Losing a legend

An old man died in Pittsburgh recently. His name was Wallace Williams, but everyone knew him as “Bucky.”

Bucky Williams would have been 103 if he had lived until Christmas. But time caught up with him in mid-November. His son David wrote about him in a recent issue of the Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper.

Bucky was born in Baltimore in 1906, but his family moved to the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, an Irish and Italian neighborhood at that time.

Bucky’s family was one of only a handful of “colored” families in Homewood, though they shared the same Catholic faith. They lived a short distance from a large Catholic parish in Homewood, but they attended St. Benedict the Moor Church in the Hill District, the traditional black neighborhood.

At the age of 14, when times got tough and his dad was unemployed, Bucky went to work to help support his family. But something else lured Bucky.

Bucky was a baseball player. And soon, his skills were noticed. A shortstop and a third baseman, he became one of the original players of the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro League. This was when black players were, by “gentlemen’s agreement,” kept out of the Major Leagues.

As a member of the Crawfords and the Homestead Grays, Bucky played with and against the legends of the Negro League — “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil and the great Leroy “Satchel” Paige.

Bucky could hit the ball fairly well, but confessed he was not much of a runner. In one season with the Crawfords, he stroked a more-than-respectable .340 batting average against what were some of the best players in the world at that time.

When World War II came, Bucky was drafted into the Army, where he served on the legendary Red Ball Express, vehicles manned primarily by black soldiers that supplied the troops on the front lines.

Baseball was long gone for him when he returned from the war. The “color line” was broken soon after when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers lineup in 1947.

Bucky worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh after the war. When he retired in 1972, he drove a jitney in the old Homewood neighborhood.

Throughout his life, Bucky remained a devoted Catholic. A daily communicant, he held his faith close and raised his children in the faith that defined him, despite years of quiet segregation.

Satchel Paige was famous for his “rules for living”: “avoid fried meats which angry up the blood”; “keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move”; “avoid running at all times”; and, perhaps most famous, “don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.”

According to David Williams, Bucky had his own “rules for living” that he passed on to his son. Respect all human life; listen and don’t pass judgment; be respectful to elders; always be courteous; “tip your hat to all women for they are the mothers of us all”; and whenever you go past a Catholic church, “greet Christ with the Sign of the Cross.”

When Bucky died, what his son called “a part of unwritten U.S. history” died with him. He had seen the worst of segregated life in America. Yet he had also been a part of Negro League baseball, a glory of its time.

He was a black Catholic when that meant segregation. But he kept the faith close to his heart.

At the New Year, we reflect on those who have died over the last 12 months and the era that passed with them. When we lost Bucky Williams, we lost a man of grace, dignity and faith who told the story of black Catholic America in microcosm. His son put it best. Bucky had “stood up to all adversity and made a difference for all humanity.”

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.