I know which side of this eternal struggle I’m on. But to shed light on the issue of Joe Williams’s nicknames, I did a little lazy research (ProQuest searches) in three black newspapers to see how often each nickname showed up.
This is not in the least scientific or exhaustive. I made no attempt to catch every possible permutation of Williams’s name—I just searched for “Cyclone Joe Williams,” on the one hand, and “Smokey Joe Williams” (as well as “Smoky Joe Williams,” the more common spelling early on) on the other. Excluded are such forms as “Cyclone Williams,” or “Cyclone Joe” or “Smokey Joe” without “Williams” attached. The point was just to get a quick sense of any patterns.
In the Chicago Defender, “Smokey/Smoky Joe Williams” came up a total of 78 times, to 30 for “Cyclone Joe Williams.” The imbalance was more extreme in the Pittsburgh Courier, where Cyclone Joe, with 27 mentions, loses out to Smokey/Smoky Joe’s whopping 230 hits. The third black paper I checked, the New York Amsterdam News, was actually the most even of the trio, preferring Smokey/Smokey Joe 32 to 19.
More illuminating than the raw totals is how the nicknames are distributed through the years. Here’s the Defender, by decade:
1910s: Cyclone Joe 19, Smokey Joe 6
1920s: Cyclone Joe 7, Smokey Joe 14
1930s: Cyclone Joe 4, Smokey Joe 26
1940s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 7
1950s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 6
1960s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 8
1970s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 10
1920s: Cyclone Joe 17, Smokey Joe 112
1930s: Cyclone Joe 3, Smokey Joe 71
1940s: Cyclone Joe 2, Smokey Joe 15
1950s: Cyclone Joe 1, Smokey Joe 15
1960s: Cyclone Joe 1, Smokey Joe 5
1970s: Cyclone Joe 1, Smokey Joe 8
1980s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 4
1990s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 1
The Amsterdam News:
1920s: Cyclone Joe 5, Smokey Joe 7
1930s: Cyclone Joe 6, Smokey Joe 12
1940s: Cyclone Joe 4, Smokey Joe 7
1950s: Cyclone Joe 0, Smokey Joe 2
1960s: Cyclone Joe 2, Smokey Joe 0
1970s: Cyclone Joe 1, Smokey Joe 3
1980s: Cyclone Joe 1, Smokey Joe 0
Looking at the 1910s, the only instances of “Smokey Joe” occur in the Defender in 1918. Interestingly, one story about how the nickname was coined says it happened in a game against the New York Giants in October 1917. No further instances of “Smokey [or Smoky] Joe Williams” appear in the Defender until 1925.
Both the Courier and the Amsterdam News are archived starting in 1923, so combining the three papers we get:
1923: Cyclone Joe 3, Smokey Joe 0
1924: Cyclone Joe 10, Smokey Joe 0
1925: Cyclone Joe 2, Smokey Joe 10
1926: Cyclone Joe 4, Smokey Joe 28
1927: Cyclone Joe 2, Smokey Joe 30
1928: Cyclone Joe 6, Smokey Joe 38
1929: Cyclone Joe 2, Smokey Joe 30
To sum up: Joe Williams pitched for the Lincoln Giants from 1911 to 1923, for the Brooklyn Royal Giants in 1924, and for the Homestead Grays starting in 1925. When Williams came to work for the Grays, the Courier not only reported on him quite a bit more than it had, it started calling him Smokey Joe almost exclusively, and this seems to have driven the switch from the previously dominant Cyclone Joe. However, the nickname was not coined at this time, as it had been used as early as 1918.
A few more random observations: a search of the New York Times turned up two instances of “Cyclone Joe Williams” in the 1910s, and no “Smokey Joe Williams” until 1972. The Chicago Tribune shows eight mentions of “Cyclone Joe” in 1910 and 1911, and likewise no “Smokey Joe” until 1972. The San Antonio Light called him “Cyclone Joe Williams” five times in 1907 and 1908, and never Smokey Joe. And Williams was known exclusively as “Ciclón” in Cuba when he pitched there in the early 1910s.
There. If I have caused the phrases “Smokey Joe” and “Cyclone Joe” to degenerate into meaningless strings of sound for you, then my job is done.