Grave Story: Jimmy Williams (1876-1965)

Here lies Jimmy Williams, a triples-hitting machine in the majors and an outstanding second baseman for the Minneapolis Millers after his MLB career was done. His quick thinking averted a potential baseball tragedy. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1899-1900), Baltimore Orioles (1901-1902), New York Yankees (1903-1907) and St. Louis Browns (1908-1909).

Jimmy Williams was born in St. Louis, Mo., on December 20, 1876. According to his SABR bio, his family moved to Colorado, and he grew up in Denver before playing ball with a semi-pro team out of Pueblo. He started in professional baseball when he was only 19 years old, playing in Indianapolis and Pueblo in 1896. Williams was a legend in Pueblo not just for his baseball ability, but also for his fighting skills. He was said to have gotten into a fight with Fireman Jim Flynn, a heavyweight boxer and the only man to knock out Jack Dempsey. Flynn became abusive to Williams, the punches flew, and Williams gave the boxer the worst beating of his career. Whether it’s true or not, it was mentioned in Williams’ obituary. Flynn (real name: Andrew Chiariglione) was working in Pueblo as a railroad fireman at the turn of the century as his boxing career was getting underway, so it’s definitely possible that the fight happened.

A sketch of Jimmy Williams before his rookie season. Source: The Pittsburgh Press, Feb. 26, 1899.

Williams moved to St. Joseph, Mo., to join the Saints of the Western Association for 1897. He became a home run wonder, with 31 long balls to go with a .288 batting average. He joined the Kansas City Blues of the Western League in 1898, and while he hit just 8 home runs, he batted a strong .343.

The Pirates signed Williams and made him their starting third baseman for 1899. If there was a Rookie of the Year Award back then, Williams surely would have been in the running. He batted .354, which was good for 5th in the NL, and had 220 hits, including 28 doubles, an NL-leading 27 triples and 9 home runs. He drove in 116 runs, scored 126 runs and stole 26 bases. He was 3rd among all position players with a 6.9 WAR, and his .530 slugging percentage was 3rd in the league. He was praised heavily in the newspapers for his fielding abilities as well, as he and shortstop Bones Ely made for an excellent left side of the infield. In reality, his .900 fielding percentage at third base was slightly below average, but his range factor was above average. If he committed more errors than most third baseman, it’s because he was getting to more balls than the average player.

With less than a season under his belt, Williams was compared favorably to Jimmy Collins, the future Hall of Fame third baseman for the Braves and the gold standard for the position at the time. And Williams, at 22 years old, was still finding his way in the majors.

“It was really like starting all over again,” he told journalist J. Ed Grillo about his arrival in the big leagues. “I knew but few of the players and was always playing on strange grounds. In addition to this, I was a bit anxious, and this affected my playing. I have had the same trouble every spring for the reason that I have not remained in any league more than one year since I have been playing professionally. I have been steadily advancing.”

Williams slumped a little in his sophomore season, and injuries limited him to 106 games. He hit .264, with 11 triples and 32 walks against 27 strikeouts. The Pirates vaulted up to second in the NL anyway, thanks largely to Honus Wagner, who arrived from Louisville courtesy of former Louisville and future Pirates exec Harry Pulliam. Williams could have been part of a great Pirates infield, except he turned traitor, as far as Pirates faithful were concerned.

The American League vaulted into major league status in 1901, and they snatched as many players under NL contracts as they could get. Williams jumped his contract with the Pirates and signed with the Baltimore Orioles, managed by John McGraw. Management was shocked; fans were pissed.

“Jimmy is an unsophisticated lad and a foolish one at that,” vented one fan to the Pittsburgh Daily Post. “No doubt Mugsy McGraw put some booze into him and then induced him to sign. A few hundred dollars looked big to Jimmy and made him forget his friends.”

Jimmy Williams’ quick thinking averted baseball’s greatest tragedy. Source: The Inter Ocean, March 21, 1905.

For the two years that this version of the Baltimore Orioles existed (1901-1902), Williams was at his best once again. He had a combined slash line of .315/.375/.497 with the O’s and led the AL in triples each season, with 21 each year. McGraw moved him to second base, and he took to that position about as well as he did third base, displaying good range and decent fielding. Despite placing in the top 10 in most offensive categories, Williams was only one player. The O’s didn’t have much of a team around him, and at the end of 1902, they were booted from the league. The AL wanted to put a franchise in New York, and the Highlanders debuted in 1903. They wouldn’t be renamed the Yankees until later.

Williams signed with the new New York team, and he would become one of the first baseball greats to come to the bright lights of the Big Apple and struggle. He never hit over .300 with the Highlanders in his five seasons there, and his stolen base and triples numbers declined noticeably. Leg injuries had sapped his speed, and he also put on weight over the 1903 offseason and was said to resemble “a water tank on casters.” He would work himself back into shape to become a top fielder at second base, but he was never the speed demon he was at the start of his career. He hit mostly in the .260s and .270s in New York and played well at second base. He led the AL in fielding percentage at second in 1903 (.967) and 1905 (.964).

Williams’ best play was to save the lives of his teammates in a train derailment. On March 20, 1905, 11 of the Highlanders were in the rear sleeper car of a train traveling from Vicksburg to New Orleans. As the train was traveling over a high trestle during a heavy rainstorm, the train’s rear cars derailed. Fortunately, it didn’t plunge off the trestle into the 100-foot chasm it was passing over, but the engineer at the front of the train didn’t know that the rear cars were swaying and teetering until Williams had the presence of mind to pull the emergency cord.

“Some of the ball men were nearly fainting, and all looked terror stricken when they arrived this morning at the St. Charles hotel. [Manager Clark] Griffith looked as though his hair had almost turned completely gray,” the newspapers reported.

Williams was traded to the St. Louis Browns in November 1907. The final two seasons of his career were his worst, as his batting average dipped to .236 in 1908 and then .195 in 1909. The Browns sold him to St. Joseph of the Western League in late December 1909, ending his major-league career.

In his 11 seasons, Williams slashed .275/.337/.396, with 1508 hits that included 242 doubles, 138 triples and 49 home runs. He had 796 RBIs, scored 780 times, stole 151 bases and drew 474 walks. He struck out 531 times and never more than 71 times in a single season.

Williams never made it to St. Joseph, where he was to be the team’s player/manager. Instead, he went to the Minneapolis Millers, which had the same owner, Joe “Pongo” Cantillon. Williams was 33, had bad legs and was returning to the minors after 11 years in the big leagues. His career was definitely at a crossroads.

Source: Star Tribune, December 13, 1929.

“My legs seem all right but there is no telling,” he told the Star Tribune. “If they begin to go wrong I will quit baseball. I really think that they need a rest of a year anyway but to please Joe Cantillon, who is a grand fellow to work for, I have reported this year and will do my level best to get into condition.”

As it turned out, Williams had a lot left in the tank. He hit .315 as the 1910 Millers won 107 games and .332 as the 1911 team won 99 games. They finished first in the American Association each season, and Williams managed to play in 162 games in 1911, bad legs and all. Williams would play until 1915, and the Millers would finish at or near first place in most of those years. He’d be remembered as one of the team’s all-time great second basemen for years to come.

(If you’re curious about the Millers’ history from my past grave stories, this successful period occurred between the time that Clarence Saulpaugh owned them and George Belden and his consortium owned them. The Millers’ decline coincided with Williams’ retirement.)

Williams liked his time in Minneapolis so much that he made it his home. He turned down opportunities to manage in the minors to stay there, working for the city’s health department. He organized local All-Star teams, worked as an umpire and served as a Cincinnati Reds scout for many years as well. His sons, Jimmy Jr. and Ralph, were area sports stars who got minor-league tryouts in the 1920s.

One of Williams’ finds was Johnny Vander Meer, and he convinced the Reds to sign him for $5,000 after the Dodgers bungled their claim to the pitcher. “All he needs is control… People are going to be talking about Johnny years from now,” he said in 1938, and he was right about that. He also made regular visits to Nicollet Park to watch the Millers play, and he saw the potential in a young Ted Williams right away.

“He can’t miss,” the old scout said, pretty astutely. “I always was partial to the Williamses.”

Jimmy Williams died in his winter home in St. Petersburg, Fla., on January 16, 1965. He was 88 years old and had been in declining health the last years of his life. The man who once played alongside Honus Wagner lived long enough to see Major League Baseball come to Minneapolis with the Twins. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

Jimmy and wife Nannie Williams’ graves at Lakewood Cemetery. Yes, I do tend to visit cemeteries either before lawn-mowing day or after heavy rainstorms.

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