Many apologies for not putting up anything new for a week or so — May is Jewish American Heritage Month, and I’ve been busy research and writing about Lipman Pike, the first Jewish superstar, the sport’s first great power hitter and one of the game’s first openly professional players. I actually just had this article published at philly.com.
Anyway, I’ve been assigned to write an article for the Press of Atlantic City about fantastic turn-of-the-century African-American catcher Clarence “Waxey” Williams, who, while being born in Harrisburg and living (and playing) in his hometown for much of his life, ended up dying and being buried near Atlantic City.
Williams is currently high on the priority list for the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, which is the hook of my story for the press. As a result, I’ve been doing beaucoup research about Waxey, his life and his career. Of course, I still have a lot more to look into, but I wanted to do a couple blog entries about some tantalizing nuggets from the contemporary mainstream media’s coverage of Williams, as well as his roots and his genealogical background.
This post will zero in on some of the more fascinating ways the newspapers covered Williams and the teams for which he played, especially the great Cuban Giants and various Harrisburg squads.
Williams is best known as one of the first players on the roster of the Cuban Giants, the sports first professional African-American team, in 1885. For much of their existence, the Giants were based in Trenton, N.J., a city which seemingly, as far as I could tell from media reports, treated the squad with a mixture of pride, puzzlement and paternalism (apologies for the alliteration, I couldn’t resist). That included descriptions of Waxey Williams.
Let’s begin with one of the Trenton Advertiser’s preseason evaluations of that year’s Cuban Giants club, in which the paper went player by player. Here’s how the publication described Clarence Williams:
“Catcher No. 2. Clarence Williams was born January 27th, 1866, at Harrisburg. Played left field for the Harrisburg’s [sic] in ’82, caught for the Middletown base ball club, of Pennsylvania, in 1883, and played the same position for the Williamsport professionals in the early of the season ’85, and joined the Cuban Giants the later part of the season. He is a heavy batsman, a fine base runner and good catcher.”
Within a couple years, Williams had apparently become somewhat of a fan favorite in Trenton and elsewhere, in large part because of his enthusiastic approach to coaching and encouraging his teammates.
One article in 1887, under the headline, “Williams’ Great Luck,” highlights his feat of scoring two runs in one inning against the New York Reserves. It also refers to Williams multiple times as the Cubans’ “mascot,” a tag that, at least contextually in such articles, seems to mean more of a coach than, say, the Phillie Phanatic. Stated the Times:
“In the seventh Clarene Williams coached his fellow-players. There were two men on the bases when Whyte took up the bat. Clarence paralyzed the Reserves by his ‘R-o-o-t the Air!’ and other encouraging coaching terms. …”
A week later, on May 7, 1887, the Trenton Times wrote thusly:
“Clarence Williams is popular with the occupants of the stands. His peculiar coaching at first base brings down the house every time.”
In 1890, Williams had shifted to the almost-all-white Harrisburg team on the Eastern Interstate League, where he and Frank Grant brought the only diversity to the squad and the athletic proceedings.
In February of that year, the Philadelphia Inquirer described how the Harrisburg players were getting in shape for the impending season by cultivating their home diamond and ground themselves. However, according to the Inquirer, in what smacks of the old stereotype of the “lazy Negro”:
“Clarence Williams, late of the Cuban Giants, does not take so kindly to landscape gardening.”
The press also reported the events when Williams got into a legal jam in August 1891, when he was arrested when the Cuban Giants — to whom Williams had returned — ventured back to Trenton and defeated a local (apparently white) club. Here’s how a wire service article described what happened next:
“After the game a riot broke out, caused by Thomas, the catcher of the visitors, cuting a ball belonging to the Trentons. “Selden, Thomas and Clarence Williams were the ringleaders in the row with followed. Some desperate head pounding occurred before the disturbance was quelled. The special officers arrested the members of the colored club and took them to jail, but no one speaking against them to make charges they were released. Later warrants were issued for Selden, Thomas and C. Williams, and officers are now looking for them.”
It’s not immediately apparent what became of that legal dust-up, but it’s … interesting, to say the least, that pretty much the entirety of the “riot” was blamed on the African-American team in general and especially the three named players.
But that, apparently, wasn’t the only time Williams was accused of violent acts. By 1896, Waxey had actually become a police officer in Harrisburg, but his tenure as a cop didn’t go all that well, it seems. Penned the Sept. 16, 1896, Harrisburg Patriot under the header, “Clarence Had Foresight”:
“Clarence Williams, the baseballist policeman, who ws under suspension for brutally clubbing a man, probably read the writing on the wall and forestalled dismissal by sending his resignation to Mayor Patterson yesterday morning.
“Williams’ letter was brief; after the usual tender of resignation, he wished the mayor ‘all the successes you deserve.’ The mayor promptly accepted the resignation, but did not make any appointment yesterday, although he announced that he had made up his mind as to who would be appointed.
“Alex Barber, a well-known colored politician of the Fourth Ward, will be appointed in the place of the ex-catcher of the Cuban Giants, who will probably swing a baseball bat next Spring instead of the police mace which got him into trouble.”
Was the case against Officer Williams and his subsequent departure from the Harrisburg PD trumped up or exaggerated because of his race? That remains unclear and certainly could be debatable. But there is an interesting pattern here emerging — that of the media latching on to Williams’ alleged violent outbursts and rabble-rousing, fair or not.
But the turn of the century brought the media’s focus back to Waxey’s performance on the baseball diamond. For example, in June 1903, when Williams had shifted to the Cuban X-Giants (one of the offshoots of the original Cuban Giants), the Trenton Times reported on the Waxey’s gutsy hustle on one play in a game against a Trenton white team:
“Would any one think that Clarence Williams, who cannot remember just how long he played ball before the civil war, would have the nerve to bunt and try to beat it out to first? That’s just what he did Saturday. He bunted right down towards first base, and no one tried to say him nay. Cook, who should have covered the bag, looked in wonder as Clarence carried his burden of 250 pounds down the line and deposited it on Tommy Travers’ sack. Tommy had to go and get the ball but it was too late to do business with Clarence.”
OK, first of all, the phrase “deposited it on Tommy Travers’ sack” is a little creepy, if I might be so bold and blue. But beyond that, the article’s claim that Williams had started playing ball well before the Civil War is ludicrous given that it’s generally accepted that Williams was born in 1866, a year after the war ended. So where the paper got that info is mystifying.
There’s also the question of whether there are any racial connotations when the paper uses the term “have the nerve” to beat out a bunt. Does that innocuously mean simply that any ballplayer would be gutsy for trying to do so? Or is there a more subtle and sinister implication that an “uppity colored player” had the gall to do so to against a white team.
We may be able to glean a little of the Trenton Times’ attitude in the very same issue of the paper, only a few short articles down the same column:
“We thought we had a pretty good team until the Giants came here and that’s no fairy tale, but the big blacks made us look so foolish that in the future we will have nothing to say. You win, ‘Mistah’ Williams, and we do not hesitate to say that we think your bunch of midgets could have scored about twice that many runs had you desired. Some day we hope we will have a team that will keep you warmed up while playing but at present we are forced to admit that we are too easy.”
Sure, that is, at least for the times, a pretty nice compliment to the X-Giants and a self-deprecating, realistic assessment of the home team’s generally lousiness. But even then, with terms like “big blacks,” “Mistah” and “bunch of midgets,” there’s embodied shades of stereotypes and racial connotations.
Since this post is already getting fairly lengthy, I’ll stop there, but just from that you get a gist of the media’s attitude not just toward a burly, talented, African-American player, but also journalists’ regard and perception of black baseball players of the day.
I’ll try to have two more Waxey entries over the next couple weeks, one on his genealogical background, and another on his leading an all-star team to Cuba.