As baseball celebrated the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, the stories emerged about the lack of participation of African-Americans in the game — now reportedly, at a little more than seven percent, the lowest ever seen in Major League Baseball since that historic 1947 season.
No one has to tell Jimmy Williams about the disappearing African-American presence in baseball. He’s watched it first hand, as a coach, mentor and one of the keepers of the flame of the game in the Washington area.
Williams has watched the decline over the years, as the baseball coach at the University of the District of Columbia, Howard University, an instructor for several high school programs and an amateur baseball umpire.
“It’s hard,” said Williams, currently coaching baseball at Prince George’s County Community College. “I definitely don’t see as many African-American kids as I used to. And the talent level is the big thing now. I don’t know how many of these kids are just pushed out there to make a team and how many are out there out of a desire to play baseball.
“I hardly see any African-Americans playing ball, and, and if they are they are not really getting the full opportunity of playing a lot of innings,” he said.
He is optimistic, though, about the revival of baseball in the African-American community locally. He is part of a strong program at Prince Georges Community College and also is a coach on the staff of the D.C. Grays, the nonprofit organization that fields a team in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League and plays its home games at the Washington Nationals Youth Academy.
The Grays’ commitment is to bring baseball opportunities to inner city youths in the District, and as part of that, has been operating a growing RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).
“I always said when baseball came back to Washington, when the Nationals came here, it would pick back up again because we have Major League Baseball in the area,” Williams said. “It should create more interest.”
“I think it can be changed,” he said. “It’s just a matter of creating the interest. The Nats Academy there helps do that and I work with the D.C. Grays and they run the RBI programs in town and that’s been another big part of getting more kids interested.”
It’s only right that Jimmy Williams is part of any local baseball revival for African-Americans. He has been a presence in baseball locally for more than five decades, going back to his star high school days at Eastern High to a remarkable professional career from 1964 to 1981 with three major league organizations, playing from Panama to Japan.
He never played one major league game, but has played with and against such major leaguers like Davey Lopes, Garry Maddux, Rico Carty, Davey Johnson, Ron Cey, and Dave Kingman, among many others. “In 1971 in Phoenix, with the Giants organization, Dave Kingman was my roommate,” Williams said. “Not on the road, but at home,” he said. “People thought Dave was kind of strange but Dave was nice to me. Being a black guy down there I didn’t think I had a chance of staying with a white guy.”
He also played against the great Sadaharu Oh, the legendary all-time Japanese home run leader, as Williams played several seasons in Japan. He would play for one season near the end of his career with the local Alexandria Dukes in 1978, and finish his career in Mexico — a career that began batting against Milt Pappas in workouts at Memorial Stadium after signing with the Orioles in 1964.
“They liked what they saw and they signed me,” Williams said. “This was before the draft started. “There were other teams that came to see me. The Cubs, the Pirates, and the Senators wanted to sign me.
“That was my biggest mistake,” he said. “I should have signed with the Senators. The Orioles were starting to get good. In two years they would be in the World Series. You couldn’t move in their minor league system. That’s what happened to Mike Epstein. He was minor league player of the year at AAA and was stuck there. He made a fuss, and wound up getting traded to the Senators.”
That does seem to be Williams‘ fateful decision — not winding up in Washington, where there would have been opportunities to play. As it was, the three organizations he would play for from 1964 to 1971, including six seasons at the Class AAA level, were three of the best in baseball — the Orioles, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants.
He would win a batting title and be among the league leaders at several stops — batting .286 in 1,047 minor league games, while hitting .276 in 169 Mexican League games and .249 in 213 Nippon Pro Baseball games.
Mixed in were some stops in independent baseball — including the legendary 1979 Inter American League — where Davey Johnson got his managing start with the Miami Amigos.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said. “I played with the Panama team. Chico Salmon was my manager. I batted against Mike Cuellar at the end of his career.” But the league would fold.
Williams is a baseball lifer, and still believes he has some baseball left to teach. “I’ll be 71 in May,” he said. “I can still hit fungoes and throw batting practice pretty well.”