The Obit For Frank Williams

Tragic story of ex-big league baseballer ends on the streets

By Richard Watts, Victoria Times Colonist

January 14, 2009

Former Major League Baseball player Frank Williams holds his rookie card in August 2007.
Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist, Times ColonistFrank Williams, a former major-league baseball pitcher who ended up on the streets in Victoria, has died. He was 50.

Rev. Al Tysick of the Pandora Avenue shelter Our Place said Williams had a heart attack about two weeks ago, went into a coma and never came out. He died last Friday.

Williams's life reads like a Hollywood fantasy. He was an orphan who grew up in foster homes in Seattle, but he made it to baseball's major leagues, pitching for the San Francisco Giants, Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds between 1984 and 1989. Over six seasons, he pitched 471.7 innings, had a 24-14 won-loss record with eight saves and an earned-run average of 3.00.

He earned $442,500 in 1988 and $425,000 in 1989. By the time he died last week, all that money was gone. He spent his last days bouncing around Victoria shelters and detox centres, a street-level alcoholic.

It was a car crash in 1989 that ended Williams's playing days. He walked away from his wife and two kids and ended up in Victoria, near the Vancouver Island First Nation bands that reached out to him when he played in San Francisco in the early 1980s. Prior to that, Williams did not know he had First Nations roots.

According to Tysick, First Nations family members are the only ones who came forward at the end. Williams's relatives from Port Alberni are now preparing a funeral service.

Williams was well-known in Victoria baseball circles. John Turcotte, former president of the Victoria Mavericks, remembers a man showing up to try out for the team in the early 1990s. He had a $20 glove, no cleats and a vinyl tote bag bearing the Cincinnati Reds logo, and he claimed his last team was the Detroit Tigers.

Turcotte, who was catching that day, said a 19-year-old batter hit the stranger's first pitch right over the mound to centre field. The pitcher took off his glove, threw it to the ground in disgust and pitched again.

The next pitch flew over Turcotte's glove and smashed into his chest. Later, Turcotte sneaked a look at the pitcher's Reds jacket and saw the name "Frank Williams," a number and the major-league label. Years later, Williams would refer to his time with the Mavericks as his "comeback."

But alcoholism and life on the street took its toll.

"Every time you saw him it just got worse and worse," said Brad Norris-Jones, owner of MVP Sports Collectibles on Fort Street.

For the past few years, Williams would entertain listeners at the store with tales about the major leagues and autograph baseball cards.

"The store was kind of a comfort zone for him," Norris-Jones said. "The stories just poured out of him."

After news of his fate spread on the Internet, collectors in the U.S. sent boxes of baseball cards and memorabilia to the store for Williams to sign in exchange for money.

The people at MVP acted as an unofficial keeper of Williams's identity. His chaotic life on the streets meant he was always losing his wallet. The store kept a stack of Williams baseball cards on hand. He would stop and pick one up whenever he needed identification.

"It's a sad day but I guess we could all see how it was going," Norris-Jones said yesterday.