Captain and Fourth Batter William Clarence Matthews: A Legacy of Firsts and “Despites”

In his final game before graduating from Andover, Captain William Clarence Matthews, Class of 1901, played as a catcher and fourth batter with a “thumb… so badly torn dislocated in the game a week before” that he played all nine innings with “a leather-covered steel cap over his thumb.” In this 9-0 victory against Exeter to cap off “one of the most successful years Andover has ever had,” Matthews consolidated his legacy of “self-sacrifice in catching throughout the season” even as he endured racism as the only Black student in his class. 


In his time at Andover, Matthews did not escape the racism he experienced at his southern hometown in Selma, Alabama. Alfred E. Stearns, Andover’s ninth Head of School after whom Stearns House is named, wrote in a recommendation letter to Harvard that he found Matthews to be “unusually reliable and straightforward, something rather rare in his race.”


In spite of this, Matthews matriculated at Harvard College in 1901, where he was, again, the only Black player in the nine. In an era of lynchings, Jim Crow, and numerous other forms of racism, Matthews faced boycotts throughout his career at Harvard, including a canceled trip to his home South in his sophomore year, according to a September 1998 issue of the Harvard Magazine. Even at Harvard, a relatively more tolerant campus (which Matthews chose over Yale citing concerns about the racism he would experience there) he was not granted captaincy. Despite this, after batting .400 and stealing 22 bases in the 1905 season, Matthews came on the verge of becoming the first Black player to play in a National League team since 1884. Public disapproval ended his baseball career permanently and a Black player would not play in the League again until forty-two years later in 1947, but Matthews sent a clear message towards the “magnates” and their “prejudices” in a statement printed on “The Traveler:”


“I think it is an outrage that colored men are discriminated against in the big leagues. What a shame it is that Black men are barred forever from participating in the national game. I should think that Americans should rise up in revolt against such a condition. As a Harvard man, I shall devote my life to bettering the condition of the Black man, and especially to secure his admittance into organized baseball. If the magnates forget their prejudices and let me into the big leagues, I will show them that a colored boy can play better than lots of white men and he will be orderly on the field,” said Matthews.


Matthews’ legacy stretched beyond his tri-varsity athlete status at Andover. Just like in his baseball, football and track teams, Matthews was the only Black student on the board of editors for The Phillipian vol. XXIII. In his application for financial aid from Harvard in 1901, he wrote that he intended to do “education work in the South” after graduating from Harvard. He took courses at Harvard Law School as a senior, and he entered Boston University School of Law (BU) after graduating from Harvard. Through side jobs as a coach at Boston Latin School, Dorchester High School, and Noble & Greenough School, he managed to compensate for his “dire financial situation.” In 1908, he graduated from BU with an LLB and passed the Bar exam. He shifted his focus to African American activism, serving as legal counsel for the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) from 1920 to 1923. For his help in Calvin Coolidge’s election to the presidency in 1924, he was appointed as an Assistant US Attorney General.


His death in 1928 came without warning and put an end to a legacy of “firsts” and “despites” that started here at Andover. His legacy proved to a white supremacy-riddled America that, as Matthews said in 1905, “a Negro is just as good as a white man and has just as much right to play ball.”

Editor’s Note: Daigo Moriwake ’23 is a Sports Editor for The Phillipian.