Rufus Lewis, left, Jimmy Wilkes, center, and Cotton Williams (NOIRTECH, INC.)
As is the case with so many of his Negro League brethren, the tale of the beginnings of Robert “Cotton” Williams has been shrouded by time. Even the most basic facts are in dispute. The Negro Leagues Database and Find A Grave list his birthday as January 18, 1917. The US Social Security Index claims it was June 18, 1917. Negro League researcher Larry Lester has discovered a third possible date, June 21, 1925. Lester also lists Williams’s birthplace as Moncure, North Carolina,1 despite virtually every other resource available claiming he was from Maryland. (No specific town is ever given.) To further thicken the plot, contemporary accounts from Williams’s time claim he was from Philadelphia.2
Certainties for Cotton Williams do not begin until 1943, when he arrived in the training camp of the Newark Eagles. He was a promising young infielder with a powerful throwing arm. Teammates complained that his tosses were hurting their hands because he threw so hard. Manager Mule Suttles is credited as recognizing the potential in Williams’s talent and began to experiment with turning him into a pitcher.3
Williams saw little action that first season. He split his playing time between backing up second base and shortstop for the teenage duo of Earl Richardson and Hall of Fame-bound Larry Doby. The Negro Leagues Database at Seamheads.com credits Williams with seven appearances in the field that season, batting .208, with five hits in 24 at-bats.4 He struggled in the field as well, making four errors in 44 innings at shortstop.
Absent from the database is the fact that Williams appeared in another game that season. Suttles gave his experiment a try in a May 15 tilt against the Philadelphia Stars. It was, in fact, the opening game of the season at the Stars’ 44th and Parkside Ballpark. Staff ace Leon Day had been scheduled to start,5 but Suttles decided to save him for the home opener the following day. Instead, he put the rookie on the mound and Williams responded masterfully. He pitched eight innings, surrendering only two runs in the sixth. With the game locked at 2-2 in the ninth, Williams was replaced by Len Hooker, who finished the contest with three scoreless frames. The Eagles won, 4-2, when Day and Johnny Davis were able to cross the plate in the top of the 11th.6 Remarkably, despite this impressive debut, current research has not found another game that Williams pitched that year.
Williams disappears from the record entirely for the 1944 season. It is likely he spent the year strengthening his game while barnstorming, because when he returned to the Eagles in 1945, he was a much-improved player. He manned five different positions that season, including second base, third base, shortstop, and left field. His batting average soared to an impressive .304, and he played nine games at third base, making him the most-used third sacker on the club.
He hit his first Negro League home run in a July 7 contest against the Baltimore Elite Giants. It was a leadoff shot, coming off the first pitch of the game thrown by Elite Giants lefty Zack Morgan. The blast cleared the right-field fence, one of two balls hit out of the park in a game that was a veritable slugfest, with Baltimore ultimately clubbing the Eagles 13-6.7
Williams also took the mound for a single game in 1945, this time as a reliever. Newly installed manager Willie Wells must have agreed with his predecessor’s assessment of Williams’s pitching talent. Wells gave him one opportunity, in a May 13 contest against the Baltimore Elite Giants. Williams pitched 4⅓ innings, giving up a pair of runs. It will never be known if Wells would have given him another chance. After a spat with Eagles owner Abe Manley, Wells quit the club in early June.8 His replacement, Biz Mackey, chose to keep Williams at third base and let Hooker and Don Newcombe handle the bulk of the season’s pitching responsibilities.
After spending time playing in Jacksonville, Florida, at the start of the 1946 season,9 Williams rejoined an already dominant Eagles squad in August. Having won the first-half crown, the team was on its way to capturing the second-half flag as well. The Eagles pitching rotation that year was the best in the Negro National League, and arguably in all of baseball. Day won anywhere from 11 to 14 games,10 depending on the source, while Rufus Lewis and Max Manning had tremendous seasons, each posting sub-3.00 ERAs. Once an opponent got through these three top-line starters, they still had a very effective Len Hooker to face.
It was under these unlikely circumstances that manager Mackey decided to finally start committing the majority of Williams’s playing time to the mound. His first three appearances for the year were as a reliever, including innings in both halves of a doubleheader on August 18. He did not fare well that day, surrendering five runs in a combined 5⅓ innings. Undeterred, Mackey tapped Williams to pitch his first start of the year on August 26 against the New York Cubans.
The Cubans were the final threat to the Eagles’ season of dominance and Mackey’s choice of starting the relatively inexperienced hurler in such a high-pressure situation spoke volumes about his level of confidence. Williams began the game promisingly, taking a 6-2 lead into the eighth. Then the wheels fell off and he gave up three runs, managing to record only a single out before being relieved by Cecil Cole, who in turn surrendered another run, tying the score and costing Williams the victory. The Eagles rallied for two in the bottom of the eighth, aided in part by an error by Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, and won the game, 8-6.11 On September 4 Newark captured the second-half crown, and undisputed ownership of the Negro National League pennant, with a 17-5 trouncing of the Cubans.12
The victory earned them the right to face the Negro American League champions, the Kansas City Monarchs, in the 1946 Negro League World Series. The first game was played in the Polo Grounds, in front of 19,423 delighted fans,13 many of whom were locals who had made the trip over the river to see the Eagles in action. Williams made an unsuccessful pinch-hitting appearance and otherwise spent the game on the bench, watching a tight contest that ultimately turned into the Satchel Paige show. Relieving Hilton Smith, Paige pitched four scoreless innings, striking out eight and scattering four hits. He also scored the winning run after getting on base with an infield hit, giving the Monarchs, and himself, a 2-1 victory.
The Eagles rebounded two nights later, scoring six runs in the seventh inning to claim a 7-4 Game Two victory at Ruppert Stadium in Newark. This time Paige faltered in relief and took the loss. Four days later the Series moved to Kansas City, and the Monarchs’ home field, Blues Stadium. It was in this third game that Williams was given the most sustained playing time he would see in the Series. Unfortunately for Williams, the experience was one he likely would have preferred to forget.
The game was started by Hooker, who had a disastrous second inning, giving up four runs. Hoping Williams could stop the bleeding, Mackey pulled Hooker after the fourth and gave Cotton his big chance. But after pitching admirably for three innings, the still-inexperienced pitcher imploded. The Monarchs had a punishing seven-run eighth inning and dashed any hopes the Eagles had of digging their way out of the early hole. Williams’s devastating final line was 3⅔ innings pitched, 11 hits surrendered, and nine runs allowed.14 The final score of 15-5 made the Series look like a terrible mismatch.
It wasn’t. Back in Newark the very next night, the Eagles evened the Series with an 8-1 victory over Ted Alexander. Four days later, after again exchanging victories with the Monarchs, the Series stood tied at 3-3. Newark starter Rufus Lewis outdueled Kansas City’s Ford Smith in Game Seven, a tight, 3-2 contest, and secured the victory. For the first time in their history, the Newark Eagles were the champions of the Negro Leagues. Williams did not play in another game in that Series and would, in fact, never play in another World Series again.
The taste of victory may have inspired Williams, as he arrived at spring training in Jacksonville a determined and much-improved pitcher. By late April, sportswriters began to notice his development. The New York Amsterdam News reported, “One of the big surprises in training camp has been the great pitching of Cotton Williams, big right hander, who joined the Eagles in mid-season last year. Williams is a greatly improved pitcher and Manager Mackey has just about decided to make a regular starting pitcher out of him.”15 While this prediction did not come to pass, it was true that 1947, a seminal year in the game, would be Williams’s best season on the mound.
By the end of May Williams was drawing (perhaps inflated) comparisons to Jackie Robinson,16 who was electrifying crowds and shattering barriers in Brooklyn. With fellow young pitchers Warren Peace and Nelson Thomas, Williams was part of a core of hurlers who were not only filling the vacuum left behind by the departure of Leon Day, but were being credited with the early-season success of Newark.17 The Eagles sat atop the standings in mid-June, but they had a number of teams nipping at their heels.
The Cubans were hungry and eager to atone for their near-miss the year before. The two teams had become bitter rivals, escalating into a brawl during an exhibition game at the Polo Grounds earlier that season.18 They battled in a June 15 doubleheader at Ebbets Field with the league lead on the line. The Eagles lost the first contest, 7-5. Williams was tapped to pitch the second and hopefully to split the day’s games. He gave a strong start, pitching a complete game and striking out six while surrendering three runs. But his teammates were unable to muster any offense. Williams took the loss and the Eagles ceded first place to the Cubans.19
After that loss, Williams ran off a string of four consecutive victories. The first two came from both ends of a June 22 doubleheader against the New York Black Yankees. Appearing in relief in both contests, he pitched a combined 7⅔ innings and did not allow an earned run. Late Eagles rallies in both games secured him a pair of victories on the day. He notched another win in his next appearance, on July 1, in a start against the Philadelphia Stars.20
That was followed by a July 15 start versus the Homestead Grays, a start that would turn out to be the best pitching performance in Williams’s career. The game did not get off to a great beginning, when hits from the Grays’ Luis Marquez and Luke Easter plated the first run. Easter was followed to the plate by legendary first baseman Buck Leonard, who promptly deposited the ball over the right-field wall for an early 3-0 lead.21 After that early blow, Williams settled down and pitched into the ninth, scattering three more hits over the next 7⅓ innings. He walked only two and struck out nine, a career high, in the 4-3 victory.
Williams was also having his best year at the plate. He made one start at third base that year, on June 17, and had an incredible day, going 3-for-5 with two RBIs. He also made a handful of appearances as a pinch-hitter, including notching pinch hits in both games of a July 27 doubleheader against the Baltimore Elite Giants. By season’s end, he finished with a .385 batting average, a career best, and an impressive 3.16 ERA.22 Yet, despite the above-average performance of Williams at the plate and on the mound, as well as predictably fruitful contributions from Larry Doby (before he was sold to the Cleveland Indians in early July) and Monte Irvin, 1947 belonged to the Cubans. The team from New York defeated the Cleveland Buckeyes in the World Series, four games to one, securing them their only championship.
After his impressive showing in ’47, Williams found himself earning even more playing time in 1948. New manager William Bell not only wanted him on the mound, but he wanted his bat in the lineup with more frequency. For the first time in his professional career, Williams found himself regularly playing left field, filling in for Irvin while the slugger battled illness that July.23 Once again the Eagles began the season hot, perched atop the standings in mid-June, and again Williams and the pitching staff were credited with that success.24
As the season progressed, both Williams and the Eagles faded. After reaching his season-high batting average of .286 on August 15, Williams struggled at the plate over the next three weeks and ended the year with only a .241 mark. He tried to compensate on the mound, dropping his ERA from 4.65 to 4.03 over that same span,25 but it was too late for the Eagles. The Homestead Grays became the NNL champs after they defeated the Elite Giants in the playoffs, and then they beat the Birmingham Black Barons in the final World Series in Negro League history.
The next year, 1949, proved to be one of tremendous change. The Negro Leagues suffered a great schism, as the National League folded. A handful of teams, including the Elite Giants, the Cubans, and the Stars, were absorbed into the newly expanded, two-division American League. Effa Manley sold Monte Irvin to the Giants for $5,000,26 before selling the franchise itself to a Memphis businessman, Dr. W.H. Young. Young moved the team from Newark to Houston, where they joined the AL West Division. William Bell’s tenure with the Eagles ended with Young’s ownership and Ruben Jones took over as pilot of the club. It also marked the first time the team trained in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Cotton and most of the 1948 Eagles, but minus Irvin, Day, and Ray Dandridge, were on hand that spring.27
Williams also brought a little something new with him that season. Originally spotted by Mackey in 1943 because of his tremendous speed, by this point Williams was 32 years old and had lost a few miles per hour on his fastball. The 1949 season was the first time the press started to refer to him as a “curve ball specialist.”28 Even with the organizational shift, it was becoming clear to all that integration had put Negro League baseball in dire straits. It is likely Williams knew he was going to have to expand his arsenal if he were ever to have a chance to make the leap to the majors.
Fighting for economic survival, the new Houston Eagles played an increased number of exhibition games, including an August tilt against the Point Pleasant Pelicans. Williams had a solid start against the Pelicans, surrendering only two runs until the seventh inning, when he was pulled after three more crossed the plate. The Eagles offense was firing on all cylinders that night and Williams, despite his late struggles, walked away with a 16-5 victory.29
Lopsided victories like those were rare in league games. It was a tumultuous year for the Eagles, who went through three managers during their first season in Houston. Reuben Jones was replaced by Roy “Red” Parnell in mid-July. A short time later, catcher Leon Ruffin took over for Parnell for the final games of the season.30 Unable to overcome the loss of their biggest stars, as well as all the internal conflict, the Eagles finished in last place. They watched the Elite Giants defeat the American Giants in the newly devised American League Championship Series for the season crown.
Approaching 33 (if he was indeed born in 1917), Williams, along with returning manager Parnell, began to concentrate on playing in the outfield. Still talked about as a part of the rotation in April 1950,31 by July he was being referred to as a “former pitcher.”32 He responded well to the shift to the outfield, where he split time between left and center. In early June he was batting .333.33 He was playing more often than he ever had in his career, and his hitting had become consistent enough that he was being eyed by major-league scouts.34
The Eagles, in fact, were hemorrhaging players to the majors. In July outfielders Bob Wilson and Jimmy Wilkes had their contracts sold to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Later that year, standout shortstop Curley Williams was sent to the Chicago White Sox. Desperate for cash, the club was not only selling its best players, but by July it was looking for a new home.35 Disappointing attendance forced the team to play most of its home games in second half of the season in Nashville. Perhaps more disappointing to Williams, his final season average had sunk to a pedestrian .27636 and he remained unsigned by a major-league team.
When the Negro League owners met in January, writer Wendell Smith referred to the theme of those meetings as “salvation,”37 as they desperately scrambled to make the league viable. The previous season, only Kansas City and Birmingham had reported making a profit. The Eagles were particularly egregious financial failures and a former Memphis Red Sox owner, Dr. B.B. Martin, became a principal owner of the club in hopes of changing their fortunes. As part of that effort, it was decided at the January meeting that their new home field would be Pelicans Park in New Orleans, and that the club would adopt the name of their new hometown.38
Williams would not make that journey. For the first time in his professional career, he was not an Eagle. With the start of the 1951 campaign, he became a member of his hometown Philadelphia Stars. Sharing playing time with Al Henry, he regularly platooned in left field for the team. Helmed by Oscar Charleston, the Stars were still considered pennant contenders as late as August.39 Williams was a consistent contributor to that effort, including saving some of his best stuff for when he faced his former team. In a June 21 tilt against the Eagles, he went 3-for-5 and knocked in the two winning runs in the ninth inning of a 9-7 Stars victory.40
After season’s end Williams made an appearance with the Milford (Delaware) Yankees, an all-black squad, in a contest against the Mar-Del League All-Stars.41 Months later, an item in the April 1952 Asheville Citizen-Times mentioned that Williams was still with the team the following season as it made a preseason trek to North Carolina. According to the article, he was still playing well enough at 35 years old that he was being scouted by the Boston Braves.42 Despite these promising notes of a future career, no more records can currently be found of him setting foot on a baseball diamond. His long journey to reach the majors never came to pass.
The next time Williams appeared in the news was 33 years later, in 1985. While living in Philadelphia, he was one of 10 former Negro Leaguers honored by the Friends of Black Baseball Trailblazers at a ceremony held at the Afro American Historical and Cultural Museum in February.43 He reappeared a year later at a presentation at the former Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in Camden, New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia. The evening presented an opportunity for old players to reminisce to an admiring crowd, including some one-on-one time as they signed baseballs for children of all ages. Fellow attendees included old teammates Leon Day and Max Manning, as well as the legendary Judy Johnson.44
That evening of memories is where Cotton Williams disappears from the public record. This may have been due in no small part to what could be perceived as a certain amount of modesty in the old ballplayer. Larry Lester once attempted to get Williams to fill out a player info questionnaire, but Williams declined. It is notable that many of the players at the February 1986 event spoke to the multiple newspapers that covered the event, providing quotes about their days on the diamond. Williams is not quoted in any of the articles.
Robert A. “Cotton” Williams died on December 28, 2000, at (presumably) the age of 83, in Philadelphia.
The author would like to extend the deepest gratitude to Larry Lester, whose willingness to share his personal remembrances and statistical records of Cotton Williams were invaluable in the completion of this biography.
1 Personal player files of Larry Lester.
2 “List Twin-Bill for Negro League Teams,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 1948: 45. The Social Security Index reports that his SSN was issued in South Carolina before 1951. Given the inability to better pin down the details of his birth, we are unable to learn about his family or the days of his youth.
3 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), 860.
5 “WAAC to Start Negro Leagues,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 15, 1943: 23.
6 “Newark Eagles Beat Stars 4-2,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 16, 1943: 4S.
7 “Baltimore Trims Newark Eagles,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Evening News, July 9, 1945: 11.
8 Bob Luke, The Most Famous Woman in Baseball (Dulles, Virginia: Potomac Books, 2011), 110.
9 “Newark Eagles, Grays Clash Here Today,” Altoona (Pennsylvania) Tribune, June 2, 1947: 10.
10 “Negro Leagues World Series,” Center for Negro League Baseball Research. Retrieved January 24, 2018. cnlbr.org/Portals/0/RL/Negro%20League%20World%20Series.pdf.
11 “Eagles Nose Out Cubans, 8 to 6,” Wilmington (Delaware) Morning News, August 27, 1946: B-16.
12 “Eagles Top Cubans to Clinch Flag; Josh Hits 410 Ft. Homer,” Pittsburgh Courier, September 14, 1946: 17.
13 “Monarchs Triumph; 2 Players Hurt,” Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, 1946: 35.
14 Personal player files of Larry Lester.
15 “Eagles Shove Off for New York From Jacksonville,” New York Amsterdam News, April 26, 1947: 12.
16 Os Figard, “Newark Eagles to Meet Grays Here Monday,” Altoona Tribune, May 29, 1947: 8.
17 “Larry Doby Looms as Home Run King,” New York Amsterdam News, May 31, 1947: 12.
18 “Eagles and Cubans in 3-Game Series At Ebbets Field,” New York Age, June 14, 1947: 7.
19 “Colonels Meet Cubans Again,” Bridgewater (New Jersey) Courier-News, June 21, 1947: 6.
20 Personal player files of Larry Lester.
21 “Newark Eagles Nose Out Homestead Grays, 4-3,” Wilmington Morning News, July 16, 1947: 16.
22 The ERA figure comes from the Seamheads database.
23 “Newark Eagles Take to Road; Irvin Returns,” New York Amsterdam News, July 24, 1948: 26.
24 “Newark Eagles Set Hot Pace for AL Nine,” New York Amsterdam News, June 12, 1948: 27.
25 Personal player files of Larry Lester.
26 “The Demise of Negro League Baseball,” Center for Negro League Baseball Research. Retrieved January 25, 2018. cnlbr.org/Portals/0/RL/Demise%20of%20the%20Negro%20Leagues.pdf.
27 “Pilot Jones Drills New Eagle Nine,” Pittsburgh Courier, March 26, 1949: 29.
28 “Eagles, Stars Clash Tonight,” Wilmington News Journal, May 30, 1949: 14.
29 “Pelicans Drop 16-11 Verdict in Night Fray,” Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, August 24, 1949: 25.
31 “Eagles Work Hard for Chi Giants Game,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 15, 1950: 24.
32 “Red Sox Face Houston Negroes Here Tonight,” Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), July 5, 1950: 14.
33 “Houston Eagles Tackle Bushwicks at Dexter Tonight,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 2, 1950: 17.
34 “Houston Eagles to Play Local Indians Friday,” Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio), August 22, 1950: 7.
35 “Houston Eagles Seek New Hunting Grounds,” Pittsburgh Courier, July 8, 1950: 23.
36 “Negro American League (1950) League Leaders,” Center for Negro League Baseball Research. Retrieved January 26, 2018. cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Stats/NAL%201950/NAL1950.pdf.
37 Wendell Smith, “‘Salvation’ Theme of NAL Meeting This Week,” Pittsburgh Courier, January 6, 1951: 14.
38 Leonard Lowery, “Sports: From a Ringside Seat,” Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American, February 22, 1951: 8.
39 “Negro Teams Debut in Area May Preview Flag Winner,” Altoona Tribune, August 17, 1951: 12.
40 “Philadelphia Stars Whip Eagles,” Tennessean (Nashville), June 22, 1951: 39.
41 Pat Knight, “Clayton and Wyoming in Mar-Del Finals,” Denton (Maryland) Journal, September 18, 1951: 1.
42 “Negro Pros Open NAL Season Tonight at McCormick Field,” Asheville (North Carolina) Citizen-Times, April 24, 1952: 30.
43 Michael E. Ruane, “Honoring Stars of the Negro League,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 28, 1985: 7-B.
44 Ed Power, “Baseball Tales, Sweet and Bitter,” Philadelphia Inquirer, February 27, 1986: 1-B.