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Close to home

As the playoffs begin, a bay area baseball fan talks about his family’s deep roots in the sport.

By AL WILLIAMS as told to JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published October 5, 2006


I was born at home, as a lot of black folks were in 1928, in a St. Petersburg community known as the Gas Plant. Tropicana Field, home of the Devil Rays, is there today. You know, we lived pretty close to where home plate is now.

I love baseball. Always have. I’ll be watching the playoffs and the World Series. I’m hoping for a subway series, the Mets against the Yankees. I’ll root for the Yankees, though the Yankees don’t need any rooters. They’ve got it all this year.  

I’m a Yankee fan because of my daddy, Alfred Williams Sr. He moved to St. Pete in 1924 and went to work at a barber shop shining shoes. His boss told him Alfred was too dignified a name for a Negro, so when daddy opened his own business a few years later he called it Bill’s Shoe Service.’

He shined shoes and repaired shoes for more than 40 years in the Magnolia Arcade, just off Central Avenue. In the old days, when I was a boy, the New York Yankee ballplayers stayed at the Princess Martha Hotel across the street during spring training. They’d walk through Magnolia Arcade on their way to Central Avenue. That’s how my daddy got to know Babe Ruth.

He knew all the ball players. Lou Gehrig. Tony Lazzeri. Lefty Gomez.  He and Lefty Gomez became close friends, unusual in that day and age, black and white. Daddy shined their shoes, fixed their shoes, you name it.

I don’t know if this will look good in print, but I’ll tell you a family story about Babe Ruth. He used to take a couple of big swigs from a bottle of rye my mother, Essie , hid for him behind the counter. The Babe would then walk on over to a bar called the Jockey Club on Central. He’d have only one drink, and the other players, and the sports writers, would say, “Look at that! The Babe is cutting down on his drinking!’’ But he wasn’t. He had the bottle waiting in the shoe shop.

I was 6 or 7 when I started working in the shop. The Babe, and the other players, would walk through the arcade and toss  us kids a baseball or two. Wish I had them now. They’d be worth something. My brother Clifford and I would take our balls right down to Campbell Park and get a game going. We kids would be playing a sandlot game with a ball given to us by Babe Ruth.

I worked a lot. Every day after school I’d ride my bike from Gibbs High to Central, grab the back of the street car, and get a tow downtown. Then I’d pick up or deliver shoes for Daddy. I had two big baskets that straddled the back wheel.

My brother and I learned how to shine shoes. By the time we were in high school we were finished shoemakers.

My brother and I were pretty good  ballplayers. Clifford was a shortstop and I was a  centerfielder. We played professional baseball in the Florida Negro League for the St. Petersburg Pelicans when we were teens. We played our games at Campbell Park, less than a mile away from old Al Lang Field, where the white pro team, the St. Petersburg Saints, played their games.

If you were on the Saints, you could dream about playing in the major leagues one day. But if you were a Pelican, you couldn’t, not back then. In fact, during spring training, if you were black, you couldn’t even attend a major league spring-training game in St. Petersburg. Not allowed.

My daddy had bigger plans than baseball for all of us. Daddy believed in hard work. He was self-educated. He used to say he had never sat in a classroom in his life. He wanted more for his two sons and his two daughters.
He made sure we all went to college. My sisters Connie and Dianne graduated from Hampton University in Virginia.   My brother attended Tuskegee in Alabama. I went to Morehouse, the black Harvard, in Atlanta.

While I was in Atlanta, Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color barrier. It was an incredible thing. After that, black people were allowed to attend spring training games in St. Petersburg. We weren’t allowed to sit in the stands or the bleachers with the white customers. They roped off the outfield from foul line to foul line and we sat there.

Black major-league players couldn’t even stay at white hotels during spring training. My daddy knew a lot of people; he was known as “the black mayor of St. Petersburg,’’ so he was asked if he could help.

Both the Cardinals and the Yankees trained in St. Pete back then. So we had the pitcher, Sad Sam Jones of the Cardinals, staying at our house. We had the first baseman Bill White, later the president of the National League, and the pitcher Bob Gibson, who’s in the Hall of Fame. We had Elston Howard, the catcher of the Yankees. One of Elston’s daughters was born in our home. At one time we had 13 players living with us or at my grandmother’s house.

All the players loved my mother’s cooking. She made a really good beef roast. Sometimes Casey Stengel , the Yankee manager, came over to the house. He’d say, “I need to talk to these ballplayers,’’ and he’d wink at my mother. We all knew he came for dinner.

After Morehouse, I graduated from the New York School of Mechanical Dentistry. I was an orthodontist in Atlanta for many years. I loved the Braves. I was passionate about the Braves. You know what? The Devil Rays remind me of the Braves when the Braves were getting started, with lots of young players with great potential. My wife, Lois, and I have season tickets to the Rays.

My daddy had a stroke in 1971. He was waiting on a customer and suddenly stopped talking. He died a few weeks later. He was only 67. My brother took over the shop and ran it until 1995.

I moved back to St. Petersburg in 2000 because I wanted to play golf every day. I am also a licensed mortgage broker and help coach golf at Gibbs. I have trouble sitting still, you know. I always have something going. It’s just how my daddy raised us. No sitting around.

I will relax with a ball game. I’ll watch every game through the end of the World Series. I’m not one of those people who watches just an inning or two and goes to sleep. I watch the whole game.

My wife doesn’t mind watching a game at the ballpark, but she doesn’t like watching a game on television. She’ll be watching C-Span on her television. She likes to follow politics. She gets mad at the president about Iraq, but I don’t know if we can leave Iraq now. It’s a big mess.

Anyway. What was I saying? Baseball. Any other questions about baseball? Baseball is an interesting topic, but one of these days I want to tell you about my music. I started playing trumpet in high school. I still have a band. Jazz. We call ourselves the Versatiles. Want to see a few pictures of the band?

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.