Riverdale resident Lawrence “Pops” Williams shows off a team photo of the 1955 Kansas City Monarchs. Williams played for the Monarchs for one season in the Negro American League and now volunteers to help mentor members of the Mundy’s Mill High School baseball team. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
RIVERDALE — A smile slipped away from Lawrence Williams’ as a conversation shifted from his on-the-field exploits as a professional baseball player in the 1950s to what he endured on the trips from one city to the next.
Williams was paid to play center field for a team in Kansas City in 1955. His work in that one season got him enshrined in a museum. Fans loved him and his teammates.
Whenever his team was in a town to play a game, local residents offered Williams accommodations at their homes. It came with a place to sleep and all of the meals that Williams could eat. He took families up on their offers in every city his team visited.
But, then again, Williams didn’t have a choice. The color of his skin limited his options when it came to accommodations. Many hotels wouldn’t accept African-Americans as guests so Williams, and players like him, took accommodations where they could. That usually meant staying in homes owned by black families.
You see, the team for whom he played was not the Kansas City Royals. It was the Kansas City Monarchs. Williams played in the old Negro American League.
While his face lights up as he talks about his on-the-field exploits, it grows solemn when he talks about his experience off-the-field in a world that had begun to undergo a social change.
“Things wasn’t the way they are now,” said Williams. “That was just the way things were back then. It shouldn’t have been that way, but it was.”
Williams, 81, now lives the life of a retiree in Riverdale. He moved to the area in the 1998 after a long career helping to build Lincoln Town Cars on the assembly line at a Ford Motor Company plant in Michigan.
Nearly 60 years after his playing career began and ended, he still stays around the game. For the last eight years, he has worked as a volunteer assistant for the Mundy’s Mill High School baseball team. He was recognized with a proclamation from Clayton County Commissioner Gail Hambrick last week for his place in history and for his work with the kids.
To the kids he’s mentored over the time, he is affectionately known as “Pops.”
He doesn’t stay out in the field as much as he might have done if he’d filled this role half a century ago. He mostly stays in the dugout watching the kids and nothing goes unnoticed, said Mundy’s Mill head coach Patrick Smith.
“He has a good eye for talent,” said Smith. “He’ll tell us, ‘You’d better keep an eye on that kid. He’s going to be a good player. He’s got good fundamentals, works hard, listens well and respects the game.’ He sees a lot of the little things that we sometimes overlook.”
‘What are you doing
in that suit?’
But Williams’ baseball story begins long before he stepped into a one-year professional career or began coaching teenage boys how to play the game. It began in LaGrange. In dirt lots and grassy fields. Those beginnings were nothing fancy. They weren’t like the organized Pee-Wee and T-Ball leagues available to kids today.
“All of my life, I’ve loved the game of baseball,” said Williams.
Like many people his age, Williams and his childhood friends played impromptu games of “stick ball” wherever they could. Sometimes, it was also whenever they could and without regard for what they were wearing.
One such occasion came when Williams was 5. His mother had just bought him a new white suit to wear to church for Easter services. Williams did what any boy his age probably would have done after church — he ran out to play ball with his friends without changing his clothes first.
“I hit the ball and it was going to be a close play at first base and I slid in that suit,” Williams said. “Boy my mom — oh boy — she said, ‘Come here boy. What are you doing playing baseball in that suit and sliding in that dirt?’ and I just said, ‘I had to get safe mom.’”
Did he ever play baseball in that suit again?
“No. No I did not,” he said.
His chance at stardom
By 1954, Williams lived in Michigan and was working for Ford. He and some friends had heard the Monarchs were barnstorming in the area and were set to play the Memphis Red Sox in Toledo, Ohio, so they drove down to watch the game.
During the game, the Monarchs needed someone to step in at center field in the fifth inning. Someone in the stands told the team’s manager, Buck O’Neill, that Williams could play so O’Neill called him down from the stands to fill in.
Almost immediately, Williams said, he orchestrated a double play with help from the shortstop.
“There was a gap shot hit to the outfield and I never thought I’d get to the ball, but I managed to get there, turned around, threw the ball back,” said Williams. “There was one out and a guy had been on first base. The guy that was on first base had almost rounded third base when I caught the ball and he had to come back.
“I threw the ball in to the shortstop and the shortstop made the double-play and that ended the inning,” Williams added.
That caught O’Neill’s attention and after the team came off the field at the end of the inning, the manager offered Williams a shot at making the team on a permanent basis.
Since it was late in the season, Williams wouldn’t have a chance to play for the Monarchs for the rest of that season. However, O’Neill invited him to come to the Monarch’s spring training in Atlanta and try out for the team in 1955.
“I thought to myself, ‘I’ll be able to do what I love. I think I’ve got a chance now to play professional baseball,’” Williams said. “So I got down to Atlanta and made it onto the team.”
Playing in a time of change
Williams played baseball at a time when the world was very different from what it is today.
Blacks and whites were not allowed to intermingle in many parts of the country — especially in the south where Jim Crow Laws had created an atmosphere of segregation.
Many businesses refused to serve African-Americans, which is why Monarchs players had to stay in the homes of black families, instead of in hotels, when they were on the road, said Williams. He added that O’Neil and the team’s coaches knew in advance which restaurants would serve them before the team arrived in cities.
When the team rolled into a town, they went directly to those establishments to avoid conflicts at businesses they knew wouldn’t serve them, said Williams. Players also had to be savvy to avoid trouble when they were out and about, he added.
“Most guys my age knew what we had to do and how to handle it, so we didn’t have too many problems,” Williams said.
But society was beginning to see changes. In the same year when Williams was barnstorming across the country with the Monarchs, the U.S. Supreme Court was taking up the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, which resulted in the forced desegregation of public schools.
However, it wasn’t just society that was undergoing a change. Baseball was also changing. Eight years earlier, Jackie Robinson — another former Monarch — joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier.
African-American players now had a shot at playing in an integrated league and several players left the Negro American League to play in the majors. That shift wasn’t lost on Negro League players in the mid-1950’s, said Williams.
“We could feel it was about to fold,” he said.
Williams himself opted to leave the game after one season because he and his wife, Juanita, were beginning to raise a family and he felt he needed to work closer to home.
The Negro American League disbanded a couple of years after Williams left. His career, along with every other player in multiple negro leagues, is commemorated in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
These days, Williams isn’t worried about where he can and cannot eat or sleep. His focus is on helping a new generation of players at Mundy’s Mill.
Smith said Williams works one-on-one with players, teaching them the importance of listening to their coaches and working hard. Williams said he wants to make sure the kids know the correct way to play the game, and he primarily works with them on their defense in the outfield.
“If I see the kid doing something wrong, I get him aside and tell him the position he should be in,” said Williams.
Smith said the players respect Williams’ experience and knowledge. He also said the old ball player hates seeing kids waste their talents, which is why he tries so hard to instill the importance of hard work in them.
“He just really loves being around the game and seeing the younger guys play,” said Smith.
But Williams said watching Mundy’s Mill’s players sometimes makes him long for his playing days, or to at least be young enough again to be play the game recreationally.
“If I was 40 years younger, I’d be out there playing now,” said Williams.