Willie James: I COULDN’T HANDLE BEING A CELEBRITY

I’ll be the first to tell you, I was an ass about being popular when I was a player. I didn’t want to do any autographs. I didn’t want people hanging around me clamoring for something. I didn’t want any of that stuff. I just wanted to play baseball. But there are two sides to this celebrity stuff and all that happens when you’re a celebrity. As I look back on it now, being popular is about a 70-30 proposition. The 70 is the good part, The 30 is the bad part, but the 30 can be really tough. I enjoy being recognized more now because I don’t have to play the game. I can concentrate on fans instead of thinking about going out and trying to stand in the batter’s box with Ron Guidry throwing sliders at me. The thing that probably set the pattern for the rest of my baseball career happened very early, right afer I had my first child, Shanice. It was after a game at Royals Stadium in 1979. In those days we walked out the front door of the stadium because all the players parked between the two stadiums. I was walking out of the ballpark with my daughter and my wife. I think Shanice was 2 to 3 months old, so this would have been in 1979, my second full year in the big leagues. The fans would all wait outside that front gate, and the Royals were really popular then so we were just surrounded by fans. I’m trying to sign all the way while I’m walking to my car. I get to the car door, and this guy comes running over through the crowd and he wants an autograph so bad he hits my wife – bumps into her – and she’s starting to fall down with our baby. I had to catch her and the baby. I just went off on the guy.

A frickinautograph is not worth someone’s life! What the hell, man! What the hell! I didn’t say anything else. I got in the car, and we drove off. But people only heard what I said. They didn’t see what happened before, and they made a judgment about me as a person without understanding what was behind it. I decided that if an autograph was more important than a human life, then I wouldn’t sign anymore. That was the reason I quit signing for years. The way I prepared myself to play games made it really difficult to do anything before games when I was down on the field. I used to prepare myself to go play a game like a football player would prepare himself. I worked myself up the whole day. So, when I started toward the ballpark I wasn’t in autograph mode. I wasn’t into being Mr. Nice and all of that. I was in game mode. On the road that meant I wanted to walk from my room straight to the bus, get on and go to the park and play. During warm-ups and batting practice I didn’t hang around and chat up any of the other players. I didn’t smile. I didn’t want to hang around the dugout and talk with the fans. My days were the same every day. I would stay in my room until it was time to go to the bus. I would eat breakfast in there. I would eat lunch in there. I would watch General Hospital in there. Then, I would come downstairs and try to figure out how I could get around all the fans just to get to the bus. That’s how I got up for games. I even invented things about an opposing player in my brain. I held a grudge against the pitcher I was facing that night – he made too much money or he threw this kind of pitch or something else. I had to have something to be mad at him or I didn’t think I could hit him. I didn’t want him to be my friend because then when I got a hit off him I would feel bad. In football, I thought you had to be angry and tough instead of having a carefree attitude. That’s all I knew. I couldn’t go to work liking the guy in front of me. I couldn’t like you and get a hit off you. But if I hated you, it made me feel better when I got a hit. Even in 19 years in baseball I never got to the point when I could relax playing the game. I had to have something for me to get motivated. Ask any camera guy or any fan who tried to get my autograph just before the game. One time Dean Vogelaar, the team’s PR guy, asked me why I didn’t smile.

I said, I smile, but how many people smile when they are getting ready to go to work? I was getting ready to go to work. I was like, Dude, I’m not here to smile. I’m not here for that. I’m here to play baseball. I’m going to work, and this is how I prepare to go to work. I can’t prepare by being nice, Hey how you doing? Oh, I gotta play a game. Excuse me.’ As I got better and a little more recognized, the team even started asking me to do more things for them If you talk to some of the Royals clubhouse guys from the old days you would hear some stories about me going off in the locker room on autographs. Sometimes guys would come downstairs from the front office with dozens of balls: Willie sign this, sign that. I’m like 40 minutes from the game, and they want me to sign stuff. I feel bad about how I reacted now. But then I felt like it was taking away from my preparation for the games – and that was my most important job. I would see other guys doing autographs. I don’t know how George (Brett) could do it. He had the most demand of anybody on the team. I could see sometimes in his face that he wasn’t into it, but he didn’t say anything and just kept signing and walking, signing and walking. I wish I could not react and just sign, but I couldn’t do it that way. I didn’t really get what was so important about a signature on a piece of paper. I wanted a reason to sign. I mean what is so important about my name. That boggles my mind. And as a player you have to write your name again, again, again. Sometimes I looked at it as sort of a punishment. You know when you get in trouble in school and you have to write something on the blackboard 100 times. That’s what you were doing signing autographs. Part of the other guys dealing with it better than me was they had been in the big leagues longer than me, and they knew the ins and outs. But I was young and brash, and we weren’t taught in the minor leagues how to deal with people. Coming up through the minor leagues we were taught to play baseball. I think they do a better job of that now in preparing guys as they come up to the major leagues. The thing was after all these guys would go through the crowd signing, I would hear all the bitching about it in the locker room So, you knew that they didn’t want to do it, but they didn’t let that show so much as they were walking through a group of fans or before the games. The other thing that just stuns me is how strident some of these people are. My grandmother taught me manners. My grandmother used to say if you want something you should ask nicely. You don’t just go and say, Sign this! When I’m in a bad mood and you just say Sign this! I’m like, What the hell, man, can’t you ask me any nicer than that? Then there was the guy who would say, You know, I pay your salary. 

I would go, Wow, I didn’t know your name was Kauffman. Then he would say, Well, indirectly, I pay to get into the ballpark so that money is going to Mr. Kauffman and he’s paying you. Wow, all this over an autograph. That was mind boggling to me. I mean wouldn’t you rather me sit down and talk to you. Isn’t that better than a piece of paper where I don’t say a word to you and just sign it. To me, that was just way out of whack with what should be important. I just didn’t get that whole hero-worship kind of thing. I always thought that fans put hero worship onto the wrong people. That should be reserved for doctors, teachers, policemen, firemen. But sports guys? I mean, we’re just playing a sport. And I was vilified when I said anything like that. You know what Charles Barkley said about athletes shouldn’t be role models? I was saying that years ago. Charles got put in a commercial, and people thought I was just being a jerk. But athletes shouldn’t be idolized as role models – maybe for how they play the game and how hard they worked to become as good as they did. That’s something you can point to with a young kid and say you should work as hard as that. But it should be your parents or your teachers or somebody like that who should be your role model for life. But there also were the good parts. In one respect it was great to be recognized. It got me status in the big leagues from other big-league players. It got me a great contract. When I went in to a bank for a loan on my house, the banker knew I had a contract for a certain amount of money over the next four years, things like that. And it was cool to be recognized some of the time. After we won the World Series, I went over to Hawaii. We were on Kona. I was in a little store in a village and this car goes by and I hear some guy go, Willie! Willie! I’m thinking, Hawaii? And they know who I am here. It was crazy, man. So, that was kind of neat and that was kind of fun. But even now if I’m in a place like a hotel or a restaurant I’m a little uncomfortable. One guy recognizes me. Then another, and heads start to turn. Then, I want to hide because I know what is coming next. I’m trying to be better about it and go with it instead of being negative. I try to say, Great, you want me to sign something. But that’s still hard. And if you ever don’t react exactly the way somebody wants you to, then you are still criticized for it. So, I’m trying to do things a little different now because it’s more like a business for me.

And I’m starting to really like being a celebrity because I don’t have to play. I don’t have to worry about umpires, or people drinking beer and screaming at me from the stands. I have become a little older and a little wiser. It’s kind of nice to be recognized and kind of nice for people to want my autograph. I wish I had been a little more in tune to that when I was coming up and all that kind of stuff, but you can’t cry over spilled milk. Now when I go out, I know, in my brain, that I’m going to try and be nice. I’m just going to enjoy it, take it in and do it that way instead of having a bad attitude about it. It’s all about how you think about it now, and my thinking these days is a lot better than it was before. Holy cow, it’s a lot better. Another good part of being a celebrity is that I can lend my name to help some small organization or help raise money for them. We do a lot of events where if you want an autograph a $20 donation goes to the charity. And if the autographs are for kids, that’s way better. When there are adults there, a lot of time they are just getting the autograph to sell. Sometimes I look on my computer and the next day there is something I signed selling on e-Bay. When that happens I just want to jump through the computer screen.

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