Max-ed out in NOLA

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Max Williams’ WWI draft card

Did Max Williams have cahones?

That would be a resounding “yes.”

In September 1907, the pitcher for the Iroquois, a “colored” team in New Orleans, called out every other black hurler in the Big Easy. Stated a brief in the New Orleans Item:

“Max Williams, pitcher for the Iroquois Club, leaders for the pennant in the Crescent Social Club’s baseball league, to show his superiority over others, would like to pitch twenty innings against any pitcher in the league. A Dewey pitcher preferred.”

The Deweys were another squad in the African-American sandlot circuit and apparently the somewhat bitter rivals of the Iroquois.

Why do I bring up Max Williams? Because of his connection to the Southern Colored Baseball Association of 1905, which I discussed in my previous post. The SCBA was a short-lived attempt by Dixie’s best black hardball teams to once again organize a regional league. Unfortunately, by all appearances the association crashed and burned before the ’05 summer had drawn to a close.

The NOLA representative in the association, though, was the Brooks Club, and Williams was the team’s ace hurler. By all accounts, btw, Williams’ challenge passed without a response, at least not directly. But a little while later, as I’ll mention later in this post, Williams did get a crack at the Deweys.

The Brooks themselves seem to have formed in or around 1903, when they’re first mentioned in the New Orleans Item in early September. In the Sept. 5 issue of the paper, an article states that the Brooks Club will face the Klondykes of Pensacola, Fla., for what the publication dubbed a sort of Southern title set. The clash was best two-out-of-three, with a pot of $50 on the table for each game. Stated the paper:

“The contest will no doubt be close and exciting, as it will be for the colored championship of Louisiana and Florida.”

The results of the diamond collision couldn’t be immediately discerned. However, from then on, the Item referred to the New Orleans aggregation as “the Champion Brooks.” (The Klondykes, as it turned out, would be Pensacola’s entry in the SCBA in 1905.)

That media-dubbed appellation began in 1904, when the Brooks squad tore through a series of rival clubs from across the Gulf coast. The team faced the Olivers of Biloxi, Miss., in April of that year, and in July, the Brooks squeaked by the crosstown rival Crescents, 5-4, before launching a scheduled, epic, five-week road trip beginning in Atlanta. “New Orleans,” claimed the Item, “has the fastest colored team [in the] South.”

Apparently, though, the Brooks hung around the NOLA area long enough to beat the Plaquemine Young Americans a couple times later in July. That’s when Max Williams first shined for the Big Easy “champions.” Reported the July 26, 1904, Item:

“The Champion Brooks defeated the Young Americans in a stubborn contest in yesterday’s double header by winning both games. The feature of the game was the pitching of Max Williams of the Brooks, who shut out the visitors, letting them down with two hits and ten strike-outs, none reaching third base in the first game. … Max Williams retired from the club holding the championship record for amateur pitchers.”

For the Brooks, then came the heretofore chronicled 1905 season in the SCBA, when Williams continued to establish himself as the city’s best African-American hurler, at least at the sandlot level, by becoming the ace of his team’s staff.

Once the SCBA dissipated, the Brooks continued to take on all comers in the region in 1905, including the Birmingham Blues in late August in what the Item, as usual, hyped as a sort of “colored” title clash:

“This will be the last chance to see the two strongest colored teams in the South in action. Sunday will decide which is the best team.”

The article also reported that the clashes — the Birmingham/Brooks game was the second of a doubleheader — “have been arranged for a benefit to the Birmingham team, which had the misfortune to be caught in the quarantine here.”

The line is no doubt a reference to the horrible yellow fever epidemic that decimated much of the population of New Orleans that summer. The benefit doubleheader perhaps helped pay for the Blues’ food and lodging while they were stuck in New Orleans, as well as their travel arrangements back to Alabama.

YellowFeverPoster

The Brooks appear to have forged ahead for another season or two, but all mention of them in the local NOLA press dropped off by the end of 1908. The last mention I could find of them was in Daily Picayune in July ’08, when they took park in a doubleheader that christened a brand-new diamond, Oleander Park, for African-American baseballists in the city.

If the Brooks did fold, Max Williams evidently remained in hot demand, because he was snapped up by the Iroquois club in ’07. That season appears to have culminated in early October, when Williams got his wish — a showdown with the Dewey club. Reported the Item in a front-page story, a placement in the paper that was an absolute rarity for black baseball in the city:

“… The race between the two clubs has been very close since the beginning of the league season, and now that it is to be finished, it finds both clubs tied for first place. Both clubs will put out their strongest team, and no doubt the rooters will be out in full force. … Max Williams, the Iroquois star, will do the twirling for them, while ‘old man Sheridan’ will be on the firing line for the Admiral Dewey crowd.”

But the results of the impending title contest don’t appear to have been reported, so perhaps no one will know for sure whether Williams did indeed make good on the boast he issued to all other local twirlers early in ’07.

And I couldn’t find any references to Max Williams in terms of baseball following that year. All I could do was put together a little biographical sketch, but even then there’s a lack of clarity …

Williams’ birth date is the primary question mark — in his WWI draft registration card, Williams claims that he was born on Sept. 16, 1879, but his 1953 California death record — he and his wife, Odile, appear to have moved to Los Angeles later in life — lists his birth date as Sept. 16, 1884, a full five years later than his draft card reported.

On top of that, various Census entries and other documents give his birth annum as various other years in the 1880s; his marriage record, for example, states that he was birthed in about 1881.

There’s also the issue of his middle name — his draft card calls him Max Nyblias Williams, but his death report gives his middle moniker as Nivlin.

While living the majority of his life in New Orleans, Williams, like many African-American men of the time, toiled as a common laborer for various employers, including a saw mill.

In December 1908, Williams married 21-year-old Odile Harding in New Orleans, and the couple had a son, Max Jr., just about nine months later. The family lived with Odile’s mother, Lillie, on Delachaise Street in New Orleans proper before the couple and Max Jr. moved later on.

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1910 Census record for Max Williams and family

While in Los Angleles, Max Sr. labored as a janitor, and Junior became a linotypist at a newspaper — a job that is now, eight decades later, long since extinct. Max Williams Sr. died in 1953, having been predeceased by Odile, who passed in 1944 at the age of 58. Given the massive lack of clarity surrounding his birth date, Max Sr.’s age at his death is likewise unclear. Max Williams Jr. died in Los Angeles in 1979 at the age of 69.

One final but in no way unimportant note about Max Williams and his family: they were, in all likelihood, extremely light-skinned, so much so that they could, and apparently did, pass as white …

In the 1910 Census, the entire family, including Lillie Harding, is listed as “mulatto,” but in the 1920 report, the Williams’ and Lillie are stated as white! However, 10 years later, when they were recorded in the 1930 Census in L.A., Max, Odile and Max Jr. are recorded as … Negro!

It’s indeed quite puzzling. But Max Williams, for the purposes of African-American baseball history, was a small but important cog in the 1905 Southern Colored Baseball Association, one in a long string of valiant but ultimately doomed attempts by black hardball enthusiasts to organize into a viable circuit.

And, if only by virtue of his priceless challenge to the resting of the NOLA baseball twirling community, Williams has earned a place in the long but underappreciated tradition of, shall we say, unique Negro League pitchers from the Crescent City, one that continued with luminaries like Iron Claw Populus, Groundhog Thompson, Peanuts Davis … it’s a pretty amazing list.

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