The baseball world is today mourning the loss of Joseph “Raging Joe” Williams. The former Atlanta Braves star died peacefully in his home yesterday, aged seventy-three. He is survived by his wife, Marsha.
In today’s sporting landscape, where loyalty is traded for multi-million-dollar paychecks, where political activism grabs more headlines than on-field performance, and where press conferences involving players apologising for criminal activity are the norm, it is worth looking back on the career of a true sporting hero.
Joe Williams was the youngest of eight children. His family moved to Louisville when he was twelve years old, but, unable to track them down, Williams remained in Atlantic City. He grew up on the streets, under the guidance of drug dealer (later Congressman), Ernie Munchley. Munchley instilled in Williams an entrepreneurial savvy, a devout religious faith and a love of baseball.
When Williams was eighteen he blackmailed his way into a job as team statistician for now-defunct minor league outfit, the East Brunswick Demon Mice. Before a late-season game, after the team’s two best players had just quit to pursue truck-driving careers, Coach Doyle Patterson tossed Williams a uniform and said, “You Cubans know how to play ball—get out there and try not to screw up.”
Williams was not Cuban, but neither was he going to let this opportunity pass—he suited up and took the field. The crowd that day witnessed the birth of a legend. The unusually tanned Welshman hit nine home runs, including a five-hundred foot grand slam to win the game.
Scouts from around the nation flocked to see Williams in action, and before long it was the Braves secured his coveted signature. Fans turned out in force to catch a glimpse of their new idol, and Williams delivered highlight after highlight. In his first major league season he hit fifty-one home runs, pitched eight no-hitters and became the first player to steal second base by running back from third. And all this despite his refusal, for religious reasons, to play past the third inning of any game.
Williams was not only a star on the field, he was a man of character off it. His team mate Reuben Burghoff gave Williams the nickname “Raging Joe” as a joke, on account of his gentle nature; the rest of the team continued using the name after learning Williams hated it. He was friendly with fans, generous to charity, and a devoted husband (Williams was one of only three Braves players to complete that season without contracting a venereal disease).
After four scintillating seasons with the Braves, Williams’s career was tragically cut short by boredom. He no longer had any passion for the game, reportedly telling team mates, “The games are too long. And I get sunburned.”
It was the end of Joe Williams the ball player, but the beginning of Joe Williams the businessman. After retiring from baseball, he declined job offers as a commentator, and as spokesman for a leading brand of cereal, instead investing in a restaurant. Within a year his became the first KFC outlet to be awarded a Michelin star.
In his later years we never heard much of old Joe; he never chased the limelight. With that sort of humility, the current crop of overpaid celebrity athletes could learn a thing or two from Joe Williams, one of our last great sporting role models.
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