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 Was White, calls Foster “the most impressive figure in black baseball history.” Peterson tells of the teenage right-handed ace, then with the Waco Yellow Jackets, being invited to join the Chicago Union Giants: When Foster was warned that he would not have an easy time of it, as the Giants planned on playing all the good white clubs, he wrote to the team’s owner, Frank Leland, “If you play the best clubs in the land, white clubs, as you say, it will be a case of Greek meeting Greek. I fear nobody.”
He told the truth. By 1903 Foster was the nation’s top black pitcher. Frustrated with his team’s paltry finances, he learned the business of baseball, and in 1910 he started a franchise of his own, which he eventually named the Chicago American Giants. (Many black teams called themselves the Giants as a kind of code, since newspapers refused to run their photos.) At six foot four and more than two hundred pounds, the gun-toting Foster called everyone “darlin’,” but he was no pushover. “Every year but one from 1910 to 1922, his American Giants had the championship team in the Midwest,” Riley says. “He ruled his team with an iron hand. If he gave a guy a bunt sign, the guy had better bunt.” By 1920, the year Judge Landis became commissioner, Foster had formed the Negro National League, and he presided over it in a similarly autocratic fashion. One owner awoke from a nap in a league meeting to find himself without a team. Yet Foster soon had competition: The Eastern Colored League was founded in 1923, and it became a struggle to keep his teams intact. Working twelve to fifteen hour days, overwhelmed by his responsibilities, Foster suffered a breakdown. In 1926 he was committed to a mental hospital; he died four years later.
Rube, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981, was not the only Foster who made a contribution to the Negro Leagues. His half-brother, Willie, who was born in Calvert in 1904, learned his trade on the ball fields of Mississippi’s Alcorn College. The younger Foster was a shrewd southpaw with a large arsenal of pitches, and in 1926, after settling a feud with Rube, he played his first full season with the American Giants. That year he won 26 consecutive games, and for the decade that followed he was the team’s star pitcher, leading them to three pennants. With no bullpen to speak of, Negro League pitchers had few if any days off between outings, and Willie learned to conserve his speed for when it was most needed. The best left-hander in black baseball history would retire to become the baseball coach and the dean of men at Alcorn. His last pennant with the American Giants came in 1933, the first year of the Negro League’s all-star game, which would prove to be black baseball’s most popular and enduring event. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
Willie Foster played alongside a fellow Texan in that first all-star game: the slick-fielding shortstop Willie Wells, who was born in Austin in 1908. As a young man, Wells would sneak off to nearby Dobb’s Field whenever he got the opportunity to watch the local semi-pro teams. There, he befriended the star catcher for the San Antonio Aces, Biz Mackey, who would get him into the games by allowing him to carry his glove. Wells would sit on the bench and absorb it all, and in short order he had his own local reputation. In 1923 he received two invitations to join professional teams—one from Rube Foster’s American Giants, the other from the St. Louis Stars. After promising his mother that he would attend college in the off-season, Wells chose St. Louis since it was closer to home. Wells was thought by some to be too small to be any good, so he developed an aggressive style of play that years later would earn him the nickname El Diablo. “He felt he had to scrap for everything he got,” Riley says. “He would take the stuffing out of his glove and fill it with rocks. When a guy came in, he’d tag him in the face or mouth. He was one of the very few infielders who would slide spikes-out.” His tenacity made him a respected and feared opponent. Though he didn’t have a strong arm, he almost always threw batters out, if only by a step. He was just as effective at bat, with a lifetime .334 average in the Negro Leagues.
Rube Foster befriended Wells, whom he called Little Ranger, but Wells would stay with the three-time National League champion Stars until they folded in 1931. By the time he signed with the American Giants, Foster was dead. After the Giants came the Newark Eagles, a team Wells would later manage, and then a stint in the Latin leagues. “Not only do I get more money playing here,” Wells said of Mexico, “but I live like a king. I was branded a Negro in the States and had to act accordingly. They wouldn’t even give me a chance in the big leagues . . . yet they accepted every other nationality under the sun. Well, here in Mexico, I am a man.” Wells would play and manage in Canada and the U.S. until 1954, but by the time the color barrier was lifted he was too old for the majors.
After he retired, Wells worked for more than a decade in a New York deli. At age 63, he returned to Austin, where he spent his last years alone in the home in which he was reared, still following the game he loved. Unlike the other Negro Leaguers from Texas in the Hall, Wells lived long enough to be recognized in his lifetime (he died in 1989). But he wasn’t. “I think they were afraid he might not present a good impression,” Riley says. “Some days he’d wander a bit. When the Hall of Fame first started putting the black players in, they were as particular about these decisions as they were about choosing Jackie Robinson.” Wells’s daughter, Stella, says her father never dwelled on the oversight: “The only thing he would say is that one day he would be in the Hall. He might be dead, but he’d be there.” Wells was inducted in 1997.
With this year’s addition of Smokey Joe Williams, Texas can now claim one quarter of all the Negro Leaguers in the Hall of Fame—more than any other state. But four other natives, all deceased, are equally deserving of the honor, which they may never get:
Raleigh “Biz” Mackey, Eagle Pass. Played for several teams, including the Hilldale Daisies, the Baltimore Elite Giants, and the Newark Eagles; from 1923 to 1941 hit over .400 twice and never dropped below .315. Mentored Brooklyn Dodger great Roy Campanella. “He may have been the best pure defensive catcher ever,” O’Neil wrote, “and was also a hell of a hitter.”
Louis Santop, Tyler. One of the earliest black superstars, a cocky left-handed slugger with a lifetime average of .406. According to O’Neil, “black baseball’s first big home run hitter.” Nicknamed Big Bertha after a German World War I artillery cannon. Played with Smokey Joe Williams on the Lincoln Giants.
Hilton Smith, Giddings. Known as Satchel’s Shadow; Paige would start games to draw the crowd, but after three or so innings, Smith would finish them with the most deadly curve ball in the Negro Leagues. Won twenty or more games each of his twelve years with the Monarchs; had a lifetime record of 161-32 in Negro League play. Also a formidable batter.
Newt Allen, Austin. Another Monarch. “Arguably the best second baseman in the Negro Leagues,” says Riley. “The best arm I’ve ever seen in baseball,” O’Neil recalls. “He could stand at home plate and throw the ball over the centerfield fence.”
Each of these players has an uphill road to the Hall, though Riley hopes for the best. “The writers get the obvious choices,” he says, “while the Veterans Committee has to make fine distinctions between a very good ballplayer and a marginally great ballplayer—a tougher task. But when it comes to the Negro Leagues, we’re talking about the kind of players who would be put in by the writers, some on the first ballot.” Anyway, Negro Leaguers have known uphill roads before. “The source of our bitterness was the segregation, period,” O’Neil says. “Not being able to play in the major leagues was just a small thing. You had a league of your own. You were making a good living there. It was very viable. But the fact that you couldn’t go to the University of Missouri, the University of Texas—you understand? These are the things that hurt us a lot more than not going to play in the majors.”