“We Don’t Want Any”

Lefty Williams

In the movie “Eight Men Out” there is a wonderfully subtle scene between Swede Risberg (Don Harvey) and Lefty Williams (James Read). Risberg is pitching the fix to Williams when we hear the voice of Williams’ wife (Nancy Travis) ask who’s at the door. Williams responds it’s a salesman and the wife replies that Williams should tell him “we don’t want any.”  It’s subtle because Risberg is actually selling something: the fix. Mrs. Williams is, in a throw off manner, offering excellent advice.  Every time I see the movie I mutter to myself, “Listen to your wife, Lefty.” He never does.

Claude Williams was born in Southwest Missouri in 1893. There seems to be a general belief that the 1919 White Sox were split along geographical lines with the Southerners and the Northerners squaring off in some replay of the Civil War. Ain’t so. Only Joe Jackson was from the South. None of the others were from anywhere near the South except for Williams. He was from one of those border states that tore itself apart during the 1860s. Four of the counties in deep southwest Missouri were evacuated and turned into something like a free fire zone by the Federal Government during the Civil War. The idea was that anyone found in those counties was a bushwhacker and subject to immediate arrest and/or execution. After the war the returned citizens in those counties became some of the biggest supporters of anti-government rebels (and general thugs) like Cole Younger and Jesse James. Williams’ family, from Aurora, came from one of those counties. I don’t know how seriously they identified with the South, but I suspect it had an impact on their son.

Williams became one of the rarest of baseball commodities, a good left-handed pitcher. He played semipro ball in Springfield, Missouri, starred in the Appalachian League, and was picked up by Detroit in 1913. He wasn’t an instant success going 1-4 over two years and picking up a save. He had a good curve, but neither his control nor the curve were what the Tigers wanted. They sent him to Sacramento after one game in 1914. He spent the rest of the season there, then slid over to Salt Lake City for 1915. He pitched well enough in Salt Lake (33 wins and 294 strikeouts) to get the attention of the White Sox.

He debuted in Chicago in 1916 and was a lot better than he’d been at Detroit. With better control and a wicked curve he became a staple of the ChiSox staff. He was 30-15 over two seasons, pitched a lot of innings, but didn’t finish many games. In the 1917 World Series he pitched in one game (one inning). He gave up a run on two hits and struck out three.

In 1918, he joined Jackson, his roommate, and others doing Naval shipyard work in lieu of joining the military. I’ve hit this before in other posts, so I’m not going into detail about it here. He was back for 1919 and won 20 games for the first time (23). He was third in innings pitched, first in games pitched, and for the only time in a full season had an ERA+ over 100 (121). The Sox went to the World Series for the second time in three seasons. Williams started and lost three games. In 1920 he was off to a 22-14 start with a huge ERA and led the American League in home runs allowed when the Black Sox scandal broke. Along with the other players he was acquitted by a jury but banned by baseball.

Williams, as with the rest of the Black Sox, played outlaw ball. He continued playing through 1927. He moved to California and opened a landscaping business and nursery. It was reasonably successful and provided both financial stability and a life away from the harsh glare of the scandal. He died in 1959.

There is a story in Asinof’s “Eight Men Out” that a gambler threatened Williams the night before game eight that the gambler would shoot Williams’ wife if Williams survived the first inning (it’s also in the movie). Asinof, years later, admitted he made up the story to catch plagiarism. I guess that’s so. The story always worried me, but you never know. In my book, Williams has been one of the more sympathetic figures in the Black Sox Scandal (at least as far as any of these jerks can be sympathetic). He seems to have agreed to throw the World Series, gotten a little cold feet, overrode them and decided that the money was good, eventually overriding his conscience. I have to admit that I’ve done that too (overrode my conscience, not thrown the Series). Still, Lefty, you shoulda listened to your wife.

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5 Responses to ““We Don’t Want Any””

  1. William Miller Says:

    Very nice. Cole Younger, the Civil War, and Eight Men Out all in the same post. My kind of subject matter.
    Nice job, Bill

  2. Kevin Graham Says:

    I read somewhere that Lefty Williams was never threatened by any gamblers, but I didn’t know that Asinof just made it up.
    I always felt that if Joe Jackson had flat out refused to get involved with the fix that Lefty Williams would have backed out as well.

    kevin

  3. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    I’m from Missouri. With all due respect, people in the part of the state don’t ‘”idenitify” with the south. They are southern. As much as anyone from Mississippi.

    Trust me on that one.

    I grew up in Cass County, the home of the Youngers and James boys. They still aren’t considered thugs. They are folk heroes to this day.

    Yeah, I know what that says about us, but the Border War sill lives.

    Redlegs are still among us.

    • verdun2 Says:

      At the risk of reigniting the Civil War, I’ll take your word for the Southern part of it, but I’ll remind you the people of Northfield, Minnesota might have a different view of the James and Younger brothers.
      v

  4. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    Did you know it was actually known as the Younger/James Gang at one time. Then, mostly because of Jesse’s personality, it changed to the James Gang.

    Wow, media bias in the 1870’s. Who knew?

    But yeah, god point about the raid. Cole wasn’t exactly a fallen angel. He was a bad, bad man.

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