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Williams, Smokey Joe (1886-1946)

Image Ownership: Public Domain
Born Joseph Williams in Sequin, Texas on April 6, 1886, Smokey Joe Williams (also known as Cyclone Joe Williams) has been argued to be one of the greatest of the black baseball pitchers. In 1952, when the Pittsburgh Courier asked a panel of black veterans and sports writers to name the best black pitcher of all time, Smokey Joe Williams was the winner 20-19, over Satchel Paige. He stood 6’ 5” with a variety of power pitches but was best known for his fastball. He began to pitch around the San Antonio region in 1905 and compiled a record of 28-4. In 1907, he played for the San Antonio Broncos as a pitcher-outfielder, winning 20 and losing 8. In 1909, when Rube Foster, “The Father of Black Baseball,” brought his Leland Giants through San Antonio, he saw Williams pitch against Foster’s team and was amazed at his arresting speed, Williams and his team beat the Giants 3-0. When the Giants left, they took Williams north with them.

On October 24, 1912, Williams faced the National League champion New York Giants in an exhibition game. The Giants were coming off from a World Series loss against the Boston Red Sox. Williams shut out the Giants with only four hits for a 6-0 victory. By 1913, Williams won four and lost one against the white big leaguers.  At a time when professional baseball was not integrated and black teams were considered semi-pro, the victory over the Giants gave Williams and his team considerable national exposure.

Williams spent most of his best years (1912-1923) as a strikeout and location pitcher with the Lincoln Giants. A 20 strikeout game was not unusual for him during that period.  His record for a single day game was 25 strikeouts in twelve innings against the Bushwicks soon after Williams was traded to the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1924. During the mid 1920s he became known as Smokey Joe, indicating he still had a blazing fastball even though he was approaching the age of forty. Williams struck out 27 Kansas City Monarchs in a twelve-inning night game in 1930, at the age of 44.

When Williams retired in 1934, Ty Cobb declared that Smokey Joe would have been a sure thirty game winner if he had played in the majors.  In twenty-six post season games against the best white big-league clubs from 1913 through 1932, Williams won nineteen, lost six and tied one. His last manager, Cum Posey of the Homestead Grays, said perhaps only Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove and Satchel Paige, could match Williams’ fastball in his prime.   Smokey Joe Williams died in New York City in 1946.   

John B. Holway, Negro League Pioneers (Connecticut: Meckler Books, 1988); Robert Peterson, Only the Ball was White (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982)


University of Washington, Seattle

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