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Harvard Baseball’s Complex Racial History: William Clarence Matthews and the Southern Road Trips

Before His Time
Matthews, one of the best players of his time, had his professional baseball chances dashed by the MLB's systemized racism.
Charles Eliot, the longest serving president in Harvard’s long history, was not an ally of expanding college athletics. A proponent of rowing and tennis, the only “clean sports” in his mind, Eliot opposed football and other brutal athletic activities. Even baseball, a relatively clean sport in today’s society, received Eliot’s criticism. The former president once said, “This year I'm told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curveball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” While Eliot’s understanding of off-speed pitches may have missed the strike zone, he was correct to highlight that the baseball team during his tenure had a skewed moral compass. For some players on the team, the curves off the field proved more troublesome than those on the diamond.

Nearly a half century before Jackie Robinson’s famous debut in 1947, William Clarence Matthews ‘05 defied standards and served as a pioneer in the black baseball community. Despite his modest background as a poor man from Alabama, the future United States Assistant Attorney General worked his way to Phillips Andover Academy and Harvard University to become one of the most talented baseball players of his time. Although his professional career was cut short, succumbing to the racism of the early 20th century, Matthews was able to accomplish major feats for Harvard’s baseball team from 1902 to 1905. While his time at Harvard and after as a baseball standout contains impressive achievements, a more important story regarding race, society, and baseball is tucked within his years as a varsity hero.

Leading up to 1905, Harvard baseball consistently honored the annual tradition of its southern road trip. The Crimson would travel into Dixie to take on teams such as Navy, Virginia, Georgetown, and Trinity (now Duke). These early-season trips allowed Harvard to escape the waning Cambridge winters of early April and play in a more suitable climate. When Matthews joined the Harvard nine, however, the southern trip fell into peril. With a black player on the team, the beginning of the season was now much more complicated than in previous years. From 1902 to 1904, however, Harvard started its season as usual, venturing into territory that was not a part of the Union just 40 years prior. Matthews was left behind, forced to remain in Cambridge so that Harvard’s hosts would not forfeit. Understanding that southern hospitality had its racial limits in early 20th century Virginia, Matthews stayed in Yankee territory without much incident for his first three seasons.

In Matthews’ senior year, however, Harvard elected to start its season in the north, playing Vermont at home in its first game. Harvard’s cancelled trip went without much incident, as the team’s files said nothing of the change, simply recording the new schedule. Harvard’s refusal to make a public spectacle of the previous trips of 1902 through 1904 and cancelled trip of 1905 possibly serve as a testament to its positive reputation with race. Matthews chose Harvard in the first place due to its more progressive record, telling the New York Tribune that he preferred Harvard’s racial climate to Yale’s, a school with “more Southern students.” However, Harvard’s relatively “cleaner” record on race for the time does not tell the entire story of Matthews and the annual southern trip. Harvard still had strong racial divides prevalent in higher education, and a truly progressive team would not have left behind a member of its team due to racist hostility, certainly not after he was an established star. What, then, explains Harvard’s trips without Matthews of 1902 through 1904 and its subsequent cancellation of the southern tour in 1905? While Harvard kept—and possibly recorded at the time—very little within its files regarding Matthews and the southern campaigns, archival materials, media reports, and historiography suggest possible reasons for Harvard baseball’s decision-making during Matthews’ tenure. Due to the rapid growth of Matthews’ notoriety popularized by the media and his impressive athletic performance, Harvard decided against excluding him from the southern visit and thus reconsidered the trip altogether. However, contrary evidence explains why Harvard was delayed in making a statement on the racist south until 1905. Harvard’s role as a fair and just savior, when paired with its ability and tendency to make racist decisions in line with societal norms, could not be completely overcome by these positive factors, allowing Harvard to leave him behind from 1902 to 1904. Matthews did not completely fix Harvard’s role in a sport with a troubled racial past.

The historiography concerning race and baseball from this time period is almost nonexistent. Matthews’ historiography is understandably slim; while important in his time, Matthews does not demand the scholarship of famous black pioneers in the game such as Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, as he never broke the professional color barrier. Overall, race and baseball in the early 20th century has also gone largely uncovered. Due to the exclusion of blacks from baseball narratives following Major League Baseball’s instituted color barrier in 1887, the American League and National League merger and its inaugural World Series in 1903, and the formation and popularity of the Negro Leagues in the 1920s commanding academic scholarship, race within baseball has been largely ignored from 1887 to 1920. Matthews thus suffers from this lack in coverage. For these reasons, an investigation into Matthews—specifically the racially-charged Harvard baseball team’s southern trips from 1902 to 1905—relies mostly on the available primary sources of archival materials and newspaper articles. By looking at Matthews’ college career, we can examine the early troubles facing black ballplayers in a time devoid of open leagues and full of open racism, where talented black players of all skill levels were left nowhere to turn.

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A MEDIA PHENOMENON

Matthews played during an era of waning amateurism and rising professionalism. Independent summer leagues grew as baseball gained popularity, entering its fourth decade in America. College players could join these professional leagues when not in school and play for pay. These professional leagues, chock full of talent, attracted thousands of spectators every summer to see the best young players around. Leagues would even pay, in addition to weekly salaries, to house and feed the players for the summer. These opportunities were available even to black players. While historian Karl Lindholm notes that “as a black man, Matthews would have had a harder time than others” in breaking the rules for these lucrative summer leagues, the actual policing of athletes was subpar, a process described by Lindholm as a “skimpy enforcement of amateur rules.” As commercialism and professionalism of sports grew, scrutiny of the erosion of amateurism began. In the June and July 1905 issues of McClure’s Magazine, journalist Henry Beech Needham examined failing amateur athletics in a lengthy two-part exposé. Needham attacked what he called “evils which destroy sport for sport’s sake.” Not all athletes were guilty, however. Needham gave high praise to “a little colored chap at Harvard” who exemplified the ideal athlete: William Clarence Matthews.

Needham lauded Matthews’ character, a poor man who only received “a Price Greenleaf Aid” grant of $200 freshman year, but since had paid his way through Harvard without the help of baseball paychecks. Matthews worked as a “screen boy” in Memorial Hall, in local hotels, on pulling cars, and as a teacher, rejecting offers of “40 dollars per week and board” in the professional leagues. Needham ends his glowing account with a quote from Matthews: “Mr. [Booker T.] Washington taught us at Tuskegee… that the best help a man can get is an opportunity to help himself.” Needham clearly played on Matthews’ race, referring to the “little colored chap” as a product of hard work and grit, determined to personally succeed in a way that other black athletes or students at the time could not. Needham’s gushing played a large role in Matthews’ career in the early 20th century with the McClure’s piece further elevating his growing image. As the media took ahold and ran with Matthews, his popularity would make it impossible to ignore the racial issues that manifested due to his position on Harvard’s team.

Matthews quickly attracted even more media attention. The standout player was already a regular starter by the end of his freshman season, playing multiple positions in order for the team to fit him into the lineup. Harvard’s new star showed his leadership early on, and his exceptional play baited press coverage. Not only was he dominating competition, but the novelty of a black player on Harvard’s squad also added to his potential for attention. Needham seized on the “little colored chap at Harvard” as a source of inspiration, stirring his character, race, and playing ability into a perfect journalistic stew. Writers licked their chops at opportunities to capitalize on a new phenomenon: a black baseball player at the prestigious Harvard. This offered the opportunity for journalists to create novelistic situations of grit, racial equality, and talent. The formula of presenting a hard-working black player that excelled through determination never seemed to tire. The Boston Globe, upon Matthews’ historic placement on one of the honorary class committees in his senior year, made sweeping claims of his position as a black man on the Harvard baseball team. The article snatches at the opportunity for a popular narrative, stating, “By being placed on the committee he has been made to feel that Harvard has treated him as a man, not as a white man, not as a black man, but as a man, no more, no less, and given him what he earned.” Capitalizing on his rare position as black man at Harvard excelling in a sport dominated by white players, the media consistently found a story in Matthews.

If Matthews served as the machine the media cranked to create its stories, his race was the fuel. As exemplified by McClure’s and the Boston Globe, Matthews’ laudable character and gifted ability, when combined with his position as a black player at Harvard, allowed for a story that kept readers returning even outside of the local area. In the summer following Matthews’ sophomore year, the New York Tribune highlighted the achievements of Matthews and three other black students at Harvard. The Tribune obviously engages in pinpointed journalism to use Matthews as a source of inspiration, starting its story, “The fact that a negro can succeed as an athlete and a student, although he attends one of the richest universities in the world, has been demonstrated at Harvard the last few years.” The Tribune accompanied this praise with a dash of adversity to set up its message, continuing, “When Matthews came to Harvard, there was considerable speculation as to just what his reception would be. All knew of his ability, but some wondered whether or not his color would prevent him from achieving any great success.” Following the reliable recipe, the Tribune continued its admiration of Matthews with a matched admiration for Harvard’s role as a savoir, stating immediately after, “That which followed, however, soon showed that Harvard is decidedly democratic, impartial, and fair.”

This reliable strategy was repeated countless times by many publications, utilizing Matthews as the dependable subject of these narratives. Displaying a hard-working, bright, and talented black student from Harvard as a source of inspiration captivated readers, never seeming to grow old during Matthews’ tenure. Upon the press’s discovery of Matthews’ untapped potential as a source for inspirational stories, his popularity in the newspapers soared. This popularity grew beyond just the local papers, such as the Boston Globe, and expanded across the region, with stories in the New York Tribune and local papers of New Haven, Princeton, and other collegiate cities. As his career continued, the ever-present media made it difficult to sweep issues under the rug, likely contributing to Harvard’s later decisions regarding Matthews and the southern baseball tour.

A GENERATIONAL TALENT

While the excitement around a black baseball player at the country’s oldest university was enough novelty to create a news frenzy, the media fervor was not the only source of his fame. As made evident by the later controversy on his entrance into professional leagues, Matthews was obviously a talented baseball player. With his superior play and command of media attention, Matthews was difficult to ignore, especially when caught in controversy. The young star shined from the beginning, recording two hits, two runs, and a stolen base playing shortstop against the University of Maine in his debut. Matthews excelled his freshman year, scoring the winning run against rival Yale University and earning praise—a rare praise devoid of racial language—from the New York Times for his performance. Matthews continued to dominate throughout his career, leading his team in multiple statistical categories. In his senior season, Matthews recorded a .400 batting average, a feat accomplished at Harvard only seven times in the last 114 years, and stole 22 bases in only 25 games, good enough for fifth-best in Harvard’s record books. The standout left his mark for posterity, not to mention the vast popularity that he gained in his own time.

Matthews’ impressive ability is proved by more than his statistical record. Even with the 1887 ban on black players joining Major League Baseball, many saw Matthews as the player with the best chance to break the color barrier. In his impressive History of Colored Baseball—possibly the most comprehensive account of black players in baseball from 1887 to 1920—Sol White praised Matthews as one of the best black players to ever play. White wrote of Matthews before his attempt to enter professional baseball, “It is said on good authority that one of the leading players and managers of the National League is advocating the entrance of colored players in the National League with a view of signing Matthew [sic], the colored man, late of Harvard.” White was not alone in his praise: Ocania Chalk claims in Black College Sport that “had he [Matthews] been white, the majors would have been fighting to sign up this awesome talent.” Any black player who was pegged as a candidate to break a largely unchallenged color line of 18 years clearly commanded a gift for baseball that could not be ignored. When shunned by the National League, Matthews turned to the Northern League in Vermont, where he further proved his abilities. In the season’s first half, Matthews hit for an average of .314. Upon leaving the Vermont league amid rampant racism, Matthews nearly proved that he truly was the “Jackie Robinson of his age,” as sportswriter Harold Kaese claimed sixty years later. Fred Tenney, the manager of the lowly Boston Beaneaters—later the Boston and then Atlanta Braves—saw Matthews’ talent and attempted to violate the National League’s color barrier by signing Matthews. Tenney saw Matthews’ talent matched with his exemplary character and considered it great enough to overcome baseball’s color line. Alas, Matthews’ potential signing was rebuffed by the rest of the National League, forcing Tenney to back down. While Matthews did not beat Jackie Robinson to integrating baseball, he showcased the talent needed to do so, further proving his achievements as a player.

A “Jackie Robinson of his age” hardly earns this distinction without impressive abilities. Matthews, through his tenure at Harvard, entrance into the Northern League in Vermont, and near break of the National League’s color barrier, proved that he commanded a remarkable set of skills throughout his entire career. Such an extraordinary talent, likened with once-in-a-generation players, could hardly be overlooked for any reason. As fans scoured the box scores for his name, his absence from Harvard’s southern visit would surely be noticed. As he proved his progressively rising athletic ability, it became harder for Harvard to simply hold out a player without comment explaining its capitulation to southern racism. Due to his remarkable playing ability, Harvard came to an unavoidable crossroads in 1905 that it had not seen from 1902 to 1904. The team, in respect of its beloved best player, chose to cancel the southern trip.

A COMPLEX RACIAL PAST

While it is important to note why Harvard chose to cancel its trip in 1905, it is also essential to understand why the team stayed north of Dixie only in Matthews’ final season. Despite the commitment to equality that Matthews saw in Harvard when choosing to attend the institution, Cambridge was not a utopia where Matthews could escape all troubles. Even as one of Harvard’s best players to ever take its field, Matthews never commanded the position of captain. According to the team’s archival material, there is no indication that Matthews was even considered for the job. While the captainship is not a position based solely on playing ability, Matthews had clearly proven his leadership and character throughout his Harvard years. The player touted as “An Example and A Moral” was constantly commended for his superior character on the diamond, in the classroom, and everywhere in between. A man who was praised for “the sedulous manner in which he kept his record clean” surely exemplified the abilities of a captain. While at Andover, Matthews’ race did not stop him from quickly proving his athletic and leadership ability to become the captain of the baseball team, chosen over his white teammates. Even in his second sport, football, in which Matthews could hardly be regarded as the best on the field as he was on the baseball diamond, he was named the first black captain of that Andover team as well. Despite his seemingly perfect mix of athletic and leadership ability, Matthews was not named captain of the Harvard team that he led, most likely due to his race. While it was never clearly indicated by Harvard, the only visible evidence for snubbing Matthews for the leadership position only fit for a white man was the color of skin. Harvard loved to promote its support of Matthews pulling up his own bootstraps, yet would not allow a black man to lead a team of white players. Harvard was only so committed to equality for its players, whether it be in regard to team bureaucracy or a southern trip.

Even the relatively tolerant Ivy League showed racist tendencies, allowing Harvard to keep Matthews at home without protest from 1902 to 1904. Confirming Matthews’ previous suspicions, Yale did not serve as a welcoming environment for Matthews during his tenure with the rival Crimson. Archival clippings from an unmarked newspaper—possibly the Yale Daily News or New Haven Register—rarely complimented Matthews. Even his local papers, the very publications that granted Matthews his fame, were not innocent of occasional racial prejudice, as made apparent by the Boston Herald’s recap of Harvard’s 1905 season finale against Yale. Harvard suffered a resounding 7-2 defeat at the hands of Yale, a game that was essentially finished by the sixth inning. Instead of crediting Yale with an impressive win or pegging Harvard with a team loss, the Herald peculiarly placed blame onto Matthews. In multiple paragraphs throughout the story, the Herald picks on two simple mistakes from Matthews in a game rife with Harvard blunders. The original scorecard from the game faults the Crimson with six errors, only one of which was made by Matthews. Furthermore, the newspaper published a political cartoon faulting Matthews with the loss. The shortstop is seen collapsed on the field, exasperated at having fallen “asleep at the switch.” Even in his final year, Matthews was not regarded on equal footing with his fellow ballplayers, making it easier for Harvard to delay making a decision on the southern trip. As the team likely predicted, the media did not comment on the southern trip’s cancellation. While Matthews served as a helpful source for determination in many feel-good stories, newspapers still seized the opportunity to shift blame to the lone black Harvard player.

Harvard, despite its progressive leanings, did not allow Matthews to change the future of the baseball team. Sadly, his presence on the Harvard nine was only missed from a competitve standpoint; the societal impacts were quickly forgotten. In 1906, with Matthews now in law school across the Charles River at Boston University and no longer on the baseball team, an all-white Harvard team resumed its southern road trip without a hint of controversy.

While Matthews undoubtedly changed baseball in his time, it would take years for even the most progressive members of the game to substantially even the playing field for all players. It would be over 40 years before a black player donned a major league uniform, and those many decades hardly softened the racism of the game. A man the Boston Post dubbed, “the best infielder Harvard ever had” and “no doubt the greatest colored athlete of all time” never made it to the professional level, and his effects on baseball were limited by the racism of his time. Even so, by breaking the color barrier at the country’s oldest university, Matthews shoved forward a slugging push for equality. Upon launching his career in the Vermont leagues, Matthews said of professional baseball, “A negro is just as good as a white man and has just as much right to play ball… this negro question on the diamond might as well be settled now as any time. If Burlington sticks to her guns as Harvard did, men of my race will soon be playing in the big leagues.” As baseball continues to struggle with diversity at its amateur levels, Matthews’ story is one deserving of modern attention.

—Staff writer Joseph W. Minatel can be reached at joseph.minatel@thecrimson.com.

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