That Smokey Joe Williams played in an era where he could easily be forgotten does not excuse actually forgetting him. The fact that Williams’ name almost never appears on any list of the greatest pitchers ever is a travesty. Yet, it’s all too easy to explain away the erasure of Williams from baseball lore. He was a Negro Leagues player, but not just any Negro Leagues player, he was a Negro Leagues player who mainly took up with independent ballclubs. That makes it where it’s quite simple to forget about Williams and his accomplishments on baseball fields across the world.
Williams’ career, that we know of, lasted from 1907 to 1932. For most of that period, he was one of, if not the, best pitchers on the planet. Smokey Joe played with well-known ballclubs like the Chicago Giants, New York Lincoln Giants, and Homestead Grays. He was an ace pitcher for every one of those ballclubs and some lesser-known ballclubs to boot. Unfortunately for Williams’ legacy, there aren’t many records that place him during any league seasons, except four. To make matters worse the records of those seasons are a combination of incomplete and a few of William’s more lesser seasons on the mound.
None of the above should matter because we know the way that the Negro Leagues worked. There were official leagues, and eventually Negro major leagues, but there was also a plethora of traveling teams and barnstorming clubs. The competition level of those clubs was of the highest order, featuring pretty much every Negro Leagues star you could think to name. We have been hardwired by the Major League Baseball approach to baseball that if it isn’t organized in an official league format with 140+ games it’s not actually, well, official. This comes through in the present day with the way the various winter leagues are often dismissed, how MLB itself is trying to cannibalize Minor League Baseball by going after mainly short-season teams, and the hoops that Negro Leagues historians have to jump through to validate the accomplishments of Negro Leagues players.
I could write a very analytical article about the stats that Williams put up throughout his career. The season of 16 starts, an ERA of 1.07, and an ERA+ of 300. Telling you about his career sWAR of 52.9 or his 162 game average sWAR of 6.3 may sway you to how great Smokey Joe Williams was. If I regaled you with all those statistics you would probably come away with an understanding of how talented Williams was as a pitcher. I’m not sure, though, that such an approach would adequately convey how Williams went about accomplishing his greatness. For that, statistics aren’t the way, but rather old fashioned storytelling.
Williams was, as laid out above, a nomad. Not a conventional nomad mind you, he remained loyal to a handful of teams throughout his playing career. Still, he wasn’t one for organized baseball because he wanted to go where the money was and where he felt his talent would most be appreciated. That meant that it didn’t matter if he was pitching in the Negro National League or throughout the Eastern independent circuit. Williams always brought his A-game and while his stats show that so does his longevity and the towering mythology that grew around him the longer he played. He threw so hard that he was given the nicknames Smokey, Cyclone, and by his Cuban teammates and opponents, Cíclon. He was a hard-nosed pitcher who went straight at hitters and wasn’t afraid to both get in trouble and get out of trouble. The stats and the stories come together to paint the picture of Williams as a completely dominant force on the pitching mound.
In an era where the win was most valuable no matter the color of your skin, Smokey Joe lost quite a bit. He did so while putting up utterly ridiculous numbers and blowing away elite competition like Oliver Marcell, Ted Kimbro, and more. The legend of Smokey Joe Williams eventually faded from the baseball world, not even a 1999 election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame could bring Williams back to the forefront as he so deserved. Smokey Joe Williams is an all-time great and a baseball legend. He deserves to be remembered as and treated like baseball royalty. Next time someone wants to talk about the greatest pitchers of all time take a stroll over to Smokey Joe Williams’ stats page and put him in the discussion where he belongs.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown