BURLINGTON — Four decades before Jackie Robinson famously broke the “color line” in organized baseball, another Black man played the game professionally in Burlington and, according to one account, may have been close to signing with a Major League team.
William Clarence Matthews, who hailed from Selma, Alabama, was honored Thursday night by the Vermont Lake Monsters ahead of their home game at Centennial Field.
Matthews played in the 1905 season for a baseball team in Burlington, where he integrated the team’s Northern League, according to Karl Lindholm, a retired dean and American studies professor at Middlebury College who has studied Matthews' life.
Burlington’s league included teams in Montpelier-Barre, Rutland and Plattsburgh, New York. It was known as an “outlaw league,” unaffiliated with the organized minor and major leagues at the time that Lindholm said allowed only white players.
“Matthews was almost certainly the only Black man in 1905 earning a paycheck playing alongside whites in the country,” Lindholm has written in an essay about the player.
On Thursday, Lindholm stood in the stadium’s outdoor concourse under a beating sun at a table bearing newspaper clippings, photos and other memorabilia about Matthews.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Lake Monsters unveiled a banner in the concourse that describes the player’s life. Lindholm threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game started, and the team played a video about Matthews on the jumbotron for fans.
Speaking near the banner about Matthews, C.J. Knudsen, the Lake Monsters’ senior vice president, said it’s a good time to look back at local history, since the team is also marking the 100th birthday of Centennial Field’s concrete and steel grandstand this year.
“It’s a great way for us to recognize William Clarence Matthews, at a place where lots of people are coming from all across the state,” Knudsen said as the crowd was swelling in the concourse ahead of the first inning against the Worcester Bravehearts. “Now, they can learn a little bit more about a tremendous individual that played baseball here in Burlington.”
Modern Major League Baseball was not integrated until April 1947, when Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Yet Lindholm pointed to an article in a Boston newspaper from July 1905, stating that the manager of a Major League team, the Boston Nationals — later known as the Boston Braves, and today called the Atlanta Braves — was interested in signing Matthews.
Matthews had previously played baseball at Harvard, where Lindholm said he stood out as arguably the best player on what was one of the country’s finest college teams.
Back then, Lindholm said, it was common for top collegiate players to go straight from campuses to the major leagues, rather than have a stint in the minor leagues first.
“There's no question in my mind — and I think in anybody’s mind who knows about this kind of stuff — that he could have walked right on to the starting lineup of any Major League team,” Lindholm said Thursday evening at Centennial Field.
After his season in Vermont, Matthews, then 28, went on to get a law degree at Boston University and began a career in law and public service, Lindholm said. Matthews worked as an assistant U.S. attorney general in multiple states before his death in 1928.
The Ivy League baseball championship trophy was named in Matthews’ honor in 2006, and he was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Lindholm said it may be impossible to know if Matthews was ever seriously considered for a spot on the Nationals, since the newspaper report may have been only a rumor. He can understand, though, why Matthews would look to a career outside of baseball, since even playing in the major leagues at the time was hardly glamorous, he said.
Matthews also faced racism and discrimination throughout his short career, Lindholm said, which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for him to play in the major leagues. The historian noted 1905 was less than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson established the constitutionality of segregation.
Lindholm noted a white baseball player, Sam Apperious, refused to play against Matthews in college, when Apperious played for Georgetown University, and again in the Northern League, when Apperious played for the Montpelier-Barre team.
“He (Apperious) was defended in the Montpelier papers — saying that he has to go ‘back south,’ and if he went back and they found out he had played with a Black man, his name would have been marred,’” Lindholm said. “It was a terribly racist time.”
One baseball fan who spent time looking at the table with Matthews memorabilia Thursday was Ed Vizvarie, who came out to the game from Shelburne with his wife, Jane. He said he hadn’t heard of Matthews before, and while the information was interesting, it was upsetting to think about the opportunities denied to Matthews and other Black athletes at the time.
“We can't change history, but we can learn from it,” Vizvarie said. “I think players like him were trailblazers, and led the way — even though it took a lot longer after that to make things more fair.”