Monday, January 26, 2009
Frank Williams, baseball pitcher (1958-2009)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 26, 2009
Frank Williams, given up for adoption at birth, overcame his unpromising beginning to become a major-league pitcher. Hard work took him to the apex of his sport, but good fortune soured after he suffered injuries in a car wreck. His fall from baseball grace was sudden, his personal decline a much longer affair. He spent his final days on the streets of Victoria, where he was known as an alcoholic.
A popular figure blessed with a winning personality, Mr. Williams told a story as well as he threw a pitch.
His later years could be dismissed for having been lost to substance abuse. Yet the years he spent on Vancouver Island at the end of his playing career were ones in which he explored his aboriginal roots, forging extended family connections among the Nuu-chah-nulth nations along the West Coast.
A humble demeanour and modesty about his own talent did not earn Mr. Williams a prominent profile as a major-league pitcher. In 333 games, he had but one assignment as a starter, during which he threw a complete-game shut out. The San Francisco Giants, Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers all used the right-hander as a middle reliever. The role lacks glamour, but insiders recognize the importance of maintaining a lead, or preventing the opposition from turning a narrow advantage into a rout. Mr. Williams performed his job with quiet competence.
He came into the world accompanied by a twin brother with whom he would forge a bond beyond that with any other person. Born to a tubercular mother, who already had seven children at home, the boys were left to be named by the staff at a Seattle hospital. One was named Frank, the other Francis.
They would not know the story of their origins for many years to come. Their first four years were spent in a series of foster homes, including one in which they were so underfed Frank Williams would later remember stealing dry dog food from a cupboard.
The twins were rescued from a Dickensian fate by being taken into the comfortable middle-class home of a Boeing aircraft engineer. Dick McCullough, born with a withered right arm, believed in sports as an outlet for children. One spring morning, the Williams boys awoke to receive an Easter basket containing a baseball and a glove.
They grew up in Kirkland, Wash., a Seattle suburb that billed itself as Baseball Town USA. Frank became a star pitcher, Francis his catcher on sandlot diamonds. The boys found an identity on the diamond, though they struggled as teenagers to understand their own place in the world. They were foster children carrying the family name of a biological father they had never met.
With copper skin and moon faces, they knew they looked unlike their teammates. “We didn't even know we were native,” Frank Williams told me eight years ago. “We had wavy hair and afros. We knew we weren't white.”
As a teenager, Frank Williams was picked to join a combined team representing Kirkland in the senior Babe Ruth League tournament. The team won city, state and regional titles before winning a national championship at Sicks' Stadium in Seattle in August, 1975.
As the twins prepared to set out on their own, they made a solemn pact. “We shook hands,” Mr. Williams said. “Whoever makes it looks after the other.”
He attended Shoreline Community College in Seattle before being lured to Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, where coach Ed Cheff ran a stellar baseball program. In helping his recruit apply for financial aid, the coach learned the family background was as elusive as a knuckleball. Eventually, relatives were found at a Seattle housing project. It was then the boys learned of their aboriginal heritage, discovering as well an extended family with roots extending to Vancouver Island.
In one season with the Warriors, Mr. Williams lost more games than he won. He walked more batters than he struck out, but his earned-run average remained low because college opponents could not get around on a fastball usually timed at about 90 miles an hour.
At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he had the size and the speed to attract the attention of scouts in spite of his disconcerting wildness around the plate. The Giants chose him in the 11th round, No. 278 overall, of the 1979 free-agent draft.
In the minors, he pitched at Great Falls, Mont.; Fresno, Calif.; Shreveport, La.; and, Phoenix. He struggled with control, leading the Pioneer League in hit batsmen in 1979, the California League in hit batsmen in 1981, and the Texas League in hit batsmen in 1982. While these beanings did not win him any friends among opponents, it showed a tough-nosed willingness to pitch inside. He began to strike out enough batters to earn a call-up to the big-league club.
While his fastball was good but not domineering, he became a much more effective hurler with mastery of a pitch in which the ball was held deep in the palm of his right hand. The ball was thrown as a curve, but acted on the way to the plate as a slider. The Williams' slurve, as it was called, fooled many a batter left swinging at empty air.
In his third season, Mr. Williams enjoyed a 3-1 record with a miserly 1.20 earned-run average. Hardly anyone noticed. “He had as quiet a great year as any pitcher alive,” noted Bill Mazeroski's Baseball, a respected annual.
The Giants traded him to the Reds for outfielder Eddie Milner in the off-season. Mr. Williams joined lefties Rob Murphy and John Franco as part of a superb bullpen staff.
(Fifteen months after the trade, Mr. Milner would be suspended for cocaine use. This would later give rise to the contention the clubs had swapped troubled players.) By this time, Mr. Williams was earning nearly $500,000 per season and had gotten married. Despite the newfound riches, he had a wild side. His college coach remembers watching in disbelief as the pitcher risked his livelihood by taking part in Tough Guy boxing competitions during the long Idaho winter.
Things were not well in Cincinnati, as the gambling of manager Pete Rose had come under scrutiny. Mr. Williams would later tell reporters about unsavoury characters hanging around the manager's office.
He was let go after the 1988 season and appeared in 42 games with the Tigers in 1989 before being released.
He then broke a bone in his neck and needed plastic surgery to repair his face after smashing into the windshield in a car wreck.
When his marriage collapsed, Mr. Williams moved to Vancouver Island, where he connected with his father's family at the Tseshaht First Nation at Port Alberni.
In 1992, a comeback attempt with an amateur team in Victoria fell far short. He worked in construction and did some house painting. His brother, who had suffered spinal nerve damage from a bicycle spill, joined him in the British Columbia capital. The injury made walking difficult for Francis. The brothers lamented they could no longer play catch.
In 2000, the Victoria fire department received an early morning call about a drug overdose at a notorious flophouse. Frank Williams was discovered unconscious on a filthy hallway floor. He stopped breathing, but was revived. One of the firefighters, Mark Perkins, recognized Mr. Williams. As it turned out, Mr. Perkins had pitched for the same Idaho college several years prior to Mr. Williams's arrival.
A few days later, Mr. Perkins returned to the flophouse with Walt Burrows, the Canadian supervisor for Major League Baseball's Scouting Bureau. Mr. Burrows slipped a business card under the door, while Mr. Perkins left one of Mr. Williams's baseball cards. The former pitcher was put in touch with the Baseball Assistance Team, a chartable group that aids ballplayers who have fallen on hard times.
Mr. Williams explained the overdose by insisting he had mistakenly snorted heroin instead of the cocaine for which he had asked.
In 2004, Francis was killed when his basement apartment caught fire. The death troubled Frank Williams, who blamed himself for not being with his brother. In time, he became more of a street person, scavenging metal and kicking around downtown drop-in centres for the homeless. He earned pocket money by signing baseball cards at a downtown shop.
Ill from pneumonia, Mr. Williams went into a coma after suffering a heart attack. He died in hospital without regaining consciousness. Abandoned at birth, in death his bed was surrounded by family.
Frank Lee Williams was born Feb. 13, 1958, in Seattle, Wash. He died Jan. 9, 2009, at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. He was 50. He is survived by a son, a daughter, and two granddaughters. He also leaves a sister, Ida Rudick, of Alaska. He was predeceased by his parents, by his twin brother Francis, and by other half-siblings.
A memorial service was held Jan. 14 at a Port Alberni reserve. Elders spoke highly of the former athlete. A videotape included highlights of his pitching, as well as tributes from such baseball personnel as Mr. Rose. Mr. Williams was also shown visiting first nations villages, as the onetime major leaguer provided inspiration for aspiring athletes. Among the many mourners was the Victoria firefighter who had once helped save the life of a fellow pitcher.