Early lifeWilliams was born in Seguin, Texas; one of his parents was African American and the other was a Comanche Indian. He grew up to become an outstanding baseball pitcher, but as his path to the major leagues was barred by the color line, Williams spent his entire 27-year career (1905–32) pitching in the Negro leagues, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
Cyclone / SmokeyDuring Williams' years in New York, he acquired the nickname "Cyclone Joe", or simply "Cyclone", frequently being listed in box scores solely by that name After joining the Homestead Grays in the late 1920s, his nickname became "Smokey Joe", and the older "Cyclone" appellation was rarely used after that.
Playing careerHe entered professional baseball in 1905 with the San Antonio Black Bronchos, and was an immediate star, posting records of 28-4, 15-9, 20-8, 20-2 and 32-8. After that, the Chicago Giants, a team higher in the pecking order of black baseball, acquired him. In 1910, the Giants owner Frank Leland pronounced him the best pitcher in baseball, in any league.
In 1911, Williams joined the Lincoln Giants of New York, helping that club become one of the premier African-American teams of the era. When manager John Henry Lloyd departed in 1914, Williams took over as playing manager, a post he held through the 1923 season. After the Lincolns finished an ignominious fifth (out of six teams) in the Eastern Colored League's inaugural season, Williams was released in the spring of 1924.
He joined the Brooklyn Royal Giants for a season, then signed with the independent Homestead Grays, where, except for a brief turn with the Detroit Wolves in 1932, he spent the rest of his career in top-level black baseball. Records are sketchy, but in 1914, Williams was credited with winning a total of 41 games against just three losses. In 1929, playing for the Grays in the American Negro League at the age of 43, Williams won 12 games and lost seven.
Barnstorming exhibitionsAlthough barred from the major leagues, Williams pitched many games against major-league stars in post-season barnstorming exhibitions. He proved to be as tough against them as he was against the Negro leaguers, posting a 20-7 record in these games. Among his victims were Grover Alexander, Walter Johnson, Chief Bender, Rube Marquard, and Waite Hoyt, all Hall of Famers. Three different times, he faced the eventual National League champions. He won two of those games and lost the third, 1-0 to the 1917 New York Giants despite throwing a no-hitter.
RetirementOn August 7, 1930, at age 44, he struck out 27 Kansas City Monarchs in a 1-0, 12-inning victory. That same year, he beat a younger Negro league star who was just bursting into superstardom, Leroy (Satchel) Paige, also by 1-0, in their only meeting against one another. Williams retired from baseball two years later.
DeathWilliams died at age 64 in New York City.
RecognitionThere was a "Smokey Joe Williams Day" at the Polo Grounds in 1950.
Considerable debate existed and still exists over whether Williams or Paige was the greatest of the Negro league pitchers. Most modern sources lean toward Paige, but in 1952, a poll taken by the Pittsburgh Courier named Williams the greatest pitcher in Negro league history.
In 1999, after extensive research on the early years of black baseball revealed his outstanding record, Williams was selected for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.