Nickname: Joe, Smokey Joe, Cyclone, Yank
Positions: p, of, 1b, manager
Teams: San Antonio Black Bronchos (1907-1909), Chicago Giants (1910), New York Lincoln Giants (1911-1923), Mohawk Giants (1913), Chicago American Giants (1914), Atlantic City Bacharach Giants (1916), Hilldale Daisies (1917), Brooklyn Royal Giants (1924), Homestead Grays (1925-1932), Detroit Wolves (1932)
Height: 6' 4'' Weight: 190
Born: April 6, 1885, Seguin, Texas
Died: March 12, 1946, New York, New York
National Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee (1999)
During the first half of its existence, Smokey Joe Williams was to black baseball what Satchel Paige was to the latter half. Indeed, Williams made the footprints in which Satchel later walked. Old-timers who saw him play remember him as Satchel's equal, if not his superior.
With a fastball that earned him the nicknames "Cyclone" and "Smokey Joe," he was a dominant force in black baseball from his first appearance in the big time with Frank Leland's Chicago Giants in 1910 until his retirement from the Homestead Grays in 1932, a period of more than twenty years. In addition to his blinding speed, the tall fireballer had exceptional control and was a smart pitcher who in his later years compensated for his loss of velocity with cunning and know-how.
The big, hawk-nosed hurler, who was part Indian, reached his peak from 1912-1923 while playing primarily for the New York Lincoln Giants. A 20-strikeout game was not uncommon during his prime, with his top effort coming when he engaged in a famous pitcher's duel against Chet Brewer in 1930 and "smoked" 27 batters while 1-hitting the Kansas City Monarchs in a 12- inning night game. Despite his success, Joe actually did not like pitching under the lights. Existing records indicate that his best all-around season came in 1914 when, pitching against all levels of competition, he registered 41 wins against only 3 losses. His record against black teams of major league caliber was 12-2, with 100 strike-outs in 17 games. Statistics reconstructed from box scores show records of 8-2 and 18-3 for the 1912-1913 seasons. During the latter year, the big Lincoln Giants' hurler averaged better than a strikeout per inning. He pitched with the Fe Stars for the winter of 1913-1914, but went back to the New York Lincoln Giants for the regular season.
Ty Cobb considered him to be a "sure 30-game winner" if he had been able to pitch in the major leagues. This evaluation was well justified, as Joe compiled a lifetime record of 20-7 in exhibitions against major league competition. Three of these games serve to showcase his exceptional talent, as each time he dueled the National League champions in post-season play. The first showdown was in 1912, when he shut out the world champion New York Giants, 6 0. A second matchup was in 1915, when he struck out 10 batters while throwing a 3-hit shutout at Grover Cleveland Alexander and the Philadelphia Phillies, winning by a score of 1-0. Joe's third extraordinary performance occurred in 1917, when he struck out 20 batters while no-hitting the New York Giants, although he lost the game, 1-0, on an error. Some sources indicate that during this game Hall of Famer Ross Youngs gave him the nickname "Smokey Joe." Another source indicates that the name originated from the 27-strikeout performance against the Kansas City Monarchs. Other sources suggest that he picked up the nickname because of Smokey Joe Wood of the Boston Red Sox, or from his appearance with the Homestead Grays in Pittsburgh, the Smokey City.
Wherever the origin of the moniker, it was an appropriate one. Joe Fero, a longtime semi-pro player manager owner, insisted that Williams was faster than Bob Feller, and described games that he, Fero, had witnessed involving the dark speedball artist. In one game, he pitched a no-hitter, with 25 strikeouts, but lost the game in the ninth inning on walks and errors. In another game he lost a 26-inning game against the Bushwicks on a "dinky hit and error." Fero also maintained that Williams beat the New York Giants twice in a 3 game series in the mid teens.
The tall, dark Texan began his career around the ball diamonds in San Antonio, Texas, in 1905 and fashioned a five year ledger (1905-1909) of 28-4, 15-9, 20-8, and 32-8; at one stretch in his Texas career, Williams was credited with 20 straight wins. Only the 1906 season, spent with Austin, and the latter part of 1909, when he finished with the Birmingham Giants, were not played with the San Antonio Black Bronchos. The Bronchos often played the Birmingham Giants, owned by C.I. Taylor, and Williams frequently hooked up in a pitcher's duel against Johnny "Steel Arm" Taylor. Those game were classic mound duels, with a single run often making the difference in the score. Williams joined the Birmingham team in 1909 but soon got homesick and returned to Texas.
In the autumn, the big, hard throwing youngster signed to play during the winter season with the Trilbys of Los Angeles, California, where he remained until he joined the Chicago Giants for the 1910 season. Owner Frank Leland described the new hurler for the home folks, "If you have ever witnessed the speed of a pebble in a storm you have not even seen the equal of the speed possessed by this wonderful Texan Giant. 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!"
In the winter of 1911-1912, Williams traveled to Cuba, where he finished with a 10-7 mark for the season and sported a lifetime 22- 15 mark in Cuban League action. In the spring of 1912 he pitched with the Chicago American Giants on their western tour and compiled a 9-1 work sheet, which included victories over every Pacific Coast League team except Portland. Williams left Chicago to join the New York Lincoln Giants in 1912, teaming with Dick Redding for the first time, and pitched with the Lincolns through the 1923 season. A good hitter with power, he often played outfield or first base when not pitching and, during his tenure there, batted .320, .299, and .175 in 1912-1914 and .281 in 1917.
He also served as captain and manager for several seasons. In 1919 he pitched an opening-day no-hitter against Dick Redding; the next year, he and Redding feuded and refused to shake hands with each other for a photographer. In 1921, Williams fashioned an 18-2 record through mid-August, and in 1922 he married a Broadway showgirl in New York. However, in the spring of 1924 Williams was released during a youth movement housecleaning, although he was still one of the best pitchers in the league. Signing with the Brooklyn Royal Giants, he again teamed with Dick Redding and, although Williams was the top pitcher for the Royals, he was released after the season and signed with the Homestead Grays.
In 1929 Grays' owner Cum Posey entered the team in the Negro American League, and Williams accrued a 12-7 record. The league folded after a single season, and the Grays returned to play as an independent ballclub. In 1930 the Grays added a new young catcher, Josh Gibson, to their lineup and the team won the eastern championship by winning a challenge series over the Lincoln Giants. The following season, with Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Jud Wilson providing the power and Williams as their ace pitcher, the Grays fielded what many consider to be the greatest black team of all time.
Williams added a dignity to the game and, in a 1952 survey conducted by the Pittsburgh Courier, he outpolled Satchel Paige by a single vote, 20-19, as the all-time best pitcher in the Negro Leagues. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.
"Smokey Joe" Williams