Karl Lindholm: Matty and Me: A story of baseball and writing
For me, it was as if in a dream.
Before last Thursday night’s game between the Vermont Lake Monsters and the Worcester Bravehearts, three players from the Lake Monsters who attend Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) climbed on ladders and unfurled a large (8-foot-by-8-foot) banner affixed to the outside wall of historic Centennial Field, right there just inside the entrance to the park, where it will remain for the remainder of this season (the playoffs are this week) — and for the foreseeable future.
The banner celebrates William Clarence Matthews and reads in part: “Matthews was arguably the best college baseball player in the country in 1905, a brilliant hitter, fielder (shortstop), and base runner for Harvard University, a powerhouse team at that time. . . . (He) was rumored that July to be signing with the major league Boston Nationals, 41 years before (Jackie) Robinson.”
Matthews was “Harvard’s Famous Colored Shortstop” and played his one professional season in the Northern League of Vermont, a fast “outlaw” league that operated outside the organized National Agreement leagues that barred Black players. In addition to the text on the banner are six images of Matthews including a stunning watercolor representation by Ripton artist Molly Hawley.
The banner was unfurled at a press conference before the game. The Matthews celebration was supported by the University of Vermont, the Lake Monsters, and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation and was carried out by a number of individuals, not the least Bruce Bosley, the personification of baseball (and sports generally) in Vermont.
I was there because Matthews and I are very close, though he was born in Selma, Alabama, in 1877 and died in Washington, D.C., in 1928. My home is festooned with pictures of Matty, I have a vast collection of Matthewsiana, eBay treasures, displayed throughout my office amid photos of my loved ones. My family understands and tolerates my attachment.
Any pretensions I have as an academic, a scholar, a baseball scholar, I owe to Matthews.
Here in a nutshell is the story of Matty and me:
I grew up a baseball-obsessed kid in Maine, a Red Sox fan in the 1950s. I was thrilled by Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers and wished the Red Sox could find a Black player good enough to play for them. I knew a lot about baseball, but little about racism.
The cultural context of my teens and twenties was the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War protests. In the early ’70s, I came across the book “Only the Ball was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams” by Robert Peterson — and the scales were lifted from my eyes, and I was reborn.
Well, that’s a little melodramatic, but my life and viewpoint were certainly changed.
Peterson’s book was a seminal text, and not just for me, I have discovered over the years. It ignited a strong current of interest in the Negro Leagues and Black baseball in general.
Peterson wrote in “Only the Ball was White,” that a “National League manager . . . hoped to sign William Clarence Matthews, a Negro who had left Harvard University that spring to play with Burlington in the Vermont league. . . .” Peterson speculated that it was likely John McGraw of the New York Giants, whose opposition to the color line was well-known.
In 1995, my wife and I enjoyed a sabbatical year residing in Ogunquit Beach, Maine, beautiful in the quiet off-season. One of my main projects was to find out just which National League manager had the audacity to consider signing a Black player in this time of Jim Crow brutality and fixed segregation in professional baseball.
My strategy was to attack the microfilm room of the Boston Public Library and read the Boston newspapers from the summer of 1905. As it turns out, there were 12 daily papers in Boston in 1905, and nine had a circulation of over 75,000 readers. I started with those prominent papers and got a sore arm hand-cranking those old microfilm readers.
I was a number of days, weeks even, into this effort, driving from Ogunquit to Boston, when I had my “Eureka!” moment. There, on July 15, 1905, in the Boston Traveler was this headline: “Matthews May Play Ball With Tenny’s Team.”
“Tenny” was Fred Tenny, player-manager of the Boston Nationals (later, the Braves), mired that summer in ninth place in the National League with an atrocious middle infield. He certainly knew of Harvard’s great shortstop and may have cast a wistful eye across the Charles, despite knowing full well the impossibility of a Black player in the Major Leagues just eight years after the Plessy v Ferguson Supreme Court decision legalized segregation.
I wrote up my discovery of Tenny’s rumored interest in Harvard’s great shortstop in The Baseball Research Journal, a SABR publication (Society of American Baseball Research). One thing led to another, and I secured a contract from the University of Nebraska Press to write a biography of Matthews, whose baseball career was so notable but whose life outside baseball was likewise absorbing.
As a result of an article about Matthews in the Harvard Magazine in 2005, the leadership of Ivy League athletics took interest in his extraordinary career at Harvard and named its baseball championship trophy “The Williams Clarence Matthews Award.” It was there on display at Centennial last Thursday.
Now, enter Anthony Castrovince; Anthony writes for MLB.com. He had read something of mine, no doubt in an obscure baseball journal, and became interested in Matthews. We exchanged emails and calls, I sent him some good stuff, and he produced a terrific piece for MLB.com(generously acknowledging my relationship to Matthews) in April 2021.
With this article and its 150,000 views, in a stroke, the awareness of Matthews in the baseball world grew enormously. In many ways, Matty was launched.
And now there’s this public acknowledgment of Matthews here in my home state. The organizers of the Centennial Field event are hoping to expand the effort to include a longer video than the two-minute version shown to fans at the game, as part of an educational package on Matthews to be taken to schools in the state.
About that Matthews biography: it sits now, as it has for a number of years, in my desk drawer (or more accurately, in my computer), 80,000 words in all, but unfinished, a casualty of complacency, trepidation, pusillanimity, and perhaps satisfaction that I had mined it sufficiently for dozens of articles and presentations.
At my advanced age and decrepitude, do I have sufficient energy and remaining brain cells to . . .
Karl Lindholm Ph.D is the Emeritus Dean of Advising at Middlebury College. Included among his courses in the American Studies Program were two baseball classes: “Baseball, Literature, and American Culture” and “Segregation in America: Baseball and Race.” He writes frequently about the Negro Leagues and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to learn more about Matthews? Here’s an essay by Karl Lindholm from Black Ball: A Journal of the Negro Leagues: sites.middlebury.edu/karllindholm/files/2015/09/Black-Matty.pdf
Here’s the essay by Anthony Castrovince on MLB.com: mlb.com/news/featured/william-clarence-matthews-almost-integrated-baseball-before-jackie-robinson.
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