02/04/11 10:00 AM EST
'Smokey' Joe was the ultimate flamethrower
Longevity key for No. 2 among 'black baseball' pitchers
By Coley Harvey / Special to MLB.com
In 1952, The Pittsburgh Courier issued a challenge to its baseball readers. It asked Negro League fans to rank their all-time black ballplayers, managers and executives.
To the surprise of many, the game's flashiest, most well-known pitcher, Satchel Paige, was not named ace of the first-team rotation.
|Bob Kendrick: Former marketing director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and an authority of black baseball.|
|Raymond Doswell: Interim president of the museum, a historian with a PhD and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Don Motley: Co-founder and former executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, long-time youth baseball coach in Kansas City area.|
|Larry Lester: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Dick Clark: Author, historian, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Robert Ruck: Senior lecturer in history at Pitt, author and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Leslie Heaphy: History professor at Kent State, author, SABR member and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|Brian Carroll: History professor at Berry College, SABR member and an authority of black baseball.|
|John Overmyer: SABR member, author and a member of the Hall of Fame/MLB panel that picked Negro League players for induction into Cooperstown in 2006.|
|James A. Riley: Author of Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues (seminal work in this area) and authority on black baseball.|
|Phil S. Dixon: Author and an authority on black baseball.|
|John Thorn: Author, SABR member and an authority on black baseball.|
|Isaac Brooks: SABR member and an active member of the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues Conference.|
|John Klima: Journalist and baseball authority.|
|Craig Tomarkin: SABR member, baseball statistician and an expert on black baseball.|
|Paul E. Doutrich: History professor at York College, SABR member and an expert on baseball.|
|Chris Murray: Sportswriter with an expertise in black baseball|
|Chuck Johnson: Writes a column for MLB.com.|
|Charles Alexander: History professor emeritus, SABR member and an authority on baseball.|
Instead, fans picked "Smokey" Joe Williams.
"Everybody that I've interviewed -- and I've interviewed about a couple hundred Negro League players in all -- when they saw him toward the end of his career, they always talked about how great he was," said baseball historian James A. Riley, who has been researching black baseball since the 1970s. "He had everything that it takes -- a superior fastball, good control and a curve, and other pitches, as well."
According to fellow historian Phil S. Dixon, Paige agreed with the fans, saying Williams was "the best pitcher he ever saw."
It is certainly plausible Paige would have felt that way.
Although birthdates for both men are sketchy, Paige was thought to be nearly 20 years Williams' junior, so he likely grew up hearing stories about the flamethrowing right-hander who beat manager John McGraw's New York Giants and drew compliments from Ty Cobb.
Back during segregated ball, black all-star teams played Major League teams and Major League all-star teams often in exhibitions around the country. In 1912, while pitching against McGraw's Giants, the National League champs, Williams crafted a 6-0 shutout.
Three years later, against the pennant-winning Philadelphia Phillies, he outlasted Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander, 1-0, with a three-hitter.
Then, in 1917, legend has it Williams no-hit the Giants and struck out 20 but lost on an error in another 1-0 finish. There is no box score that can confirm him losing a no-hitter.
"I've interviewed some of the white players who played in these exhibitions," Riley said, "and they said, 'Anytime you play, no matter what it is, the pitcher's going to want to get the batter out, and the batter is going to want to get a hit off the pitcher. It doesn't matter if it's an exhibition or not. You want to win.'
"But the black players, it meant more to them, because it proved to them that they were good enough to play Major League ball. So that's why I think they tried a little harder, if you know what I mean. Some of the [white players] have told me that."
When it came to effort, Williams played at the same high level throughout a 27-year career that ended when historians believe he was 46.
From the start, Williams was a flamethrowing strikeout sensation.
Think Nolan Ryan.
With the Homestead Grays in 1930 -- at age 44 -- Williams struck out 27 Kansas City Monarchs in a 1-0, 12-inning win, a game that some baseball historians say might have been the finest pitching duel ever.
"He was a strikeout pitcher from the very beginning," Dixon said.
Williams' velocity, which some believe could touch 100 mph, led to his nickname "Smokey."
In 1931, Williams was part of perhaps the best pitching rotation in Negro League history. Joined by Willie Foster, also an eventual Hall of Famer, Williams was one of four 20-game winners on the Grays' staff.
Overall, the group had 21 shutouts and allowed just one run in 28 other games. On the whole, the team won between 138 and 163 games total, and it was powered by a young Josh Gibson (40 home runs that year).
In just Williams' second year, Paige was even added to the rotation when Foster went to Chicago late in the season.
"That was the greatest black baseball team of all time," Dixon said.
Coley Harvey is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.