If you haven’t seen it already, you should check out the National Pastime Museum’s website, which has posted a marvelous collection of high-res images related to African American baseball. Among the riches to be found there is this amazing photograph of an obscure team from 1910 called the New York Black Sox.
This team was backed by a triumvirate of nightclub/café owners, Percy Brown, Edward A. Warren, and, most famous of the three, Barron Deware Wilkins, the “King of Harlem,” who would go on to own the Bacharach Giants and employ Duke Ellington in his nightclub’s house band. Ed Warren served as the business manager; he hired William T. “Big Bill” Smith, a veteran catcher and manager, to put together the team.
Smith spent the spring out west looking to drum up some young players. While I couldn’t trace his entire itinerary, I know that his new team was in Memphis and Nashville in mid-May, and then in Louisville from May 21 to May 23, playing the Louisville Cubs. By the end of the month, they were ready to make their debut in New York.
At least two of the players in the Black Sox opening day lineup, Jesse Briscoe and George Collins, had come from the Louisville Cubs. Several other players that Smith dug up out west went on to lengthy Negro league careers, most notably Sam Crawford, Bill Handy, and Leroy Grant. Another member of the Black Sox roster wasn’t quite as young, and was already quite well-known nationally—William Clarence Matthews, former Harvard shortstop and future assistant attorney general of the United States, once briefly rumored to be in line for a job with the NL’s Boston Braves. We’ll get back to him later.
After this initial success, everything went south for the Black Sox. Lester Walton of the New York Age, who had been fairly bullish on the team’s youngsters, admitted that although there had been “many close contests…in almost every instance the score has been against them when the official scorer summed up the final results” (“In the World of Sport,” New York Age, August 4, 1910, p. 6).
The Black Sox lost all four known games against major black opposition. On June 20, playing in the New York Highlanders’ Hilltop Park, they lost to slowballer Pop Andrews and the Brooklyn Royal Giants 8 to 4. On August 13, in semipro Saratoga Park, the Royals repeated, beating the Black Sox 11 to 5 behind Harry Buckner’s pitching (Buckner also added a double and a triple to the cause). Two weeks later, at New Egypt, New Jersey, it was the Philadelphia Giants’ turn to administer a 10-to-3 beating. A week after that, the Giants won again, 5 to 3, at the Bronx Oval, in the closest game the Black Sox managed to get against the big boys of the East.
Getting back to the photograph we started with, I can identify the following, numbering them from left to right:
1. Bill Handy.
(On the left, Black Sox player #1; on the right, Bill Handy)
3. Leroy Grant.
On the left, player #3 from the Black Sox photo; on the right, Leroy Grant in 1916 with the Chicago American Giants. This is interesting because Grant, the Black Sox second baseman, has always been identified by historians as Charlie Grant. But that is quite obviously Leroy in the photograph.
6. Edward A. Warren, co-owner and the team’s business manager.
(#6 in the Black Sox photograph; drawing of Edward A. Warren from the New York Amsterdam News in 1934)
7. Big Bill Smith.
9. Jesse Briscoe.
11. Sam Crawford.
Now for William Clarence Matthews. It’s not at all clear to me that he’s in this photograph. The closest to a match I can see is #8, but that seems unlikely.
Matthews played for Burlington in the independent Vermont League in 1905, and was rumored to be close to signing for Boston’s N.L. team that year. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Instead, Matthews turned to law, earning a degree at Boston University while simultaneously serving as coach in Boston high schools. He seems to have lived and worked in Boston for most of his adult life; in 1913 he was made a special assistant to the U.S. district attorney in Boston. So a job playing baseball in New York in 1910 with an all-black team seems somewhat unlikely, especially given that Smith was said to have recruited the bulk of the team out west.
However: several contemporary sources do place Matthews on the Black Sox. A note in the New York Times said that the Black Sox featured “Matthews, formerly of Harvard, at short field. Matthews is considered the best colored shortstop in the country.”
A week later, Lester A. Walton, writing in the New York Age, mentioned that “Matthews, formerly of Harvard, is again in the game and is playing second for the Black Sox.”
A biographical sketch of Big Bill Smith, published in the Indianapolis Ledger a few years later, said of the New York Black Sox that “[n]o one on the team had ever been heard of except Manhews [sic], the former Harvard University star”—although it then went on to claim that the Black Sox “played great ball and defeated every team in the East.”
It’s possible that some original error misidentified “Matthews” as the Harvard man. In fact, there was an infielder named Johnny Matthews who appeared for the Louisville White Sox and the Brooklyn All-Stars in 1914—the latter just happens to have been managed by Big Bill Smith. But without further evidence that this might be the case, we’re left with the several affirmative statements, at least one by someone (Lester Walton) who presumably witnessed the game in question, that it was William Clarence Matthews who (at least briefly) suited up for the New York Black Sox in 1910.