Roger Williams was sliding into first base – something he didn’t usually do – in a game with the Braves in the Appalachian League and tore his rotator cuff. It was the beginning of the end of what looked to be promising career.
“I never was the same after that,” he said. “I could still hit but I wasn’t the same.”
He played center field in college and was drafted in 1971 by the Braves for that position. The ability to make long and accurate throws is critical in the center field, and that’s difficult with a rotator cuff injury.
“When I got hurt they moved me to second base, but the problem was on a double play coming from third to second to first you had to have something on the ball. I didn’t have it,” Williams said in a recent interview.
He attended Texas Christian University where he was an All-Southwest Conference baseball player and named to TCU’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. He played for TCU from 1968-1971.
Williams was selected in the 25th round of the 1971 MLB Draft by the Atlanta Braves and played in the teams farm system until his career ending injury.
But he’s done OK.
He could have stayed with the Braves organization, maybe managing minor league teams and so forth and actually was going to do that, until he got the chance to go back to TCU and help Frank Windegger, his college coach, by then the school’s athletic director, and serve as head coach of TCU’s baseball team in 1976.
“I still wish I could have played longer but I had a good career and I was blessed. Things work out, I got to get into the car business earlier, helped my dad, and coach at my alma mater which I think anytime you go back to your school is a huge deal. It all worked out good for me,” he says.
He’s now the chairman of Roger Williams Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/Ram/SRT in Weatherford, continuing a family tradition started by his father, Jack Williams in 1939. His wife, Patty, is president.
And, by the way, he was appointed Texas Secretary of State and later was elected in 2012 to represent the 25th Congressional District of Texas, which stretches from the far southern edge of Tarrant County to Hays County, and includes much of the Texas Hill Country, Austin and Fort Hood.
He’s older now – he just turned 71 – but baseball still looms large in his life. He is the manager of the Republican Team for the usually annual Republican-Democrat baseball game, which this year has been cancelled because of Covid-19.
We played a little “what if” during the interview. What if he had been able to stay in baseball?
He figures he might have gotten to manage a couple of minor league teams, maybe coach or manage a major league team.
“I knew the game as good as anybody,” Williams said.
He also figures he would have probably been fired at least seven times. Such is the life off a manager in the big leagues.
But because life developed as it did, he has the family he has, he has his relationship with TCU and he was able to get into politics.
“Baseball got me in politics because when President Bush bought the Rangers back in ’88 and ’89 we all were excited about that. When he decided to run for governor in ’92 he asked me to be one of his finance chairmen. I’d never done that, and I did, and was successful at it because he was successful, then again in ’98, and in 2000 got engaged and ended up being Secretary of State for Gov. Rick Perry, then decided to run for Congress because I didn’t think anybody was fighting for Main Street. If President Bush hadn’t bought the Rangers I don’t know if I’d ever gotten in politics,”’ Williams said.
This article is really not meant to be a political story, but politics is intertwined in his life.
When he got to Congress, it was already in an increasingly bitter environment.
Enter the Baseball Caucus.
“At the time I could see division and I started to think of the Baseball Caucus, because I found that baseball was a common denominator among Republicans, Democrats, Independents, whatever,” he said.
He’d bring baseball friends – Brooks Robinson and Tommy John to name two – to Washington every quarter to meet with the Baseball Caucus and they’d have hotdogs and apple pie.
“It’s really worked out really well in bringing people together and I wanted to do that, so we have fun with that,” Williams said.
“We want to get back to playing the game. We’ve got the date already next year. It brings a lot of charity in. Last year we raised close to $2 million for Boys and Girls Club and some others. It’s a real game with umpires, and it’s a seven inning ballgame at Nats Stadium, and 20,000 to 30,000 people come,” he said.
Being the manager of the Republican baseball team in Washington is a big deal.
“We start working these guys out in March, and the game is in June, and we work them out at 5:30 to 7:00 in the morning, and to see these older guys come out and play baseball like they were in high school, it’s a lot of fun,” Williams said. “What’s flattering to me, I take it personally, is a lot of my colleagues don’t call me congressman, they don’t call me Roger, they call me coach.”
But it will be years before the shadow of June 14, 2017, passes.
That was the day a gunman named James Hodgkinson, 66, opened fire on Republicans practicing for the annual baseball game at the baseball field in Eugene Simpson Park in Alexandria, Virginia.
House GOP Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and four others – including Zack Barth, a staff member in Williams’ congressional office – were wounded. Hodgkinson died in an exchange of gunfire with police.
Williams’ leg was hit by shrapnel in two places.
He’s fully recovered after three surgeries in Texas except for a bad scar and losing some feeling in his ankle.
“I can still walk, I put my boots on. I’m blessed,” he says.
By the way, the game was played the next day, raising more than $1 million for charity.
There are only nine baseball players on the field at any one time, but there are many more in the dugout. The strength of any team is the depth of its bench where players who are talented and trained are waiting for their chance in The Show.
Coach Williams thinks that concept could work for politics as well.
“One of the things I’m very much involved in is I’m trying to recruit what I call a bench for people to get in politics. I’m not talking about running for Congress but I’m talking about city level, county level, school board, you name it, we need people to get engaged because everybody has an opinion,” he said.
He understands why people are reluctant to get into politics in today’s toxic climate.
“I get it, but we still have the best system there is in the world, and I think one of the things that I want to do and want to leave is some sort of a bench where people understand it is a noble calling. You don’t have to do it forever, it’s not supposed to be a career, but it’s hard,” Williams said.
Speaking of bench strength, he has that in his Weatherford business.
When he’s in town, he’ll pop into the dealership in Weatherford to sell a few cars, maybe just to keep his hand in, but it is his wife, Patty, and daughters Sabrina Speirs and J.J. Contreras who run the business when he’s off in Washington or Austin or wherever.
“Women in the car business are a powerful force these days,” he says. “I’m fortunate that there’s always a Williams at our business, so customers know there’s somebody they can talk to. They do a great job, they love it, they’re good at it, they’ve picked it up. I couldn’t do the stuff I do politically if it weren’t for them and I realize that.”
Just like in baseball, there’s a bench, although a pretty young one.
“I was trained with a good work ethic from my father, and passed that on to my girls, and they don’t shy away from it, and now I’ve got a granddaughter and one on the way next month, and hopefully there will be fourth generation,” he said. “It’s fun to hear my girls talk about that – that they’ll be taking them down there on Saturdays and letting them begin to see the business.”
Now, about those donkeys.
Roger and Patty Williams own a ranch near Weatherford. That’s where in normal times he spends the weekend when he’s not in Washington or pressing flesh around the district.
Patty Williams is, in his words, “the great donkey rescuer.” She rescues Jerusalem donkeys – so called because they have a stripe up their spine bisected by a stripe over their forequarters, making the shape of a cross.
Some have been abused or abandoned, and people can adopt them under certain rules.
“They’re good for cattle raisers,” Williams said. “With calving going on, donkeys will keep the varmints, coyotes, away from the calves, so they have a purpose. There’s a lot of donkey action going around that people may not be aware of.
“Once the donkeys are rescued, they get taken care of. They get shots, and if people need them we make sure that they take them in pairs, because the opinion of the Williams family is that one donkey is an unhappy donkey. Two donkeys are happy donkeys.”
Could be there’s a bit of irony in Republicans rescuing donkeys.
Williams often points out that he is one of the few people in Congress on both the Republican and Democratic side who actually still owns a business.
“I remind people of that because as you know I employ hundreds of people and we have for many, many years. If I vote for something or against something I actually have to live it, which a lot of my colleagues are not in that position,” he said.
And sometimes the questioning of his decisions turns personal – from his daughters.
“Sometimes, I’ll hear from one of them saying, ‘Dad, why did you do that?’ I have to explain to my family a vote or two. That’s not the easiest thing,” he said.