No. 79: Smokey Joe Williams

Some years ago, I wrote a piece that — odd as this is to say — visibly moved Barry Bonds. I have not figured if this is a good thing or bad thing — I think, like coaches says, it just is what it is. The piece was about how, if players like Barry Bonds or Ken Griffey or Bob Gibson had come along in, say, 1930, we might never have heard for them. And even if we DID hear of them, we would only hear stories, whispers, legends.

It’s a fascinating thing to think about. Let’s say there was a town game in some small place near you … and you just happened stop and watch. And you saw the young Barry Bonds play. It doesn’t have to be Bonds if the steroids stuff distracts you. Make it Griffey or Reggie Jackson or Gibson or Dwight Gooden. How would you describe a player like that to friends? How would you explain the greatness that you saw? Would you say, “No, really, l know it sounds crazy but I was at the fairgrounds, and listen, this guy Bob Gibson threw the hardest fastball I ever saw.” Would you talk about how you saw Reggie Jackson hit a home run that sailed over the trees — seriously, it had to go like 600 feet. Would you talk about the sweetness of their swings, the fury of their pitching motions, the utter improbability of their greatness?

“I’m telling you,” you might say, “this guy is better than ANYBODY in the Major Leagues right now.”

People wouldn’t believe you. Of course they wouldn’t believe you. Even now, we are conditioned to believe the best players in the world are the ones we see on television or read about on the Internet. Think about that feeling in 1918 or 1931. How could the best power hitter on earth play in some unknown league that travels the country on broken down busses and plays town teams? How could the world’s greatest pitcher be off playing for some team you’ve never heard of in Memphis or Birmingham or Kansas City on rock-strewn fields under makeshift lights? And, of course, none of this even gets into the omnipresent racism of that time — not only the open and sometimes violent racism but the quieter stuff that lived in the assumptions and principles of open-minded people.

So what would you do if you saw one of these players and just KNEW they were the greatest? It isn’t only that nobody believes you. Nobody wants to listen. You need to grab attention. You might try to quote a respected player — say something like, “I’m not the only one who thinks so. Joe Torre said Bob Gibson threw the fastest pitches too.” Then, perhaps, you might exaggerate their greatness to make a point. Soon the exaggerations might become legends or funny little stories. People like those. Barry Bonds once hit a ball in Philadelphia that did not come down … until two days later in Pittsburgh. Rickey Henderson is so fast he could turn out the light and be under the covers before the room got dark. David Price could throw pork chop past a wolf.

People might hear you, and they might be engaged, and they might laugh, but they would still never quite grasp (or fairly regard) the greatness of the player you saw. This is the sad part of Negro Leagues baseball. Someone will think Josh Gibson was the greatest baseball player ever, and someone else might think he was a figment of people’s imaginations, but nobody will ever KNOW. This it the sad wonder of it all. We’ll never know.

Smokey Joe Williams or Cyclone Joe Williams — he was called both — was born at some point between 1874 and 1885, the exactly year remains hopelessly lost. Most say he was born in 1885, though, which makes the most sense when looking at his remarkable career. He pitched effectively into the mid-1930s. It’s sort of hard to imagine him being born any earlier than 1885.

He grew up in a town called Seguin, Texas, not far from San Antonio. Freddie Patek, the little shortstop, was born in Seguin as was singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith. Williams pitched professionally for about 30 years long before either was born. Sadly — and this is a constant theme when it comes to Negro Leaguers, especially those who started in the early part of the 20th Century — not much more is known about him.

What can we really say about Joe Williams’ greatness? We can look at some numbers, of course. There are some but they are incomplete and as ambiguous as they are illuminating. We see his first year in any kind of Negro Leagues was 1911 but Williams pitched for a San Antonio team as early as 1905. We see his 1914 record as just 4-3, but there are other sources that calculate every game he pitched and say he actually 41-3 that year while pitching around the country and in Cuba. There is no earned run average to judge — nobody was keeping track of errors — so run average is used. This is the best we can do, but it deceives. Ed Walsh, who pitched in the American League, had a lifetime 1.82 ERA, lowest in baseball history. Hie run average is almost a full run higher.

So, without reliable or enlightening numbers, what’s next? You can read his history. Williams was, as author James Riley says, to black baseball in the 1910s and 1920s what Satchel Paige was in the 1930s and 1940s. He was the star attraction as his team came to different towns. He did absurd, extraordinary things, He no-hit the New York Giants in a barnstorming game of 1919. He struck out 27 Homestead Grays in a 12-inning game in 1930, when he was at least 44 years old. He would pitch against — and beat — Walter Johnson and Pete Alexander (among others) in exhibition games against white players. Major Leaguers were awed by his pitching. Ty Cobb once said he was a sure 30-game winner in the Major Leagues.

That would be Ty Cobb who said that.

One of the legendary stories is that Hall of Famer Ross Youngs actually tagged Williams with the nickname “Smokey Joe” after one of those exhibition games. This may or may not be true, of course, but he was almost certainly called Smokey Joe because of the great Boston Red Sox pitcher Smoky Joe Wood, who Walter Johnson claimed threw the fastest pitch ever. One other pitcher of the time, Joe Finneran, was sometimes called Smokey Joe as well, but mostly he went by the more pleasant nickname: Happy.*

*It should be noted that baseball writers have never seemed entirely clearly on whether Smokey Joe should be spelled like that or as Smoky Joe, without the E.

One of the great joys of baseball history is arguing about who threw the fastest pitch ever. Smokey Joe Williams should be in that argument, even if there is no possible way to quantify how fast he threw. He certainly had the frame for throwing hard. The great fastballers of the day were all smaller than he was. Walter Johnson was 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. Same as Amos Rusie. That’s about the size of Pete Alexander and Negro Leaguer Cannonball Dick Redding. Cy Young was 6-foot-2.

But Joe Williams was 6-foot-4, right around 200 pounds, and the stories of the way he would unwind that body and unleash his fastball still spark the imagination. People would say it was like facing a Cyclone — which is how Williams got his second nickname, Cyclone Joe Williams. Satchel Paige, when asked if he threw as hard as Smokey Joe, said “Smokey Joe could throw throw harder than anyone.” And it was not like Satchel Paige to grant anyone an advantage when it came to pitching a baseball.

In 1952, the Pittsburgh Courier had a famous poll where they asked people to pick the all-time Negro Leagues team. Joe Williams famously got more votes than Satchel Paige — and this seems particularly meaningful because Paige was one of the most famous black men in America and the poll was skewed somewhat toward modern players (Jackie Robinson was on the list, though he had played only one year in the Negro Leagues). The fact that in 1952 people still remembered Smokey Joe Williams — this some 30 years after he threw his last pitch and a year after his death — tells you something.

When Buck O’Neil asked Paige how he felt about finishing second to Smokey Joe in the poll, Paige supposedly smiled and said, “They got that right.”

31 thoughts on “No. 79: Smokey Joe Williams

  1. cass

    You touched someone with your writing. Isn’t that the point? Isn’t that always a good thing? Not sure how it could be a bad thing. Barry Bonds is a human being after all.

    Reply
    1. Cathead

      I think, perhaps, Joe touched Bonds’ vanity. If there is one thing that Bonds would not stand for it was obscurity, especially his own.

      Reply
  2. Wilbur

    For all of Ty Cobb’s innumerable issues, foibles and character traits, I’ve never heard him described as either stupid or unwilling to speak his mind. Thus, I’m not surprised he would issue this opinion about Smokey Joe Williams.

    Reply
  3. murr2825

    I look forward to each one of these posts like a 7 year old at Christmas. Joe, I love everything you write but this takes it to another level. I especially appreciate the posts on players like Smokey Joe, a player whose name I’ve heard of but knew nothing about.

    I hope Joe turns this into a book; I’ll be first in line.

    Reply
    1. hewetson

      Like murr2825, I am enthralled with this series of essays. The objective parts quantified in the posts and by the sabermetric oriented comments as well as the subjective prose and illumination. These posts are my Christmas present!

      Reply
      1. hewetson

        An audio book with different speakers ~ relatives, friends, competitors, writers, broadcasters, fans … etc. Imagine Sparky Anderson RIP, Vin Scully, Mario Cuomo, Alyssa Milano, Bob Gibson, Vida Blue, Helen Hunter (Catfish’s widow), Paul Giamatti, Carlos Delgado, John Fogerty, George Thorogood, Henry Cisneros, Rita Moreno…

        Reply
  4. PhilM

    I’ll echo back the same refrain: PLEASE make this into a book, so we don’t have to copy and paste from the Interwebs! And we’ll even pay for it, I’ll bet!

    Every summer I co-teach a baseball class for our local Osher Lifelong Learning chapter, and this past one we discussed the Negro Leagues. I worked up a whole profile of Cyclone Joe, not nearly as eloquent as what’s here. I used the seamheads.com site for stats, and ended the discussion with this comparison:

    Cyclone: 217 Games, 110-69 record, 1554.1 IP, 2.6 K/BB, 1.2 WHIP, 149 ERA+
    Smoky Joe Wood: 225 Games, 117-57 record, 1434.1 IP, 2.3 K/BB, 1.1 WHIP, 147 ERA+
    Grove thru age 30: 272 Games, 115-57 record, 1544.1 IP, 2.0 K/BB, 1.3 WHIP, 145 ERA+
    Clemens thru age 27: 206 Games, 116-51 record, 1513 IP, 3.4 K/BB, 1.1 WHIP, 146 ERA+

    Joe Williams was one of the greats, and it’s our loss that we only know him through the mists of legend.

    Reply
  5. Rick R

    I consider myself to be a knowledgeable baseball fan. I had not heard of Smokey Joe Williams until you introduced him to me. I looked up his picture in Google images, and he looks like he was born to sling a fastball—the man is long, lean and mean. What he might have done in the Majors is mind-boggling. Thanks Joe.

    Reply
  6. Juan Ramón Vallarino (@JRVJ71)

    Joe, not a big thing, but there’s a small mistake in your second to last paragraph statement that people in 1952 remembered Williams “30 years after he threw his last pitch”, because earlier in the story, you mentioned Williams throwing an exhibition game in 1930 (“He struck out 27 Homestead Grays in a 12-inning game in 1930, when he was at least 44 years old”).

    Easily fixable, IMO.

    Reply
  7. Mean Dean

    I like the way you illustrated the Negro Leaguers’ plight; nicely done.

    I think that Williams being better than Paige was not just the result of one poll one time, but is a conclusion that is pretty well supported by the various types of evidence we have. So I’m surprised to see Williams this early. Unless Paige is up pretty soon, but I doubt that. (It should be said that I’m just going on vague impressions of these guys’ reputations. I have not studied them myself.)

    Reply
  8. hello

    a couple of years ago I went to NYC and looked at the La Guardia papers at La Guardia Community College looking into the role of communists in integrating baseball via influencing La Guardia. Essentially a couple weeks after threats of disruptive demonstrations at Ebbes and possibly Yankee stadium over integration La Guardia announced a committee to investigate the issue. Among the letters were at least one from the head of the Negro Leagues who made the point about how with less money and training the Negro league was far inferior to the majors in teams and players. I don’t think this is online and i understand it is partially in his interest to downplay the level of the negro leagues, but it definitely had an impact on my thinking leading me to cast a more skeptical view on claims of Negro Leagues. Though the second half of the piece does suggest Smoky Joe was a hell of a ballplayer.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=VH_x_ASNli8C&pg=PA276&lpg=PA276&dq=laguardia+bojangles+baseball&source=bl&ots=0IPc0yAoWP&sig=8jvR-mf9M5Oobov8mC1jtUESPYA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ODGxUtffINXfoAS8mIHABQ&ved=0CCwQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=laguardia%20bojangles%20baseball&f=false

    Reply
    1. Andrew

      This is something that Joe has written before, but from 1949-1959, nine out of the eleven NL MVPs were former Negro Leaguers. I think that speaks to the quality of Negro League baseball.

      Reply
  9. Richard Aronson

    Great article, as usual. Some typos:

    “Someone will thin Josh Gibson” s/b think not thin

    “1885, the exactly year” s/b exact, not exactly

    ” Hie run average ” s/b His not Hie

    “this some 30 years after he threw his last pitch and a year after his death — tells you something.” If the poll was in 1952, then it would be 30 years (or so), not 30.

    I also find it interesting that fr his career he batted .291 (per your link). Perhaps he could have been another Babe Ruth if he’d been moved to the outfield, although it seems like he had a higher pitcher to batter value ratio than the Babe.

    Thank you for enlightening me about a player whose name I’d heard, but never really knew any specifics to go with him.

    Reply
    1. Ryno

      I will join the chorus of commenters who have responded to you by noting that these posts of Joe’s are excellent, they are free, and they are not compulsory reading for you if you find a couple of typos to be so bothersome.

      It is very poor form on your part, when someone has presented you with such excellent and enjoyable writing for free, to repeatedly make a big deal about a handful of typos.

      Reply
      1. Brett Pasternack

        It doesn’t sound to me like he’s making a big deal of it. I don’t see a complaint. I see it as proofreading help.

        Make no mistake, I think the article is brilliant. But I do see Joe fixing some of the typos pointed out here, so why not offer them?

        Reply
  10. Chris H

    Thanks for the link, cookiedabookie. This stopped me:

    “Black babies’ births were not recorded in Texas back then…”

    I suppose Texas wasn’t exceptional, and it’s not the greatest of crimes in the nation’s history, but it’s awfully telling.

    Chris.

    Reply
  11. Nick Hegge

    “Sadly — and this is a constant theme when it comes to Negro Leaguers, especially those who started in the early part of the 20th Century — not much more is known about him.”

    I read this sentence, and something clicked that should’ve clicked long ago. The sentence above could be about the country blues players of the 1920s and 1930s. Those guys are almost mythical; there are some that researchers can’t even find a photo of. At least with the bluesmen, we have their recordings to listen to in order to get a sense of why and how they were great. We have no way to evaluate the Negro Leaguers except for spotty records and great hyperbole like “throw(ing) a pork chop past a wolf.”

    Reply

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