The Hart of Williamstown: William F. "Billy" Hart's legendary career earns him No. 2 spot on Eagle's top 50 athletes of the 20th century list
Hart, No. 2 on The Eagle's list of the 50 greatest Berkshire County athletes of the 20th century, is in two separate Halls of Fames for four different sports. That is impressive enough, but his induction into these halls of honor came at two different times in his life.
As a young man in the 1940s and 50s, Hart excelled at football, basketball and baseball. He would eventually be inducted into the St. Michael's College Athletic Hall of Fame for all three sports in 1990.
But then, later in life, his prowess as a Senior Division tennis player won him induction into the United States Tennis Association's New England Hall of Fame in 2010 for that career.
But it started in Williamstown. Hart, who died in 1995, was a three-sport athlete who attended the former Williamstown High School, graduating in 1945. There's a little twist in this part of our tale. Hart played basketball and baseball at Williamstown High, but his football career started in the semi-pro ranks.
"He started playing for the Saints [St. Anthony's Crusaders] in high school," recalled his former wife, Marion Royston.
"Oh yeah, he was in high school when he started playing for us," recalled former football teammate Robert Andreatta.
At Williamstown High, Hart was an All-Berkshire selection in basketball for three years, and the leading scorer in the county his senior year.
That year, Williamstown had a strong team that went 10-2 in the Northern Berkshire League. But Hart had the bad timing to be a great player on a good team the same year Adams High School had a team for the ages: the 1944-45 New England runners-up, with stalwarts like Dale Long, Joe Mikutowicz, sixth man Jimmy Urquhart and Art Fox coaching.
Williamstown was dominated by Adams in two league games.
But Mikutowicz, no slouch himself as an athlete, recalled in an interview a few years before his death that of all the players he faced that year, Hart was the best.
"We never really had any trouble with Williamstown that year," said Mikutowicz, "but the night before we'd have to play them, I had nightmares about trying to stop Billy Hart!"
In baseball, Hart played center field and led off. He hit .335 his senior year, according to Eagle files, and was again All-Berkshire.
During his senior year, Hart played for the North Adams-based St. Anthony's Crusaders as a running back. The Saints, as they were known, were part of a loose aggregation of semi-professional teams throughout the state. The team flourished for several years in the mid-20th century. Hart was one of the best players on the squad during a tenure that appeared to last three years.
"Billy was fast," recalled Andreatta. "Tough, hard to take down. He wasn't big (5-9), but he was a tough kid."
It's unclear why Hart chose semi-professional football over the high school variety. Eagle files indicate that Williamstown didn't always field a varsity football team in those years, so that could be part of the reason.
Money might have been another reason.
Semi-pro football was big after World War II. In a game in which Hart played in 1946, the Crusaders and the Zylonites of Adams played to a 7-7 tie in front of 4,100 fans at the former Noel Field (now Joe Wolfe Field).
Roger O'Gara, the late sports writer for The Eagle, pointed out that, with tickets selling for 35 to 50 cents, a crowd of several thousand fans "made a sweet payday" for players and coaches. Issues of eligibility for college didn't appear to be a problem. Hart may not have taken money (which, technically, would have still disqualified him) or colleges weren't checking.
At any rate, Hart put off his college matriculation until 1947. But that fall, he did go out for football at St. Michael's. And was an immediate impact player.
"The first day of practice, St. Mike's had a guy who was supposed to be the fastest guy on the team," recalled Joe Gentile, Hart's teammate and classmate, and this correspondent's father, in 2011. "Billy beat him in a 100-yard dash twice that day. After that, the guy didn't want to race anymore."
Hart excelled at St. Michael's. He was the leading scorer on the basketball and football teams during his freshman and sophomore years. In baseball, he was termed "possibly the greatest leadoff hitter in school history" on his Hall of Fame induction story. He hit .372 and .355 in those first two years, and in his sophomore year he stole 19 bases without being thrown out.
In the summer of 1949, just before his junior year, Hart was signed by the Chicago Cubs. It was, according to Peter Golenbock, author of "Wrigleyville: A Magical History Tour of the Chicago Cubs," the first time Chicago had signed African-American players. Hart, pitcher Luther Burns and catcher Sammy Gee were all inked and assigned to the Cubs' Sioux Falls, Iowa, farm team .
But before that, Hart, Burns and Gee reported to Chicago's spring training camp in Catalina, Calif. There, they were put up in a hotel, away from the white players. It left a sour taste in all three men.
"Billy was hurt," recalled Gentile, who died in 2012. "He wasn't used to being treated that way up here. It bothered him for a long time."
Sioux Falls wasn't much better.
"The people up there called him all kinds of names," said Andreatta. "He was treated like, well, he was treated badly.
"That was terrible. Billy was a gentleman. He was class. He didn't deserve that."
Hart hit .257 in limited action in Iowa. He returned home to Williamstown. He played in a few semi-pro basketball leagues and took up bowling. He worked at the family business, Hart Construction, with his brothers, and settled down.
But in 1952, the Lenox Merchants came calling.
The Merchants were a semi-professional basketball team begun in 1949. But they may have been one of the greatest semi-pro hoop teams of that era. At the onset of the 1952-53 season, the Merchants began playing NBA teams, as well as other top professional touring teams of that era. Hart was usually a guard, who also played small forward. At 5-foot, 9-inches, he was a very small forward.
But he competed. He had some big games against the pros: 17 points in a loss to the Celtics, 13 in a loss to the Rochester Royals and 14 in an 82-79 win over the legendary New York Renaissance. On Jan. 31, 1952, Hart and the Merchants scored a 95-93 win over the Philadelphia Warriors in Lenox. Hart played but didn't score.
"Well, a lot of times, we'd catch them during a long road trip," Hart told this reporter in 1993. "So we had an advantage. But we did win once in a while, which was pretty amazing."
"He was a fantastic shooter," said Merchants coach, the late Bill "Butch" Gregory. "And a competitor."
Hart played for the Merchants for parts of three seasons. But Gregory began going farther afield for players who could compete against the NBA pros, leaving Hart out.
His interest in tennis came later in life, according to Royston. She believes it was in the 1970s.
"Well, Billy was just competitive in everything he did," said Royston. "And when he took up tennis, he was just obsessed. He started playing as often as he could."
And like everything else, Billy Hart was good at tennis. He was, according to a 2010 newsletter published by the US Tennis Association, regarded as "one of the best doubles players in New England." He was ranked as one of the top 10 singles and doubles players in New England in the 70s and 80s. In addition, Hart was also a championship paddle tennis player, winning at least seven consecutive New England Paddle Tennis Senior championships, according to Eagle files. Paddle tennis is played on a smaller court with a lower net. The emphasis is on faster play.
Hart was a very good singles player. At doubles, he had several partners, including Curt Tong, longtime Williams tennis coach Clarence Chaffee and Pittsfield's Al McNabb, a strong player in his own right.
In 1979, Hart and McNabb swept to the New England Senior doubles title, winning all their matches in straight sets.
"He was such a smart player," recalled his daughter, Shelley Arnold. "He had some trouble with his legs, but he could place shots wherever he wanted to and was very patient. And of course, incredibly competitive."
Arnold recalled learning of a father-daughter tournament years ago when the family lived in Williamstown.
"I was kind of excited," she said. "I said, 'Dad, we can enter as a team!' And he said, 'Honey, I don't know if you're ready for that just yet.' And I think he wasn't sure if we could win the tournament, but he didn't want to hurt my feelings," she said with a laugh.
Hart was the longtime director of the Clarence C. Chaffee Memorial Tennis Tournament at Williams College. The two men were doubles partners for many years before Chaffee's death. Eventually, the tournament was renamed the Hart-Chaffee Tournament for his contributions.
Reach Derek Gentile at 413-854-8162 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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