With the passing of Muhammad Ali, I’m taking a break from many other things that are pressing and important to reflect on life and the journey all great men take to master the Art of Sportsmanship. A picture that I’ve held in my personal archives for sometime, needs to be shared with one and all.
Often times, we see what we want to see in a man, and how that man impacted the History of Sports.
I often follow the trail of boxing that might eventually lead to baseball, and this picture is worth more than a thousand words. “The Rumble In The Jungle” has been called the greatest sporting event of the 20th Century. With 20 seconds left in Round 8, Ali begins with a flurry of punches, starting with a clean left jab, and what the announcer referred to as a “sneaky” right hand. Ali fends off Foreman’s bearish advance with another quick left-jab, and delivers another jaw snapping right-cross. In less than a second, Ali hit Foreman with another short, power-shot right hand for good measure. Foreman wobbles. His legs are leaving him, and he leads with his chin from this point forward.
Ali land another hard right to Foreman’s jaw for good measure, which clearly hurts Foreman, and there is no turning back now. Ali executes a 1-2-3-4, left-right-left-right combination that floors “Big” George Foreman in the Eight Round, with eleven seconds remaining in the round.
Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman (Highlights)
The man who steps int to the frame to give Foreman the count, referee of this highly publicized prize fight is none other than Zachary “Smiley” Clayton, the former Pennsylvania State Athletic Commissioner. This particular battle between two giants was one of the many bouts that Zach Clayton refereed in his illustrious career as a professional ref. In 1949, Zachary M. Clayton was the first black man to receive a referee’s license with the state of Pennsylvania. By 1952, Zach Clayton was the first black man to referee a heavy weight title fight. That fight was between Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles.
“In a bush league ballpark, the ring built over second base, Ali waddled out to meet the fists of Berbick, an amiable Jamaican by way of Nova Scotia, whose only promise was not to kill his former idol, unless by accident.”-Bernie Lincicome Chicago Tribune
Ali’s career ended in a ballpark, and Zach Clayton was there to see the unanimous decision delivered by the officiating judges. Zach Clayton was there to witness Ali’s regain his status as Heavy Weight Champion of the World, and to witness his final fight with Trevor Berbick.
For the record, Zach “Smiley” Clayton was a man of many talents, and it all began with baseball.
Born Leroy Watkins Clayton on April 17, 1917 in Gloucester County, Virginia, Zach “Smiley” Clayton was destined to play professional sports. He began his baseball career in 1931 at the age of 14, with the 1931 Santop’s Broncos, and ended up playing with the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in 1932, at the age of 15. He again played for the Bacharach’s in 1934, when they shifted from the Independent Negro League to the Negro National League. In 1935, “Smiley” moved his skill sets to play 1st Base for the Chicago American Giants. He skipped a year of play, then by 1937, he returned to play with the Chicago American Giants, as they shifted to the Negro American League.
He disappeared from the baseball scene till 1943.
His sporting skills extended beyond baseball.
After careful research, I found out that Zach “Smiley” Clayton, also began a separate but equally astounding career as a point guard with the New York Renaissance basketball team. He played with the “Rens” from 1936 to 1943. During this same period, he also played with Harlem Globetrotters, the Washington Bears, and won two World Professional Basketball Tournament championships. Lost in the archives of history, using the formal name of “Zachariah“, he led the Rens to a 1939 World Championship of Professional Basketball title. In 1943, he led the Washington Bears to another World Championship, along with stars like that included Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, William “Pop” Gates, William “Dolly” King, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, which played a ‘perfect’ season with a record of 41-0. In 1989, Clayton was enshrined into the New York City and Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Winning the World’s title, the Washington team performed a feat that NO PREVIOUS WINNER HAS RECORDED. They finished the 1943 season with a perfect record having won every one of their 41 starts. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME SINCE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY THAT A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM HAS ENJOYED A SEASON WITHOUT A SINGLE DEFEAT.” —Leo Fischer, Sports Editor, Chicago Herald-American
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame ranked Zach Clayton sixth in the 2016 HOF Early African American Pioneer Nominations, along with Cumberland Posey, Jr.
Jumping back to 1943, Clayton re-entered the baseball scene and joined the New York Black Yankees of the Negro National League, playing for them until 1944. There was a period during the 1940’s where Clayton also played for the Budweiser Barons as a 1st Baseman and a Catcher.
Charles “Tarzan” Cooper also played with Zach on this industrial league team.
Clayton last attempt with professional baseball was in 1946, playing Catcher for the Oakland Larks, in the West Coast Baseball Association.
Clayton was paid $200.00 a month, and played the entire season with the Oakland Larks. It was his final days in baseball, and he wanted to make the most of it.
He moved back to Philadelphia after the 1946 season ended and became a fireman.
While he was employed as a full time Fireman, with the City of Philadelphia Fire Department, Zach learned the fine art of refereeing Boxing. By 1956, Clayton had earned the rank of Lt. of the Philadelphia City Fire Department.
From 1949 to 1984, Zach Clayton garnered a career totaling 219 bouts as a referee and 16 as a judge, including the Heavyweight Championship title fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott, on Sept. 23, 1952.
This is the only picture I’ve ever seen of Zach “Smiley” Clayton, out of uniform, smiling like there’s no tomorrow. Zach Clayton left us on Nov. 19 , 1997, leaving behind this lost legacy few will remember.
Greatness comes in many forms. Ali was “The Greatest” of all time, in his own right. Sometimes, greatness gets lost in the Milieu of life’s judgements and inconsistencies. How a baseball career begins or ends often leads to these judgements and inconsistencies.
Zach “Smiley” Clayton stepped beyond such things.