Willie James: MY INTRODUCTION TO THE MIDWEST

Because it was written into my contract, I got to go to spring training with the big-league team that first year I was there. I was real nervous. I had met some of the guys on the team when I signed the summer before. But I didn’t have a great deal of comfort coming into spring training. As stupid as it sounds, I thought, if I had a great spring I could make the club. That shows you how naive I really was. Back in the old days at Fort Myers we had our camp at Terry Park. The clubhouse wasn’t like the clubhouses of today with carpeting and big leather chairs or anything like that. It had a plank floor, and all the rookies lockers were along a back wall of the clubhouse. After a couple of weeks the number of guys on that back wall kept getting thinner and thinner because the guys were being assigned to their minor league teams. So the guys who were staying the longest, you pretty much knew those were the guys they were looking at as far as the future. I didn’t last on that wall too long that first year. While I was there, though, I got a little taste of what it might be like in the big leagues. The players like Amos (Otis), Freddie (Patek), Big John (Mayberry), Hal McRae, Al Cowens – those were the guys who kept the clubhouse going. They were jokesters and really played a lot of games and pranks on people. I didn’t play a lot that spring, but just being around those guys you realize that they’re human. I had a sense that I could compete with them I knew I could steal bases, and everyone kept saying, If he could just hit .240 or .250. Sometimes when you hear things like that you start getting in your head that those numbers would be good enough. But I wanted to prove to them that I could hit. In A ball, the manager was John Sullivan.

Sully was with me in the Midwest League when we were playing at Waterloo, Iowa. He was the first one who moved me up in the batting order. I don’t really remember where I was batting in rookie ball, but I know it wasn’t at the top of the lineup. Sully had me batting third. It was really neat to be batting in that spot. I came up with a lot of RBIs. I think I finished up with 70-something RBIs, almost double what I had at any other place in the minor leagues. I wasn’t a home-run hitter. I was more of an if there is a man out there I was going to try and hit him in hitter. We had a really good team Half of us were darker skinned – Latin or black players. The other half were white. The guys all got along, played together well. Quiz (Dan Quisenberry) was on that team Two other guys were on that team that eventually made the Royals for a little while, German Barranca and Luis Silverio. Seven guys on that team eventually made the big leagues with one club or another. Sully was kind of like the opposite of Scrip. He was more playful, more joking with the players. Sully chewed tobacco like crazy. I always remember when Sully would get in an argument with an umpire he made sure the tobacco went toward the umpire. It was his way of getting the umpire’s attention if he was going to get thrown out. My first introduction to the Midwest was with the Waterloo Royals in 1975.

Later on, Sully ended up being a bullpen coach for the Toronto Blue Jays for several years. It was fun to see him when we would go to Toronto. He would always give me that cross his hands signal, saying bad luck to me that day. That was our sign. I’d put my hands across my chest to him, and he would do it for me. So that was pretty cool. This is also where I first experienced real prejudice – and it could have ended my career if it weren’t for my teammates. We were up in Wisconsin, a place we used to call Whiskey Rapids. Actually it was a town called Wisconsin Rapids. I think our first four batters were black, so we would get in a little huddle before the game, wish each other luck. We would say, Hey have a good game and yell LET’S GO! and we would break out of it like a football huddle. Well, there is this big fat guy sitting right behind home plate. I mean sloppy fat. He couldn’t have been more than six rows up in the stands. He’s drinking beers and eating popcorn and hot dogs. And he would just drop the N word so many times. I was going crazy. I grew up in a city that was almost all white, and went to a school that was almost all white, and I never got called that. I mean this was cutting straight to my heart man. I don’t know if we won or lost that game. My thoughts were on that guy the whole game. That was one of those old minor league parks where you had to walk underneath the stands to get back to our locker room The fans walk out the same way to get out of the park. So when the game is over, I just fly back there with my bat. I got it cocked, and I’m ready, man. I got my eyes on where he was. I got the bat cocked when my teammates jumped me, Willie! I mean I’m going to frickinhurt this guy. He called me the N word again, and I’m ready to kill him My teammates grabbed me and hauled me out of there, coaches, everybody grabbed me. I said to myself, I hope I never get in that position again. I got a temper. I’ll tell you what. If I was Jackie Robinson, black people would not be playing baseball right now. I would have ruined it for everybody. I just couldn’t take it.

I was 19, and it was the first time I had ever been exposed to prejudice like that. That was horrible. The minor leagues were a little different those days. We never stayed in hotels, we were always in those one-floor motels around the minor leagues. We had to sleep two or three to a room. Some of the guys would get cots, some guys would get beds. We would flip for who would get the bed each night. And we would carry a big cooler with us. When we would get to the motel we would fill it up with ice. We’d have milk, juice, baloney, cheese, maybe beer. And that was our breakfast and lunch. You only got, like, $5 per day for meals. For me it was my first real step into the Midwest. I had a much better season that year. I think I batted .272 (up from .252 in rookie league). And I stole 76 bases, which was the first time I really had good numbers with stolen bases. Going from .250-something in rookie ball and up 20 points higher in A ball, I really felt good about my year. They put me in the third spot, and I had an opportunity for some RBIs. So it was a whole lot better than Rookie ball. I felt like I had established myself and was getting noticed. After the season I went back to Florida for the second straight year for the Instructional League. I just felt like I had a really legitimate year that season and it put me in a better place going to spring training the following season.

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