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Baseball Remembers: Marvin Williams
In April, 1945, a city councilman in Boston named Isadore Muchnick insisted that the Red Sox would lose their city-approved permit to play baseball on Sundays if they didn’t make an effort to sign a Black player. In later years his role would be denigrated, as it was implied that he only did it to curry favor with the voters in his mostly Black district, but that wasn’t true. Howard Bryant throughly debunked that myth in his book, Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston. In fact, Muchnick did it simply because it was the right thing to do.
His actions forced the Red Sox to at least pretend to have an interest in Black players, so they arranged to hold a tryout in Fenway Park. Three players worked out, though the Red Sox decided not to sign any of them. Or even contact them, for that matter. In some accounts it’s alleged that an unknown person yelled from the shadows of the grandstand, “Get those n______ off the field!”
Jackie Robinson of the Kansas City Monarchs and Sam Jethroe of the Cleveland Buckeyes are the best-known of the three, since each went on to play in the major leagues and each won the Rookie of the Year Award. Robinson, of course, went on to a Hall of Fame career. The third player is less well-known.
That’s a shame, because Marvin “Tex” Williams was a hell of a baseball player.
It’s hard to pin down many details about Williams because of the nature of his career. He only played in the Negro Leagues for three seasons, and those were during World War II when less attention was paid to baseball. Before the 1945 season ended he had jumped to played in the Mexican League, where his notoriety dropped even further. For five years he bounced around leagues in Latin America, before returning to the United States and playing in the minor leagues. All told, he played for over 50 teams during his career, which lasted over 20 years. Despite great success at every level he played, he was never promoted to the major leagues
There are sketchy details about his age. His official record on baseball-reference.com lists his birthday as February 12, 1920, while other sources list it as 1923. His position on the field floated, too. Originally a second baseman, defense wasn’t his strength, so he was shifted to third base and eventually first base. No matter how old he was, though, or what position he played, Williams could flat-out hit.
He batted .382 in parts of those three Negro League seasons. In winter ball in Puerto Rico, he batted .378. In his first year playing in Mexico, he hit .362. For winter ball in Venezuela he hit .423, and when he stayed there to play in the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League, he batted .329. For a time he played in the Cuban League, then returned to Mexico and hit .328.
And so on and so on. When he came back to the United States, he had a brief stint at Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League, which was an affiliate of the Chicago White Sox at the time, but he struggled a bit, batting just .250 and hitting 6 homers in 38 games, prompting him to return to Mexico for the 1951 season, where he batted .321. Joining Chihuahua of the Arizona-Texas League in 1952, Williams hit 45 homers and batted .401, then he returned to Mexico City in 1953 and hit .372. For 1954, he added yet another country to his list, this time Canada. He joined the Vancouver Capilanos of the Western International League, which was at the A-Ball level, and hit .360 with 20 homers and 90 RBI in just 119 games.
By 1955, Williams was 35 years old (or maybe only 32) and had little hope of making the major leagues, but he still joined the Columbia Reds of the South Atlantic League, the A-Ball affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. He did well there, batting .328 with 16 homers in 97 games, but was never promoted. The next year he joined the Tulsa Drillers of the Texas League. They were the Double-A affiliate of the Cubs, and he bashed the baseball all year, as usual. His final numbers were 26 homers, 111 RBI and a .322 batting average. They, too, didn’t call him up.
He stayed with Tulsa for the next couple of years after the team became an affiliate of the Phillies, and still hit pretty well, but not at the level he had before. He was now likely 38 years old, and though he bounced through many more teams, including affiliates of the Dodgers, Tigers, Giants and Orioles, he never got the big league call.
Still, it’s undeniable that he had a major league quality bat. To give you an idea of exactly how good he was, here are the average 162-seasons for Williams and the other two players were part of that ill-fated tryout at Fenway Park in 1945, using only their Negro Leagues statistics.
One slight difference between them was that Williams’ Philadelphia Stars team played in the Negro National League while Robinson’s Monarchs and Jethroe’s Buckeyes were in the Negro American League, but the quality of play was the same. It’s clear that Williams was at least the same caliber of hitter as two major league Rookies of the Year, and he was only 25-years old (or 22) at the time of the tryout. Had anyone bothered to sign him, there’s little doubt he would have hit major league pitching, too. I mean, why not? He hit everywhere else he played.
After baseball, Williams spent twenty years working for Sears Roebuck. He and his wife Gloria, who he met while playing in Mexico, raised two sons in Virginia and then back in Conroe, Texas, north of Houston where Williams had been raised. They lived quietly there, with Williams taking his sons fishing and coaching their little league teams, but saying so little about his baseball career that his sons weren’t even aware how good he was until only a few years before his passing in 2000.
Buck O’Neil once said of Marvin Williams, “He could hit that ball. He had a sweet bat.”
As usual, Buck was right.
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