Chances are, even the most dedicated Minnesota baseball fans have never heard of Billy Williams. Neither did St. Paul historian Frank White, until Williams' name emerged while White was researching the greats of Black baseball in Minnesota.
But White learned that Williams, a pioneering ballplayer from the 1890s and early 1900s, became a beacon in the community for more than his exploits on the diamond.
From 1905 to 1957, Williams worked as an aide for 14 consecutive Minnesota governors, becoming the longest-serving Capitol employee in state history. Thanks to White's research and advocacy, state officials recognized Williams' legacy Friday and the St. Paul Saints are honoring him Saturday.
White, a longtime Parks and Recreation official who has become a historian of Black baseball, said Williams' talent, loyalty and abilities transcended race and politics.
"Today, that would never happen, right?" White said of working with Democrat, Republican and Farmer-Labor governors. "You'll find that he was very well-respected. But how many people know who Billy Williams was?"
Derek Sharrer, vice president and general manager of the Saints, credits White for shining the light.
"On an annual basis we sit down with Frank and say, 'What's next? What story has not been told? What story needs to be told?'" Sharrer said. "The Billy Williams story is just incredible. ... We're excited to be able to highlight his life."
According to an article White wrote in the Spring 2023 issue of Ramsey County History, William Frank "Billy" Williams was born Oct. 24, 1877, in St. Paul to George B.S. Williams, who was Black, and Barbara Schmitt Williams, who was white. He was the fifth of six children. His father worked as a janitor, occasionally finding work aboard steamboats. His mother took in laundry.
But, when Billy was still little, his father left. One account had him walking with Billy to the river landing before patting his son on the head and boarding a steamboat, never to return.
As a student at Mechanic Arts High School, Williams starred in multiple sports — but baseball was his favorite. Even in high school, he played for several town semipro teams, including the Spaldings and the Hamm's Exports. His reputation as a power-hitting first baseman and outfielder grew, and he was regularly recruited to play for teams across the region — often the only Black player on the squad. Eventually, White said, Williams would play for more than 30 teams.
He was even hired for games against the Minneapolis Millers and St. Paul Saints.
But while Williams earned money through baseball — and likely had the talent to make it to the big leagues — White said organized professional baseball's prohibition against Black players meant his future was limited.
He declined an offer from one team executive willing to sign Williams, White said, provided he told people he was Native American. Williams refused.
In 1904, the newly elected governor of Minnesota, John A. Johnson, who'd seen Williams on the ballfields, offered him a job. He started working as a "messenger" or aide in the governor's reception room in January 1905. It was a job he would hold for another 52 years, walking every day from his home in the Rondo neighborhood to the State Capitol.
While White said there is little documentation detailing Williams' duties or conversations, he was credited with designing a vault to store the governor's documents. And he was said to have helped subsequent governors keep their schedules, remember visitors' names and even give advice when they had questions concerning the Black community, White said.
In 1920, after three Black men accused of rape were taken from jail and lynched by a mob in Duluth, Williams contacted a Black lawyer he knew in Bemidji. Williams urged him to go to Duluth, White said, and he helped win the release of several other Black men who'd been accused.
While Williams continued playing baseball on weekends or vacations for several years, it was his work — and longevity — at the Capitol that's extraordinary, White said.
Evelyn Hill's recollections of her father's uncle had nothing to do with baseball. "He was the grand old fellow with the cigar, just a highly respected elder," Hill said. "He was a fine gentleman."
While she'd heard he turned down an offer to play in the pros, she said White's research was enlightening about his life as a player and with the state. She said she's excited for Saturday's ceremonies.
"I think it's tremendous that both [the Saints] and the Ramsey County Historical Society would recognize him and his accomplishments," Hill said. "By this article being published, I learned more about Uncle Will."
So, too, did St. Paul schools Superintendent Joe Gothard. Thanks to White's research, Gothard learned a few years ago that Williams was his great-grandmother's uncle.
"I knew she had St. Paul connections," Gothard said. "But I knew very little about what those were. Frank connected me with a piece of my past I never knew existed."
Gothard will also be at the Saints game Saturday to see the uncle he never met — Williams died in 1963 — honored for the life he led.
"I am inspired, knowing he was truly one of a kind in the state, if not the nation," he said. "It's a story that needs to be told."
Gothard said he feels a powerful connection to his inspirational great uncle. He also has a Black father and a white mother. And he also strives to live his life with conviction and purpose.
When he looks at photos of Williams, "I see me. That's very powerful. It's made me recognize that's where I'm supposed to be."