College Star

William Clarence Matthews broke barriers as a Harvard baseball player

February 21, 2013

Throughout Black History Month in February, the Hall of Fame celebrates the lives of African Americans who made historic contributions to the National Pastime.

By Max Miller 

When one encounters mention of William Clarence Matthews, he is almost invariably referred to as "the Jackie Robinson of his day," a label applied to him by the Boston Globe in the 1960s, and one that stuck for good reason. In a time period in which African-Americans were still beleaguered by overtly segregationist policies and racist outlooks, Matthews made it his life's work to challenge these barriers. 

William Clarence Matthews was born in Selma, Ala., in 1876, and trained at the Tuskegee Institute from 1893 to 1897. As accomplished in the classroom as on the athletic field, Matthews later attended Philips Andover and then Harvard, playing between 1901 and 1905 on the Harvard baseball team, a team that had a 75-18 win/loss record during that period and is recognized by many to be the best collegiate nine in the game at the time. Matthews’ own contributions to the team were formidable: He could hit for average and power, leading the team in batting average every year. He was by all accounts a fantastic base runner and defensive player, playing mainly at shortstop during his time on the team. 

In 1905, Matthews joined the Burlington team in the “outlaw” Northern League. In July of that year, the Boston Traveler broke the story that the Boston National League team player-manager Fred Tenney had interest in signing Matthews to a deal. Of course Matthews never was signed to Boston or any other major league team. Nevertheless, by all accounts Matthews’ talents were such that it is agreed he most definitely deserved a shot at the big leagues, like so many other exceptional African-American talents that came before and after him. 

After the end of the 1905 Northern League season, Matthews did not sign with another team. Instead he headed back to Boston, where in 1908 he passed the bar, and made strides to live up to at least the first part of his declared vow to “devote my life to bettering the condition of the black man, and especially to secure his admittance into organized base ball.” 

Subsequent events found Matthews taking a post as Special Assistant to the U.S. District Attorney in Boston, acting as Marcus Garvey’s legal counsel in the United Negro Improvement Association, and getting involved in the Republican Party, which earned him a nomination to Assistant U.S. Attorney General under President Calvin Coolidge. 

He died unexpectedly in San Francisco in 1928. 

Celebrate Black History Month with the Museum’s Pastime’s Pride features. Subjects include Buck O’NeilElston HowardRachel Robinsonthe Evolution of Night BaseballWelday WalkerHerb WashingtonConnie MorganBill White, Sam LacyOctavius CattoWillie HortonBob Watson,Pumpsie Green, Charlie Grant, William Matthews, Don Newcombe, Vic Power, Emmett Ashford and Hank Thompson. 

Max Miller was the 2012 Library-Photo Archives intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development. For information on how to apply for the Class of 2014 Steele Internship Program, click here