When Willie Royster debuted for the Baltimore Orioles in 1981, he was already 27. The catcher only saw action in four major league games, but he was fortunate to be able to see at all. Seven years earlier, he had been almost blinded in one eye by a bunt gone awry in Single-A ball.
Willie Arthur Royster was born on April 11, 1954, in Clarksville, Virginia, near the North Carolina border. His father, Arthur Lee Royster, was a factory worker at the Crawford Manufacturing Company, and his mother, the former Hilda G. Boxley, was a practical nurse at Halifax Community Hospital. Willie’s parents married in 1954 and also had a daughter before separating when he was 11. Shortly after their divorce was finalized three years later, Hilda married again, to George D. Lampkins of Washington, DC, and had two more daughters.
After moving to the nation’s capital, Royster attended Spingarn High School in the Northeast section of the city, about two miles east of the Capitol Building. Though segregation was officially a thing of the past, the institution’s student body remained almost entirely African American throughout its history.1 While Royster was enrolled, two famous alums –Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing– were building Hall of Fame careers in the National Basketball Association, but he would be the school’s only graduate to play professional baseball. “Playing baseball is all I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid,” he recalled. “I wanted to be like Willie Mays.”2
Royster was also a promising football player, but the 5-foot-11, 180-pound righthander made his mark as a strong-armed catcher who could also pitch. Asked to describe his most interesting pre-professional baseball experiences on an early-career questionnaire, he wrote, “pitching a no-hitter in two straight games & winning the city championship in my first year, runner up my second year. Hitting three homers in one game while pitching a one-hitter and striking out 19 batters.”3
He played American Legion ball for the James Europe Post. “I credit any amount of success I’ve had to my old American Legion coach, Glen Harris,” he remarked after turning pro. “He worked me hard at being a catcher, taking me aside in the batting cage, hitting ground balls to me, being willing to work with me constantly. It helped.”4 Royster was also a semipro standout for both the Washington Black Sox and D.C. Tigers. “My greatest thrill was being selected to two All-Star Games in one season,” he recalled.5
During his 1972 senior season at Spingarn, Royster was the team captain and earned all-Metro honors by winning four out of five decisions while allowing only three earned runs. He also batted over .300 for the third straight year.6 Going pro was a realistic possibility, though his coach, John Wood, believed he would benefit from at least two years of college first.7 In the June Amateur Draft, the Orioles picked Royster with the final pick of the 22nd round, the 525th overall selection. Baltimore scout Dick Bowie signed him two weeks later. “I was impressed with Willie’s good throwing arm –he might be an outfielder– and his unusual speed for a catcher. He has a short stroke for a hitter, but his hitting is improving all the time,” Bowie explained. “I liked Willie’s attitude, his dedication and desire, plus that speed. He can steal bases as quick as anyone.”8
Royster reported to the Bluefield (WV) Orioles of the Rookie-level Appalachian League where his first professional hit was a game-winning home run.9 Though he was initially the backup catcher to first-round pick Ken Thomas, they had reversed roles by the end of the 68-game schedule. Royster’s modest .234 batting average in 41 games was almost 100 points higher than his rival’s and he played better defense. “He was gonna show us, no matter what, that he could beat the other kid to the job, and he beat him,” remarked Bowie. “Good competition, but all a matter of proving myself,” Royster said.10
In 1973, he batted .266 in 114 contests for the Miami Orioles in the Single-A Florida State League. The other catcher, Bill Woods, was his best friend on the team. “We’re working buddies,” Royster explained. “We drink beer together. We forget the job when we leave it.” That wasn’t entirely accurate. “I take the charts and scouting reports home now and study them cover to cover,” Royster said. “Just like doing homework.”11 He gained his pitchers’ confidence to the point where they trusted him to call the pitches.
Royster topped the team in RBIs when he returned to Miami in 1974. His home run output doubled to 12 –including a grand slam against West Palm Beach– to match 18-year-old Eddie Murray for the club lead.12 On August 21 against Fort Lauderdale, however, his career nearly ended. “We were out of the playoffs. I was trying to get my average to .270. Mickey] Klutts was playing me back at third, so I decided to try to bunt on my own.” Instead of putting the ball in play, Royster fouled it into his own right eye. “I put my hand to my eye and I could feel the eyeball in the palm of my hand,” he recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘That’s it. I’ve lost my eyesight. My baseball career is finished.’ I was mad at myself for trying to bunt.”13
Doctors told Royster the chances of regaining full vision in his hemorrhaged eye were a slim 1-in-50. Three months later, when he tried to return to the field in the Florida Instructional League, he was hit by an inside pitch, struck out three times, and allowed nine passed balls in his first game. “I couldn’t judge the speed of the ball…I had no depth perception. I remember thinking, ‘This is suicide.’ Something inside was telling me that I was a fool for being here.”14
Royster played 114 games in 1975. Despite a poor .219 batting average in 53 games for the Lodi Orioles in the Single-A California League, he advanced to the Double-A Asheville (NC) Orioles of the Southern League in mid-June, where he improved to .254 in 61 games. He struck out a combined 107 times, however, more than his total from the prior two seasons combined.
By the spring of 1976, Royster was married to the former Raydene Ware with an infant daughter, Kimberly.15 Since turning pro, he’d worked as a butcher and a clothing salesman, and attended Howard University for a bit.16 When the Orioles released him on April 8, three days before his 22nd birthday, his future appeared to be somewhere other than baseball. He signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in May and hit eight homers in 53 games to lead their Single-A New York-Pennsylvania League affiliate in Niagara Falls. Prior to the 1977 season, however, he was released again. The Pirates helped him find a spot in a summer league in Venezuela. There, Royster batted .310, led the circuit in home runs and RBIs and was named the top catcher. “The lights were terrible in Venezuela,” he recalled. “I knew if I could hit there, I could hit anywhere.”17 When Royster returned to the United States, Dick Bowie saw him playing sandlot ball in Northern Virginia and recommended that the Orioles invite him to the Florida Instructional League. Royster took batting practice in Baltimore in September, batted .417 in the FIL, and signed a contract in November.18 He spent all of 1978 in the Double-A Southern League with the Charlotte O’s. Royster played primarily in the outfield for the first time, though he caught an almost equal number of games. In 125 games, he batted .253 with 13 homers and 15 steals. Four years after his injury, his career seemed to be back on track.
At the end of spring training 1979, Royster learned that he’d beaten the odds again when Baltimore farm director Clyde Kluttz told him he was being promoted to Triple-A. “I wasn’t really surprised. I worked hard, but I liked what Clyde told me,” Royster shared. “He said I had come a long way. He said, ‘Quitters never win, and winners never quit.’ I appreciated that.”19 When Kluttz died in May, Royster was a reserve outfield and backup to top catching prospect Kevin Kennedy for the Rochester Red Wings in the International League. He lost his roster spot in July, however, after the Inter-American League folded and the Orioles signed backstop Larry Doby Johnson, who had major league experience.20 The night Royster learned he’d be demoted to Single-A, he went 4-for-5 with a homer to raise his Rochester batting average to .281 before departing.21 Back in the Florida State League for the first time since nearly bunting himself blind, he batted .323 for Miami in 39 games. He finished the season by ripping three doubles in six at bats for Double-A Charlotte. Overall, in 1979, he had a .307 batting average in 88 games.
He began the 1980 season in Charlotte, batting only .215 in 26 games backing up Dave Huppert. When Kennedy broke his ankle at Rochester, however, Royster was the one summoned to become the starting Triple-A catcher in the first week of June.22 In 69 games with the Red Wings, he batted .264 with 35 RBIs. In a poll of Rochester’s media, front office and players, he was voted the club’s “Most Inspirational” player.23
Royster’s character, enthusiasm and smile were not enough to prevent him from being sent back to Double A in 1981, however. “I had the understanding I would probably remain with Charlotte and work with the young players, perhaps go into coaching. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that because I still felt I could play major league baseball,” he said.24 “Even when my eye healed and I still hit the ball well, I never got a chance…I hate to think it’s because I’m a catcher and I’m black. There aren’t any black starting catchers in the majors.”25 “Willie’s situation has absolutely nothing at all to do with color,” insisted Player Development Director Tom Giordano, who praised Royster’s attitude and ability. “He’s still got a decent shot.”26
Entering the season, Royster hadn’t produced more than 13 homers or 19 stolen bases in a single season. In 1981, however, the 27-year-old went deep 31 times –20 in a red-hot 58-game stretch– and stole 53 bases. Both figures, as well as his total of 88 RBIs, established records for Charlotte’s Southern League franchise.27 He earned team MVP honors as the O’s won the championship and was named the designated hitter on the circuit’s All-Star squad. (Orlando’s Tim Laudner filled the catcher’s slot after a 42-homer campaign.)28 As Royster packed to go home for the winter, Charlotte manager Mark Wiley told him that his season wasn’t yet over because the Orioles wanted him to report to the majors immediately. “I told him he had to be kidding and the only way I would get into that stadium was to buy tickets,” Royster recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I had no idea I would be called up.”29
He was excited to be finally going to the big leagues after nine years, but Royster requested permission to report a day late. “The Oriole scout who signed me, Dick Bowie, died that week and I wanted to attend the funeral,” he explained. “They said fine.”30 On September 3, Royster was in uniform in the Baltimore bullpen at Memorial Stadium to warm up pitchers during his first game as a major leaguer. After the Orioles fell 10 runs behind the Oakland A’s, however, manager Earl Weaver put him into the game in the top of the seventh to relieve catcher Rick Dempsey. “I was kicking around in the pen and they called me to the dugout,” Royster said. “I didn’t expect that. I thought I would be a little tight, but I felt comfortable.”31 The second pitch from lefty Jeff Schneider eluded Royster and rolled to the backstop, but he caught three scoreless innings without incident. In his first two at bats, Willie struck out against Steve McCatty, runner-up for AL Cy Young Award honors that season. He appeared in three more games before the season ended, grounding out twice to finish his brief big league career 0-for-4.
Before Royster’s breakout year of 1981 was complete, he kept hitting in the Venezuelan Winter League. In 54 games for the Navegantes del Magallanes, he batted .279 and led the club in homers, RBIs, runs, doubles and triples.32 Back at Rochester in 1982, he hit only .198 in 59 games backing up Dan Graham. Royster requested a trade and was sold to the Tigers prior to the 1983 season. After 33 at bats with a .152 batting average for Detroit’s Triple-A Evansville [IN] Triplets, he was released. He finished his career as a .255 hitter with 89 homers in 961 minor-league games.
When Royster returned to Rochester for an old-timers game in 1985, he said he was in the home-building business in Largo, Maryland. By the end of the 1980s, he’d divorced and moved to Ocean View, New Jersey in Cape May County. After marrying Kimberly (Kelly), he fathered two more children, Rachael and Isaac. Royster became the Director of Facilities for the Salem County (NJ) Board of Education. He appeared at occasional baseball clinics, served as an elder at Calvary Baptist Church and was a board member for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni. He loved to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.33
On November 23, 2015, Willie Royster died in Ocean View. He was 61. He is buried in the Calvary Baptist Church Cemetery.
This biography was reviewed by Eric Vickrey and Norman Macht and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.
1 Jacob Fenston, “Spingarn High Students, Alum’s Brace for School’s Closure,” https://wamu.org/story/13/02/01/spingarn_high_students_alums_brace_for_schools_closure/ (last accessed November 27, 2020).
2 Greg Boeck, “Majors in Sight Again for Royster,” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), May 6, 1979: 60.
3 Willie Royster, Baseball Questionnaire, August 11, 1972.
4 Michael Granberry, “Royster is Catching On,” Washington Post, August 2, 1973: D4.
5 Royster, Baseball Questionnaire, August 11, 1972.
6 1982 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 143.
7 Leonard Shapiro, “Scouts Sweat Out Draft,” Washington Post, May 10, 1972: E1.
8 Granberry, “Royster is Catching On.”
9 Royster, Baseball Questionnaire, August 11, 1972.
10 Granberry, “Royster is Catching On.”
12 Willie Royster, Baseball Questionnaire, April 17, 1975.
13 Boeck, “Majors in Sight Again for Royster.”
15 1982 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 143.
16 Willie Royster, Baseball Questionnaire, April 17, 1975.
17 Boeck, “Majors in Sight Again for Royster.”
18 1982 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 143.
19 Boeck, “Majors in Sight Again for Royster.”
20 “Weekend Update,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 16, 1979: 29.
21 Greg Boeck, “Sweet, Sweet Memories of Days at Silver,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 27, 1985: 26.
22 1982 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 143.
23 “Wing Tips,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 1, 1980: 25.
24 Donald Huff, “Rookie Catcher Royster Finds Baltimore is Best,” Washington Post, September 20, 1981: D15.
25 Donald Huff, “The Wait, the Wondering: Former Area Picks Play On,” Washington Post, June 9, 1981: D1.
26 Huff, “The Wait, the Wondering: Former Area Picks Play On.”
27 All three records were broken. In 1982, John Denman stole 58 bases to establish a new mark for Charlotte’s 25 seasons with a Southern League franchise (1964-70, 1972, and 1976-92). After notching 100 RBIs in 1986, Tom Dodd set new Charlotte records for home runs (37) and RBIs (127) in 1987.
28 1982 Baltimore Orioles Media Guide: 142.
29 Huff, “Rookie Catcher Royster Finds Baltimore is Best.”
32 Venezuelan League Statistics, http://www.pelotabinaria.com.ve/beisbol/tem_equ.php?EQ=MAG&TE=1981-82 (last accessed November 29, 2020).
33 “Willie A. Royster,” http://hosting-10528.tributes.com/obituary/show/Willie-A.-Royster-103031938 (last accessed November 27, 2020).