Alva Williams hit .239 in his first year in the majors. He hit .239 his last year in the majors. In between, he played five years for the Washington Senators hitting well above that mark in each of the five seasons for a combined .276 average for Washington.
That first year in the majors was 1911, with the Boston Red Sox. Williams had played independent ball as a catcher with the Quincy, Illinois club in 1905.1
He began his Organized Baseball career in 1906 and 1907 with two years for the Keokuk Indians of the Iowa League of Professional Baseball Clubs. In the Class D league, Williams – who was 24 when he began – hit .247 in 58 games the first year and then was hitting .226 over 99 games in 1907 when he was traded to Terre Haute in the Class B Central League. He hit almost the same (.222) for the Hottentots.
His nickname was said to be “Rip,” but virtually every newspaper article during his career called him Alva Williams. Alva Mitchell Williams was his given name, one given to him by his parents Wessly (we suspect the census taker misspelled Wesley) and Sarah Williams when he was born on January 31, 1882 in Carthage, Illinois. The family lived on their farm at Walker, Illinois. Perhaps due to her husband’s departure in death, Sarah Williams was the head of the family in 1900; living with Alva and his younger sister Sela in Keene, Illinois, Sarah worked as a weaver and Alva was working as a farm laborer. Sela was just 14 at the time.
Williams played all of 1908 for the Terre Haute Hottentots and hit .270 in 108 games, again advancing in midseason the following year, joining the Buffalo Bisons. He’d been .190 for Terre Haute in 49 games, then played in 51 games for Buffalo (in the Class A Eastern League) hitting .235. In March 1910, while training for a while in Charlottesville with the Washington Senators, an amusing note in the newspaper said that Williams been given the day off as “the unfortunate who has been receiving Walter Johnson’s delivery with his winter hands.”2
Williams played out the full year – 117 games – for the Bisons, batting .234. On August 10, his contract was sold to the Boston Red Sox – for delivery after the season – in exchange for cash considerations and a pitcher named Foley.3 He was typically seen as a catcher at the time.
He had married by this time, to Mabel Helfrick, and was living in Carthage with her family. Mabel’s father George Helfrick was the postmaster.
Williams was invited to join the Boston Red Sox for spring training in 1911. He joined the team at Kansas City as the team traveled west toward Redondo Beach, California – their base for the exhibition season this one year. He offered some versatility in his ability to serve both as catcher and first baseman. It was his ability to play first base – where the Sox had more of a need and where Hugh Bradley had suffered a leg injury during the spring – that got him a spot on the team. He’d also played some outfield with Terre Haute. Williams hit well, batting .305 in spring training. Early in the year, several newspapers ran a “baseball note” saying that in “another case of a catcher making good at first base, Alva Williams, who took Jake Stahl’s place, is proving quite a sensation with the Boston Americans.”4
When the regular season began, he had indeed made the team and got off to a good start, hitting over .300 at the end of May, but tailing off as the season wore on. He was 0-for-2 in his debut game, though he worked a walk. Veteran sportswriter Tim Murnane of the Boston Globe wrote, “Williams played a clever game at first.”5 He appeared in 95 games, hitting the aforementioned .239 but drawing 24 bases on balls and thus reaching base 31.4 percent of the time. He drove in 31 runs and scored 36. He’d played in 57 games at first base and 38 as catcher, with nearly identical fielding percentages at each position – .975 at first and .978 behind the plate. He was pretty consistent throughout his seven years in the majors, with a .977 career fielding percentage.
He’d almost left the game after 1911, however. He was not sufficiently impressed with the contract offered him by the Red Sox for 1912 and said he wouldn’t play unless they met his terms.6 Instead, the Red Sox dealt him to the New York Highlanders in February for $2,500 and later that same month, he was traded on to Washington on the 22nd as the player to be named later in a deal done on the 17th. He was, the Washington Post wrote, “a large, lanky person, extremely awkward and excessively earnest.” He was 5-foot-11 and weighed 187 pounds, but those were both above the norm a century ago. The Post added that what he needed most was “a course in Delsarte and a good tailor. He lacks grace and an ability to wear a uniform so that it looks right, but he is long on interest in his work, and was always much in the game when he showed here.”7 The ballclub couldn’t find him at first and so enlisted the aid of the sheriff of Carthage who wired back that Williams was hunting in Stuttgart, Arkansas.
He arrived in Charlottesville for spring training, and impressed the Evening Star correspondent: “When it comes to injecting ginger into a ball team, leave it to Alva Williams. He can make more noise during practice than all the others put together, and he keeps everyone on edge and hustling. Williams is an incessant worker. He is never still and is always one of the first to begin and last to quit work.”8
Though the third catcher on the team, injuries to both John Henry and Eddie Ainsmith gave Williams more playing time and he took advantage. He appeared in 60 games and hit for a .318 batting average. It was the highest he would ever hit.
He had a reputation as a hard-hitter, but when he hit a pinch-hit home run in 1913 off George Kahler on May 21 in Cleveland, he not only tied the score for Washington in the top of the ninth, but it was the first home run he had ever hit, at any level of play. It was driven over center fielder Buddy Ryan’s head and Williams – not known for speed – sprinted around the bases “fairly staggering” as he rounded third, but scoring standing up for an inside-the-park home run.9 The Senators won the game, the tenth win in a row for Walter Johnson. In 1913, though suffering from a weak arm that prevented him playing in many more games, he hit for a .283 average, with six doubles and two triples.
He hit another homer in 1914, in the first game on July 3 off Guy Cooper of the Red Sox. It was a three-run homer in a game in which he was just a single shy of hitting for the cycle, a 12-0 shutout for Walter Johnson. Williams worked in 81 games in 1913, batting .278. He may have struck balls with force but his career slugging percentage was just .352.
He drove in 31 runs, matching his career best (with the Red Sox in 1911) in 1915, playing in 91 games, while batting for a .244 average. Four of those RBIs came all in one game, against the Red Sox, in a 4-2 win on April 29. He’d driven in every run of the game for Washington and helped Walter Johnson record yet another win. He liked catching Johnson, saying, “When Walter lets ‘em loose they come like shells, but his very speed seems to make the ball stick in your glove. Johnson never crosses a catcher. If the sign is for a fast one on the outside that is where she comes.”10
In 76 games in 1916, he hit .267, driving in 20. On January 27, 1917, Jack Dunn of the Baltimore Orioles acquired Williams by trade, one of three players sent to Baltimore so that the Senators could get shortstop Sam Crane. Williams spent 1917 in the American Association with the Orioles, hitting .278 with three homers.
He returned for one final year of baseball, signed by Cleveland on March 9, 1918. He played in 28 games, the last one on June 9. He again hit the same .239 he’d hit back in 1911, and drove in his last seven runs.
Alva lost his wife Mabel in 1929. She died at Carthage, and Williams and his 14-year-old son Robert were living in Montebello, Illinois at the time of the 1930 census. Alva was engaged in general farming. The two had a servant in the home, Margaret Williams (the shared last name is probably a coincidence, since Margaret came from Missouri.)
Alva Williams took ill in July 1933 and was hospitalized in Keokuk, Illinois. On July 20, it was announced that a baseball game would be played as a benefit for him at Hamilton, Illinois on the 23rd. As it happened, he died – on that very day – before the game could be played. He was 51 years of age. His mother and son survived him. He is buried at Carthage.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Williams’ player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Washington Post, March 10, 1912.
2 Daily Illinois State Journal (Springfield, Illinois), March 22, 1910.
3 Jersey Journal (Jersey City, NJ), August 8, 1910.
4 Miami Herald, May 2, 1911.
5 Boston Globe, April 12, 1911.
6 Washington Evening Star, February 27, 1912.
7 Washington Post, February 23, 1912. Delsarte was a method of the day that worked on “improving musical and dramatic expression through the mastery of various bodily attitudes and gestures.” [Dictionary.com]
8 Washington Evening Star, March 9, 1912.
9 Washington Post, May 22, 1913.
10 Numerous newspapers ran this story, for instance the Augusta Chronicle of May 5, 1916.