• There’s no way to know exactly how hard Williams threw – the radar gun wasn’t invented until World War II – but nevertheless, the imposing righty was renowned for his heat. In fact, it’s believed that both of Williams’ nicknames, “Smokey” and “Cyclone,” were bestowed upon him because of his impressive velocity.
“If you have ever witnessed the speed of a pebble in a storm you have not even then seen the equal of the speed possessed by this wonderful Texan Giant,” Negro Leagues owner Frank Leland once wrote. “He is the king of all pitchers hailing from the Lone Star State and you have but to see him once to exclaim, ‘That’s a Plenty!’”
Was Paige’s fastball faster? Not everyone was convinced.
“If I was going to pick a man to throw hard, I’d have to pick Joe Williams,” Negro Leagues pitcher Sam Streeter said. “I’d pick him over all of them. They talk about Satchel and them throwing hard, but I think Joe threw harder. It used to take two catchers to hold him. By the time the fifth inning was over, that catcher’s hand would be like that, all swollen up. He’d have to have another catcher back there the rest of the game.”
Williams paired his fastball speed with outstanding control, making him all the more difficult for hitters to handle.
• He was a member of the 1931 Homestead Grays, considered to be one of the greatest collections of baseball talent on record. In addition to Williams, the Grays’ roster featured future Hall of Famers in Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Willie Foster and Jud Wilson.
The Grays weren’t even part of an official league in 1931, but they took on all comers and won at an astronomical rate. After searching for every Grays box score he could find from 1931, Kansas City baseball historian Phil S. Dixon estimated that the team went 143-29-2 (.828) that season.
In the Grays’ 1931 team photo below, Williams can be found in the back row, towering over everyone else.
• Williams delivered what was perhaps the signature performance of his career while pitching for the Grays on Aug. 7, 1930.
At age 45 (or 44, depending on the source, as Williams’ official date of birth was disputed), the right-hander struck out 27 batters over 12 innings against the Kansas City Monarchs, allowing one hit. The game was played at night under portable lights. It would be another five years before Major League Baseball hosted its first night game.
• Williams wasn’t only successful against Negro Leagues competition. He also regularly excelled in barnstorming exhibition contests against white teams that included Major Leaguers.
During these games, Williams picked up wins against at least five Hall of Famers, including Grover Cleveland Alexander, Chief Bender, Waite Hoyt, Walter Johnson and Rube Marquard.
He reportedly threw a no-hitter in a game against the New York Giants in 1917, the same year the club won the National League pennant.