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.”