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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Meghan Montemurro

Billy Williams wants to be a resource for Cubs players — and it’s all thanks to Buck O’Neil’s influence 60 years ago

MESA, Ariz. — Billy Williams found an empty table adjacent to the agility field at the Chicago Cubs spring training complex and grabbed a seat.

For the past week, the Baseball Hall of Famer was a staple at Cubs camp. He addressed the team March 6 after being introduced by manager David Ross, who rattled off Williams’ impressive career feats.

And each morning, Williams sat in the patio area near the door to the clubhouse, watching as players gathered to stretch and go through their warmup routines before making his way to the main practice field. Most days, someone would stop on his way to say hello and chat with Williams.

That engagement was fueled by Williams’ decision to make himself noticeably available to players during workouts. His desire to be a resource stems from when he was in his early 20s and trying to establish his big-league career. Back then, when old-timers games were played, Williams made sure he was never in the clubhouse, preferring to mingle with the former ballplayers.

What he learned then inspired Williams, 84, to do things differently now.

“I realize when these kids come up to me they’re looking for something, and hopefully I could give it to them,” Williams told the Tribune. “You’re talking to a guy who not only played for this team, but you’re talking about a player who played so many years and made it to the Hall of Fame. I enjoy it because it always takes you back.”

Cubs top prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong was among the players to approach Williams, leading to an unexpected 10-minute conversation.

“It was very cool. That’s something I’m still digesting,” Crow-Armstrong told the Tribune. “As a 20-year-old, it’s a blessing for sure. It’s an honor to talk to a guy like that. He made me feel very comfortable. I thought it would be a fly-by hi and actually started to walk off a couple times and he kept talking. It’s an example of crazy generosity.”

Without the legendary Buck O’Neil’s influence, Williams’ 16 seasons with the Cubs en route to the Hall of Fame — and his weeklong conversations at camp — might never have happened.

In 1959, Williams, then 21, was playing for the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate in San Antonio. And he was over it.

As a Black man in the South at that time, segregation and racism was rampant. There wasn’t a singular incident that inspired Williams to leave the team. On road trips, he wasn’t allowed to eat in restaurants with teammates, so Williams depended on someone to bring him food, which he would eat on the team bus. He roomed in private homes where, he said with a smile, at least he could enjoy good home-cooked food unlike players who stayed in the hotel.

The totality of it all weighed on him.

“To hell with this, I’m fed up with it,” Williams recalled thinking. “A lot of people felt sorry for me I guess.”

A conversation with one of his three brothers back home in Whistler, Ala., highlighted what he was missing out on being away from his family. Williams’ father, Frank, wasn’t happy he left his Double-A team and didn’t understand why he was willing to give up on his baseball dreams after all of his hard work. About three days into Williams’ return home, he noticed a Plymouth Fury making its way up the long driveway.

Williams knew exactly whom that car belonged to and thought, “Oh, I’m in trouble now.” O’Neil greeted Williams and immediately asked what was wrong.

“They’re expecting big things for you in Chicago,” O’Neil told him.

O’Neil had known Williams since high school when O’Neil worked as a regional scout in the South for the Cubs. While Williams contemplated his baseball future, O’Neil stuck around for a few days, at one point taking Williams to his old local baseball field, where he was reminded of how much fun he had playing.

Within another day or two, Williams rejoined the Double-A team in San Antonio. On Aug. 6 that year, Williams made his major league debut, the first of 2,213 games in a Cubs uniform.

If not for O’Neil’s visit and encouragement, Williams’ stint away from baseball might have become a prolonged absence, if not a permanent departure. He suspects his father and O’Neil spoke about the situation, adding: “If Buck hadn’t done it, I think my father would have convinced me. He knew what I wanted.

“Most of the time, every town I went in, there were great people and that made me want to come back too. But the progress I was making, I started to play real good and people started to talk about (Ron) Santo and myself. So that was great.”

Williams’ friendship with O’Neil, who became the first Black coach in the big leagues with the Cubs in 1962, spanned decades until O’Neil’s death in 2006 at 94. O’Neil’s influence on Williams’ and Ernie Banks’ careers — and on establishing the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. — is part of his wide-ranging legacy in the sport as a player, coach and scout.

Williams said he was thrilled by O’Neil’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame last year, an honor that eluded O’Neil during his life.

“It kind of broke his heart,” Williams said. “He never did say anything about it, but I knew. His Hall of Fame induction meant a lot to me because I knew what he had done for baseball, not only for the Negro League but for baseball itself.”

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