Wednesday, March 12, 2014

170. Cyclone Joe Williams: Blackball's Best

I'm proud to say that last week Sports Collectors Digest (or "SCD" as we used to call it), the premier baseball card and memorabilia publication, wrote a nice story on my artwork. I'm really humbled and proud to be featured in the pages of that magazine as I have fond memories of reading it as a kid, drooling over the pictures of baseball artifacts that I could only dream of possessing. Within the pages of SCD I discovered the beautiful art that graced turn of the century tobacco cards and 1930's bubble gum cards, a love of which I've never lost and whose influence looms large over The Infinite Baseball Card Set today. You can read the article online HERE, though I think it is much more impressive when you can physically flip through its pages, just like I did 35 years ago...

Where do you begin when writing about the greatest pitcher from the days before integration? Perhaps the first place to start would be to qualify my first statement. Was Cyclone Joe Williams better than Satchel Paige? In a word, yes.

While Satchel Paige is usually referenced as the finest pitcher Blackball produced, fans and sportswriters alike who witnessed both Paige and the man known as Cyclone Joe Williams pick the latter as the best. The two have much in common, both possessed blinding speed coupled with pinpoint control and excelled when pitching against white big leaguers. Both men had careers spanning in excess of over 30 years around which Paul Bunyan-esque legends have been spun. Looking at Cyclone Williams the astonishing part is that much of it is true.
The Cyclone blew out of Texas in the early years of the 20th century, first by word of mouth spread by traveling Blackball teams that encountered him. In 1910 he moved north to Chicago where he received real news coverage pitching on quality ball clubs. From the start he was a combination of mystery and awe. He was a giant of a man, about 6’-4” just under 200lbs, lean like you’d picture a Texas cowboy, his half Black-half Comanche Indian heritage giving him a strikingly exotic appearance. He was quiet, didn’t talk much, but exuded a confidence that his fastball backed up.

Williams threw the ball with a phenomenal speed that many guess to have been in the 100mph range. The sheer velocity at which he unleashed a baseball was aided by the way it rolled off his inhumanly-long fingers, giving the sphere an added break as it approached the plate. In the days before radar guns, the only way to gauge a pitchers velocity was by comparison to other hurlers - in this case when veterans tried evaluating The Cyclone, he is often put in the same category as contemporaries Walter Johnson and Joe Wood, white baseball’s hardest and fastest. Like Walter Johnson and Satchel Paige, opponents invariably commented on his pinpoint accuracy. When a man batted against The Cyclone he didn’t have to be worried about getting plugged by a pitch - he just couldn’t hit it.

Williams was known for his strikeouts - The Cyclone Joe legend passed down in oral histories have him repeatedly pitching games of 20 or more punch-outs. Granted, many of the feats performed by Williams, Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson that have become part of the Blackball  canon were against semi-pro or amateur clubs. In The Cyclone’s case however, he went head-to-head against actual Major League teams in 11 documented games and won an astonishing 6 times (plus one 1-1 tie). We’re talking pitching match-ups that featured Williams against the mighty New York Giants and Philadelphia Phillies when they were pennant winners, and the four games he did lose were by 2 runs or less. Against all-star teams made up of a mixture of white major and minor leaguers, The Cyclone won 15 out of 19 games. The big Texan hung losses on Walter Johnson, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt and Rube Marquard, all Hall of Famers. One of the most tantalizing stories that make up the Cyclone Williams legend is a 1917 game in which he no-hit the pennant winning New York Giants for 10 innings before losing 1-0 on an error. Though many players have claimed to have taken part and fans recalled the game, no box score or newspaper account has ever surfaced. Something tangible from that lost afternoon would be an important find to say the least, but we do have those other games. You can’t measure Williams’ talent any better way than that; except if his career was spent in the majors, which of course he was denied.

After he walked off the mound for the last time in 1932, The Cyclone strapped on an apron and became a popular New York City bartender. Before his death in 1951, a whole new generation of Negro Leaguers had benefited from The Cyclone’s career-changing advice dispensed over a few beers.  The following year the Pittsburgh Courier asked ballplayers and sportswriters who was the best Negro Leagues pitcher: The Cyclone beat Satchel, 20-19.

One of the things I like most about writing/illustrating this blog is the emails, letters and phone calls I get from the people who visit my site. Besides the kind words of encouragement which are appreciated more than you could ever imagine, I enjoy the pitches made for future players that should be included to the endless roster that makes up The Infinite Baseball Card Set. One of the players that gets requested frequently is Cyclone Joe Williams. I couldn't agree more - Williams was the best pitcher to have come out of Blackball and could quite possibly be among the very best of any color to have stood on a mound. Besides the sheer greatness of his career which always stalled me when beginning a story on The Cyclone, there was one other thing that kept me from featuring him so far: for all his fame, there are very, very few photographs of the man. 

ARTIST'S NOTES: Now if you've been following my site for a while, you've probably read that one of the things I wanted to do when I began some 4 years ago was to never simply re-draw an existing photograph of a player. Any sports artist can and does do that, and you can get that elsewhere. That's why if you search the internet for Joe Williams, the same darn photograph shows up over and over again - a full body pose taken from the side of the great man in a Lincoln Giants uniform, arms dangling, one holding a ball, the other gloved. I gave up counting how many artistic interpretations came up in a search because I got bored. And that's why I had such a hard time when it came to beginning an illustration of the great man. I wanted mine to be different - not that darn pose again. After sketching the pitcher countless times, I finally settled on a front view of him that could show off his much talked about long fingers - said to be the source of the unique movement he put on the ball. I also wanted to depict him in his prime, when he was in the late 20's pitching for the New York Lincoln Giants. That's the team was was pitching for when that famous picture was snapped. Since I'm a stickler for uniform details and strive to offer something new and unique, I wanted to show him in a different jersey than the one he is always shown wearing. For that I made a call to the bullpen and asked baseball archaeologist and early Blackball expert Gary Ashwill for his help. Digging deep into his archives, Ashwill sent me a photo of the Lincoln Giants that I'd never seen before, the team outfitted in natty pinstripes with "WORLDS COLORED CHAMPIONS" across the front. Bingo! What could possibly be a better jersey to show the best pitcher in Negro Leagues history than that?

  • Holway, John B. Blackball Stars (Carroll & Graf, 1988)
  • Gary Ashwill's great baseball research lab "Agate Type" has been instrumental in this article.
  • Various Contemporary newspaper sources including Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier and Baltimore Afro-American.

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