Lake Charles’ link to Negro Leagues history

By By Ryan Whirty / Special to the American Press

In September 1935, Chester Williams sat on top of the baseball world, or at least the Negro Leagues, one that existed in the

shadow of segregation.

Williams, a crafty, swift shortstop for the famed Pittsburgh Crawfords, had contributed a triple and two doubles in the deciding

Game 7 of the Negro National League championships, a contest that ended with a Craws win over the New York Cubans.

Williams, a utility infielder who

particularly excelled at shortstop, had become a key, if unheralded,

part of a championship

team that — saturated with future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson, Cool

Papa Bell, Judy Johnson and Oscar Charleston (and, when

he felt like it, Satchel Paige) — many historians consider the

best squad in Negro Leagues history, if not all of baseballdom

— black or white.

Such glory quite certainly contradicted sharply with the scene in Lake Charles on Christmas night 1952, when Williams was

unceremoniously shot to death in the Cotton Club, a Lake Charles night spot the former baseball star owned.

Less than a year later, the federal government approved an application signed by Nellie Williams — whose relationship with

Chester Williams is unclear — for a military headstone for the final resting place of the World War II veteran.

Chester Arthur Williams’ remains lay in

Hi-Mount Cemetery in Lake Charles, practically all that’s left to

burnish the memory

of a man who played alongside all-time baseball greats but whose

life has been shrouded in mystery since his birth in 1906.

Williams might have been a Lake Charles

native — contemporary accounts listed his birthplace as Beaumont,

Texas; rural Mississippi;

and New Orleans in addition to Lake Charles — but he definitely

lived in the southwestern Louisiana city for much of his life,

including his post-baseball years.

Most likely, Williams traced his roots

ultimately to Mississippi, but apparently sometime during childhood or

young adulthood

the youthful Williams moved to Louisiana. Exactly where in

Mississippi Williams was from couldn’t be pinned down with assurance;

U.S. Census records show several possible locales in 1910 and

1920.

Whether he spent any time in New Orleans isn’t confirmed, but articles in the African-American press that covered his death

reported that Williams began his hardball career with an unnamed Lake Charles team helmed by Sam Richards.

He reportedly spent 1929 and 1930

playing with the Houston Black Buffaloes before moving on to the

big-time Memphis Red Sox

and Chicago American Giants; media accounts confirm that Williams

spent 1930 playing for Memphis, but none exist proving that

he played for the American Giants. In fact, press coverage shows

that Williams spent 1931 with the Indianapolis ABCs.

It was in 1932 that Williams’ career

really took off — he signed with Gus Greenlee’s Pittsburgh Crawfords,

who spent their

first few years as a successful semi-pro sandlot team before being

purchased by the restaurateur, hotel owner and alleged

numbers runner. Greenlee was at the start of a process to build

the Craws into a top-notch professional squad, and Williams

was one of his first signees.

From the beginning, Williams’ keen

talents were on display, leading prominent observers and sports scribes

to tab him as an

up-and-comer with star potential. For example, in a Dec. 31, 1932,

column, Pittsburgh Courier writer W. Rollo Wilson listed

Williams as part of a key batch of much-needed youngsters who

could infuse life and vigor into the Negro Leagues.

Evidence exists showing that although

Williams wasn’t playing for Pittsburgh in 1930, he was already living in

the Steel City.

The 1930 Census indicates a Chester Williams, born in roughly 1906

in Mississippi, living in the Rankin Borough of Pittsburgh

with his wife, Annie, and 2-year-old son Arthur. His occupation is

listed, not surprisingly given the location, a laborer

in a steel mill. The family appears to have lived in a

neighborhood populated by Russian, Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian

immigrants.

By 1934, Greenlee had amassed a corps of future Hall of Famers who surrounded Williams and other key but less heralded players.

Williams spent the better part of the next decade with the Crawfords, helping them to the pinnacle of the blackball world

and building his reputation.

Here’s the assessment of author James A. Riley in “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues”:

“The sparkplug of the infield for the

Pittsburgh Crawfords in the 1930s, this quick, flashy shortstop …

remained an essential

part of the nucleus of the great Crawford teams that sent five

players to the Hall of Fame. An outstanding fielder, he could

play either shortstop or second base equally well. On the bases he

had both speed and quickness and posed a threat to steal.

A solid hitter with appreciable power, he hit for averages of

.302, .301, .319, 247 and .381 during the Crawfords’ glory years.

1932-1936. A ballplayer’s ballplayer, the scrappy infielder ‘came

to play,’ and his team value was recognized by teammates

and opponents alike. His style of play was also appreciated by the

fans, and he was selected to play in four consecutive East-West

All Star games in 1934-1937.”

But the 1930s were also pockmarked with

controversy for Williams, who was frequently noted as a Lake Charles

resident in contemporary

media reports. In the midst of the 1932 season and spilling over

into the 1933 campaign, Williams was at the center of a trade

and contract war between the Crawfords and their bitter,

also-Pittsburgh-based rivals, the Homestead Grays, that ended with

the Grays being booted from the reincarnated version of the Negro

National League. In fact, Williams appears to have at least

started spring training in 1933 with the Grays, not the Crawfords.

Then, in 1934, Greenlee suspended Chester Williams and teammate Curtis Harris indefinitely for, according to one press account,

“conduct unbecoming ball players and gentlemen.”

Williams also played a part in the continuous drama over Negro Leagues players skipping out on their contracts in the U.S.

to play in Latin America, where they made more money and were treated like royalty, unlike in the States.

In 1937, for example, teams in the

Dominican Republic raided Negro League squads, plucking some of the best

talent from league

teams. At one point, Williams was reportedly offered a lucrative

contract to play in Central America, but he apparently turned

it down.

In April 1937, Greenlee boasted to the Chicago Defender that Williams would definitely be on the Crawford roster for the season

and “will be the nation’s outstanding shortstop this season.” Greenlee’s prediction came true — Williams ended up batting

.383 in ’37.

But by that time, the Craws’ roster was

thinning, and their glory years passed. Williams starred in Cuba and

Mexico for a

few years before returning Stateside to play for the Grays; the

1940 Census shows a 34-year-old, Mississippi-born Chester

Williams living in the Homestead section of Pittsburgh with his

wife, Anna (as opposed to Annie in the 1930 Census), and children

Theodore, Henry, Clifford and Barbara.

Williams shuffled around baseball for a couple more years before returning to Lake Charles and enlisting in the Army in October

1943. His enlistment records show his residence as Calcasieu Parish, his marital status as married, with one year of high

school and a civil occupation of “athletes, sports instructors, and sports officials.”

Williams served as a private in a

quartermaster truck company before being honorably discharged in August

1944 after hurting

his arm. He then appears to have retired from baseball and the

military and settled into civilian life in Lake Charles. His

retirement years included managing and promoting several teams in

the Lake Charles area.

That ended on that fateful Dec. 25, 1952, when he was killed in his own Lake Charles night club. Louisiana media — including

the American Press, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and NOLA’s African-American paper, the Louisiana Weekly — all apparently ignored Williams

death, leaving it to the national black press to report on the incident.

According to those reports, police at

the time said Williams was fatally shot about 6:30 p.m. at the Cotton

Club. He was struck

by five bullets — two in the left arm, two in the neck and one in

the left football. Police arrested Tom Scott, who was sent

to the hospital with ice-pick wounds that appeared to have been

inflicted by Williams in the brawl.

An article in the Jan. 3, 1953, Pittsburgh Courier — which included an incorrect dateline of Lake Charles, Texas — posthumously

praised Williams as a top-notch athlete.

“With the Crawfords, he reached his peak and was rated as one of the greatest infielders of all time,” the paper wrote. “…

Among oldtimers there are only a few that ranked in the same class with Williams …”

That, unfortunately, is where the

Chester Arthur Williams story ends. No follow-up contemporary media

reports of his death

appear to exist, and according to current representatives of the

Lake Charles Police Department, any officers who might have

worked Williams’ death have long since retired, and any files

about the incident are likely buried in records vaults, if they

even exist at all.

LCPD cold-case officers couldn’t be reached for comment, and staffers at the Calcasieu Clerk of Court’s office were similarly

unhelpful when asked about records that might exist of how Scott’s case proceeded in court.

That leaves the 1953 application for a

military headstone for Williams issued by Nellie Williams as one of the

last official

documents detailing Chester’s life and death. A death certificate

does exist in the Louisiana State Archives, but it couldn’t

be obtained in time for this article.

Nellie’s application was granted on Sept. 1, 1953, and now a headstone marks Chester’s resting place in Hi-Mount Cemetery.

But even with that, errors and inaccuracies shroud Williams’ legacy: Nellie’s headstone application lists the name of the

cemetery as “My Mount Cementery.”