Negro Leagues Fireballer
By: Thomas Harrigan | @HarriganMLB
Years before the legendary Satchel Paige rose to prominence as a dominant hurler in the Negro Leagues, another flamethrowing right-hander was striking fear into the hearts of opposing hitters.
Unlike Paige, Smokey Joe Williams never appeared in the Major Leagues, as his playing days were long over by the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. However, he is widely considered one of the best players who ever lived. Joe Posnanski of The Athletic (subscription required) recently ranked him 62nd on his list of the 100 greatest baseball players in history. In 2001, baseball historian Bill James placed Williams 52nd on his top 100 list in “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.”
Many of Williams’ contemporaries also recognized his greatness. Hall of Famer Ty Cobb once said that Williams would be a “sure 30-game winner in the Major Leagues,” and sportswriting pioneer Bozeman Bulger said Williams was as good of a pitcher as New York Giants icon Christy Mathewson, another Hall of Famer.
A lanky Texan who stood at 6-foot-4, Williams began his professional career early in the 20th century and went on to pitch into the 1930s, spending time with the New York Lincoln Giants and the Homestead Grays, among other teams.
Here are some key points to know about Williams, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
• Williams was voted the top pitcher in the history of the Negro Leagues in a 1952 poll conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier.
According to Posnanski, the Courier put together a panel of 31 experts to vote on the “All-Time, All-America Baseball Team,” a collection of the greatest black players from 1910-1952. In addition to selecting an eight-player starting lineup, each voter was tasked with picking a four-man starting rotation.
Williams received 20 votes, one more than Paige. No other pitcher got more than nine votes. Paige was still active and arguably at the height of his fame at the time of the poll, set to embark on his fourth Major League season at age 45 with the St. Louis Browns. But Williams’ contributions clearly had not faded from the minds of voters.
• There’s no way to know exactly how hard Williams threw – the radar gun wasn’t invented until World War II – but nevertheless, the imposing righty was renowned for his heat. In fact, it’s believed that both of Williams’ nicknames, “Smokey” and “Cyclone,” were bestowed upon him because of his impressive velocity.
“If you have ever witnessed the speed of a pebble in a storm you have not even then seen the equal of the speed possessed by this wonderful Texan Giant,” Negro Leagues owner Frank Leland once wrote. “He is the king of all pitchers hailing from the Lone Star State and you have but to see him once to exclaim, ‘That’s a Plenty!’”
Was Paige’s fastball faster? Not everyone was convinced.
“If I was going to pick a man to throw hard, I’d have to pick Joe Williams,” Negro Leagues pitcher Sam Streeter said. “I’d pick him over all of them. They talk about Satchel and them throwing hard, but I think Joe threw harder. It used to take two catchers to hold him. By the time the fifth inning was over, that catcher’s hand would be like that, all swollen up. He’d have to have another catcher back there the rest of the game.”
Williams paired his fastball speed with outstanding control, making him all the more difficult for hitters to handle.
• He was a member of the 1931 Homestead Grays, considered to be one of the greatest collections of baseball talent on record. In addition to Williams, the Grays’ roster featured future Hall of Famers in Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Willie Foster and Jud Wilson.
The Grays weren’t even part of an official league in 1931, but they took on all comers and won at an astronomical rate. After searching for every Grays box score he could find from 1931, Kansas City baseball historian Phil S. Dixon estimated that the team went 143-29-2 (.828) that season.
In the Grays’ 1931 team photo below, Williams can be found in the back row, towering over everyone else.
• Williams delivered what was perhaps the signature performance of his career while pitching for the Grays on Aug. 7, 1930.
At age 45 (or 44, depending on the source, as Williams’ official date of birth was disputed), the right-hander struck out 27 batters over 12 innings against the Kansas City Monarchs, allowing one hit. The game was played at night under portable lights. It would be another five years before Major League Baseball hosted its first night game.
• Williams wasn’t only successful against Negro Leagues competition. He also regularly excelled in barnstorming exhibition contests against white teams that included Major Leaguers.
During these games, Williams picked up wins against at least five Hall of Famers, including Grover Cleveland Alexander, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt, Walter Johnson and Rube Marquard.
He reportedly threw a no-hitter in a game against the New York Giants in 1917, the same year the club won the National League pennant.