John Holway / Negro Leagues
[TRUE STORY: Laurence Alpert asked if the Hall of Fame's report of Smoky Joe Williams' death in 1946 is greatly exaggerated.
The answer is, yes. Smoky Joe, or his wraith, was honored with a day in his honor at the Polo Grounds in 1950. He died February 25, 1951 in New York and is buried in Washington DC.
Upon further research, Laurence emailed us back with new information. He wrote, "I have finally been able to locate the death certificate (wrongly filed as Joe William (without the "s") confirming date of death February 25, 1951 (also listing birth date as April 6, 1887) with burial in Lincoln Cemetery (Suitland Md.) and with death informed by Beatrice Williams (with father named as James Williams and mother as Lettie Williams)..occupation listed as bartender of a saloon. and age at time of death as 66 years old..birthplace as Texas."
THE DEATH OF SMOKEY JOE
By John B. Holway
In answer to a question, I wrote that Smoky Joe Williams died in 1951, not 1946, as the Hall of Fame says. I'm indebted to Larry Lester of sabr for this information.
His birth is conjectural, from 1874-1885, with many dates reported in between.
Black babies' births were not recorded in Texas back then, so I went to his hometown, Seguin,Texas, and asked the local editor to run a column asking for help. One reader found a baptismal record for a Joseph Williams in 1883. Then I found Joe's widow, a former dancer in several all-black Broadway musical reviews, living in Washington DC, where Joe is buried.
"He was a stage-door Johnny," she smiled, waiting for her after the show with flowers. She showed me their marriage license in which he gave his birth date as 1885, the one I use. (She also gave me the famous picture of Joe in profile in a Lincoln Giants uniform, gripping a baseball at his thigh, which has since been widely reproduced.)
That would have made Joe 26 when he made his Negro League debut in 1911 with the Lincolns, and 47 in 1932, his last year in the Negro League. He had a 6-2 record with the Homestead Grays against other league teams. I don't know his record against white semipros. The Grays advertised that he was over 50, but I doubt it.
When Joe finally retired, he traded his toeplate for a shot jigger and began mixing drinks as a bartender in Harlem, regaling patrons with stories of the old days. "He gave away a good deal of what he made," the black "Amsterdam News" wrote.
A first baseman from North Carolina, Buck Leonard, found him and said he needed a job, and Joe sent him to Cum Posey, owner of the Grays, who signed him on the spot.
Joe's quote on his "day" in 1950 was as eloquent a statement of a race's experience as any I know in American history literature, ranking with the famous speech by his Native American forebear, Chief Joseph.
"My heart is weak now. I've got to use elevators, no more bouncing up and down stairs." He mentioned Negro Leaguers Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, and Luke Easter, who had gone into the white majors. "But there were many Negro Leaguers just as good, they were just never given a chance to prove their greatness."
Joe said he wasn't bitter. "The important thing is that the long fight is over. I praise the Lord I've lived to see that day."
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Laurence Alpert asks, "I was curious as to what happened to widow Beatrice Williams...and any relatives still living? and locations/address? phone contacts?
I also was interested in whether you might know if baseball group might be interested in arranging some sought of official ceremony perhaps arranging for a plaque to be placed at Lincoln Cemetery in Suitland (working with Ms. Garfinkel the Director of Administration)...I would certainly be interested in contributing to such a cause..and perhaps your contacts at National Baseball Hall of Fame or the NLBM in Kansas City may be interested in doing something..
Please email firstname.lastname@example.org with any information.
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[The mystery regarding Smokey Joe's true age continues.]
THE BIRTH OF SMOKEY JOE
By John B. Holway
I visited Joe Williams' widow, Beatrice, in Washington about 20 years ago. She showed me her marriage license, giving Joe's birth as 4/6/1886. If his death certificate says 4/6/1887, it may have been copied wrong from the data she had on her marriage license. If he was 66 at the time of death, February 1951, then he would have been born in 1886. The actual date may be remain a mystery. Baptism certificates in his home town of Seguin TX show a Joe Williams born in 1885. We don't know if the baptism was the same Joe Williams.
Take your choice. I don't think the mystery may ever be solved.
There are newspaper stories with many dates, the earliest being 1876. But he was pitching good ball in the black majors as late as 1932, which would make him 56. We have a record of him poitching in Arizona in 1905. Reluctantly, I go with the latest date, which would make him 45, but who knows?
Satchel got the idea of making his birthday a mystery from Smokey.