William Clarence Matthews

MattyBest copy

“The Black Matty: William Clarence Matthews, ‘Harvard’s Famous Colored Shortstop,’ and the Color Line.”

I have been writing a biography of William Clarence Matthews for a long time. I am chagrined I have not finished it, but I have enjoyed the journey with him and I see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I was introduced to Matthews when I read Robert Peterson’s seminal Only the Ball Was White (1971). Peterson cited Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball (1907), writing that “a National league manager (it could have been McGraw, who was then leading the Giants) hoped to sign William Clarence Matthews, a Negro who had left Harvard University that spring to play with Burlington in the Vermont League, which was not a recognized minor league.”

I found this indeed intriguing and right up my alley. When I was provided a sabbatical in 1995, I determined to research Matthews further, with the specific aim of discovering which team and manager sought to sign a black player in 1905, forty years before Jackie Robinson. So I headed to the microfilm room of the Boston Public Library and poured over the nine large (circulation over 75,000) Boston daily newspapers until I found the source – and I did.

The Boston Traveler, hardly the city’s most reliable paper, broke the story on June 15, 1905, under the headline “Matthews May Play Ball with Tenney’s Team.” It was the manager of the Boston Nationals (later the Braves), Fred Tenney, born in Georgetown, Mass and educated at Brown University, who was rumored to be seeking the middle-infield services of Matthews, late of Harvard. As is often the case, this discovery raised more questions than it answered, not the least being was the rumor itself based in fact?

Matthews’ life and career, as it turns out, is an absorbing tale of Black-American life from the end of Reconstruction to the Depression: Matthews was born in Selma, Alabama, educated at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, sent North to Phillips Andover and Harvard, in no small measure because of his extraordinary baseball talent. He earned a law degree and represented Black Nationalist Marcus Garvey, before serving in the Justice Department of Calvin Coolidge from 1924 to 1928. He died in 1928 at 51, leaving no heirs. A fascinating life.

So I’ll keep plugging away. Here are the main articles this research has produced:

”The Black Matty: William Clarence Matthews, ‘Harvard’s ‘FamousColored Shortstop,’ and the Color Line,”  Black BallA Negro Leagues Journal, Volume 7, 2014, a comprehensive essay (10,000 words) covering Matthews’ entire life

“Matthews Remembered for Success on the Field, Overcoming Discrimination,” brief essay in the program “College Baseball Night of Champions accompanying Matthews’ induction into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in the Spring, 1914

“William Clarence Matthews: Brief Life of a Baseball Pioneer, 1877-1928,” Harvard Magazine, September-October 1998:  a one page essay on Matthews’ life and career.

“William Clarence Matthews,” The National Pastime (a SABR publication), 1997:  the piece that revealed that it was Fred Tenney, not John McGraw, who may have been keen to sign Matthews, “Harvard’s Famous Colored Shortstop.”

“William Clarence Matthews: The Jackie Robinson of his Time,” The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 1997 (Jackie Robinson) (Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland & Company, 2000) an extensive summary of Matthews’ life and career in an anthology of Jackie Robinson-inspired pieces from the annual Cooperstown Symposium.

“Rumors and Facts William Clarence Matthews’ 1905 Challenge to Major League Baseball’s Color Barrier,” Nine: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture, Fall 2008: an examination of all the various elements that went into the rumor of Matthews’ breaking the color barrier. Was the rumor factual? There are reasons to believe so, and reasons to doubt that it was so.

“’College Boys and Boozers’: Vermont’s Northern League and William Clarence Matthews,” Base Ball: A Journal of the Early Game, Fall 2008:  the Northern League in 1905 was a wild affair, a fast “outlaw” league. Matthews’ play for Burlington was a significant part of the drama, but only a part.


Harvard's Famous

“Harvard’s Famous Colored Shortstop”

Matthews of Burl

Matthews of Burlington in the Northern

League, 1905 (watercolor by Molly Hawley)