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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

Smokey Joe
Williams considered a better pitcher than Paige
By Brian Wilson/MLB.com


Smokey Joe Williams was 20-7 against Major League competition.
Born: April 6, 1885, Seguin, Texas.
Died: March 12, 1946, New York
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Hall of Fame induction: 1999

It was significant when a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll of black sportswriters and baseball players voted Joe Williams the greatest pitcher in Negro League history, ahead of Satchel Paige.

It was noteworthy when Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, noted for his racial intolerance and general surliness, stated Williams would have been a sure 30-game winner had he been a Major Leaguer.

It was impressive that Williams went 20-7 against Major League competition, defeating Hall of Famers Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson, Waite Hoyt, Chief Bender and Rube Marquard in the process.

So it was fitting when Williams, known to many as Smokey Joe because of his blazing fastball, was posthumously inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.

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The 6-foot-4 fireballer, born in Seguin, Texas in 1885, was discovered by Rube Foster while pitching against Foster's Leland Giants in 1909. He joined the team in 1910, and proceeded to whiff batters with alarming regularity until his retirement in 1932.

Williams made his mark with the New York Lincoln Giants, where he pitched from 1912 to 1923. There he teamed with Cannonball Dick Redding to give the New York team a devastating one-two punch in their rotation. Williams was the team's highest-paid player, earning $105 per month.

His signature season was 1914, when he rung up 41 victories against a mere three defeats, a record compiled while pitching against all levels of competition (in league play he was 12-2 with 100 Ks in 17 games).

Three years later, Williams struck out 20 and pitched a no-hitter against the National League Champion New York Giants, but lost the game, 1-0, on an error.

After being released in a Lincoln Giants youth movement in 1924, Williams rejoined Redding for a season with the Brooklyn Royal Giants before moving on to the Homestead Grays. Still possessing the "stuff" of an ace, he teamed with Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Jud Wilson and others to form what some call the greatest black team of all time.

As a member of the Grays, one of Williams' best and most noteworthy efforts came on Aug. 7, 1930 against Chet Brewer and the Kansas City Monarchs. Playing under the lights -- a Negro League innovation that today is the norm -- Smokey Joe one-hit the Monarchs and fanned 27 batters in a 12-inning game. Brewer kept up his end of the bargain, giving up a run on four hits while striking out 19 batters.

Joe even had an impact after he left the playing field. As a Harlem bartender, he called Homestead Grays owner Cum Posey and referred eventual Hall of Fame first baseman Buck Leonard to him. But teammates and opponents agree it was Williams' exploits on the mound that made him memorable.

"On certain days, our Negro National or Negro American League clubs could have been Major Leaguers," said former teammate Bill Yancey in Robert Peterson's 1970 book "Only the Ball Was White". "With Smokey Joe Williams or Cannonball Dick Redding or Phil Cockrell or Nip Winters pitching, we could beat anybody."

Brian Wilson is an editor/producer for the MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.