I remember as a little kid, I used to love reading about the history of the game. There was one player that I found that I loved, and I truly had no reason to love him other than his nickname; Smoky Joe Wood. “But Brian, isn’t this supposed to be a Negro League article?” Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to that. Anyway, Smoky Joe Wood earned his phenomenal nickname because of his legendary right arm, with his fastball often compared to that of Walter Johnson.
Many years later, I happened upon a book that mentioned Smokey Joe Williams of the Negro Leagues. HUH? Wait, wasn’t his name Smoky Joe Wood? And I’m almost sure that he pitched for the Red Sox, definitely not the Homestead Grays. This had to be a Mandela Effect thing (though I had no idea what that even meant at the time). Well, no. Turns out, there was another Smokey Joe, and this one pitched his entire career in Negro or independent leagues. But how was this Smokey Joe? After all, Joe Wood once won 34 games in a year, so how much better could Joe Williams have been?
Well, Joe Williams was pretty good in his own right. He hurled against major league pitching plenty of times from 1912-1919, compiling a record of 18-5 and beating such pitchers as Grover Cleveland Alexander, Walter Johnson, and Rube Marquard. One of his losses? Williams threw a no-hitter, striking out 20 against the future National League champion Giants. Said one former Negro League pitcher Sam Streeter, “It used to take two catchers to hold him.” The stories used to tell of Williams throwing so hard, that by the fifth inning the catcher’s hand would be too swollen to continue, so a second catcher would have to come in to finish the game.
The one thing about judging Negro League players is that information is almost always limited to word of mouth. The amount of stats compiled in recorded leagues is so scarce compared to how much they actually played. If you look at Williams’ Baseball Reference page, his career totals of 3.77 RA/9 (runs allowed per 9 innings) don’t impress at all. For reference, Bert Blyleven averaged 3.67 RA/9 for his career. Blyleven is a Hall of Famer, sure, but he’s not necessarily who you think of when you think of the greatest players of all time.
Now, factor in how many unearned runs Williams allowed in his career. The early periods of baseball were notorious for their defense (or lack thereof), and while pitchers’ numbers didn’t suffer because of the nature of ERA, the RA/9 numbers appear unsightly as a result. Compared to his 3.77 RA/9, Joe Williams owned a (recorded) career ERA of 2.00. You might not have known what RA/9 was, but I know you know what ERA is, and I know you know that that’s good. Not just good, it’s great. Amazing, even. That career mark (albeit potentially skewed) would rank 4th all time, ahead of every Hall of Famer who ever lived except for Addie Joss and Ed Walsh.
Now, take his strikeout numbers. Only 5.6 K/9? Pffffffft this guy wasn’t all that good, he couldn’t even strike people out! Right? Well, wrong again. First, remember that every pitcher’s arm from that era was made out of silly putty, so pitchers could probably throw 3 seasons worth of innings for a current starting pitcher in the span of a year. Then, think Walter Johnson again. Walter Johnson owned the strikeout record with 3509, a career mark that stood until 1983. Johnson struck out only 5.3 batters per 9 innings pitched, a mark actually lower than that of Williams. Then, remember earlier what I said about him striking out 20 Giants in an exhibition game. He once won a 1-0, 12 inning game, allowing only 1 hit and striking out 27 batters. Granted he had an extra 9 outs to do it, but have 75% of your outs be via strikeout? In 12 innings? Who said he wasn’t a strikeout pitcher?
While often controversial, Bill James has “Smokey” Joe Williams listed as the 52nd greatest player of all time, one spot behind Sandy Koufax and one spot ahead of Roy Campanella. Now, he also has Craig Biggio listed at 35th, and not to slight Biggio, but I think I would take players like Clemens, Gibson, and Yastrzemski over him, all listed as lower. Ty Cobb, known off the field for his racial intolerance, referred to Williams as a guaranteed 30 game winner had he pitched in the majors. A Pittsburgh Courier poll of black baseball reporters and players found Williams to be the greatest Negro League player of all time, ahead of Satchel Paige.
While the “Smoky” Joe Wood I had originally stumbled upon was an amazing pitcher, he somehow was not even the best pitcher nicknamed Smokey Joe. Joe Williams is properly recognized in the Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1999, but his career seems largely forgotten among the current age. Being in the Hall of Fame is not always synonymous with being remembered, but Smokey Joe’s name deserves to be in the conversation of the greatest pitchers in history.
Featured Photo via Wikimedia Commons