This Place in History: William Clarence Matthews

Vermont Historical Society

BURLINGTON, Vt.

At ‘This Place in History,’ we’re in Burlington, at a site we first visited four years ago, with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

“At that point, we were talking about the old Burlington Athletic Field, right over our shoulders here. It’s now the Charlebois Trucking Center. You can see it still looks like a baseball field. We talked a lot about the field itself. But, today, I really want to talk about one of the players who played on that field and made an impact not just on Vermont, but the world of sports and later law,” began Perkins.

“William Clarence Matthews was a Black man. He was born in Selma, Alabama, and went to the famous Tuskegee Institute. He studied under Booker T. Washington. Washington said, of Matthews, this guy is super intelligent. He’s a great athlete. We need to get him into some bigger schools. Let’s send him North. So he was able to get him enrolled at Phillips Academy and then later at Harvard University. He played a full four years on the baseball team at Harvard University.”

‘That’s where the story gets us to Burlington. We need to go back in time and think about professional baseball. Professional baseball had, if you can imagine, a lot more teams than they do today. And there were lots of different leagues. Today we think of the American League and the National League. Those were the two biggest ones, but you also had leagues all over the United States. We had the Northern League. And there were a whole bunch of teams that played across northern New England. Burlington had a team, inventively named the Burlington Baseball Team, which had their home field right here.”

“Matthews was hired to play second base for the Burlington Baseball Team of the Northern League. This is 1905. This is the first time there was a Black baseball player playing professional baseball. And there wouldn’t be another one until Jackie Robinson.”

“He only played one season. He played that summer. Certainly, he saw a lot of racism. There were a number of players from the South who refused to play against him or were likely to spike him in a couple of games. His manager ended up moving him to the outfield because he was in so much danger of being injured by other players playing second base. But, he played all year. He was very effective. There were even rumors or newspaper articles that the Boston Bean Eaters, Boston’s National League team at the time, was looking to bring him in to play second base.”

“But he ended up leaving baseball after that one year. Why? Because he went to law school. He ended up becoming a federal attorney in Boston, trying a number of cases. He then worked on the Calvin Coolidge presidential campaign, became good friends with the President and his administration. He was appointed an Assistant Attorney General for the United States, mostly serving in the Upper Midwest.”

“He died tragically as a young man of a ruptured ulcer. At that time, those things happened. But, what an incredible career for him to go from Alabama to Tuskegee to Phillips to playing baseball to Harvard to law school to the Assistant Attorney General in the federal government,” concluded Perkins.

At ‘This Place in History’!

For more ‘This Place in History’, click here.

To view a map of Vermont’s roadside historic site markers, click here.

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