QUICK: NAME A PITCHER from a small Texas town who changed the course of baseball and recently entered the sport’s hall of fame—someone who won twenty straight games and in one season went 41-3; someone for whom twenty strikeouts in nine innings was not an unusual occurrence; someone who, at age 45, struck out 27 batters in a twelve-inning game, giving up only one hit. If you said Nolan Ryan, you’re wrong. The answer is Smokey Joe Williams of Seguin, once the most famous pitcher in black baseball but largely forgotten today. Born in 1885, Williams spent his early years with the San Antonio Black Bronchos and his glory days on the New York Lincoln Giants and Pennsylvania’s Homestead Grays. Even the avowedly racist Ty Cobb declared him a “sure thirty-game winner” if he could have played in the majors—yet after retiring in 1932, Williams lived in such anonymity that the correct date of his death is in question. In July he became the sixteenth player, and the fourth Texan, to be enshrined in Cooperstown for stellar accomplishments in the Negro Leagues.
And, possibly, the last. While at least twenty more Negro Leaguers are worthy of membership, including another four Texans, progress at the National Baseball Hall of Fame has been “late starting and slow continuing,” says James Riley, the research director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Initially, the Hall’s plan was simply to mount a special Negro League exhibit. Instead, in 1971, they created the Official Negro League Selection Committee and resolved to induct one player a year. As it happened, nine made the cut over the next six years, including the great Satchel Paige. But in 1977 the Hall dissolved the committee, and after that all Negro League players had to be voted in by the Veterans Committee. (According to Hall rules, players with ten years of major league service are eligible to be inducted beginning five years after they retire or six months after they die. Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America vote once a year to determine who gets in; a 75 percent vote is required for induction. If a player does not get inducted within fifteen years, his only route in is through the Veterans Committee.)
In the decade that followed, only two Negro League players were let in, leading the three former Negro Leaguers on the committee to demand a change in policy. “I told them, ‘You got to start putting us in a separate category the way you did fifty years ago,’” Kansas City Monarchs star John “Buck” O’Neil explained in his autobiography, I Was Right on Time. In 1995 the Hall finally agreed to consider Negro Leaguers on their own ballot, but only for five years. That led to five more inductees. This year, however, that temporary arrangement ends, and while O’Neil says he’d like to get another five years, Riley doubts it will happen. “There’s still a bias against Negro Leaguers,” he says. “It’s residual fallout from the original mind-set that kept them out of the majors to start with.” Without that extension, things don’t look promising. It takes a 75 percent vote of the fifteen-member Veterans Committee for a player to be elected, and 88-year-old O’Neil is the sole ex—Negro Leaguer left on the committee.
The Negro Leagues are both a stain on our nation’s history and a tremendous point of pride—a reminder of the horrors of sanctioned segregation and also of what can be achieved in the face of adversity. Though a handful of black players made it to the major leagues in the late nineteenth century, racial tension dictated that none lasted very long. Eventually team owners struck a gentleman’s agreement that kept their rosters white-only. That’s how it remained for nearly fifty years, even though integration was legally permissible. O’Neil blames Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the showboat federal judge who was professional baseball’s first commissioner. “Landis … publicly maintained there was no discrimination in baseball and privately worked against any effort to end [it],” he wrote. “[He] might have been a great man in some regards, but he did all of us a favor when he died.” In 1945, soon after Landis’ death, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson.
To say that Negro Leaguers had it tougher than their white counterparts is an understatement. They were often unable to use the showers in the white-owned stadiums where they played or the restrooms in the gas stations that serviced their buses. Schedules were haphazard: It was routine for teams to travel two hundred miles and back for a single game, and even within league play different teams could end up playing a vastly different number of games. And the pressure was on to perform. No black team could afford a farm system, so if you didn’t produce runs or win games, you didn’t get sent to the minors—you went home. Still, life in the Negro Leagues was preferable to most options available to black men at the time. Salaries were higher than average, and players felt a sense of privilege. In pre-season they trained at the nation’s few black colleges, accounting for the league’s high percentage of college-educated players at a time when many blacks were denied education beyond the eighth grade. A common misperception is that black players couldn’t find places to stay or eat on the road. In fact, most large northern cities had black hotels and restaurants that would serve them.
Of course, that was in the sport’s heyday. Several decades earlier, life in the Negro Leagues was tenuous—until an extraordinary figure came along and gave black baseball the organization and stability it sorely lacked. His name was Andrew Foster, and he was born in 1879 in the Central Texas town of Calvert. The son of a Methodist Episcopal minister, he would come to be known as Rube, one of the best-known and most powerful men in Chicago. Robert Peterson, the author of the scholarly Negro League history Only the Ball