding. On July 13, however, Williams suffered a sprained ankle, which took him out of the lineup for nearly a month. He struggled for the rest of the year, hitting only .264.
Williams had a chance to atone for his disappointing final 1900 stats in the postseason. At Pittsburgh’s Exposition Park that October, the runner-up Pirates got to play pennant-winning Brooklyn for the Chronicle-Telegraph Cup, offered by the Pittsburgh newspaper of that name. However, he was just 3-for-14 and committed seven errors as the Superbas took the best-of-five series in four games. Drowning out his poor showing, Williams married his Pittsburgh sweetheart, Nannie May Smith, on December 5 in Allegheny.
In late March 1901 Williams boarded a train in Denver bound for Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Pirates’ spring training camp. He never made it because John McGraw, manager of the newly formed Baltimore Orioles in the American League, was on a talent safari. The shrewd and persuasive McGraw “kidnapped” the amiable Williams (and soon Cardinal Mike Donlin) and talked him into “jumping” his Pittsburgh contract to sign with the Orioles. Mrs. Williams, a Pittsburgh native, was astounded when a telegram reached her saying that her husband was in Baltimore. Lawsuits were planned and Williams’ friend, shortstop Fred “Bones” Ely, wanted to spend his own money to go retrieve Williams.
Dreyfuss and Williams finally did get together for one “last chance” contract discussion before his league change became official. Some fans thought Jimmy had backstabbed Dreyfuss since Williams received all of his 1900 salary despite his injury and some time at the Mt. Clemens rehab facility, which was suggested by Ely. As it turned out, the Pirates won three straight NL pennants from 1901 through 1903 and took part in the first modern World Series in 1903.
Williams started his AL career at newly built American League Park on April 26, 1901. McGraw, the incumbent third baseman, was not shy about telling Williams he would be moved to second base. When his roster was first assembled, McGraw predicted boldly that most of his choices would hit .300. Nine of them did, including Williams (.317), who tied his teammate, shortstop “Wagon Tongue” Bill Keister, for the major-league lead in triples with 21.
Partway through the 1902 season, McGraw bolted for the New York Giants, whose manager he became. Catcher Wilbert Robinson took the Oriole reins. The Orioles sank to the cellar, although Williams hit .313 and again topped the AL with 21 triples. He became the first of only three players ever to hit 80 or more triples over four consecutive seasons. The others are Hall of Famers Sam Crawford (twice) and Earle Combs.
The Orioles became a sacrificial franchise, transferred via the crafty efforts of AL president Ban Johnson to New York gaming boss Frank Farrell and his partner, ex-police chief Big Bill Devery. Johnson desperately needed an AL franchise in New York to be on truly equal footing with the NL and reap the riches of the New York City market. Manager-pitcher Clark Griffith signed on for the same two jobs for the Highlanders, as they became known for their home field, Hilltop Park in Washington Heights, Manhattan’s highest point.
Joining yet another “new” club, Williams posted a .267 average in 1903, low for him. But he led the original Yankees in doubles (30), triples (12, tied with Wid Conroy), and RBIs (82).
Behind Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in 1904 (an AL and New York record), Williams (.263) almost became part of his first pennant-winner. However, he was one of the goats in the season finale that decided the race. His groundout kept insurance runs from scoring, and his costly throwing error allowed the tying runs to score. Boston then won the game and pennant in Chesbro’s infamous ten-foot high wild spitter in the ninth.
After coming close to winning, the Highlanders suffered a reversal in 1905, slipping from second place to sixth. Williams’ hitting dropped again, to .228, but respect for him was clear because he was team captain. New York bounced back to second place in 1906, and so did Williams (.277, including 77 RBIs, fourth in the league). Again Williams was in a now largely forgotten pennant race, this time battling Chicago’s “Hitless Wonders.”
Hal Chase (.287, 68 RBI) led the “Yankees” (as they were already becoming known) in 1907. Yet Williams was still a main cog, hitting .270 and tying for the team lead with 11 triples. He had 63 RBIs, and it was not until 1930 that Tony Lazzeri surpassed Williams’ career RBI total for a Yankee second baseman. However, manager Griffith then decided to make the team younger. In November, he dealt Williams, Danny Hoffman, and Hobe Ferris to the St. Louis Browns for Fred Glade and Charley Hemphill. Harry Niles was soon added to the deal.
Browns manager Jimmy McAleer thought St. Louis-born Williams could energize his club. “Williams is a classy fellow and dangerous at the plate,” said McAleer in March 1908. “He is a smart ballplayer and will report lighter than in five years.” Yet after wintering in Pueblo, Williams reported to Shreveport, Louisiana, a bit chunky. He never really got in better shape, hitting just .236 for the season. Perhaps his best stretch came in late May, when the Browns reached New York for their first 1908 visit. The former captain was warmly greeted with gifts and dollars. Adrenalin flowing, he then proceeded to destroy his old friends, who were then in first place. In a three-game sweep, Williams hit 7-for 12, with a collective “cycle.”
Also sometime around 1908, there was a notable incident when the normally carefree Williams’ Welsh temper flared up. As noted in his obituary in the Minneapolis Tribune, Williams was a “legend” in his baseball “hometown” of Pueblo not only for early diamond exploits but also because he flattened the only man ever to knock out future heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey. “Fireman” Jim Flynn — himself a fabulous ring character of the era, who fought all the big name boxers into the 1920s — was also a Pueblo resident. He became abusive to Williams during a saloon altercation and Williams gave Flynn “the worst beating of his entire career.”
The 1909 season was Williams’ last in the majors. He played in just 110 games and hit only .195; the “old” Williams’ bat came alive on only a few occasions. McAleer pulled him from a faltering lineup on August 28. His last games came in a season-closing doubleheader on October 3.
But Williams was far from done as a player. An old contact bought his services for the 1910 season. That was Joe “Pongo” Cantillon, new manager of the Minneapolis Millers in the American Association, who first saw Williams’ batting prowess while player-manager for Dubuque in 1897. Cantillon acquired several other former major leaguers for his club. It turned out to be a great job for Williams; he stayed through 1915. The Millers’ reinforced new squad took the AA championship for three straight seasons from 1910 through 1912. Williams batted .316 for that stretch and his glovework (.964) was not worse than second best in the league. His average finally fell to .265 from 1913 to 1915 but the Millers won a fourth pennant in 1915. During that span, Williams had the best fielding percentage at second base in the league (.963). Despite being well into this 30s, he played in more than 85 percent of the Millers’ games over the six seasons.
Williams was the subject of a lengthy “Where are they now?” story in the Pittsburgh Sunday Post on February 20, 1927. It said that he entered the insurance business after retiring from the Millers. He remained in friendly Minneapolis for the rest of his life, but according to the city directory, he worked as a city health inspector for many years.
Williams remained connected to baseball. In the early 1930s he joined the Cincinnati Reds, serving as an area scout and coach for six seasons. In April 1934, a Reds-sponsored baseball school opened in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for about 300 students. It caught on and Williams was one of the instructors for several years. The week-long session was held annually for two decades. The 1936 version had 550 enrollees at Nicollet Park in Minneapolis.
Through the 1940s Williams was an assembler and elevator operator for the Honeywell Company. His wife, Nannie May, died in August 1949. Reportedly Williams was one of the honored guests at a Minneapolis sports dinner in the winter of 1955. In May 1958 the Minneapolis Star profiled the Williams family of ballplayers. Son James had played for Minneapolis Central High and Macalester College in St. Paul. Grandson Jimmy was then a senior ballplayer at St. Louis Park High School.
By the 1960s, Williams was wintering in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he died at Doctors Hospital after a short illness on January 16, 1965. He was buried with Nannie at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis At his death he was survived by two sons, James S. and David R. of Minneapolis, two grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.
This biography was originally published in 2005. This revised version, edited by Rory Costello and fact-checked by Alan Cohen, was posted on June 15, 2018. Continued thanks also go to the following people.
Joel Rippel (Minneapolis Tribune information)
Denis Repp (Pittsburgh boxscore information)
Jay Sanford (Personal Colorado-player research files)
Stew Thornley (Lakewood Cemetery)
Dave Vincent (Individual Home Run Log List)
David Bernier Jr. (Albuquerque news research)
Albuquerque (New Mexico) Morning Democrat, 1896
Albuquerque Daily Citizen, 1896
Minneapolis Tribune (obituary)
Pueblo (Colorado) Daily Chieftain for 1892, 1893, 1895 and 1896.
St. Joseph (Missouri) Daily News for 1897.
The Sporting Life from 1896, 1897 and 1898
The Sporting News from 1897 to 1915
The Baltimore Sun (boxes, 1901, 1902)
The Boston Globe, Post and Herald (boxes)
The Chicago Tribune (boxes)
The Cincinnati Enquirer (boxes)
The New York Times (boxes)
The New York Daily Tribune (boxes)
The Pittsburgh Sunday Post
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (boxes)
Books and magazines
The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball
The MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia (Tenth Edition)
The American Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball (David L. Porter, 2000)
Reach Baseball Guides
Spalding Baseball Guides
The Baltimore Orioles by Fred Lieb, Putnam Series
The Pittsburgh Pirates by Fred Lieb, Putnam Series
The New York Yankees by Frank Graham, Putnam Series
Pittsburgh Pirates Media Guide, 2002
Ancestry-plus (Website for 1880 and 1900 Census)
City Directory of Minneapolis (1920 to 1960)
Family Search (Website for Family Research)
Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame Library files
Office of Vital Records, State of Florida
Office of Marriage Records for Pennsylvania, Allegheny County
Lakewood Cemetery Office, Minneapolis, MN