08 September 2008

The Jackie Robinson of 1905?

Ten years ago in Harvard Magazine, Karl Lindholm briefly profiled Harvard graduate William Clarence Matthews, who some people at the time thought might be capable of breaking the color barrier in professional baseball by playing with the Boston Nationals.
Born in Selma, Alabama, and trained at Tuskegee Institute from 1893 to 1897, Matthews was a promising student and outstanding athlete who was sent north for further education, first to Phillips Andover and then to Harvard. From 1901 to 1905, he played shortstop on perhaps the best college team in the country (75 wins, 18 losses in his four years) at a time when baseball enjoyed singular appeal in the United States. It was not uncommon for players to walk off a college campus onto a major-league diamond: Christy Matthewson left Bucknell for John McGraw's Giants, and two of Matthews's teammates, Walter Clarkson and "Harvard Eddie" Grant, went on to play in the big leagues....

Unlike many other black players, he had options off the diamond. He had taken courses at Harvard Law School as a senior; now he earned an LL.B. at Boston University while working as an athletic instructor at Boston high schools. He passed the bar in 1908 and embarked on a legal and political career; in 1913, with the help of Booker T. Washington, he was appointed special assistant to the U.S. district attorney in Boston. From 1920 to 1923, he served as legal counsel to the black separatist Marcus Garvey.

Even while working with Garvey, he remained involved in Republican politics, and he played a major role in the 1924 presidential campaign. When Calvin Coolidge was elected with the help of a million black votes, Matthews was rewarded with a post in the Justice Department--but a list of "demands" for the "recognition of colored Republicans" that he presented to party leaders was ignored. Whatever else he might have accomplished was thwarted when he died of a perforated ulcer at 51. His death was reported in all the major East Coast newspapers: the Boston Globe called him "one of the most prominent Negro members of the bar in America." The black press ran front-page headlines.

Matthews said in 1905, "A Negro is just as good as a white man and has just as much right to play ball."
Now, ten years later, Karl Lindholm has published a fuller analysis of the public speculation at the time in the latest issue of NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture (Project MUSE subscription required). His article title, Rumors and Facts: William Clarence Matthews’s 1905 Challenge to Major League Baseball’s Color Barrier, indicates that the newspapers of that era, in particular the Boston Traveler, were often no more reliable than those of our day.
Rumors sometimes have a basis in fact, and sometimes rumors are pure fiction, made up, irresponsible, serving commercial, political, or personal ends. In 1905, one of baseball’s most compelling rumors involved the imminent entry into the major leagues of William Clarence Matthews, “Harvard’s famous colored shortstop.” This rumor, reported in the Boston Traveler in July 1905, was repeated in Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball (1907) and passed on to contemporary audiences by Robert Peterson in his seminal Only the Ball was White (1970).

There are inevitable questions about the rumor’s veracity. Is it possible that forty years before Jackie Robinson signed a contract with Brooklyn, someone in organized baseball was seriously considering adding a black man to a major league roster?

This essay addresses that question by examining the major players—the Boston Nationals’ player-manager Fred Tenney in particular—as well as the primary documents associated with the rumor of Matthews’s breakthrough, demonstrating the reasons Matthews might plausibly be considered for this role, while also raising the possibility that the Traveler conjured a patently false story in Boston’s overheated journalistic environment during the first decade of the twentieth century.

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