ROONEY’S FIRST GAME: St. Croix’s Rooney Williams Was Once A Top Major League Baseball Pitching Talent For The San Francisco Giants
MASTER PITCHER: Rooney Williams of Gallows Bay describes one of the scenes from his life in baseball.
CHRISTIANSTED — Someday you might see Rooney Williams sitting at Seaside Market & Deli eating breakfast.
Williams wears blue jeans, a white t-shirt, dark sunglasses (he needs cataract surgery) and has a little stubble on his bald head.
He carries a bag with him with some spare clothes and tools — (because he does odd plumbing jobs on the side to make money.)
He’s wiry-thin, has an easy smile and is 73 years old now. People walk by and say “Hi Ronny” and “Hey Rudy” but he doesn’t correct them — he just says “hi” back.
But what you don’t know about Rooney Williams is that he was a top pitching prospect for the San Francisco Giants in 1962.
At the age of 45, the lefthander was born at 20B Hospital Street in Christiansted and led the St. Croix Crucians to back-to-back national 40+ baseball championships in New Orleans in 1989 and 1990.
In one of the 1990 games in Louisiana, Rooney Williams threw a perfect game — striking out nearly all of the batters he faced — and walking none.
In 1991, although the team didn’t three-peat, Williams remembers that he faced a batter for the Chicago Braves who used an aluminum bat.
Rooney Williams threw so hard — even at the age of 47 — that he shattered the aluminum bat when the Braves’ player tried to hit his fastball.
“He kept asking me for $20 for a new bat,” Williams remembers. “He asked me once during the game and once after the game. If I was smart, I would have bought it from him as a souvenir.”
Rooney Williams says he was born on Hospital Street across from the former gas station that is now an outdoor Mexican food bar and restaurant.
Why you don’t know this about Rooney Williams is that his career was cut short by the times, injuries and … believe or not … a lack of food.
A good story for people to read when they are listening to generators and wondering where there next drink of clean water or taste of hot food will come from.
Williams says he was scouted locally by the legendary Alphonso “Piggy” Gerard who is the only Virgin Islander to play in the historic Negro Leagues.
Turns out Gerard told Pedrin Zorilla, a scout from Santurce, Puerto Rico about the pitching talents of one Rooney Williams. (Today, an arena in San Juan, Puerto Rico is named after Zorilla).
Next thing you know, Rooney is taking a Pan American Airlines flight direct to New York.
Asked if he was nervous about beginning to play for the Salem Rebels near Roanoke, Virginia, Williams said “No.”
“It was doing what I was born to do,” Rooney says. “I loved to play baseball. We used to throw 300 pitches a day. I never got tired.”
But getting to Virginia was more difficult than it needed to be for Williams.
The commuter flight from New York to Virginia was little more than a puddle jump. The flight from New York City to Norfolk, Virginia went off without a hitch.
But the team was in Salem, near Roanoke, Virginia — so there was one last leg to go on the commuter airline.
But when Williams told the flight attendant that he was going to “Salem,” the airline put him on a flight to North Carolina rather than Salem Virginia (in those days they didn’t always check the tickets). Not only that, but the airline “lost” his luggage from St. Croix.
“If I had known that Norfolk and Roanoke were so close, I would have just taken a taxi,” Rooney remembers. “But I was 18 years old. And this was my first time away from home.”
Williams left the airport in a taxi and asked the driver to take him to a good restaurant … (he still didn’t know that he was in North Carolina rather than Virginia.)
The taxi driver, probably for spite, took him to a predominately “white” restaurant.
As soon as he entered the restaurant, Rooney said he noticed: all eyes were on him. He noticed that there were some black people eating at the back of the restaurant, but he did not acknowledge them.
Eventually, the owner of the restaurant came over to talk to Rooney Williams.
“You a stranger here,” the restaurant owner said. It was more of a statement than a question.
“I just want to get something to eat,” Williams admitted. “I’m real hungry after a long flight.”
“I bet you are Sonny Jim,” the restaurant owner said. “But you’re going to have to move to the back like everyone else and we’ll take your order there.”
Rooney Williams said: “No.” “I’m not interested in eating there, I’m fine right where I am.”
“I’m sorry,” the restaurant owner said. “I can’t do that.”
“You know, where I’m from in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, they tell us when you people come there — we must treat you right — and we do.”
Unmoved, the restaurant owner said: “If you promise to take your food out of the restaurant when you get it, you can wait here for it.”
“That’s not good enough,” Rooney Williams said. “I won’t do that. I’ll stay here and eat it right here.”
“Then I can’t serve you,” the restaurant owner said. “I’m sorry. Those are the rules.”
When Rooney realized they were at an impasse, he got up and made a move for the door, but not before the restaurant owner again made him the offer of serving him “take out” to the table where he was sitting. Rooney refused. He left the restaurant.
Almost directly across the street, Rooney noticed a juke box was playing music and that the business appeared to be a place with only black people inside.
He went there. Inside he saw some fried chicken that looked delicious. It was just what he was craving.
“I’ll take that,” Rooney is laughing as he remembers this. “Isn’t that something? What a story!”
After eating, Rooney says he walked the streets until dusk and was surprised at how early they roll up the sidewalks in the South. He said that because the airline had lost his luggage, it wasn’t immediately obvious to people that he was not from there.
“There was no one on the streets,” Williams remembers. “Absolutely no one.”
Suddenly, a police car approached him.
“You’re a stranger in this town,” a voice called out to him from the patrol car, again more of a statement than a question.
“I came here to play baseball,” Rooney told the two police officers, he was relieved to notice that one of them was black.
“There’s no baseball here,” one of the officers told Rooney. “Get in the car.”
Rooney said the two police officers were kind to him and drove him to the bus station and even paid his bus fare for his return trip to the airport.
“They told the bus driver: ‘This here’s a baseball prospect. We want you to treat him well,” Rooney remembers. “They even told the bus driver to let me sit in the front of the bus.”
When he finally returned to the airport and the airline that sent him to the wrong “Salem” — he saw the flight attendant who had made the mistake.
Rooney remembers the flight attendant’s mistake as an honest one.
But it was a mistake that because of the times — Jim Crow America in the Deep South — could have cost him his life.
The flight attendant was so embarrassed by her mistake that she bought Rooney a hot dog and coffee while he waited for a flight back to Virginia.
He wasn’t used to eating junk food, having grown up in Gallows Bay, but he ate the food and remembered now that he could have eaten a lot more more because he was hungry.
When Rooney got to the correct Salem, “The Rebels” were off on a road trip.
Williams spent the next two days in the guest house he was assigned by the team, waiting for the Rebels to return.
“I drank nothing but water for two days,” Rooney remembers. “I was so thirsty. Nothing to eat.”
When the team returned and Rooney Williams met with his manager, who was white, the first thing he did was point to the corner.
“In the corner of the locker room was this old cloth, No. 55, that was my uniform,” Williams said. “I could wrap it around myself four times. I said to myself: ‘Who was big enough to fit into this uniform?'”
Rooney said that his manager Alex Cosmides asked him where he was from.
“I said I was from St. Croix, Virgin Islands,” Williams remembers. “Cosmides had a blank look on his face. He said he didn’t know where that was — and he didn’t want to know.”
Asked if he understood the Confederate symbolism of “Rebels” in the Deep South, Williams said: “Yes, I knew what it stood for. But I was just there to play baseball.”
In Rooney’s first game, the Salem Rebels were down seven runs and the bases were loaded when Cosmides decided to put Williams in for his Big League Farm Club debut.
It’s called “mop up” duty in baseball. Sometimes even a position player will be inserted into a game that the manager feels is beyond winning — and he doesn’t want to waste a pitcher’s arm in a losing effort.
“I was the only shaggy dog on the field,” Rooney remembers, referencing the four sizes too big uniform. “Still I was going to make the best of it. Take my best shot. Show them what we’re made of from here.”
Ironically, he was in relief of another Crucian pitcher and fellow Big Leagues prospect, Terrance “Tasco” Martin for his first game.
The Salem Rebels came back to win that Appalachian League game against the Baltimore Orioles farm club team called the Norfolk Tides.
Rooney Williams got a hit in his first at bat; he believes he made an out in the next at bat.
Still, today, when you examine the records for the San Francisco Giants’ Salem Rebels team, they have Rooney Williams playing in nine games. He only remembers playing in two.
“If I played in nine games, that means I was the dominant pitcher on the team, the dominant pitcher in the league,” Williams said, alluding to the fact that the Appalachian League (summer) season was only 69 games long.
Although Rooney Williams would have had to bat at least twice to enter a game in the third or fourth inning and play nine innings — the San Francisco Giants/Salem Rebels post no batting average for Williams — it stands at: 0.00.
In one 40+ baseball series on the mainland, Rooney Williams batting average was over .600.
In his second game, with Rooney Williams starting for the Salem Rebels, he gave up a “squibbler” cue shot between third base and shortstop to the first batter.
The next batter tagged him square, a solid base hit to the outfield. That was all the Rebels manager Cosmides needed to see.
After pitching to two batters in the first inning, Rooney Williams was yanked in favor of a relief pitcher. Maybe one of the quickest exits in baseball pitching history.
After that, Rooney Williams remembers that he developed a debilitating intestinal problem that forced him to be hospitalized in New York.
Rooney Williams never got another chance to make it to the San Francisco Giants in Major League Baseball (MLB).
“The team didn’t actually pay us,” Rooney Williams remembers. “They gave us money for the guest house we stayed in, two to a room. On the road players had to share a bed. The guest house served a breakfast in the morning. I tried to survive the rest of the day drinking soda. To think I could have had a major league career if I had been a little less hungry. Isn’t that funny (he laughs). But I was doing what I loved — playing baseball — and I was never happier than when I was pitching.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME? Rooney Williams says his mother named him after movie star Mickey Rooney. He said that he had two sisters, one was named “Loretta” after Loretta Young and another was named “Maureen” after Maureen O’Hara.