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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

Williams Oilers Softball Team, 1940

Updated: Jun 5, 2020

In August of 1940 the Pantagraph published one of my favorite types of stories -- the picture story. Many of these stories focused on a person or group of people who would not usually be the subject of a Pantagraph story -- someone who wasn't the head of an important committee, a member of the DAR or Young Men's Club and who worked with their hands for a living. On this date, they were looking at the Williams Oil-O-Matic softball team. Not that there was ever a shortage of pictures of athletes and glory for men, but I will count this one for featuring actual laborers.

This was a softball team that played other teams in the Central Illinois area, usually made up of local men, but with ringers from nearby universities on occasion. High school and college athletes kept in shape by playing through the summer, and it could alleviate some of the summer boredom when you couldn't find a job. Of course, in 1940 defense production was already being ramped up and more jobs were slowly becoming available. The men who worked for Williams would be safe from the draft, as skilled workers who would soon be manufacturing important military parts. All the same, a few of the men in this photo story were caught up in the draft. Here is a 1939 image of the Williams team, and it featured some of the same men in this picture story:

In the front row: Bill Shepherd, Larry Norton, Richard Fox, Fred Schulz, Frank Seiler, John Nice, Otto Koch, Raymond Blair; Back row: Ralph Powell, Bud Jackson, Joe Theis, Walter Reiner, Bill Ross, Bill Leeson.

Otto Koch was the pitcher for the Williams Oil-O-Matics and something of a local baseball hero. In 1940 he had been rated the best softball pitcher in the area for the past fifteen years. His obituary stated that he was honored in the Illinois Hall of Fame, but unfortunately I could not find any record of this fact. He was a sheet metal worker at Williams in 1940 when this picture story appeared and was later a buyer for Eureka Williams. I found it rather interesting that he grew up on Butcher's Lane in Bloomington and that as an adult he lived on Tanner Street. He died in 1983.

Frank Seiler was a welder at Williams in 1940, but when he completed his draft card a couple months later, he was a welder at Hetzler Welding. He had played sports at Trinity in the early thirties and was said to be the "Idol of Trinity football fans." He played shortstop for Williams and in this image was welding a refrigeration tank. He began working at the Chicago and Alton Shops and eventually moved to Joliet, where he died.

Dick Fox was another Trinity alum in the early thirties, playing basketball and pitching for Trinity. At Williams, he played shortstop. He, like many of these men, was a member of the Machinists' Union. In 1942 he was named to a Victory Garden Committee among the Machinists. He left Williams to become a fireman in 1944 and eventually became the Assistant Fire Chief in Bloomington until his death in 1974.

Lawrence (Larry) Norton (left) was another baseball player of local renown. In 1943 and 1944 he was the leading hitter. He had attended BHS, but I did not find any mentions of his career with BHS. In 1930 he was playing ball for the Bloomington Moose. Larry was a tool and die setter at Williams and worked there for 40 years.

Dan Kirkby (on the right, above) was another machinist, and he played centerfield. His work history was not as steady as the other men, and this could be the reason he was brought in to the army by the draft. He worked several places, including Williams, Meadows and Caterpillar, all before the war. Daniel's family life was also mixed. He married before 1940 and had two children, married again in 1942 and then married in 1953. He was killed in a boat accident on the Illinois River near Rome in 1954. The evening of the accident the boat had been ordered off the river after the river patrol found they had only three life preservers for the six passengers. They were probably pulled off the river initially for a more obvious infraction of boating rules. After the patrol left, the boaters all returned to the river (without life preservers) and after hitting an underwater obstruction four passengers were thrown from the boat and drowned. Kirkby and his new wife were both killed.

Richard McNair Smith was an accountant at Williams and played first base. He had attended Bent School, BHS and Northwestern. He also played professional baseball for a farm team of the Cleveland Indians. The Municipal soft ball league had many accomplished players to choose from!! During the war he enlisted, and as a man with a college education, he would have been eligible for officer training. He enlisted in the air force and became the commander of the 81st Bomber Squadron in 1945. After the war he worked at State Farm for 24 years. He played ball for Williams, State Farm and Phillips 66 for many years. He was one of the youngest men in this group, but died in 1977.

Don Weidig was one of the men on the Williams team who did not work for Williams (although from other reports Williams did recruit men to play for their team from other cities in Central Illinois). Weidig drove a cab and was drafted into the army. He was an airplane mechanic in Texas during the war and later lived in California.

William Shepherd was the oldest man in this group. He was born in 1894 in Liverpool England and became a US citizen on May 25, 1929. He was the business manager of the team. He worked his entire career at Eureka Williams. The man in the image with him was Jake Blair, the personnel manager at Williams, who also worked at Williams and Eureka Williams throughout his career.

Does anyone have memories of the ball diamond next to the Williams plant? Here is an aerial shot of Bloomington that shows the practice field for the Williams men.

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