All-around talent

Yankees legend Bernie Williams visited the Hall of Fame on Friday to talk about how athletics and music intersect

August 12, 2011
Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson chats with former Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams during his visit to the Hall of Fame. (Heather Ainsworth/NBHOF)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – Bernie Williams has excelled on baseball’s biggest stages, whether in the World Series, an All-Star Game, or an emotional Yankees-Red Sox matchup. Today, the longtime center fielder can be found on a musical stage, holding a guitar instead of a bat, and proving to be just as successful.

Williams, along with co-authors Dave Gluck and Bob Thompson, were at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum on Friday for a special pair of Authors’ Series programs to discuss their recently released book Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Musical and Athletic Performance. Before a pair of packed audiences of almost 200 fans apiece inside the Museum’s Grandstand Theater, the trio shared their thoughts, using examples from the book, on the relationship between the game and music.

In introducing the former member of four World Series-winning Yankees teams, Thompson told the crowd that while they may know Williams as a ballplayer, they may not know what an incredibly talented musician he is.

“Think about this: Even though he brought his guitar along for 16 years with the Yankees, he’s been out of baseball for two years, goes into the studio, makes a new album and it garners a Latin Grammy nomination,” Thompson said. “He’s an extraordinary talent. Our fear, I think for both Dave and I, is that if he keeps up at this pace his Wikipedia entry is going to end with the footnote: ‘And fans may remember he also played Major League Baseball.’”

According to Williams, sporting a Knicks cap and dressed casually in a black T-shirt and jeans, he found it somewhat ironic that his first-ever trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame was due to his musical endeavors.

“But it’s becoming less and less ironic because of realizing that the connection that I have with music was very strong from the time that I was a kid,” said Williams in an interview after the program. “And the fact that I played baseball, I was able to carry this music mentality through my game of baseball. And I think the career as a baseball player has opened the doors for me to develop myself as more of a musician. It’s like a symbiotic relationship where one feeds the other, and I’m just really happy with it.”

Williams, a five-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner who spent his entire 16-season big league career (1991-2006) with the Yankees, finishing with 2,336 hits, 287 home runs, 147 stolen bases, and a .297 batting average, can attribute some of his success at the game’s highest level with his music.

“The part that is important for to me to remember is the fact that I was able to learn a musical instrument at a very young age and a lot of it had to do with the discipline, the consistency, not giving up, and just putting a lot of hard work into it. I think a lot of those things I was able to incorporate into my athletic performance,” he said. “I played baseball, I ran track, I played basketball, and I was able to put out a lot of that mentality as a young kid learning a musical instrument into my athletic preparation. And I think in many ways it propelled me to be a successful baseball player.”

Despite playing part of the 1987 minor league season with the Oneonta Yankees, a former minor league team located less than 25 miles from Cooperstown, Williams had never been to the Hall of Fame before Friday – but was glad he was finally able to visit the National Pastime’s shrine.

“As a baseball player, you have this career where things happen and they’re pulling you in so many different directions and you always have it on the plans to come here, kind of like going to the Mecca, but it never really happened,” Williams said. “So I’m glad it finally took this opportunity with my book out to make me come out here and check this whole thing out.”

Though he only played 25 games in Oneonta, it was a turning point for Williams’ career.

“It’s where I had some of my best memories as a minor leaguer. It was a time that I started switch-hitting, so it was really rigorous work after being sort of demoted from Class A in Florida,” he said. “I think the opportunity that I had here to work every day on my left-handed swing was the thing that propelled me for the next year winning the batting title on another minor league team. So I definitely remember my time here in Oneonta.”

With his last big league season coming in 2006, Williams will be eligible for election to the Hall of Fame for the first time in 2012. But does he allow himself to dream a little about one day having a bronze likeness in the Plaque Gallery?

“I’m trying to not let myself get too excited about that,” he said with a grin. “Obviously it’s in the back of your head – it’s in the back of every player’s head I guess – but at the same time you sort of recognize the fact that a lot of things are unpredictable, they’re out of your control, and you sort of let the chips fall where they may. I know that I had a good time playing the game and I have great memories and I was part of a great organization that put me in a position to be really successful.”

As for his former teammate Derek Jeter, the longtime Yankees shortstop who last month joined exclusive company when he collected his 3,000th career hit, Williams had nothing but positive thoughts.

“As a Yankee alumni, we are so proud of his accomplishments and I definitely have to say that it was a privilege to have the opportunity to play with him,” Williams said. “It was just a great moment in his career and I’m glad that it happened at this time. I know that he’s still getting ready for the second half of the season and trying and finish up strong. Still, as in vintage Derek, he’s not thinking about himself – he’s thinking about how he can help the club to propel into the postseason.”

And though he’s a successful musician, Williams admits that he still gets the urge to get out on the field every once in a while.

“All the time,” he said with a laugh. “That urge I don’t think it will ever go away. I don’t think that will ever die.”

Bill Francis is a Library associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum