Bernie Williams: The metamorphosis of Yankees legend into a music maestro

Yankees legend Bernie Williams performs at Millbrook Vineyards & Winery on June 17, 2023.
Josh Barrett
Wednesday April 24, 2024

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Yankees great Bernie Williams is set to take center stage in a different arena. On Wednesday, he will be performing with the renowned New York Philharmonic at their Spring Gala, showcasing his guitar skills. Bernie Williams has achieved remarkable success beyond the baseball diamond, earning a Latin Grammy nomination for his 2009 composition, “Moving Forward,” which he will play during the prestigious event.

The five-time All-Star and four-time World Series champion spent 16 illustrious years from 1991 to 2006 as the Yankees’ centerfielder, contributing to several championship victories. Bernie Williams, now 55, has seamlessly transitioned to a life beyond baseball, embracing new passions that define his post-playing career.

Giving back to the community has become a driving force for Bernie Williams. He is actively involved with the Hillside Food Outreach, providing sustenance to those in need in Westchester and Putnam counties. Additionally, he dedicates his efforts to raising awareness about pulmonary fibrosis and promoting music education in public schools, leaving an indelible mark on the lives of countless individuals.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone with team legend Bernie Williams.

Artistic legacy of Yankees great Bernie Williams

Bernie Williams is creating an indelible artistic legacy that extends far beyond the baseball diamond. In a testament to the profound impact of his music and Puerto Rican heritage, the Yankees legend has inspired his children to pursue their own artistic endeavors.

Highlighting a whirlwind April for the Bernie Williams family, Beatriz Bernie Williams, Bernie’s daughter, recently unveiled her solo art exhibition, “Del Patio De Mi Titi” (From My Aunt’s Backyard), which premiered on April 20-21 in Manhattan. This event coincided with The Bernie Williams Collective’s week-long residency at the acclaimed Cafe Carlyle (April 9-13), where they showcased Bernie Williams’ own compositions, blending Latin Jazz with fresh interpretations of classic jazz standards.

For Beatriz, her father’s artistic influence was ever-present. “He was always in our living room playing the guitar,” she reminisced. “And I came to associate the sound of an acoustic guitar with my dad.”

Music has been an integral part of Bernie Williams’ post-baseball plans. As his illustrious Yankees career neared its twilight in 2003, his debut album, “The Journey Within,” reached an impressive No. 3 on the Contemporary Jazz album chart.

“I just didn’t know what capacity,” Bernie Williams admitted, referring to his musical future, whether it would involve teaching, jamming with friends, or furthering his musical education – a path he ultimately pursued by graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 2016.

Through his unwavering dedication to his craft and the preservation of his cultural roots, Bernie Williams has transcended the boundaries of sports, creating an artistic legacy that will resonate for generations to come.

Bernie Williams at Yankee Stadium when the Yankees retire his No. 51 on May 18, 2015.
Andy Marlin, USATSI

How the baseball legend finds the music gig

For Bernie Williams, selecting a baseball bat during his illustrious New York Yankees career was a straightforward task. He would confidently wield the same trusted 34 1/2-inch, 33-ounce Rawlings model, whether it was spring training or the playoffs, facing a fireballer or a knuckleballer.

However, when it comes to music, the process is entirely different. “Choosing a guitar is about the gig,” Bernie Williams explained. “It’s about the sound you want to create and the music you’re going to play. You need the right instrument for the right performance, and that varies with time.”

After spending his entire baseball career with the Yankees from 1991 to 2006, Bernie Williams has reinvented himself as an accomplished musician, earning critical acclaim and a coveted Latin Grammy nomination. Yet, at the age of 55, the prospect of taking the stage at another iconic New York venue – akin to Yankee Stadium, but with superior acoustics – still fills him with butterflies.

While the roar of the crowd and the pressure of the game were once familiar companions, Bernie Williams now faces a different kind of spotlight. One where the notes he plays and the melodies he crafts are the center of attention, rather than the crack of a bat and the trajectory of a ball.

Yankees legend Bernie Williams performs at a show in 2023.

In this new artistic realm, Bernie Williams must navigate the nuances of instrument selection, tailoring his choice to the demands of each performance, a far cry from the unwavering loyalty to his trusty baseball bat of years past.

“I expect to be as nervous as I’ve ever been on any kind of stage,’’ Bernie said “But I think it’s gonna be no different from playing a seventh game of the World Series, you know?”

No one in the annals of sporting and artistic history can claim to have experienced the thrill of baseball’s Fall Classic and the grandeur of the Philharmonic’s Spring Gala quite like Bernie Williams. The former Yankees outfielder has graced both the hallowed grounds of “The House That Ruth Built” and the esteemed concert hall that Leonard Bernstein himself inaugurated on opening night in 1962.

Bernie Williams’ unprecedented distinction has left the president and CEO of the New York Philharmonic with a unique challenge – finding the right words to encapsulate this remarkable feat.

As Bernie Williams prepares to take the stage, memories of his first major league at-bat come flooding back. It was 1991, and the 22-year-old switch hitter stepped into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium, facing left-handed junkballer Jeff Ballard. The moment was immortalized in the Baseball-Reference box score with a simple, yet underwhelming description: “Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B).”

However, Bernie Williams’ debut outing soon found its rhythm. He drove in a run with a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning and brought home another with an infield single in the ninth, foreshadowing the resilience and adaptability that would become his hallmarks.

Former New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams playing guitar

Now, as he transitions from the diamond to the concert hall, Bernie Williams must once again harness that same spirit, navigating the nuances of a new stage and a different kind of spotlight, where his melodies and harmonies will captivate audiences in ways his batting prowess once did.

“I remember being really nervous,’’ Bernie Williams said of that debut. “I remember being in this place where there was a lot of uncertainty about my career and my own ability to stay in the big leagues. All I wanted to do was to get an opportunity to be able to show people what I can do.’’

A week after his inauspicious major league debut, Bernie Williams etched his name into the record books with his first home run at Anaheim Stadium against the California Angels. He sent a Chuck Finley fastball soaring over the left-center field wall, igniting a remarkable career that would see him amass a .297 batting average, 287 home runs, and 147 stolen bases over 16 illustrious seasons.

Bernie Williams’ prowess on the diamond helped propel the Yankees to four World Series titles, including an unprecedented three-peat from 1998 to 2000. His 22 career postseason homers rank third all-time, behind only Manny Ramírez and José Altuve, cementing his legacy as a clutch performer on baseball’s biggest stage.

While his baseball accomplishments are well-documented, Bernie Williams’ musical journey has often been overlooked, dismissed by some as a mere hobby for a retired athlete. However, his lifelong dedication to his craft is precisely what appeals to the New York Philharmonic, who have invited him to perform at their Spring Gala, a fundraiser for musical education at the prestigious David Geffen Hall.

Bernie Williams’ musical roots trace back to his childhood in Puerto Rico, where his father, Bernabé, a merchant marine, gifted him a guitar at the tender age of 7. From that moment, Bernie Williams was inseparable from the instrument, honing his skills under the tutelage of a local teacher and even performing on a radio station by the age of 9.

Throughout his baseball career, music remained a constant companion, providing solace during difficult times, such as the loss of his father to lung disease in 2001. Determined to elevate his craft, Bernie Williams pursued formal training, first at the State University of New York at Purchase, and later at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a bachelor’s degree.

His dedication culminated in the critically acclaimed album “Moving Forward,” featuring collaborations with Bruce Springsteen, Jon Secada, and Dave Koz, solidifying his status as a multifaceted artist whose passion transcends boundaries.


“I tell you what, none of the home runs that I hit in the postseason helped me there,” Bernie Williams said. “I had to really reinvent myself. And in a very strange way, I had to earn the admiration of the kids that I was playing with, because they were all virtuosos in their own instruments by the time they got to the Manhattan School of Music.

For Bernie Williams, pursuing a formal degree was about much more than just a piece of paper – it symbolized his transition from a ballplayer to a bonafide artist. The experience at the esteemed Manhattan School of Music marked his graduation into a new realm, one where his passion for music took center stage.

While Bernie Williams is not the first baseball player to explore musical endeavors, his dedication to honing his craft sets him apart. Decades ago, a Yankees bus ride took a tense turn when the legendary Yogi Berra grew weary of utility infielder Phil Linz’s incessant harmonica rendition of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” In contrast, Bernie Williams’ musical journey has been a lifelong pursuit, fueled by an unwavering commitment to mastering his art form beyond the diamond.

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