LOOKING BACK Ken Williams Presented by the Josephine County Historical Society
By Joan Momsen Ken Williams was born in Merlin, Oregon, on June 28, 1890, the third son of Britton and Caroline Williams. He grew up playing local baseball, attended Grants Pass High School and, after retiring from the major leagues, he returned to Grants Pass.
At the time of his major league baseball career, Ken Williams was a hometown hero. Jud Pernoll, who is probably only remembered by the most ardent baseball fans, was the first Grants Pass citizen to make it to the major leagues and he gave words of encouragement to the young Williams. Back in the early 1900’s there were many baseball teams fielded by the local communities and were a type of semi-pro organization. Most of the players were dreaming of a position on a major league team. Ken Williams started locally playing for Grants Pass on the Rogue Valley Merchants team. By age 23, he was signed as a pro by the Western Canada League playing in Regina and Edmonton.
Working outside of the United States did not give him any immunity from World War I looming in Europe. Ken Williams was drafted, but only had to serve a year and was back in the Western Canadian League and finished his stint in Spokane. While in Spokane, L.E. Ragsdale, president of the Western Cereal Company saw Williams and was impressed with his abilities and sent a letter to August Herman, the president of the Cincinnati Reds. Herman took the advice and offered Spokane $3,500 for William’s contract and Ken was in the major leagues by his 25th birthday.
What Ken had been able to do in Spokane, failed him in Cincinnati and he ended up back in Spokane and then Portland, Oregon. A brief news article appeared locally, “Kenneth Williams, the Grants Pass player formerly with Cincinnati and Spokane, joined the Portland Beavers today and played center field against Salt Lake in the afternoon’s game. He doubled to left center his first time up, according to reports.” (8/25/16). Whatever had gone wrong with the Reds was worked out and by 1918 a scout, Bobby Quinn, worked a deal for Williams with the St. Louis Browns. He had finally found his place in the majors.
By 1920, he was a solid part of the Browns and by the time he was 30, he had played semi-pro or pro ball for seven years and knew his way around the field. He was starter with the Browns, played in 141 games and batted 521 times with a batting average of .307 with 72 runs under his belt.
The Browns with Williams and the Yankees with Ruth, played against each other for the pennant in 1922. The Yankees won by one game. For the next two seasons, Williams and Ruth were often compared to each other. Had circumstances been different, Ken Williams’ name may have been as famous as Babe Ruth’s name; however, one of those weird sports injuries, literally, hit Williams. On August 14, 1925 Ken Williams was hit in the head, behind his right ear, by the Cleveland Indians’ Bryon Speece. Williams fell down and was rushed off the field; he had suffered a serious brain concussion and was in a coma for several days. When he regained consciousness, all knew his season was over. He got back on his feet and returned to Grants Pass where his family watched over him until he was fully recovered. The Browns came in third for the pennant. But it might have been a great season for Williams because even with seven weeks cut from his playing, he had hit 25 home runs before the accident.
Ken Williams, Statistics Outfielder Batted: Left Threw Right Batting average: Home runs:
Runs batted in:
.319 196 913
1922 First 30/30 club member 1922 AL home run champion 1922 AL RBI champion
Williams showed up for the 1926 season, but it was a dismal year. In 1927 he did better, bringing his average back up to .323 but he just did not have the power of earlier years. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox and stayed two years. In 1930 the New York Yankees picked up the waiver from Boston, but Ken’s heart was just not in it and he decided not to go with the Yankees. He was 40 and still loved the game of baseball, but decided to exit the major leagues. He had confided in friends that he could save more money on a smaller salary in the minor leagues than he could living in a big city and playing major ball. He returned to the Pacific Coast League and played for Portland for two years and then retired in 1931 from baseball.
Ken Williams and his wife Ethel moved back to Grants Pass to raise their two sons, Ken Jr. and Jack. In 1937 Williams became a Grants Pass policeman and a few years later, his 1940 Nash automobile became a patrol car with a portable siren. After his stint as a policeman, he bought the Owl Club Tavern with Whitney Fleming. Coincidently, Pernoll who helped him get into major league baseball, sold the Owl Club to the two men. Under Williams, the Owl Club was a true “sports bar.” Williams, a man of few words, would answer questions but seldom volunteered any information.
Williams was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame and the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame but never made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. After 80 years, it is highly unlikely he will make the Hall of Fame, but many Southern Oregonians think he deserves it. Ken Williams died of a heart attack on January 22, 1959 at the age of 68 years.
Ken Williams and Babe Ruth sit next to each other c.1923
In 1921, things were even better for Williams. His batting average was .347 and with 24 home runs he was second in the American League only to Babe Ruth. That did not stop, because the next year he had 39 home runs, knocking Babe Ruth off the four-year best home run streak. The 1922 season made him the first member of the 30/30 club because he stole 37 bases and hit 39 home runs in one season. He was the sole member of that club for 34 years until Willie Mays qualified for the 30/30 club in 1956.
10 YOUNG AT HEART ♦ February 2012
Stan Musial, Ken Williams, Frank Frisch, Johnny Tobin and George Sisler. Josephine County Historical Society
512 SW 5th Street, Grants Pass, OR 97526 541.479.7827 / josephinehistorical.org
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