Robert 'Rosel' Williams
Rosel Williams stepped on to the baseball field in his first organized game at the age of 8. Some 60 years later, Williams is still caught up in the sport of baseball.
Williams grew up in Ninety Six during a time when baseball was king. The Ninety Six Chiefs were a strong competitor in the Textile Leagues and the Ninety Six Blue Jays were taking the field against independent Negro League teams across the South.
William's uncle, Zeke Butler, managed the Blue Jays and gave Williams his first break in baseball when he let him play in a game against the grownups in Leesville. Just an eight-year-old, Williams played first base for an inning. It was enough to hook him on the sport for life.
That game also brought Williams his first recorded out. The batter hit the ball in front of the plate and Williams' team's catcher picked up the ball and threw it to Williams on a bounce.
"I remember watching him throw it on the bounce and thinking, 'Man, why are you doing that to me?'," Williams said, laughing as he recalls that game. "God must have been with me because that ball bounced right in that glove."
When he wasn't playing, Williams found other duties at the ball field to keep him occupied. He took care of the bats and he held wallets for his team's players. "They must have trusted me," Williams said. "I used to have wallets in every pocket."
It wasn't unusual for the Blue Jays to play against teams like Tryon, N.C., Asheville, N.C., Washington, D.C., Columbia, Spartanburg, Greenville, Laurens, Clinton, Joanna, McCormick, Due West and Greenwood. Usually the team would play a doubleheader on Saturdays and another game on Monday nights. "We played everybody we could," Williams said.
Williams' skills in baseball took him to South Carolina State where he was recruited to play both baseball and football. However, Williams had aspirations of a professional career and his baseball coach had connections in the Negro League to help make the dream a reality.
Prior to the 1954 season, William's coach set up a tryout. Williams impressed the owner of the Birmingham Black Barons and he found himself on the field in professional baseball. Williams said he owes a great deal to his coach from S.C. State for the opportunity. "I loved my coach and I know he loved me," Williams said.
Williams spent that spring and summer playing against teams like the Kansas City Monarchs, the Indianapolis Clowns, the Memphis Red Sox, the Detroit Stars and the Homestead Grays. The biggest change for Williams came with the paycheck he received.
"I got paid. I had money to spend. I had money to send home," Williams recalls.
But his manager, Willie Wells, a member of Baseball's Hall of Fame, pulled Williams aside and taught him some valuable lessons in money. While other players went out and spent their money as soon as they got paid, Williams learned, from Wells, how to save up his money.
"We played the same position, shortstop." Williams said. His respect for Wells becomes obvious as his eyes fill with tears when he talks about the Negro League legend who died in 1989.
For the Barons, life revolved around the bus. The team traveled from game to game on bus and played "seven days a week and a double-header on Sundays," Williams says. The team lived on the bus, laughed on the bus and listened to some good music, he said. "We had a GOOD quartet on that bus," Williams said.
"We might come to Greenwood and play one night. Then we would load up the bus and go to Charlotte and play a game. Then the next day, we'd be in Detroit for a couple of games," Williams says. "We just kept traveling all over."
The way the Negro Leagues teams played against each other is a stark contrast to today's home stands and road trips. "We'd pick up a team and we'd play that team for a week -- everywhere," Williams said. "Both teams would load up their buses and head to the next town."
Some of the places were Negro League teams played didn't offer all the usual features of a hometown stadium.
"Sometimes we'd have to dress behind the grandstands," Williams says. "Sometimes the places wouldn't have showers for after the game."
But for Williams and others, it was a chance to be a part of the game. "I was doing what I loved to do. I was playing baseball. I was traveling. I was getting paid too," he said, smiling and clapping his hands together.
The teams in the Negro League also got the chance to play against Major League or AAA teams in exhibitions. When asked if the Negro Leagues teams won most of those exhibitions, Williams smiles slyly and says, "You know it."
The exhibitions also showed a difference between the heavily bankrolled Major League teams and the Negro Leagues. Major League rosters carried teams of at least 24 players.
"We traveled with about 14 guys," Williams said. "When our pitchers weren't pitching, they were usually playing in the outfield."
Some of Williams' teammates made a name for themselves in Negro League baseball or went to play in the Major Leagues. The team's catcher was Pepper Bailey, a player who used a little rocking chair to catch games. Bailey had been involved in one of the Negro League's biggest trades earlier in his career. Bailey and another player had been traded from the Homestead Grays to the Pittsburgh Crawfords for Josh Gibson and Judy Johnson.
The team's first baseman was Doc Dennis, a player the Giants had been interested in at one time.
"That's who the Giants came down to get when they got Willie Mays," Williams said. "Doc should be in the Hall of Fame."
Others included Curly Williams and William Reeder, Williams' roommate on the Barons. Even the team's bus driver was a Negro League legend. "Henry Kimbro was the bus driver," Williams said. "He looked mean, but he was one of the sweetest guys you ever met."
Williams said Kimbro would suit up and play for the Barons when they played in exhibitions against Major League or minor league teams.
Goose Tatum also played some at first base for the Barons. Tatum would make a name for himself as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. "Sometimes Tatum would play first base with the glove on his foot," Williams said. "We had all kinds of ways to draw people to a ball game."
The teams would draw nice crowds to games, William says, but league management always kept an eye on the attendance and the team revenue.
Williams' season in the Negro League ended when he received a call to duty with the military. He stayed in the Army for two years and played on military baseball teams. "I hit .450 one year and was leading again in batting the next," Williams says.
That season season in the Army, however, ended in a way that affected the rest of Williams' career in baseball. When he slid into second during a game, Williams broke his leg in one of the freak accidents that sometimes happens in baseball.
After getting out of the Army, the Cincinnati Reds had offered him a shot with them during Spring Training. However, the leg injury led to the team releasing Williams before the season started. "I was hitting the ball -- I tell you what's the truth," he recalls. "I just don't think they wanted to take any chances. They said I had bad wheels."
Today, Williams lives in Ninety Six. He is often found at the nearby recreation department's baseball fields where he volunteers to keep the grass cut for the youth to play on. Williams also gets together with other area baseball players to put on clinics for youth.