March 20, 2008 — Vol. 43, No. 32
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One of the greatest pitchers — ever

Dick Thompson

Editor’s note: Last December, Bridgewater resident Richard J. Thompson sent me a letter about a story he wanted published in the Bay State Banner. The story had been published before but Thompson, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, wanted to spread the word that he was compiling information to complete a full biography on Bill Jackman and African American teams in New England. Unfortunately, Thompson died unexpectedly Jan. 2 after a brief illness. Below are excerpts from Thompson’s work.

— Howard Manly, Executive Editor

Hank Greenberg and Wes Ferrell were two of the many major leaguers who began their careers in East Douglas, Mass., playing semi-pro ball 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, Schuster paid Bill Jackman of the Philadelphia Giants $175 and gave him the same strikeout bonus. Greenberg played first base, and a pitch-by-pitch account of Jackman’s work — he tossed 151 pitches and fanned 14 in winning the contest — appeared in the local paper.

The victory reportedly brought Jackman’s record on the season 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.”

Another recap of the game said “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.”

McGraw’s statements were not unusual, for many who saw the big right-hander in his prime declared him the equal of Hall of Famers 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, Jackman has been relegated to the historical “who?” pile. Despite being named in the famous 1952 Pittsburgh Courier player-voted poll of the all-time great Negro League players and years of touting by the mainstream white press of New England, where he barnstormed for nearly 30 years, Jackman’s name remains unrecognizable to all but the most astute black baseball historians.

“I want to live in New England,” Jackman 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.”

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.”

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. 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, catcher Burlin White, remained the headliners.

“In 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, Fla., 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, who was named the greatest pitcher in Negro League history in the 1952 Courier poll, was also on the team. He was mentioned only as an afterthought.

In 1928, the Chicago Defender called Jackman “one of the leading colored pitchers in the east.” 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 baseball fans.” In 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.”

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.” In his groundbreaking 1992 book “Only the Ball Was White,” Robert Peterson wrote, “Jackman is not often mentioned among the select few, but there are men like [Negro League shortstop and New York Yankees scout] Bill Yancey who consider him the best of all.” In 1933, the Hartford, Conn., Courant wrote that Jackman “really has quite the reputation as being the black Babe Ruth of baseball,” and the following year wrote his “fame as a pitcher equals that of the famous Cannonball Redding.”

Jackman said that he was unsure of the circumstances of his birth. He wrote that he was born on Oct. 7, 1897 in Carta, Texas, on his Hall of Fame questionnaire, but 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 with his wife Bettie and son Bill, as living in Kyle. Conflicting census data list both an 1894 and an 1897 birth date for the pitcher.

Statistical documentation is unavailable for the early portion of his career, but accounts indicate that 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.

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. Bill originally threw overhand, and submariner Webster McDonald — who last played in New England in 1924 — told baseball researcher and author John Holway that he taught Jackman to throw that way while they were teammates on the Philadelphia Giants.

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 leverage to get the ball away fast.

“The reason I changed to underhanded is because I developed a soreness in my arm,” he continued. “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, which stood on Commonwealth Avenue until 1955. The pitcher, who completed his day job as a private chauffeur just before game time, struggled over the first two innings, allowing four hits and two runs on 49 pitches. Over the final six frames he threw just 59 more pitches, allowing only 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 1200th of the hurler’s career.

Nason, who 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’ charge calling for the pitcher’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

“Kids are not born with prejudice, adults show them the techniques,” according to Nason. “You remember the school teacher who had a hell of a tough time trying to explain why ‘Cannonball’ couldn’t pitch in the big league games in Boston. It was a nice try, but it didn’t work.”

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. To date, 340 partial or complete pitching box scores have been retrieved, probably about 25 percent 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.

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,” celebrating the famed battery. The pair were presented with inscribed silver trays by Taunton Mayor John Parker — who, as Massachusetts Senate minority leader in 1971, 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.”

After the breaking of baseball’s color barrier, in 1947 the Portland, Maine, Press Herald 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,” the Press Herald wrote. “He is a big, rangy, ageless underhanded [pitcher] 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.”

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 claimed that had there not been a color line, “Jackman would no doubt have become one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball.”

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, Jackman took a job as a chauffer for the Chick family of Dedham, Mass., and remained in their employ for nearly 20 years. 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 Mayor Kevin White, the Boston Red Sox and Eleanor Chick, his former employer and greatest booster, announced that Will Jackman Day would be held at the Carter Playground. Three thousand fans showed up for Bill’s night.

Jackman died suddenly in Marion, Mass., on Sept. 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, N.H. paper.

“Cannonball” Bill Jackman shares a laugh with a Boston police officer in this photograph, believed to have been taken between 1945-1950. One of black baseball’s forgotten titans, many considered Jackman a talent equal to — or greater than — the premier pitchers of his time. (Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

(top) Born just before the turn of the 20th century, Bill Jackman earned the nickname “Cannonball” for a ferocious fastball that made him one of baseball’s most feared and respected pitchers. (Photo courtesy of National Baseball Hall of Fame Library)

(bottom) Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn (right) laughs as Satchel Paige answers newsmen’s questions in New York on Feb. 9, 1971, after being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in a special category designed to honor outstanding stars of the Negro Leagues. Legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, and later editor, Jerry Nason never completed a column about “Cannonball” Bill Jackman without declaring him Satchel Paige’s equal. (AP photo/Ed Ford)

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