Williams, Joseph Peter 1889-1972
WILLIAMS, Joseph Peter 1889-1972
PERSONAL: Born December 10, 1889, in Memphis, TN; died of intestinal cancer February 14, 1972, in Pine Brook, NJ; son of Edward Metcalfe (a cotton broker) and Anne Elizabeth (Connolly) Williams; married Helen Schauman, October 17, 1914; married Emma Herbers, June 23, 1934; children: (first marriage) Charles Edward, Louise Adelaide; (second marriage) Joseph Peter, Curtis Michael. Education: Attended Christian Brothers College.
CAREER: Sportswriter. Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN, reporter, drama critic, and cartoonist, 1910-16; Cleveland News, Cleveland, OH, reporter, and movie critic, 1916-27; Scripps-Howard Newspapers, sports director, 1927-31; New York Telegram (renamed New York World Telegram and Sun), New York, NY, sports editor and columnist, 1927-64; Joe Williams (newsletter), publisher, 1964-72; Morning Telegraph, columnist, 1964-72.
AWARDS, HONORS: Knighted, first class, Order of the White Rose of Finland, for involvement in the Finland War Relief program.
Joe Williams's TV-Boxing Book, Van Nostrand (New York, NY), 1954.
The Joe Williams Baseball Reader: The GloriousGame from Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to the Amazing Mets: Fifty Years of Baseball Writing by the Celebrated Newspaper Columnist, edited by Peter Williams, Algonquin (Chapel Hill, NC), 1989.
Also author of column "Lottie Lee" for the Commercial Appeal; contributor to periodicals, including Sporting News, Sport, and Judge. Work represented in anthologies, including Sports Extra, edited by Stanley Frank, Barnes (New York, NY), 1944; Best Sports Stories 1951: A Panorama of the 1950 Sports Year, edited by Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre, Dutton (New York, NY), 1951; Best Sport Stories 1953: A Panorama of the 1952 Sports Year, edited by Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre, Dutton (New York, NY), 1953; Best Sports Stories 1957: A Panorama of the 1956 Sports Year, edited by Irving T. Marsh and Edward Ehre, Dutton (New York, NY), 1957; The Second Fireside Book of Baseball, edited by Charles Einstein, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1958; The Fireside Book of Boxing, edited by W. C. Heinz, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1961; Notre Dame Football, edited by Gene Schoor, Funk and Wagnalls (New York, NY), 1962; and The Phillies Reader, edited by Richard Orodenker, Temple University Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1996.
Some of Williams's papers are held at the Department of English, Community College of Morris, Randolph, NJ.
SIDELIGHTS: Joseph Peter "Joe" Williams wrote about sports for over half a century, first in Memphis, Tennessee, and later in New York City. He was one of the first writers to cover sports in a realistic and critical manner, and his "scoops" included Babe Ruth's "called shot" home run and other major stories. Williams was born in Memphis, where he attended local schools and Christian Brothers College. His son, Peter Williams, who edited a collection of his father's writings, said his father and uncle Bill spent their free time swimming in the Wolf River and at Red Elm Park. Williams also worked for a short time as a boxer at the Phoenix Athletic Club, but he soon chose to cover the sport rather than participate. Memphis was a thriving sports city at the time, and Williams did his first sportswriting for the local Commercial Appeal in 1910, selling individual pieces about school and amateur sports. He accepted a full-time job covering sports, but also worked as a drama reviewer, sometime cartoonist, and columnist for the question-and-answer column "Lottie Lee." In 1914 he married Helen Schauman, and the couple had two children.
Williams next took a job at the Cleveland News because of a case of mistaken identity. He approached News reporter Tom Terrell for an interview, thinking him to be Cleveland infielder Terry Turner, and Terrell went along with the interview as though he were the player. He later apologized to Williams for the joke and offered him a job in 1916. Williams got his first scoop while covering the Cleveland Indians in 1923. He was in New Orleans for an exhibition game with the St. Louis Browns and was given the hotel room that had been reserved for the team's manager Lee Fohl. When a telephone call came for Fohl, Williams took it and learned that Browns first baseman George Sisler needed eye surgery, which would end his season and perhaps his career.
The Scripps-Howard Newspaper chain tapped Williams to be their sports director in 1927, and in the same year he became the sports editor and a columnist with the New York Telegram, where he remained until 1964. Williams was able to expand his writing to features, such as his 1929 profile of baseball commissioner Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The Telegram merged twice, with the New York World in 1931 and with the New York Sun in 1950, and Williams enjoyed a national readership as he covered the sports greats of the day. Bill Knight noted in Dictionary of Literary Biography that Williams "revealed his simultaneous admiration for athletes and his reluctance to anoint them as heroes." Nevertheless, Williams was an admirer of Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown, Shoeless Joe Jackson, and Babe Ruth.
Williams was the first to report on Ruth's famous "called shot" during the World Series game against the Cubs in Chicago on October 1, 1923. He reported that Ruth, with two strikes against him, pointed a finger at the center field fence and then hit a home run over that exact spot. Other sportswriters later noted Ruth's call, but only after reading Williams's account. Ruth himself denied (but eventually accepted) the legend, and Williams later conceded that Ruth was probably holding up the finger as an indication that he had one strike left. Williams could also be very vocal when he disagreed with something, as when bottles (often thrown onto the field by angry fans) were replaced at baseball games with paper cups. He said the change was made by "pansy reformers." Williams's next big Ruth scoop came in 1935, when he reported that Ruth had given Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert the ultimatum of either replacing manager Joe McCarthy with Ruth or having Ruth leave the team for good. When Ruth died in 1948, Williams was asked to be a pallbearer at his service, but he hesitated because of the emotion surrounding the event and eventually declined.
Many of the top sportswriters of the time used "leg men," who covered events and phoned in the details, which the writers then developed into stories. Williams wrote only from his own experience, covering the people and games in person. Knight wrote that he "enjoyed beating others to stories, using his insider access, and expressing insight on behalf of fans. No matter the subject or deadline, he could write with precision and pacing." He also had no problem with disagreeing with the Wall Street Journal in 1949 when the financial newspaper claimed baseball had no potential for profit. Williams lauded the sport as a business venture, noting the clubs that were showing a profit and the multimillion-dollar sales of franchises.
In his more dramatic moments, the richness of his writing voice came though. As Knight noted, "Williams experimented with various stylistic effects, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes his effective use of quotes enlivens interviews and reads similarly to literary dialogue. At other times he intrudes into his own material, letting himself become a character in the column, or writes in the first person in such an undisciplined way that readers could be distracted from the topic by the obstacle the author becomes."
Of the six columns Williams wrote each week, his Monday pieces were a melange of unrelated musings and short items. In his autobiography Bury Me in an Old Press Box, Fred Russell wrote that Williams was "a genius at weaving the fragments together smoothly, injecting wise-cracks and barbs." Williams also wrote Heywood Broun's opinion column when Broun was unable to do so. He founded a hole-in-one golf tournament for charity in the name of the World Telegram, the yearly naming of the most valuable high school baseball player in New York, and Scripps-Howard's college football coaching award. Knight wrote that "baseball and its subjects always seemed to encourage Williams to more elaborate descriptions in his prose....Ty Cobb was 'an egoist with a brain' and John McGraw 'a black-haired, pasty-faced Irishman to whom roughhouse tactics were merely a part of the trade.' Garry Hermann of the Cincinnati Reds—bankrupted by 'conviviality'—'was a cross between Bacchus and Falstaff.'"
After baseball, Williams most enjoyed writing about boxing, and his Joe Williams's TV-Boxing Book, with a foreword by Bob Hope, was a good seller. A Sporting News reviewer called it "rich in dramatic incident, incredible scandal, historical episode, and humorous anecdotes." Williams also wrote a subscription newsletter that focused mainly on horse racing and, after being forced out by Scripps-Howard management after the death of Roy Howard in 1964, a weekly column for the Morning Telegraph. He suffered a series of strokes and succumbed to intestinal cancer in 1972.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alvarez, Mark, editor, The Perfect Game, Taylor (Dallas, TX), 1993.
Chandler, Happy, Heroes, Plain Folks, and Skunks, Bonus Books (Chicago, IL), 1989.
Considine, Bob, It's All News to Me: A Reporter'sDeposition, Meredith Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Creamer, Robert, Babe: The Legend Comes to Life, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1974.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 241: American Sportswriters and Writers on Sport, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Gelfand, Louis I., and Harry E. Heath, Modern Sportswriting, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), [n.d.].
Mead, Chris, Champion: Joe Lewis, Black Hero inWhite America, Scribners (New York, NY), 1985, pp. 132-133, 161, 205.
Murrow, Edward R., This I Believe, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1952.
Robinson, Jackie, My Own Story, Greenberg (New York, NY), 1948.
Russell, Fred, Bury Me in an Old Press Box, Barnes (New York, NY), 1957.
Memphis Press-Scimitar, August 20, 1949, John Rogers, "Joe Williams, Back Home, Tells Stories of Past, Discusses Sports of Present" (interview).
Nine, fall, 1995, Peter Williams, "When Chipmunks Become Wolves: The Scapegoating of Sportswriter Joe Williams by His Peers," pp. 51-61.
Sporting News, August 22, 1940, J. G. Taylor Spink, "Three and One" (interview); November 17, 1954, J. G. Taylor Spink, "TV-Boxing Rich in Drama, Humor."*