The Legend of Cannonball Jackman

cannonballjackmanNegro League’s William Jackman may be the best ballplayer you’ve never heard of
By: Mike Schell, Executive Director

William Jackman could be one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. At the very least, he could be the best pitcher whose name you have never heard.

While a lightning-quick second baseman for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs named Jackie Robinson was attracting the attention of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, Jackman, known to New England baseball fans and writers simply as “Cannonball,” achieved a level of success on par with some of the game’s immortals. Born on Oct. 7, 1897, in Carta, Texas, the charismatic Jackman — for whom making friends and charming spectators seemed as easy as blowing his fastball by hitters — arrived in Boston in 1924, after barnstorming for teams in Texas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, to pitch for the Boston Colored Giants of the Greater Boston Colored League.

According to James A. Riley’s “Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues,” Jackman earned an amazing 52 wins in one season with the Giants and even beat Satchel Paige both times the two titans squared off. In July 1927, the Boston Daily Traveler’s sportswriter, Herb Finnegan, declared that Jackman was one of the best pitchers in the country, grouping him with such widely accepted All-Stars as Walter Johnson, Flint Meadows and Grover Cleveland Alexander. In 1930, the Taunton Daily Gazette called Jackman “the world’s greatest colored pitcher,” and credited him with a 48-4 record in 1929 with two no-hitters.

By 1930, Jackman’s fan base was so far-reaching that he was paid $175 a game with an additional $10 bonus per strikeout to pitch for brief stretches for the Newark Eagles, Watertown Arsenal, East Douglas (Mass.) Broncos and the Wilmington Quaker Giants. Though Jackman’s services for teams other than the Giants could have very easily sullied his relationship with the club’s front office and his teammates — especially his long-time catcher Burlin White — Jackman remained a beloved figure in the clubhouse and in the stands.

On May 25, 1949, in the presence of some 4,200 cheering fans, Jackman surrendered only two runs on six hits over nine innings in what was his 1,200th professional pitching performance. At age 52, Jackman’s fastball no longer seemed blazing, but he was still among the most potent of pitchers for hitters young and old to face. In the crowd was the Boston Globe’s Jerry Nason, who, following the game, paid tribute to Jackman by calling him “the equal of Satchel Paige” and insisting that if he were able to perform on the Major League stage, he would “no doubt become one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball.” Despite lingering questions surrounding Jackman’s career statistics, researchers have determined that he won over 200 games— 22 coming against pitchers with Major League experience — struck out 10 batters or more in 78 games and hurled 48 shutouts.

Jackman died suddenly on Sept. 8, 1972, while visiting with friends in Marion, Mass. News of his death spread rapidly throughout the local and national baseball circles and was mentioned not only in Boston’s newspapers, but also The Sporting News and The Washington Post.

In July 2000, nearly 30 years after Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent declared a July day in 1971 “Will Jackman Day,” the Red Sox honored Jackman and his teammates with a celebration at Roxbury’s Jim Rice Field — a diamond named after the Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder — which was attended by thousands of fans. Two years later, the Red Sox again honored the stars Boston’s professional Negro Leagues by taking the field against the Toronto Blue Jays in Jackman’s former Giants colors.

According to the great Medford-born historian “Doc” Kountz, the story of African-American baseball players who competed at Medford’s Playstead Park, Roxbury’s Carter Playground, Boston’s Columbus Avenue Park, Lincoln Park, Braves Field and, on the rare occasion, Fenway Park, is not merely another sports story, but “a documentary of early times when, despite racial prejudices, there were good pioneers of inter-racial progress on both sides, proving again, there is still much we can learn and profit from the past.”