When turn-of-the-century baseball player Clarence “Waxey” Williams died in Atlantic City on Sept. 23, 1934, plans were undertaken to ship his body to his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for burial.
In fact, his New Jersey death certificate originally stated that the Pennsylvania city would be his burial location, said Harrisburg baseball historian Calobe Jackson Jr.
But, as was the case with innumerable numbers of segregation-era African-American players, Williams’ loved ones couldn’t come up with the funding to bring his remains back home, and he was ultimately buried in an unmarked grave in Atlantic City Cemetery in Pleasantville.
On his death certificate, Harrisburg was crossed out and Pleasantville scribbled in its place.
And, for the last 80-plus years, Williams — who was both one of the best African-American catchers of his time and one of the most colorful, and at times controversial, players in the land — has rested in that unmarked grave, forgotten by history, anonymous in death and stripped of dignity by the ages.
But now, a group of dedicated volunteers and grass-roots activists have raised the necessary funding to purchase and place a stone at his burial spot. The effort is part of the nationally known Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, which has provided markers for the previously anonymous graves of more than a dozen players from the Negro Leagues and other segregation-era black teams and organizations.
The local effort has been headed up by educator, Linwood resident and long-time Negro Leagues enthusiast Michael Everett.
Evertt said the NLBGMP and the Waxey Williams project specifically are of great importance to filling in the gaps in baseball history and teaching local youth and younger generations of sports fans the values embodied by African-American baseball players who played the game decades before Jackie Robinson.
“It’s important because this particular chapter of sports history speaks of the bravery of people, of overcoming adversity,” Everett said. “It’s a story of social justice that should be passed on to our youth because it involves important values.
“It’s a story of being denied something, then creating something that was as good or better than what you were were denied from,” he added.
Williams’ professional baseball career ran from the mid-1880s through the early 1910s. He was a member of the original Cuban Giants, the first fully professional African-American baseball team that for many years was based in Trenton. Williams devoted much of his life competing for segregated black teams in the Garden State, which is why he spent his later years in Atlantic City, where, in retirement, he remained involved in the local baseball community.
Harrisburg historian Jackson said Williams lived his last years in Atlantic City because he was estranged from his wife, Helen, and children, the result of a life and career lived fast and loose.
Jackson said Clarence Williams was something a free spirit, who talked trash and goaded opponents on the field and frequently lived the high life off of it.
“Waxey became the key attraction at a game,” he said. “He was also a womanizer and lived a flamboyant life. He enjoyed fast Buick autos. especially convertibles.”
Williams, who was born in Harrisburg in 1866, enjoyed a long career in the national pastime despite segregation. His career found him as both a favorite and a foil for the fans, who either loved him or hated him for his antics, depending on which team he suited up for and which squad the fans were backing.
He proved to be a lightning rod for controversy and criticism, such as this commentary from a Pennsylvania paper in 1889, when the Cuban Giants came to York, Pennsylvania, for a contest:
“Clarence Williams, the catcher of the Giants, who patronized the grand stand yesterday, was boisterous and insolent in the highest degree, and in a loud voice, he decried the York players, and said among other things that the Trenton pottery boys club could beat such a club as the York club. He yelled at the umpire, sneered at the York players and indulged in all kinds of derogatory remarks.”
But how was Williams as a player? Was he able to put up or shut up? Absolutely, Jackson said. Waxey was versatile and fully capable of coming through in the clutch, even possessing the speed and gutsiness to beat out a bunt.
“He played various positions, from catcher to third base, shortstop and outfield,” Jackson said. “So I assume he was very agile and had a good arm. His batting average was not exceptional, but he did get key hits.”
But Williams’ playing prowess, fan popularity and colorful flair still wasn’t able to prevent him from his fate — an unmarked grave in Atlantic City Cemetery. Linwood’s Everett called that a tragedy, one that he is glad to help rectify.
Everett was singled out for the effort by Jeremy Krock, the founder and director of the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project. Everett has long been involved in the John Henry “Pop” Lloyd Committee, a local group that for many years has honored and carried on the legacy of former Atlantic City Negro League great Lloyd, a Baseball Hall of Famer, who is also buried in Atlantic City Cemetery.
Many baseball historians consider Lloyd to be one of the greatest segregation-era African-American players ever.
“It just so happened that Clarence Williams’ name came up (on the NLBGMP list), and I was the closest one (to the grave),” said Everett, who admitted that he hadn’t heard of Williams before being contacted by Krock. “I like to get things done. I like to accomplish things, particularly when the cause is both noble and just a good project.
“History is very important to me,” he added. “A lot of (former Negro League) players have become like family to me, and they’ve become family to my children. That’s probably why someone said, ‘Let’s give (the Williams effort) to Michael.’”
Everett said the funds to purchase a burial stone for Williams have been raised, and Everett is now working with professionals on the design and production of the marker.
Everett said the cemetary has agreed to waive any fee for the placement of the marker, and he will meet soon with someone who is doing an artist rendering of the marker.
“We are hoping if all is approved that we can do something in October to dedicate the site,” Everett said.
Everett added that, as an educator and former high school teacher, he almost feels obliged to champion Clarence Williams’ cause.
“These are people who toiled under segregation, who persevered under adversity,” he said. “It’s an important lesson to know and to pass on.
“There was the passion of what they did for the love of the game,” he added. “It’s not only something that’s missing (in baseball today), but it’s important for youth to know that there was a time when these guys just played for the love of the game.”