Bernie Williams: From Baseball to Music and Altruism

Baseball fans know the name of Bernie Williams, a multiple All-Star selection and World Series champ. Using his celebrity status as both a baseball player and musician, Williams is on a new mission: Raising awareness for Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD) through music and fundraisers. Before Bernie started on this humanitarian mission off the field, he played in more than 2,000 games for the New York Yankees over 16-years. We were very fortunate to interview this incredible person.

When Williams was just 16 years old, New York Yankees scout Roberto Rivera met with him, conveying his intentions to sign the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder. The two signed a contract on his 17th birthday. Williams’ started his minor-league career while attending the University of Puerto Rico. The demands of both required that one pursuit had to be abandoned. It didn’t take long for baseball to win out.

Williams played his entire career in New York for the Yankees. His baseball résumé was a throwback to earlier times when long careers with one team were fairly common. In his 16 years in MLB, Williams slashed .297/.381/.477/.858, recorded 2,336 hits, 287 home runs, 1,257 RBIs, and 449 doubles. On the field, Williams was always consistent, ending his career with a reliable .990 fielding percentage. For a franchise with legendary names such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Williams’ plaque now stands alongside theirs in the hallowed grounds of Monument Park in Yankees Stadium with his number 51 jersey now retired.

His remarkable numbers were recognized with awards and accomplishments, including five All-Star selections, four Gold-Glove awards, a Silver Slugger honor, the 1998 AL batting title, and four World Championships.

However, as Williams’ baseball career was thriving he was encountering some challenges off the field. Behind the scenes, his father’s health started to deteriorate. During the 2001 season, Williams had to step away from baseball to focus more on his father. On April 9th he flew to Puerto Rico . The following month his father, Bernabe’ Sr., passed away. He had been diagnosed with a rare form of Interstitial Lung Disease called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF). It was so rare that Williams’ family and doctors had difficulty determining what his illness was. Misdiagnosis is a common problem with these patients.

“There was so little known about ILD at that time,” Williams said. “It took nearly five years for him to receive an accurate diagnosis because his symptoms, such as a persistent cough, shortness of breath, and chronic fatigue – were mistaken for other conditions.”

So the question stood, how can Williams help prevent other individuals and families from suffering from ILD? He wanted to prevent similar suffering in others by educating more people on the illness. His goal of raising awareness was realized with the launch of the Breathless program in 2017. The program ultimately evolved into Tune In To Lung Health, which utilizes the power of music to help raise attention to ILD. The website has an excellent collection of information and resources. These include: music, breathing exercises, stories from people impacted by the disease, curated streaming playlists, and more.

Bernabé Sr. was active before his diagnosis. It’s key to why Williams feels so strongly about his mission with ILD. One of his goals is to raise awareness for individuals fighting ILD so the disease can become more visible. People with ILD usually only live for three to five years after their diagnosis. Although there isn’t a cure yet there are available treatments. ILD currently has 50,000 diagnosed, and well over 100,000 patients per the AJMC. Unfortunately, the dreadful disease also leads to thousands of deaths a year.

Going in a different direction with life after a baseball retirement, Williams always had a soft spot for music and playing his guitar. At a young age his father taught and played music for Williams. At the age of 13 he attended San Juan’s Escuela Libre de Musica high school.

“My dad was actually the person that sparked my passion for music and baseball at a young age – which both became a lifelong bond we shared… Being my father’s caregiver was no easy task, so I relied on music to help me cope with everything.”

He played music in hotel rooms and the Yankees clubhouse throughout his career. His music passion was so important he released his first album in 2003. The jazz album became number 2 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Chart and was a hit. Six years later, in 2009, Williams’ and his band published Grammy-nominated album, “Moving Forward.” Again, his album succeeded debuting at Number 2 on the Jazz chart. Working with Williams this time were famous musicians including Bruce Springsteen and Dave Koz.

The former All-Star and great humanitarian continues to spread music performing the National Anthem at numerous sports events including baseball games. He is trying to perform the Anthem at all 30 MLB stadiums. He never visited some of the stadiums as a player.

“In addition to Yankee Stadium, I have had the honor of performing in Tampa at the Trop, Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, Progressive Field in Cleveland, Chase Field in Arizona, Oracle Park in San Francisco, Target Field in Minnesota, and the Oakland Coliseum.”

Until this coming up week, Williams has not had the opportunity to perform musically at Nationals Park. The former Yankees star is set to be in Nats Park on May 23rd with an invitation to take the field, play the National Anthem on his guitar, and share disease education. On that day, the Nationals take on the San Diego Padres. Before the game, Bernie will also watch the ceremonial first pitch thrown by Dale, a woman living with ILD. When Dale was diagnosed with this disease, she lost 52% of her lung function. Her initial misdiagnosis is a common occurrence among people who are fighting ILD. 

On May 4th, Bernie joined the National Organization for Rare Disorders’ (NORD) annual Rare Impact Awards. These honor individuals and organizations making an impact in the rare disease community.  Bernie was recognized for his longtime ILD advocacy work as part of Tune In To Lung Health.  Launched in September 2022, Tune In To Lung Health brings to life how music may help ILD patients and their loved ones cope with the mental, emotional, and physical burdens of the disease.  

Williams isn’t a stranger to Washington, D.C. Although he’s never performed the Star Spangled Banner at Nationals Park before this upcoming appearance, he has been there. He had the honor of taking part in the Legends and Celebrity Softball Game on All-Star Sunday in 2018 when the Nats hosted the All-Star game. 

“[I] had a had an absolute blast. For some reason, the one player I enjoyed seeing most in the game was Bill Nye – the Science Guy. The crowd went crazy when he got a base hit that day.”

Even before 2018, Williams had visited the nation’s capital. He had the opportunity to play at the old RFK Stadium in 2006 in his final season. The veteran still vividly recalls so many of the details of that weekend in Washington, D.C.

“I was able to break a tie and hit a 9th inning home run off Chad Cordero that put us ahead, and we went on to win that game — Mariano Rivera came in and put it to bed — so I loved that old ballpark.”

It would end up being the only game the Yankees beat the Nats that weekend. It was a constant back-and-forth between those teams in that 2006 series, especially on the last game of the weekend. Ryan Zimmerman walked it off winning the game for the Nats 3-2 on Father’s Day. Zim was only a rookie when he hit his first walk-off home run. The stadium was packed with Nats fans as well as Yankees fans. It was the first of many walk-offs in Zim’s career with few more impactful than that one. Williams has fond memories of the last game and summed up the experience well.

“I could see how much that win meant for [Washington] and its fan base. Ryan Zimmerman was just a rookie. He became a National that day and went on to have a wonderful career — and like me, was also able to play 16 years – and also like me, his entire career with just one team – a rare feat, especially these days.”

— Williams said of Mr. Walk-off

Those baseball memories never go away, and Williams mission now is to help people in whatever way he can. Let’s help him find a cure for ILD.

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