One thing I wanted to say about Joe Williams: during his prime (and after), he was known exclusively as Cyclone Joe Williams, not Smokey Joe. I’m not sure when “Smokey Joe” became the preferred usage, but I’m certain I’ve never seen it in newspapers before the mid-1920s, when Williams was around 40 and, while still good, well past his prime. He was so well-known by the other nickname that he sometimes appeared in box scores simply as Cyclone.
I don’t know which one Williams preferred, but I like Cyclone, for three main reasons: 1) he was known as Cyclone for the bulk of his active career, and when he was at his greatest; 2) to avoid duplication with another great pitcher and contemporary, Smokey Joe Wood, hero of the 1912 Red Sox; and 3) because of an irritating story that’s often told to explain the origin of the “Smokey Joe” nickname.
There are several stories about how Joe Williams came to be called “Smokey”:
1) It was given to him after his famous 1930 night-game duel with Chet Brewer under the Monarchs’ dim portable lights, when Williams struck out 27 in 12 innings. I've never really understood why this would suggest “Smokey” in particular, as opposed to anything else.
2) It came from Pittsburgh (the Smokey City), where the Homestead Grays played. This is plausible, because as far as I know, the nickname does begin to appear around the time he joined the Grays (1925).
3) He was named after Smokey Joe Wood. This is also plausible, especially given that in late October, 1912, Williams shut out the New York Giants on four hits—and the Giants had just lost the World Series to Wood's Red Sox, with Wood winning three games. It might make sense that a journalist or observer or opponent compared Williams to Wood. Similar nickname liftings happened with other players, notably Rube Foster (supposedly named after Rube Waddell, although Rube was a pretty common nickname at the turn of the century) and Bullet Joe Rogan (named after Bullet Joe Bush). Phil Dixon, Rogan’s biographer, has reported that within the black community and Negro League circles, Rogan was known simply as Bullet Rogan (or, as I’ve seen occasionally, Bullets), until white newspapers in Kansas City casually christened him “Bullet Joe.”
Dixon finds this inherently condescending, indeed racist (he doesn't use the word, but he implies it pretty strongly); I agree. It’s a little like calling Oscar Charleston “the black Ty Cobb,” or Josh Gibson “the black Babe Ruth”—it robs real, complex human beings of their own identities and dramas, reducing them to mere imitations of white patterns. In most cases it also completely misrepresents the black player. Of course, it’s more complicated than that; in the course of time, some black players came to own the nicknames they shared with white players. Nobody remembers that there was a white Rube Foster, for instance, and it’s Smokey Joe Williams in the Hall of Fame, not Smokey Joe Wood.
One funny thing about Rogan: his nickname resulted in a sort of back formation, whereby he’s often now referred to as “Joe Rogan.” His given first name was Charles, and he went by his middle name, Wilber. I wonder if this happened to Rogan in real life—if people got used to calling him “Bullet Joe,” then started referring to him as “Joe”? (EDIT--Dixon actually says that two KC (white) dailies, the Journal and the Times, started calling him Joe before the "Bullet Joe" nickname took hold.)
Anyway, back to Williams. The last story about the origin of “Smokey Joe,” and the one that really bugs me, is this:
4) That, after pitching a no-hitter and striking out 20 New York Giants in 1917, but losing on an error, Giants’ outfielder Ross Youngs came up to Williams and said, “That was a hell of a game, Smokey!” To my knowledge, this game has never been found in the contemporary press. According to John Holway, this story was told by Oscar Owens, a longtime Homestead Grays’ pitcher, in the 1945 Negro Baseball Annual. He doesn’t say whether Owens claims to have witnessed the game (and incident) or not. I don’t have a birth date for Owens, but James Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia does have him playing as early as 1913. Owens spent most of his baseball career in Pittsburgh, though, while Williams in 1917 was playing for the Lincoln Giants of New York.
What bugs me is that Owens apparently thought Williams needed the stamp of approval of a big league star in order to be considered legitimate. Every time somebody retells the story uncritically, it just reinforces the idea. That’s bad enough, in my opinion; but consider that Youngs, far from being a star in 1917, was a 20-year-old rookie who had just debuted on September 25 (the Lincolns/Giants game, if it occurred, took place in October, presumably after the World Series). Williams was a 31-year-old veteran, the playing manager of the one of the best teams outside Organized Baseball, and one of the best pitchers on the planet.
Calling him “Smokey Joe” grants too much credence and honor to this weird mythic scene in which the white rookie condescends to the black superstar, conferring on him a name that trumps the identity the superstar had already spent a decade building up. Holway, as it happens, more than once reports that upon coming north in 1910, Williams told people to call him Cyclone. We should honor that wish today.