Willie James: PLAYING IN FRONT OF MY FAMILY

In 1976, there was a lockout from March 1 to 17 when a judge upheld the ruling that Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally could be free agents. So, it disrupted spring training a little bit. I had earned my way back to the big league camp, and every time I came back down to the minor leagues I had a little different attitude. That same year, I’m back in Florida, playing in Jacksonville. Jacksonville was in the Southern League. We were going to get to play in Montgomery, Alabama, where I was born. I was excited because I got a chance to see my aunts, my uncles and my cousins a couple of times in the summer and they could watch me play. We also were in Savannah, Knoxville, all these places in the South where I’d never been before. True to my form, I did a couple of more stupid things that could have derailed my career before it ever got started. I would always start the season off slow and be better toward the end. This particular year I got hurt, pulled a hammy (hamstring) a little more than halfway through the season. That’s not the greatest thing to happen for a guy whose speed is one of his best assets. Then, I tried to play again, and it got worse. Well, I didn’t know you were supposed to stay and get treatment. I didn’t know you had to talk to the manager and tell him if you wanted to go home.

I just knew I couldn’t play. So, I was going to go home, back to Summit. I went to some of the guys to borrow some money and told them I would pay them back on payday. I got on a flight and went home to Summit. The next day Mr. Schuerholz called me and told me to get back down there. I got back and had it worked on every day. Mickey Cobb was the trainer for that team He was later with the Royals. He was the only guy who was with me every year in the Royals, from Rookie ball to the end of my time with the Royals. They let him go the same year I was let go. So, late in the season down at Jacksonville, towards the end of August, I was supposed to come off the DL. I don’t know what day exactly, but I remember we had a doubleheader the day that I could play again. So, I go to the park and my name’s not in the lineup. The first game comes along, and I’m sitting there on the bench. Nothing. No pinch hitting, no pinch running. I was like, Wow! So, I’m not playing in the first game. Then I’m thinking I might play the second game. My mind was thinking about a lot of crap. So, the second game comes along and I’m not in the lineup, again. Like I told you, I had a really hot temper. So, I got angry. Before the game started I went back into the locker room, I took my uni off and threw it in the pile, got showered and dressed and got in my car and left. I was going back to the room, the apartment. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get there. But I’m hot, making stupid decisions. I’m listening to the game on the radio on the way home. It’s a good game. The score is like tied or we’re getting close to tying it or something. So, I turn the car around and drive back. When I get back to the locker room they are washing my uniform I kind of tiptoe and peek my head out into the dugout. Scrip sees me and growls out, Put your uniform on. I go back into the locker room, and my uniform has just come out of the wash. It’s wet. But I put it on, and I go back into the dugout.

I’m sitting in the frickindugout in a wet uniform. But we’re in Jacksonville, and it’s hot so it eventually dries. Then Scrip goes, Don’t leave. Sit here. After the game I gotta talk to you. So now all kind of stuff is going through my head. I’m going to get cut. I’m going to get fined. I’m thinking of all the things that could happen. The game finishes, and I’m sitting there. He goes, Walk with me down the line. He said, I knew you would come back because you’re a competitor. The reason I didn’t let you play the two games is that you are going to the big leagues tomorrow. I went, Really? I can’t imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t turned around and had kept going. I don’t think I would have been going to the big leagues. I was pretty naive about all that stuff. I was looking at it from a kid’s point of view. I didn’t know about 40-man rosters. I didn’t know about September callups or Rule 5 Draft or any of that. It’s too complicated. I just thought you play your minor league season, and once you got to the big leagues you played the big league season. Nobody had ever been called up from the Rookie or A-ball teams I was on. It was a big surprise. I think they called me up to make me feel better for being hurt and not playing. I don’t really know their reasoning, but I was happy they called me up. I got one month of the minimum Major League salary, which I think was $19,000 a year – which is a lot better than I was making. And I got meal money. That was maybe $50, $60 a day on a road trip. So your meal money was more than you made as a minor leaguer. But you also had to buy clothes. When you are in the minor leagues, you don’t care about how you look. You’ve got jeans and maybe some flip-flops and some sneakers. But you get to the major leagues, and you gotta have nice shirts, nice pants, good shoes. I remember those guys would just get on me about what I looked like. I would be thinking, Hey, I’m looking pretty good, but they would just jump me about it.

When I got my first hit in the big leagues, we were playing in Minnesota. I went into the game in the sixth inning and we were behind 10-0. By the time I got to bat we were behind 17-0. There were two outs, and Rupert Jones was on first base. Roy Smalley was playing shortstop. I think Rod Carew was at first. I think Jim Hughes was the pitcher. I hit a two-hopper to the left. He had to go into the hole, and he got in front of it. When he went to throw, he just looked at me and tossed the ball back to the pitcher. That’s how fast I was running. The main thing I remember about coming up that year was the same impression I had when I signed my contract. Everything was just bright. The clubhouse was bright. The uniforms were the powder blue uniforms. They just shined. All of a sudden you have brand new shoes. And I remember how bright the Major League lights were compared to the minor league lights. It was just bright. It was really nerve-wracking, and I was really nervous – so nervous that I wasn’t able to throw the ball from one guy to another warming up. When you’re nervous it’s a good and bad thing. It’s good that you’re excited, but you’d like to be able to throw a baseball in warm-ups. I can’t remember my first number (I think it was 19 or something). It wasn’t 6. I really didn’t care about numbers. You just want to be in the big leagues. I remember that fans kept calling me Mayberry. Mayberry had a 7 on his uniform But I kept looking at these people who were calling me Mayberry. I’m thinking I know I don’t look like John Mayberry. He’s about 30 pounds heavier than me. He’s the home run hitter. I’m skinny as a rail. But I had a really good time. I didn’t play a lot. But it was a really good experience.

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