Cannonball Bill Jackman: Baseball’s Great Unknown
This article was written by Dick Thompson
This article was published in The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)
“The greatest pitcher I have ever seen,” whispered John McGraw as he shoved his way through a jostling home bound crowd after watching “Cannonball” Jackman strike out eighteen batters in nine innings. That whisper spread from ear to ear and finally developed into a roar, for certainly the famed former New York Giants pilot should know what he’s talking about in matters of pitchers and baseball. — Portsmouth Herald, August 19, 1938
Hank Greenberg and Wes Ferrell were two of the many major leaguers who began their careers playing semi-pro ball in East Douglas, MA, for Walter Schuster, the millionaire owner of a string of textile mills along the Blackstone River on the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border. Schuster hired Lefty Grove of the Philadelphia Athletics for a championship contest in October 1927, paying him $300 with a $10 bonus for each batter struck out. For the 1929 Blackstone Valley League title game he gave Bill Jackman of the Philadelphia Giants $175 and the same strikeout bonus. Greenberg played first base and a pitch-by-pitch account of Jackman’s work-he tossed 151 pitches and fam1ed 14 in winning the 6-1 contest-appeared in the local paper. 1
The victory reportedly brought his season’s record to 49 wins against just five losses, and the “ex major and minor leaguers at the game admitted that Jackman had the goods to be in the big show.”2 Another recap of the game said that “the big pitcher for the Giants is alone worth the price of admission. John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, is reported to have made the facetious remark that he would pay $50,000 to the man who could make Jackman white.”3
McGraw’s statements were not unusual, for many who saw the big right hander in his prime declared him the equal of Walter Johnson and Bob Feller. “Old Will Jackman, the meteor man, could flip ‘ em faster than Feller can” was the opening stanza for a 1940 Boston Traveler article. Today, however, despite being named to the famous 1952 Pittsburgh Courier poll of all-time Negro League players and long touted by the mainstream white press of New England, where he barnstormed for nearly 30 years, Jackman has been relegated to the historical-who pile, his name unrecognizable but to the most astute Negro League historians. “I want to live in New England,” Bill said while recovering from a broken ankle in 1938, indicating his rejection of the more formal Negro Leagues. “People from all over have treated me great, and don’t think I don’t appreciate such things.”4 Said the Philadelphia Tribune in 1927, “Bill Jackman, who is the premier pitcher of semi-pro circles, and a man who stays out of the big tent only because he desires to remain with the Philadelphia Giants. ..”5
The moniker Philadelphia Giants had been used by many squads over the years. The 1905 Philadelphia Giants-famously led by Sol White, Rube Foster, and Danny McClellan-toured New England, and when McClellan operated his own team of the same name two decades later he used the same northern barnstorming routes. The bookings went so well that he came back every summer, and by the early 1930s, though still calling themselves the Philadelphia Giants, the team was based out of Boston. In the years that followed the squad became the Boston Giants, playing sometimes as the Boston Royal Giants and still occasionally as the Philadelphia Giants, but whatever the designation, Jackman and his battery mate Burlin White remained the headliners.
“ln an endeavor to pick out the most colorful of his brilliant aggregation,” wrote the Philadelphia Tribune in 1926, “McClellan chooses his star battery, pitcher Jackman and catcher Burlin White. The populace fell for these two like mice take the count for cheese.”
That Jackman was considered a star of the highest caliber cannot be overstated. In announcing his arrival in Palm Beach in January 1927, the Tribune wrote, “The Florida sportsmen will get their first opportunity of seeing the great battery of Will Jackman and Burlin White.” Smokey Joe Williams, also on the team, was mentioned only as an afterthought. In 1928, the Chicago Defender called Jackman “one of the leading Colored pitchers in the east.”6 In 1930, the same publication referred to Jackman and White as “two of the greatest attractions in Eastern baseball” and “the idols of New England base ball fans.”7
For a 1942 preview of Boston’s entry in the short-lived Negro Major Baseball League of America, the Defender wrote, “First, there’s the great battery — the pride of New England — with Bill Jackman on the pitching end and White himself catching. That twosome should account for plenty of victories, in case the boys in the Western end of the circuit didn’t know.”8 One of the numerous assessments of the pitcher in the New England papers, this one from 1932, said, “Jackman is the Lefty Grove of the colored baseball realm and has been the envy of every major league baseball manager in the country.”9
Robert Peterson, in his groundbreaking Only the Ball Was White, wrote, “Jackman is not often mentioned among the select few, but there are men like Bill Yancey who consider him the best of all.” In 1933 and 1934, the Hartford Courant wrote, “Jackman, who really has quite a reputation as being the black Babe Ruth of baseball,” and “Jackman, whose fame as a pitcher equals that of the famous Cannonball Redding.”
Jackman said that he was unsure of the exact circumstances of his birth, and although he wrote October 7, 1897 in Carta, Texas, on his Hall of Fame questionnaire, his friends in Boston thought that just a baseball age. His father was born in Missouri in 1855 and presumably came to Texas with Sidney Drake Jackman, a noted figure who began the Civil War on the side of the Union but ended it as a Confederate brigadier general. Later a member of the Texas state legislature, S. D. Jackman settled in Hayes County in what later became the village of Kyle. The 1920 U.S. Census lists Charles Jackman, along his wife Bettie and son Bill, living in Kyle. Conflicting census data list both an 1894 and an 1897 birth for the pitcher.
Statistical documentation is unavailable for the early portion of his career, but accounts indicate Jackman played in and around San Antonio-where John McGraw and the New York Giants had their spring training camp-before spending 1920-1922 with the Houston Black Buffaloes, for whom he tossed no-hitters against the San Antonio Black Aces and the Dallas Giants. 10 He drifted up into Oklahoma and then to Maryland, New Jersey, and New York in 1923, where he toured with a squad called the “Lincoln Grout Team.” He was with the Boston Monarchs in 1924 and may have joined the Philadelphia Giants later that season, although currently the first documentation of his time with McClellan isn’t until 1925.11
Bill originally threw over hand, and submariner Webster McDonald — who last played in New England in 1924 — told John Holway he taught Jackman to throw that way when they were team mates on the Philadelphia Giants. 12 When asked in 1938 if the nickname “Cannonball” indicated his current speed, Bill replied, “Nope, I haven’t got any extra speed now. That name was given to me when I used to pitch overhand. And, mister, I did have speed then if I do say so myself. My arms were long and I had plenty of lever age to get the ball away fast. The reason I changed to underhand is because I developed a soreness in my arm. I tried out several ways of pitching and found out that when I threw them underhand it didn’t hurt my arm at all. Then when it became well again I never changed back to the old style because the batters told me it was harder to hit the underhand ball than it was the one I threw overhand.”
On May 25, 1949, a crowd of 4,200 watched Jackman open his season by dropping a 3-1 contest to the New England Hobos at Braves Field. The pitcher, who completed his day job as a private chauffer just before game time, struggled over the first two innings, allowing four hits and two runs on 49 pitches. Over the last six frames he threw just 59 more times and allowed but two hits. Jerry Nason, a sportswriter noted for his coverage of the Boston Marathon, penned a lengthy tribute to Jackman in the Boston Globe, for the contest was the 1,200th of the hurler’s career. Nason, who first wrote about Jackman during the 1930s and was still doing so in the 1970s, never completed a column about Bill without declaring him the equal of Satchel Paige.
Early in the 1970s Nason led the Boston writers on a charge calling for the pitcher’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Kids are not born with prejudice, adults show them the techniques. You remember the school teacher who had a hell of a tough time trying to explain to you why ‘Cannonball’ couldn’t pitch in the big league games in Boston. It was a nice try, but it didn’t work.” 13 Nason also recalled having to climb a tree as a young boy to watch Jackman “because the adults were standing three or four deep around the roped-off ball field when he pitched.”
Reconstructing Jackman’s statistical record is an ongoing project, and to date 340 partial or complete pitching box scores have been retrieved, probably about 25% of his career total. He won 200 of those contests and lost 86. He was 22-3 against opposing pitchers who had major league experience, struck out 10 or more batters in 78 games, and hurled 48 shutouts. None of the sample seasons presented here should be considered complete.
1925 — Jackman was 16-3 in 23 recovered games from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. He was 6-1 in ten contests where he faced pitchers who had or would have big league experience. He won three games in a late-season series against the Pennsylvania Red Caps, including a one-hitter played at Boston’s Walpole Street Grounds.
1926 — A 17-6 record in 34 games recovered from Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. His best outings were a no-hitter with 14 strikeouts in Quincy, Massachusetts, on July 26, and a 2-0 shutout with 12 strikeouts over Haskell Billings and a Cape Cod League all-star squad in Brockton, Massachusetts, on September 16. He pitched in five games over the four-day span of September 9-12, three of them complete, and twice defeated the Lynn squad of the New England League, which had five past or future major leaguers on its roster — Shanty Hogan and King Bader among them.
1927 — A 21-7 record in 32 games recovered from Florida, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Highlights included a three-hit shutout against the Breakers team in the Palm Beach winter league, an 11-inning win over Hilldale in Philadelphia on April 21, a 1-0 victory over former major leaguer Chad See in New York City on April 24 while pitching for Santop’s Broncos, a 2-1 loss against Heinie Zimmerman’s Jamaica team in New York City on May 8 in which he fanned 14, and a 14-strikeout victory over Bill “Buck” Ewing’s All-Stars in Amsterdam, New York, on May 19.
His best performance in Massachusetts was a 16- strikeout effort against the Fore River Shipyard team of the Boston Twilight League in Quincy, Massachusetts, on June 16 which had four players, including former Princeton ace and New York Yankees pitcher Charlie Caldwell, in the lineup with big league experience. “It is common knowledge that, were Jackman white instead of black, he would be in the big show,” reported the Quincy Patriot Ledger on game day. “No less an authority than Harold Janvrin, who spent 10 years in the major leagues, admitted as much.” The Boston Traveler followed up the game with, “If colored ballplayers were allowed in the big leagues, Jackman, who twirls for the Philadelphia Colored Giants, would make the grade with ease.”
Over a five-day period in July the Giants drew a cumulative crowd of 49,500 paying fans in southeastern Massachusetts. 14
1928 — A 13-9 record in 25 recovered games, five of which were played in New York City and the rest in southeastern Massachusetts. He won three and dropped two to Cape Cod League squads, one of the losses being a one-hitter in which bad defense did him in.
The Philly Giants were big favorites in New Bedford on the south coast of Massachusetts. “The reason for their repeated visits is quite obvious,” wrote the New Bedford Standard. “Every time they play they draw a crowd that hopes to see Willie Jackman stand the batsman on their heads. … Willie rarely disappoints his public.”
The Frates Dairy team of New Bedford was one of the top semi-pro nines in the area. With the financial backing of Alfred Frates the team was able to induce such major league squads as the Boston Braves, the Chicago White Sox, the Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Browns to the Whaling City for exhibition games. Sensing the popularity of Jackman gave Frates an idea.
“Mr. Frates is anxious to give the Browns the stiffest opposition available and is convinced he will do it,” wrote the New Bedford Morning Mercury on August 22.
The original intent was to use the Philadelphia Colored Giants against the big fellows. Although there is no rule in major league baseball that forbids a major league club from playing a colored ball team, there is an unwritten agreement between managers that they will not play against such teams, and therefore it looks as if the Giants will be out of luck for Sunday’s game.
Though Jackman did not face the St. Louis Browns, he did remain the crowd favorite — several times drawing crowds in excess of 10,000 — and he took two duels in New Bedford from Gabby Hartnett’s brother Buster, a former Boston Braves farmhand brought in specifically to face the Giants ace. The first of those contests came the day after Bill had tossed a complete game on Cape Cod. “Jackman,” noted the local paper, “is forced by con tract to do the pitching tonight; othe1wise there will be no game, as Mr. Frates has drawn up such an agreement with the management of the visitors.” 15 The Giants field manager, Burlin White, was not happy. “There is a limit to human endurance,” he complained before the game. “Everywhere the Giants play, it’s announced that Jackman will pitch-sometimes without permission or knowledge of the Giants-and I am sure you will excuse the big boy after pitching two innings.” 16 Jackman went out and pitched the full nine, allowing just four hits while fanning 10.
Pop Lloyd’s Lincoln Giants came to New England at the end of August for a five-game series with the Philadelphia Giants, and McClellan’s team-highlighted by a Jackman two-hit shutout-took the first three games. McClellan, to reciprocate, hand-picked an All-Star team which included Jackman, White, Judy Johnson, and Nip Winters to play at the Lincolns’ home field, the Catholic Protectory Oval in New York City, at the end of the season. Jackman dropped three games in the series, one due to his teammates’ poor defense and then a 3-2 game that ended on a Lloyd base hit in the 11th inning. The Chicago Defender called this duel between Jackman and Connie Rector the “best seen at the Bronx oval since the Lincolns inception six years ago.”
1929 — A 1 7-7 record in 26 games recovered from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. This was reportedly one of Jackman’s three seasons of at least 50 victories, and two of his losses came at the end of September. Highlights included a three-hit shutout with 15 strikeouts versus Vito Tamulis and the Osterville team of the Cape Cod League at Ridgehill Grove in Norwell, Massachusetts — a favorite field of the Giants — and on August l O a perfect game against the Pennsylvania Red Caps in New Bedford.
Burlin White, after spending the winter as a player manager in Florida, had pitcher Ted Trent in tow when he rejoined McClellan and Jackman in New England. Trent remained with the Giants for only a short time, leaving to rejoin the St. Louis Stars in June, but while he and Jackman were together, they gave the Giants as formidable a one-two pitching punch as any in baseball.
1930s — African American teams that called the Hub home during the 1930s included the Boston Tigers, Boston Royal Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Boston Rangers, Boston Pullman Porters, Colored House of David and the Boston ABC’s. The Providence (Rhode Island) Giants were also prominent in that period, fielding a team of veteran Negro Leaguers who copped the second-half pennant in the 1931 Boston Twilight League. Favorite playing fields for these teams, among many others, included Boston’s Carter Playground and Lincoln Park, built specifically for African American teams in the Roxbury section of the city by Danny McClellan’s business partner John H. Prioleau in 1931. 17
The major dilemma, and one that potentially kept Boston from being a franchise city for the Negro Leagues, was that while white fans turned out in large numbers to watch black teams face white teams, the fan base for black versus black contests — despite the efforts of promoters like Arthur “Fats” Johnson, Bob Russell, McClellan, and Burlin White — was insufficient. The other detriment, it was felt, was that the talent was dispersed on too many teams. One or two strong black teams would have been a better draw.
None of that mattered to Jackman. He just pitched. “Will Jackman, hailed as the greatest colored pitcher in the country today, gave a practical demonstration of his wizardry… to register his fourth consecutive shutout within a period of ten days,” noted one suburban Boston paper in May 1930. 18
On consecutive October 1931 weekends in Togus, Maine, the Philly Giants faced a team which included major leaguers Del Bissonette, Milt Gaston, Don Brennan, Jack Russell, and Danny MacFayden. Crowds of 8,000 and 6,500 watched the teams split, Bissonette fanning to end the first contest and then hitting a game-winning, walk off single in the second. The four big league pitchers, 19 who divided the innings fanned eight batters over the two contests. Jackman, who pitched all of the Giants’ innings, fanned 20 and called his punch-out of Bissonette one of his most satisfying accomplishments. Striking out Wally Berger four times in a game is what he listed as his biggest thrill on his Hall of Fame questionnaire.
Jackman had been the center of controversy in the Cape Cod League in August 1931 when a sportswriter noticed him sitting on the Orleans bench with a rolled-up uniform under his arm. When asked why he was there, Bill replied that he was going to pitch. The game was rained out before it started, but Jackman “came close to causing the biggest eruption of Cape league history.”20 The Cape circuit, at that particular time, fell under the auspices of Organized Baseball, for each team was allowed four professional players on their roster. Freddy Moncewicz, a Boston College graduate who played briefly for the Boston Red Sox in 1928, played in the Cape Cod League every year from 1926 through 1934.
Though some sources claim Danny McClellan died in 1931, the New York and Boston newspapers reported him alive and well, and he and Burlin White — who toured with Syd Pollack’s Cuban Stars in 1933 — had parted ways. By the middle of the decade McClellan was residing in Boston and operating the Philly Giants while White was running his own club, the Boston Royal Giants. Jackman jumped back and forth between both. Additionally in 1933 and 1934 he played for the Waltham Town Team in the Boston Twilight League, a circuit that fielded some teams with as many as five players with big league experience. The Waltham paper referred to Jackman as “the greatest colored pitcher in the universe and a certain major league star but for his racial handicap.”21 His agreement with Waltham allowed him time for barnstorming trips to northern New England and the Canadian Maritime Provinces with White and McClellan. White’s Giants ranged as far as Ohio in 1934-where they showed up with “a splendid record, having defeated the Homestead Grays, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and several other clubs of the National Colored league,”22 — and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in 1936.
Jackman started off 1935 with White’s Giants, but in May he joined the Brooklyn Eagles for his only full season in the Negro Leagues, and though not named to the East-West All-Star game, he did very well in the fan-based voting. “Big Bill Jackman,” wrote the New York Amsterdam News on July 6,
… who has figured so prominently in past Eagle successes, was pretty much the hero of the series. On Saturday Jack put down the Giants 6-3, with six hits. He was idle Sunday; but on Monday returned to save the occasion with a splendid relief performance.
Only four Jackman games have been recovered from 1937, and all were played in Hartford, Connecticut, where he dropped three games to Schoolboy Johnny Taylor before shutting out the New York Black Yankees on three hits.
The first duel with Taylor on May 9 was a corker, a 5-4 contest that went 20 innings. Jackman later recalled that he just joined the Philly Giants after wintering in Texas and pitched the entire contest sans spring training. He allowed 15 hits and fanned 10 while Taylor struck out 22. Taylor told the Boston Chronicle in 1938 that he considered this his greatest game, more satisfying than the no-hitter he tossed against Satchel Paige in the Polo Grounds.
“Burlin White, with Big Bill Jackman, form some sort of a legendary greatness in New England baseball history,”23 wrote Boston’s leading African American sportswriter Mabe Kountze early in 1938. White had worked all that season with Boston Braves president Bob Quinn, planning to bring the Homestead Grays to play the Boston Royal Giants in Braves Field. The Grays never made it, so the Jackman-White battery had to settle for a 4-3 victory over the House of David on July 6 in what was the first incidence of an African American team performing in a then current Boston major league stadium. “I’ve never seen a ball jump away from a batter as Jackman’s pitches were that historic afternoon here in Boston’s senior major league park…,” recalled Kountze a few years after the fact, “… for this was the same Jackman that…Cuban Johnny Taylor …acclaimed as being smarter than Paige.”24
1939 saw Jackman compile a 14-1 record while pitching on Sundays for the Portsmouth City team in New Hampshire. Ten times he reached double-digit strikeout totals, including a two-hit shutout with 15 strikeouts and then a 16-K performance against a Cape Cod League all-star squad comprised of players from Villanova, Boston University, Boston College, and Holy Cross. In September, Jackman faced the Lynn Frasers, a team that claimed two national amateur titles.25 “The visitors were powerless before the offerings of the sensational ‘Cannonball’ Jackman,” wrote the Portsmouth Herald. “Thirteen batters went down swinging before his tricky underhand pitches.”
Following the Frasers were the champions of the Boston Park League. “It was the veteran Jackman who personally accounted for the deflation of Dick Casey’s New England title aspirations. His sweeping underhand curves completely checked whatever batting prowess the Caseys had.” Finally it was a 2-1, 10-inning, 13-strikeout performance against the Cordage Park team of Plymouth, Massachusetts, on October 7 that gave Portsmouth the bragging rights for the New England semi-pro title. “I’d like to have seen him pitch when he was 29,” said the Herald’s baseball writer of Jackman, comparing him to the National League champs. “He probably had more oomph on the ball than the whole Cincinnati pitching staff.”
1940s and Beyond — With baseball’s color line a frequent topic of both the white and black New England presses at the turn of the decade, the Lynn Frasers — who drew impressive crowds as soon as they began booking top Negro League teams in Massachusetts in the 1930s — dropped a 10-3 contest on July 16, 1940, to the Homestead Grays in front of 8,000 fans in their new stadium, Fraser Field.26
Bad weather and poor publicity were blamed for the small crowd that attended the Philadelphia Stars’ defeat of the Baltimore Elite Giants on September 8, 1942, in the first game played between Negro League teams at Fenway Park. The Boston black media praised the Red Sox management, especially Eddie Collins, for “cooperating 100%” with promoter Fats Johnson.
Former American League first baseman Jack Burns — who first faced Jackman in the 1920s — used his influence to arrange four games between his Fore River Shipyard nine and visiting Negro League teams at Fenway Park in 1943. Fore River defeated the New York Black Yankees and the Cuban All-Stars, played the Birmingham Black Barons to a draw, and lost to the Kansas City Monarchs. The New York Amsterdam News, opining that the Negro League teams had to play their best at every opportunity versus white teams to further the desegregation cause, referred to this series as embarrassing and chastised the players for letting a team of “old, broken-down and re fused material of the majors” beat them. The Fore River team, which had at least five former big leaguers on its roster, was exactly the type of aggregation of players that Bill Jackman had been dominating in New England for 20 years.
Reporting on Jackman’s first recovered game of the decade — a one-hitter with 16 strikeouts while pitching for White’s Philly Giants in New Bedford on June 4, 1940 — the local paper said,
Jackman and White are the greatest Negro battery in baseball history. You can talk about your big time heroes but if Jackman and White ever were able to get into the majors, there is little question but what we’d have an other pair of nationally famous diamond greats.”
Early in 1940 the Plymouth, Massachusetts, Old Colony Memorial wrote,
The return of the Philadelphia Colored Giants to New England baseball circuits this year, after a lapse of three years, has got baseball managers all over the states quite a bit anxious for a booking because they have heard that Will Jackman and Burlin White have kissed and made up … the Jackman & White combination is still powerful enough to pack baseball diamonds in New England.
The rift between the pair was not serious. It was just that Jackman had a better payday in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he went 16-0 pitching on Sundays in 1940 (18-1 recovered overall), and his victory over the Lynn Frasers on October 6 gave Portsmouth a second consecutive New England semi-pro title. Bill’s center fielder in that game was Eddie Waitkus, and the Frasers had former Red Sox player Skinny Graham in their outfield and Stan Andrews of the Boston Braves behind the plate.
Jackman and White were together on the Boston Night Hawks in 1941 when Bill recorded an 18-strikeout performance. “There are two great baseball attractions for colored baseball in New England,” wrote the Boston Chronicle that summer. “The Boston Night Hawks, who are burning up the diamond with their sensational playing, and the greatest pitcher in Negro baseball, Dixie Jackman.”27
Bill’s recovered record for 1942 currently stands at 10-1, and he averaged 16.5 strikeouts per game in the eight contests he and White worked as the Sunday battery for a team near Taunton, Massachusetts. Former SABR member and Taunton native Hank Martyniak, who pitched in the Boston Braves chain in 1946 and 1947, opposed Jackman in one of those games. As a youngster Martyniak had idolized Bill, and pitching against him Jackman won with a one-hitter-was one of his “proudest moments.”
Retired US Air Force colonel John Corbisiero, now 79 years old and living in San Antonio, Texas, was a catcher in the Pony League in 1950. His professional experience came following his graduation from Middlebury College and before the Korean War, when he embarked on his military career. In 1944 he had the opportunity to play briefly, and catch Jackman, for the Watertown Arsenal team, a nearly all-black squad in the Boston Park League. “He was easy to catch because he had such great control,” John emailed in the summer of 2006.
I was amazed at how tall, lean, and very muscular this man was in his late forties. It makes me feel good that at one time during the life of two of the greatest baseball players of our time, I was chosen to step in for Burlie White as a catcher for the great Cannonball Jackman.
Pitcher Allyn Stout won 160 professional baseball games in his career, including 20 in the major leagues, where he last appeared for the Boston Braves in 1943. The Lynn Item, after Jackman and the Boston Giants defeated Stout and the Lynn Frasers on July 9, 1944, wrote, “Old Pa Time has been reaching for Jackman for a long time, but the 46-year old pitcher with the underhand magic is not yet ready to enter the portals of Hasbeenville from which there is no return.”
On July 17, 1944, Jackman, White, and the visiting Boston Giants defeated the Brooklyn Bushwicks by a 3-1 score in front of 10,000 fans. Yet in Boston on August 24 only a small crowd was on hand to watch Boston’s Mayor Maurice Tobin make the presentations on “Will Jackman Day’ at Fenway Park. Following the game, which Bill dropped to Pat Scantlebury and the Cuban All-Stars, William “Sheep ” Jackson, the Chronicle’s sports editor, wrote, “It was a sad gathering it was to be Will Jackman day … a player whose hurling has thrilled thousands in this section for the past 20 years. It was to be a tribute to Will and the colored fans were to honor this great pitcher-one of their own. But alas, Ole Joe and his friends stayed at home.” Jackson went on to argue that this lack of support by Boston’s black fans for black players was noticed by the “few baseball men ” who had been trying to do something about it.
Jackman finished up 1944 with six late-season victories for the Windsor, Vermont, Conomatics. He fanned 15 in a two-hit shutout on October 1 for the “Twin-State Semi Pro championship,” and in a 2-1 loss to Jeff Tesreau’s Dartmouth Indians struck out 18.
After winning in front of 11,500 fans in Yankee Stadium in August 1945 — allowing just an infield single over the first seven im1ings — the Chicago Defender wrote “Bill Jackman, a white-haired submarine ball specialist, turned in a three-hit shutout versus Miami. He struck out ten batters and aided his own cause by accounting for five runs, with four hits in five trips to the plate.”28
Jackman always displayed long-ball ability, and nearly 40 of his home runs have been recovered. Fore River field in Quincy, Massachusetts — built in 1916 — was the site of one of Bill’s longest home runs, reputed to be the first ball ever hit over the left-field fence. “What big leaguers during the war period failed to do,” wrote the Quincy Patriot ledger in 1926, “the mighty Jackman did with the admirable air of one who is utterly at ease in his chosen element.”29
In 1927, he hit a walk-off grand slam against the Town Talk team of Worcester. A late-season 1928 blast in Brockton earned him “one of the greatest ovations given a ballplayer in this city.” His July 1929 home run at Ridge Hill Grove was described as “one of the longest hits seen at the field in many a day.” When he beat the Reading team of the Boston Twilight League at the end of the same month, “Jackman put the ball over the bushes in center for a home rw1, a very long hit.” His two 1929 Labor Day blasts in Plymouth were called “two of the longest home runs seen on the local field for some time.”
Though still unsubstantiated, old-timers claim that in 1946 when the Giants used both Fenway Park and Braves Field for their home games, Bill hit a ball off the wall above the Fenway triangle seats in center field. In 1950, the Portsmouth Herald wrote of Jackman, “In an appearance here last summer he wasn’t too decrepit to hobble to the plate and smash a long home run just to show the youngsters a thing or two.” In describing a 450-foot home run hit by a New Hampshire high school lad in 1957, the same paper commented that the distance was “as far as many of the blasts spanked by Cannonball Jackman.”30
“Despite their great age,” commented the Taunton Gazette on Jackman and White in 1948, “these two time less baseball stars are still the greatest drawing cards in New England.” Following a 1946 Boston Giants game in Taunton, the Gazette’s headline was “106-Year-Old Battery Stops Twi League All-Stars.” Bill wasn’t due to pitch but the fans demanded it, and Jackman responded with, “Taunton has always been good to us, and today we’ll give them all we’ve got.” The crowd wasn’t disappointed, for “Jackman certainly lived up to his reputation. The 54-year-old pitching marvel struck out 12 hitters, including the last batter, after he had called in his outfielders.”31
Newport, Rhode Island — where Jackman first performed in 1926 — also saw some dazzling work from the hurler in the post-war era. Sam Nahem, in between major league stops, had played for a military team in Newport, where his pitching had turned him into such a favorite that he declined professional offers to pitch for the Newport Sunset Stars on weekends in 1946.
In mid-week he commuted to New York, where he pitched for the Brooklyn Bushwicks, and his specialty was facing Negro League teams. Having already claimed victories over the Homestead Grays and the New York Black Yankees that season, Nahem — despite fanning 22 batters — dropped a 3-2 contest to the Boston Giants in extra innings on June 12. Jackman, working five shutout relief innings, was the winner. The Newport players were stunned by Jackman, who had perfected an underhand knuckleball, and the game was talked about in Newport for decades. “The fans demanded a rematch,” went a 1971 Newport Daily News recollection. “They figured that it was an accident for a pitcher with 22 strikeouts to lose a game. The game was arranged with a guarantee that the aged Jackman pitch the distance if he were able to last.”32 The rematch came on July 17, and Nahem fanned 13 but lost to Jackman’s three-hit shutout. The Newport News described their batters as “baffled” and “toyed with” by Jackman.
Though little documentation has yet been recovered for the last few years of his career, Jackman stated that he continued to tour through the 1953 season. In 1947 over 5,000 fans turned out in Taunton for “Jackman and White Night.” The pair were presented with inscribed silver trays by Mayor John Parker, who in 1971 as the Massachusetts senate minority leader was the driving force behind the Commonwealth’s presentation of a Golden Dome Citation to “Will ‘Cannonball’ Jackman One of America’s Greatest Baseball Players.”
The Portland, Maine, Press Herald, in 1947, after the breaking of baseball’s color line, opined that they would not be surprised to see Jackman pop up in a big league uniform. “Jackman, fans will recall has been pitching for more than 30 years, part of the time in the Negro National League but generally for touring teams. He is a big rangy ageless underhand flinger regarded by big leaguers who have faced him and scouts who saw him work in his prime, as one of the greatest pitchers of all time.”33
Just prior to a 1951 complete-game effort in Taunton, the Gazette said, “Jackman and White are two of the finest athletes and gentlemen baseball fans have ever known,” and opined that had there not been a color line, “Jackman would no doubt have become one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball.”34
Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Jackman took a job as a chauffeur for the Chick family of Dedham, Massachusetts, and remained in their employ for nearly 20 years. His name appeared frequently in the Boston sports pages. In March 1967 the Boston Globe began a column on Jackman with “One of the greatest pitchers of all time … “35 and in September of the same year the Globe — with an intriguing placement under a photo of Bob Gibson — announced that Bill would be pitching in an old-timers game.36
In failing health by the early 1970s, Jackman lost both his wife of 40 years and his friend Burlin White in 1971. Sensing the decline, his many friends, former teammates and fans rallied around him. The Friends of Will Jackman Committee, in close coordination with the office of Boston’s Mayor Kevin White, the Boston Red Sox, and his former employer and greatest booster, Eleanor Chick, announced that Will Jackman Day would be held on July 14, 1971, at the Carter Playground.
The accolades quickly followed.
“Will Jackman was one of baseball’s great pitchers; also, a powerful hitter… ” wrote Roy Mumpton, the sports editor of the Worcester Evening Telegram, about the hurler and his teams.
They played in practically every city and town in New England which had a ball park-out at the New England Fair Grounds, in Prospect Park at Auburn, and against the Nortons, the American Steel & Wire and Town Talk, the powerhouses of the once fast Worcester Industrial League.37
The Dedham Transcript said, “The very sound of the name…brings immediate recollection of Jackman’s achievements on the mound for the touring Philadelphia Colored Giants.”38
Bob Finnigan of the Quincy Patriot Ledger, begrudging baseball’s color line, wrote, “The legacy that William Jackman left baseball is held now only in the memories of those that saw him play the game.”39
The Wakefield Daily Item noted, “It’s a long-time in coming-an all-out public honoring of one of the all time greats in baseball…”40
Art Ballou of the Boston Globe said,
Some experts rate Jackman with Satchel Paige, which is saying a lot, but in his heyday it was accepted by all and sundry that Jackman was far superior to his white counter parts on the sandlots. And, he was eminently successful in barnstorming games against major leaguers.”41
Joe Fitzgerald of the Boston Herald interviewed Jackman. “I didn’t care who came to bat,” Bill told him. “I had no fear. I beat every man I pitched against at least once. I went against Paige twice, and we split. I had good stuff, but when I could have helped a major league team, none wanted me.”42
Three-thousand fans showed up for Bill’s night. Old friend Judy Johnson, accompanied by his wife and Mrs. Bill Yancey, made the trip from Philadelphia. Among the former major league players and Boston Red Sox officials in attendance were Neil Mahoney, Jack Burns, Sam Mele, Frank Malzone, Dick Donovan, Ted Lepcio, and Tom Dowd. Tom Yawkey’s publicity director, Bill Crowley, presented Jackman with a lifetime pass to Fenway Park. Several Boston Celtics players were also on hand, and additional photos from the period provided by the Chick family show Jackman with Dom DiMaggio, longtime Red Sox radio announcer Ken Coleman, and Red Sox manager Eddie Kasko.
Jackman died suddenly in Marion, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1972 while visiting friends. In addition to the Boston and local New England papers, his passing received notice in The Sporting News and the Washington Post.
“Jackman was a black man, and was born too soon to enjoy the break in the ‘color line’ brought about by Jackie Robinson and the late Branch Rickey,” read the posthumous tribute to Bill on the editorial page of the Portsmouth, NH, paper.
However, there are many Portsmouth sports fans who will argue that Jackman at his best was even better than the legendary ‘Satch’ Paige.
Folks in Portsmouth swear Jackman would have been a great major league pitcher and they were probably right. His only problem was that he was born too soon.43
DICK THOMPSON lives in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He has been a SABR member since 1979.
Dick Thompson would like to thank the following individuals for assistance with this article. Gary Ashwill, Bijan Bayne, Charlie Bevis, Rich Bozzone, Peter Chick, Dick Clark, Jim Collyer, Robert Cvornyek, Rick Durkee, Alan Foulds, Frank Geishecker, Rick Harris, John Holway, Kerry Keene, Ted Knorr, Neil Lanctot, Doug Malan, Ray Nemec, Bob Richardson, John Russell, Glenn Stout, Dixie Tourangeau, Brian Walsh of the Dartmouth Public Library and Barbara Rhoad of the Windsor, VT, Historical Society.
- Milford Daily News, September 16, 1929.
- Worcester Daily Telegram, September 16, 1929.
- Woonsocket Call, September 25, 1929.
- Portsmouth Herald, August 19, 1938
- Philadelphia Tribune, June 16, 1927.
- Chicago Defender, October 20, 1928.
- Ibid, May 3, 1930.
- Thiel, May 17, 1942.
- Lowell Sun, July 22, 1932.
- Philadelphia Tribune, January 29, 1927.
- The Chicago Defender; on February 28, 1925, lists “Jackman” on the Lincoln Giants’ spring roster. This project has not found any documentation that he actually pitched for them.
- John Holway Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1975.
- Boston Evening Globe, July 6, 1971.
- Philadelphia Tribune, July 14, 1927.
- New Bedford Mercury, August 9, 1928.
- New Bedford Standard, August 10, 1928.
- Philadelphia Tribune, March 19, 1931.
- Waltham News-Tribune, May 15, 1930.
- Brennan did not debut in the majors until 1933. In 1931 and 1932 he won 15 and 26 games for the New York Yankees’ Newark farm club.
- New Bedford Evening Standard, August 13, 1931.
- Waltham News-Tribune, July 17, 1933.
- Mansfield News-Journal, July 14, 1934.
- Boston Chronicle, March 12, 1938.
- Thiel, August 17, 1940.
- Based on 1934 and 1937 tournaments in Springfield, MA and Louisville, KY.
- Alan E. Foulds, Boston’s Ballparks & Arenas. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2005.
- Boston Chronicle, July 26, 1941.
- Chicago Defender, August 11, 1945.
- Quincy Patriot Ledger, June 1, 1926.
- Portsmouth Herald, June 17, 1957.
- Taunton Gazette, July 29, 1946.
- Newport Daily News, July 14, 1971.
- Portland Press Herald, July 18, 1947.
- Taunton Gazette, June 2, 1951.
- Boston Globe, March 5, 1967.
- Ibid, September 8, 1967.
- Worcester Evening Telegram, July 14, 1971.
- Dedham Transcript, June 24, 1971.
- Quincy Patriot Ledger, July 2, 1971.
- Wakefield Daily Item, July 13, 1971.
- Boston Globe, July 13, 1971.
- Boston Herald, July 11, 1971.
- Portsmouth Herald, September 15, 1972.