A few weeks ago, my daughter walked downstairs and handed me a handful of baseball cards I had given her years ago. She had been using them for bookmarks, she confessed, and was ready to get them off her desk.
As I sifted through about 30 cards, scanning them front and back, I remembered something that had escaped me as I have become a more casual collector: You can sometimes learn a lot about a baseball player from his card, and it isn’t always about baseball.
A good example can be found on the back of Al Williams’ 1982 Donruss. Under “Career Highlights,” among the stats and facts, we learn that Al, a Minnesota Twins pitcher from 1980 to ‘84, “survived a Nicaraguan earthquake in ‘72 that destroyed half his house while he was sleeping.”
That line itself sent me Googling for more information about the earthquake. The 6.3 magnitude event struck near the capital city Managua about 30 minutes after midnight on December 23, 1972. Reports vary widely about how many people were killed, between 4,000 and 11,000. More than 20,000 were injured and 300,000-plus were left homeless.
(Baseball historians will be quick to note that Roberto Clemente was delivering aid to the victims of this earthquake when he died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico.)
Al was 18 at the time of the earthquake. It was just a year after he began playing baseball.
The next line Donruss listed among the pitcher’s “Career Highlights,” said Al “fought 16 months with the guerilla forces against the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in ‘77-’78.” The next line tells us he “was the strikeout leader of the ill-fated Inter-American League in 1978.”
OK, that sentence seems a bit out of place. Let’s go back to Al fighting with guerilla forces.
According to an April 3, 1984, New York Times story, which quotes that year’s Minnesota Twins media guide, the Nicaraguan government would not grant Williams, then a minor leaguer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, a visa to leave the country to join his ball club in the United States in 1977, so “this prompted Al to sign up with the Sandinista National Liberation Front guerillas and he was engaged in jungle fighting against forces of Anastasio Somoza for the next 16 months.”
Times reporter Ira Berkow asked Al about those months of fighting and his “cloak and dagger” escape – that’s the way the Twins media guide phrased it – from his home country.
“That’s in the past,” Al replied, sitting in front of his locker. “I live for the future.”
Three years prior, the Times wrote about “Fearless Al Williams” for a section titled “Sports People.” There, Al spoke briefly about the time he spent fighting and away from baseball.
“I really missed baseball the two years I was out of it,” he said, “but, I wasn’t thinking about baseball all the time. “I was just trying to stay alive.”
4 thoughts on “Al Williams: Pitcher, Fighter, Survivor”
Al looked very serious on all his baseball cards. Almost never smiled. Now I know why. The man had definitely been through some things in life. Incredible.
I wrote about AL on my old 1982 Topps blog. Quite the character. https://1982topps.blogspot.com/2014/07/card-69-al-williams.html?m=1
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Donruss is off by a year – the Inter-American League’s one partial season was 1979, not 1978. I guess this is what happens when you don’t have the luxury of Baseball-Reference.
I had never heard of the Inter-American League. Davey Johnson apparently started his managing career off well with a 51-21 record with the Miami Amigos.