Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Negro League pitcher may have had Cherokee blood

In the summer of 1917, the Hilldale Club, based in Darby, PA, was one of the most popular and successful all-black professional teams in the world of segregated baseball.

In the summer of 1917, the Hilldale Club, based in Darby, PA, was one of the most popular and successful all-black professional teams in the world of segregated baseball.

But were they truly "all black?"

In August of that year, the Hilldales signed a ringer, and what a ringer - "Smokey" Joe Williams, a flame-throwing hurler whom many contemporary and modern experts believe was even better on the mound than the legendary Satchel Paige.

Williams, who was just reaching his peak at the time, was indeed one of the best chuckers in the pre-Negro Leagues at the time. But he was also part Native-American, a fact that made him somewhat unique among his African-American peers and one that illustrated the constant blurring of the racial lines and social mores in the first half of the 20th century. It's also a fact that brings extra importance during November, Native-American Heritage Month.

A handful of Native Americans had managed to play in the major leagues in the years after the turn of the 20th century, reflecting how organized baseball's supposedly iron-clad color line wasn't as rigid as it appeared to be at times. While Indians were allowed in the door, African-Americans were shut out completely.

That malleability of the racial curtain, especially when it came to the different ethnicities who hurled and swatted the horsehide at the time, was best epitomized by the case of light-skinned, straight-haired African-American player Charlie Grant: In 1901, future Hall of Fame manager John McGraw, who eventually went on to almost-mythical fame with the New York Giants, was skippering a new American League team called the Baltimore Orioles when he attempted to pass off Grant as a Native American named Chief Tokohama in an effort to sneak him over the color line into the majors.

Unfortunately for Muggsy, other major league officials recognized Grant as a popular black player, and the famed manager's plan fell apart, slamming the racial door closed to blacks until Jackie Robinson came along in the 1940s.

The case of Smokey Joe Williams, who frequently carried the nickname "Cyclone," was certainly murky, beginning with his mixed-race heritage. While it's never been conclusively proven, it's widely accepted that Seguin, Texas, native Williams - who sported the sharp facial features of Native Americans - was partially Cherokee.

Royse "Crash" Parr, a baseball researcher and Arkansas Cherokee, certainly thinks so. "I'm pretty sure he is [Cherokee]," Parr says, "and I think he's got it on both sides of his family. Where he lived in Texas is probably where he got his Cherokee blood."

Parr's thoughts are echoed by Bill Staples Jr., a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and Texas native who himself has close family of Native-American heritage who's convinced it's true as well.

"I don't have any reason not to believe it," Staples says. "Just by observing him in photos, it looks like he has Native-American roots."

But if Native Americans had a better chance - albeit a still slim one - why wouldn't Joe Williams try to "pass" as 100-percent Indian in order to get into the majors? Why wouldn't Williams identify more closely with his Native-American ancestry - and in doing so confirm that ancestry?

Because, at the time of Williams' entry into the baseball big time circa 1910, it was still only two decades after the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, S.D., the culmination of a century-plus long, concerted effort by the United States to, in effect, eliminate Indians from the continent in the push toward "Manifest Destiny."

In the first few decades of the 20th century, native Americans were still being forced onto reservations and driven to abandon their culture for the more "civilized" American way of life.

"If you think about the 1930s," he says, "it wasn't any place to be an Indian in America. Many [biracial people] found it better to be black in America than Native American. It shows how Native Americans were viewed at that time."

Quite illustrative - and, indeed, striking - is that on top of the fact that Joe Williams pitched for Philadelphia teams, so did inarguably the greatest player in history who self-identified as Native-American: Albert "Chief" Bender, who played for both the Philadelphia A's and the Phillies during his Hall of Fame pitching career.

One man was shut out by the majors; another was more or less embraced as a superstar, further illustrating the ambiguous nature of racial identity in the early 20th century.

And ironically, during the days of segregation in the American pastime, the black press took note of Bender's acceptance by organized baseball and contrasted it with the rejection of blackness.

Even more pertinent is that one African-American columnist, Alvin Moses of the American Negro Press, directly contrasted Bender's situation with that of, among others, Williams in a 1945 article. In doing so, he reflexively provided an historical counterpoint to Staples' assertions about racial preferences of the white establishment.

"I know of few greater moundsmen in the long history of our national game than the picturesque Indian twirler," Moses wrote. "... But I wish that American Negro [sic], as well as Negro exponents of the game from other parts of the world, could be treated as fairly as was Bender, the Indian ..."

Moses first states that Bender couldn't compare to Afro-Cuban pitching sensation Jose Mendez, another blackball great. Then, he adds, "Nor does Bender rate in my book above Joe Williams, Andrew (Rube) Foster, [Frank] Wickware, Dick (Cannonball) Redding, or Phil (Hilldale) Cockrell ..."

There's no doubting Williams' greatness. In his seminal tome, "Only the Ball Was White," groundbreaking author Robert Peterson interviewed dozens of former Negro Leaguers, many of whom "regard Joe Williams as the greatest black pitcher, more remarkable than even the remarkable Satchel Paige. Certainly Williams, a right-hander, rivaled Paige for longevity on the mound, and there are those who say that his fastball at its best could be compared only with that of Walter Johnson."

Williams' presence on the Hilldale Club in 1917 definitely gave the team a shot in the arm, a boost no more evident than in the October series against a Connie Mack-managed white All Americans squad. In the first game of the series, Williams dominated the white squad, guiding the Hilldales to a 6-2 victory.

Two weeks later, after Hilldale closed the 1917 campaign with Williams on the hill for an 11-4 triumph over the All Americans, the Philadelphia Tribune trumpeted the Cyclone's contributions.

"Undoubtedly Joe Williams is one of the best pitchers in the business today," the paper stated. "While he may have eased up to save his valuable arm he thoroughly demonstrated by winning the first game [against the white team] and by fanning such men as Amos Strunk and [Wally] Schang in the final game that with good team work he can hold the best in the world."

Thirty-four years later, shortly after Williams' death, American Negro Press wire columnist Alvin Moses was effusive in his praise for the Cyclone.

"On the rock-strewn sand of Olympic Field, pitching the ace pitchers of big league barn-storming teams," Moses penned, "Williams proved his class, courage and right to make the grade in major league ball. White writers of his day didn't fail to say so in no unmistakable terms."

In the same column, Moses, perhaps unknowingly, gave clues that the towering, 6-foot-6 Williams had the physical traits that belied his Native-American ancestry.

"Williams was the answer to any maiden's prayer," the scribe wrote. "His complexion was that shade of brown wealthy whites slip to Florida beaches hoping to acquire. He resembled a bronzed Hercules."

In hindsight, it's more evidence that perhaps the greatest pitcher in baseball history - one good enough that the talented, Philly-area Hilldale Club sought him out to play against a powerful white team in late 1917 - had strong Native-American blood in his veins.

Unfortunately, however, that widely accepted belief may never be conclusively proven, barring either the location of a descendant or the exhumation of Williams himself for a DNA test. Current Cherokee Nation representatives say no one matching Williams' description, name or late 19th-century birth date is found on the tribe's official rolls.

"He probably wouldn't qualify to be a member of the current Cherokee Nation," Parr says. And, he adds, definitively "tracing his roots would be very difficult. I wouldn't know where to start."

In the meantime, the best historians and Negro League enthusiasts can do is continue to pursue biographical research and journalism that can keep the debate alive.

"Hopefully," Staples says, "it can open up another avenue of discussion."