Baseball’s Secret Pioneer
William Edward White, the first black player in major-league history, lived his life as a white man.
By Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis
On June 22, 1937, Joe Louis knocked out James Braddock with a right to the jaw to become the world heavyweight champion. At a time when Major League Baseball was still a decade from integration, Louis’ victory in Chicago’s Comiskey Park was a triumph for black America, and for racial progress. “What my father did was enable white America to think of him as an American, not as a black,” Joe Louis Jr. told ESPN in 1999. “By winning, he became white America’s first black hero.”
Three months before the fight, another notable moment involving race and sports occurred in the same city: the death of a 76-year-old man named William Edward White, of blood poisoning after a slip on an icy sidewalk and a broken arm. Fifty-eight years earlier, White played a single game for the Providence Grays of baseball’s National League to become, as best as can be determined, the first African-American player in big-league history. Unlike Louis’ knockout, though, White’s death merited no coverage in the local or national press. A clue as to why can be found in cursive handwriting in box No. 4 on White’s death certificate, which is labeled COLOR OR RACE. The box reads: “White.”
William Edward White’s death certificate: Cook County Clerk
William Edward White was born in 1860 to a Georgia businessman and one of his slaves, who herself was of mixed race. That made White, legally, black and a slave. But his death certificate and other information indicate that White spent his adult life passing as a white man. Since the 1879 game was unearthed a decade ago, questions about White’s race have clouded his legacy. If he didn’t want other people to think of him as black, did he actually break the sports world’s most infamous racial barrier? Or is the reality of his racial heritage, and the difficult personal issues it no doubt forced him to confront, enough to qualify him as a pioneer? Should William Edward White be recognized during Black History Month alongside Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson and other groundbreaking African-Americans?
William Edward White on the 1879 Brown baseball team. White is in the second row, seated and wearing a hat. He’s directly above the fellow with the sideburns: Courtesy of John Thorn
These are complicated questions. Allyson Hobbs, an assistant professor of American history at Stanford, says the practice of “racial passing” in America dates at least to runaway slaves in the 1700s. Slaves, she says, often attempted to pass as white to gain their freedom but then lived out their lives as black. By the Jim Crow era, when William White came of age, the social and economic advantages of living as white—and the disadvantages of living as black—were so profound that people who could successfully pass did so and never looked back.
“People who passed did not want to leave a trace,” says Hobbs, whose book A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life will be published by Harvard University Press in the fall. “They did not want to leave records, they did not want to have anyone find them, to discover that they were passing. It’s very difficult to get a well-rounded image of these people’s lives, and that’s by their design. It’s a hidden history, and it’s one that can be very frustrating because there is often so little data available about these people.”
That’s certainly the case with William Edward White. For years, only a handful of baseball historians had even heard of him, and then only as a name on a list of 19th-century players about whom nothing was known. Then, research by Peter Morris (one of the authors of this article), Bruce Allardice, and other members of the Society for American Baseball Research—as part of an ongoing project to compile biographical information on everyone who has ever played in the majors—revealed White’s baseball and racial story. (The co-author of this article, Stefan Fatsis, reported the findings in the Wall Street Journal in January 2004.) White’s death certificate was obtained in December thanks to research by an Atlanta-area genealogist named T.J. White (no relation), who has looked into the ballplayer’s past, and Robert Sampson, an adjunct history professor at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill.
After first baseman “Old Reliable” Joe Start broke a finger, the Providence Grays, who played in the National League between 1878 and 1885, recruited White, an 18-year-old freshman at Brown University, to fill in. On June 21, 1879, White got a hit, scored a run, stole two bases, and fielded 12 chances flawlessly in a 5–3 win over the visiting Cleveland Blues. The Providence Morning Star reported that White’s collegiate teammates “howled with delight” from the stands. The Providence Journal said White “played first base in fine style” and “has been engaged to cover first” in an upcoming series versus Boston.
But White didn’t play for the Grays against Boston—outfielder and future Hall of Famer “Orator Jim” O’Rourke took over at first—or ever again, or for any other big-league team. Did the Grays decide they could make do without an extra player? Did the veterans balk at including a college student in the lineup? Or was White not invited to return because his mixed-race status became known or was suspected?
Once a document said he was white, William White could be white forever.
We don’t know. Here’s what we do know: White’s father, Andrew Jackson White, was a well-off merchant and railroad president in Milner, Ga., who at one time owned 70 slaves. One of them was named Hannah. A.J. White and Hannah White had three children, and records indicate that they lived as a family. In his will, A.J. White left the balance of his estate to the children. It wasn’t uncommon for black or mixed-race children to be sent north to be educated, and William attended a Quaker boarding school in Providence before matriculating at Brown. Records at Brown list A.J. White as William’s father. They also say that William White was white.
White played baseball at Brown in in 1879 and 1880 but, for unknown reasons, left school without graduating. He moved to Chicago, found work as a bookkeeper and later a draftsman, and married a white woman, Hattie Hill. They had three daughters. But White separated from the family sometime in the 1910s, and his whereabouts for the next few years are unknown. White reappears in a 1923 Chicago city directory, and he may have fallen on hard times: His address is McQuinn’s Peerless Hotel, a 25-cents-a-night flophouse.
White’s death certificate is signed by a son-in-law, Albert Bierma. It lists White’s wife’s name but not his birthplace or the names of his parents. That could indicate that family members didn’t know much about White’s background, or that they just didn’t disclose it.
In the decade since we reported on his 1879 game, White’s name has entered the conversation about early black baseball players. In his book Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game, Major League Baseball official historian John Thorn writes that the accepted history of the first African-American big-leaguers had to be “amended” because of White. (Prior to the discovery of White’s brief playing career, Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884, and Walker’s brother, Weldy, had been credited as the major leagues’ first African-American players.) White also gets a brief mention in a timeline in a Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit, “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience.”
Not everyone thinks that White should be considered the first black major leaguer. In a history of Brown University baseball published in 2012, Rick Harris writes that White wasn’t even “the first black man to play on a Brown University baseball team because he was biracial and chose to identify himself as white.” Similarly, baseball historian John Husman holds that White is the first black big-leaguer only by “the retroactive application of genetic rules.” In Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the 19th Century, Husman writes, “He played baseball and lived his life as a white man. If White, who was also of white blood, said he was white and he was not challenged, he was white in his time and circumstances.”
When he trotted out to first base at Messer Street Grounds in Providence, White may have been the only person who knew that a black man was playing in the big leagues.
But racial identity in late 19th- and early 20th-century America wasn’t that simple. When he took advantage of the opportunity to be seen as a white man, White didn’t cease being part black. Hobbs, the Stanford historian, notes that it’s impossible to know how White viewed his own racial makeup. He may have genuinely considered himself to be white. He may have been conflicted about passing—and worried daily that he would be discovered. Or he may have let others—the registrar at Brown, federal census takers, his future wife—make the reasonable assumption, given his economic means and his light skin color, that he was white. Once a document said he was white, William White could be white forever.
“It’s hard for us to know how someone like William White saw himself,” says Hobbs. “It’s a very personal question. And this is where the official documentation doesn’t help. The fact that he is white on a death certificate or attending Brown and playing this game in the major leagues, that doesn’t give us insight into his own ideas of his racial identity. It tells us what our society believed him to be but it doesn’t tell us what he believed himself to be.”
It’s conceivable that, when he headed north from Georgia, White was told by his father that from that moment forward he should identify himself as white. That theory is backed by T.J. White, the genealogist, who while researching White family history in 1988 interviewed a member of the Whites’ church in Georgia who remembered elderly “Aunt Hannah,” William White’s mother. According to the genealogist’s notes, the parishioner, Sally Woodall Domingos, told him the White children “were trying to pass as whites up North, where no one knew of their mulatto mother.” She also told him that William White never returned to visit.
White appears to have succeeded in passing. He is listed as white in the 1880, 1900, and 1910 federal censuses. (The 1890 records were damaged in a fire and later destroyed.) The only possible discrepancy is in the 1920 census. White at that time would have been 60 and separated from his wife and daughters. The census lists a 60-year-old William White born in Georgia and living just outside Chicago. This William White described himself as a widower, a laborer, and black—three details that don’t match the former ballplayer’s previous census entries. While it’s possible that White’s origins had been discovered and he decided to alter his racial identity, that doesn’t seem likely after 40 years of living as a white man. White couldn’t be located in the 1930 census.
Until she was contacted last month, White’s only grandchild, Lois De Angelis, said her family had been unaware of White’s role in baseball history, and of his racial background. De Angelis, who is 74 years old and lives in Grayslake, Ill., said she knew that her grandfather worked as an artist and had been published in the Saturday Evening Post or another magazine, and that he was separated from her grandmother, who worked as a secretary for Sears. Beyond that, De Angelis said she knew nothing about William Edward White.
White’s wife, Hattie, lived until 1970. De Angelis doubted that Hattie would have known White was one-quarter black, at least before they were married. “My grandmother was very prudish, very English,” she said. Neither Hattie nor De Angelis’ mother, Vera, ever mentioned why Hattie and White had separated, De Angelis said. Perhaps, she speculated, White left the household because Hattie discovered his racial history. “That’s funny when I think of my grandmother,” De Angelis said. “She would die if she knew it.”
So where does that leave William Edward White? Baseball pioneer or baseball footnote? When he trotted out to first base at Messer Street Grounds in Providence, White may have been the only person who knew that a black man was playing in the big leagues. And even that assumes White thought about the fact that he was black, or even partly black. In the racially bifurcated America of the times, “you were black or you were white,” Hobbs says. If no one else knew—if society couldn’t respond and react—it’s reasonable to question whether White should be recognized as the first African-American major-leaguer.
Or maybe that’s a distinction without a difference. American history and its precision-loving subset of baseball history are filled with the sort of ambiguity that complicates the search for convenient, ironclad “firsts.” This much is indisputable: On June 21, 1879, a man born a slave in Georgia played in a major-league baseball game. A black man named White played for the Grays. Factually and figuratively, that seems right. And it seems worth celebrating.
Was William Edward White really first?
Friday, January 30, 2004 Associated Press
NEW YORK — Baseball historians are trying to determine whether William Edward White was the first black player in the major leagues.
White played one game for the Providence Greys of the National League on June 21, 1879, and the Society for American Baseball Research is researching his history.
The Wall Street Journal reported on the White case Friday.
Until now, it was generally accepted that the first two black players were catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother, Welday, an outfielder. Both played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, then a major league, in 1884. After that, no black player appeared until Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
White attended Brown University, was born in 1860 and was the son of A.J. White of Milner, Ga., according school’s records.
Peter Morris, a SABR researcher, got in contact with Civil War historian Bruce Allardice, according the Journal, and Allardice found the only A.J. White in Milner in 1880 was Andrew J. White and that the 1880 census said his household included a 35-year-old mulatto woman, Hannah White.
Mark Arslan, a geneologist of the White family, told Allardice that the 1880 census reported A.J. White owned 70 slaves. Allardice and Arslan found that the 1870 census showed Hannah White was living with her mother and three children, including a 9-year-old mulatto boy, William White.
Morris found that A.J. White’s will, in a courthouse in Zebulon, stated he left the balance of his estate to “William Edward White, Anna Nora White and Sarah Adelaide White, the children of my servant Hannah.”
Jim Gates, library director of the Hall of Fame, has been aware of SABR’s research on the project.
“We don’t have a lot on William Edward White,” he said. “Several SABR people had been through and indicated this was one of the people they were searching on, so we gave them all we had. Hopefully, they will continue to find more information.”
|Moses Fleetwood Walker|
|Born: October 7, 1856
Mount Pleasant, Ohio
|Died: May 11, 1924 (aged 67)
|Batted: Right||Threw: Right|
|May 1, 1884, for the Toledo Blue Stockings|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 4, 1884, for the Toledo Blue Stockings|
Moses Fleetwood ″Fleet″ Walker(October 7, 1856 – May 11, 1924) was an American baseball player, inventor, and author. He is credited wit h being the first African American to play Major League Baseball. Walker played one season as the catcher of the Toledo Blue Stockings, a club in the American Association. He then played in the minor leagues until 1889, when professional baseball erected a color barrier that stood for nearly 60 years. After leaving baseball, Walker became a businessman and advocate of Black nationalism.
Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, the son of Dr. Moses W. Walker, the first African-American physician in Mount Pleasant, and his wife, a white woman. During his childhood, his family moved from Mount Pleasant, to Steubenville. Walker was educated in the black schools, until the schools in Steubenville were integrated. Both Moses and his brother Welday attended Steubenville High School. He enrolled in Oberlin College in 1878 and played on the college’s first varsity baseball team in the spring of 1881. Walker was a star catcher for Oberlin.
1882 University of Michigan baseball team. (Walker front row third from right)
He was recruited by the University of Michigan and played varsity baseball for Michigan in 1882. On March 4, 1882, the University of Michigan student newspaper,The Chronicle, reported: “M.F. Walker, of the class of ’83 at Oberlin, arrived in town last week, and intends to enter the University. Mr. Walker caught for the Oberlin baseball team, and last year corresponded with the manager of the Bostons with a view to traveling with the latter nine during the summer, but at length concluded not to do so. Packard and Walker will form the battery for ’83’s nine this spring.”
While attending Michigan, Walker was able to play for the White Sewing Machine Club, based in Cleveland, Ohio. It was here that the young Walker experienced his first mistreatment based on his skin color. While the players dined at the St. Cloud Hotel in Kentucky, Walker was refused service because he was black. Things would get worse when the game was played, as the opposing team refused to take the field when Walker was installed at catcher. Walker was pulled, but his replacement was a mediocre player who could not handle the pitches thrown to him. When the crowd began to chant for Walker to play, the opposing team’s owner begrudgingly allowed the Cleveland team to insert Walker.
The school had a terrible 1881 season, with catching being the sore part of the team. It was so terrible, that Michigan would recruit semi-pro players to play catcher for the bigger games. In 1882, Walker had an amazing season for Michigan. In 1882, Michigan went 10–3, with Walker batting second in the lineup. For the year, Walker is credited as batting .308 for the season.
Walker signed with the minor league team, the Toledo Blue Stockingsof the Northwestern League in 1883. At the time few catchers wore any equipment, including gloves. Walker had his first encounter with Cap Anson that year, when Toledo played an exhibition game against theChicago White Stockings on August 10. Anson refused to play with Walker on the field. However, Anson did not know that on that day Walker was slated to have a rest day. Manager Charlie Morton played Walker, and told Anson the White Stockings would forfeit the gate receipts if they refused to play. Anson then agreed to play.
In 1884 Toledo joined the American Association, which was a Major League at that time in competition with the National League. Walker made his Major League debut on May 1 against the Louisville Eclipse. In his debut, he went hitless and had four errors. In 42 games, Walker had a batting average of .263. His brother, Welday Walker, later joined him on the team, playing in six games. The Walker brothers are the first known African Americans to play baseball in the Major Leagues.
Walker struggled at first with the bat, but was well regarded for having a rocket for an arm. In 1884, he batted .264, which was well above the league average. A testament to how good Walker was, his back-up was a player named Deacon McGwire, who would go on to a 26-year career, catching 1,600 games.
Walker’s teammate and star pitcher, Tony Mullane, stated Walker “was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals.” Mullane’s view hurt the team, as there were a number of passed balls and several injuries suffered by Walker, including a broken rib. There were games where Walker was so hurt, he could only play in the outfield.
Return to minors
Walker suffered a season-ending injury in July, and Toledo folded at the end of the year. Walker returned to the minor leagues in 1885, and played in the Western League for Cleveland, which folded in June. He then played for Waterbury in the Eastern League though 1886.
In 1887 Walker moved to the International League’s Newark Little Giants. He caught for star pitcher George Stovey, forming the first known African-American battery. On July 14, the Chicago White Stockings played an exhibition game against the Little Giants. Contrary to some modern-day writers, Anson did not have a second encounter with Walker that day (Walker was apparently injured, having last played on July 11, and did not play again until July 26). But Stovey had been listed as the game’s scheduled starting pitcher, in the Newark News of July 14. Only days after the game was it reported (in theNewark Sunday Call) that, “Stovey was expected to pitch in the Chicago game. It was announced on the ground (i.e., “at the ballpark”) that he was sulking, but it has since been given out that Anson objected to a colored man playing. If this be true, and the crowd had known it, Mr. Anson would have received hisses instead of the applause that was given him when he first stepped to the bat.” On the morning of that same, International League owners had voted 6-to-4 to exclude African-American players from future contracts.
Color line drawn
In the off-season, the International League modified its ban on black players, and Walker signed with the Syracuse, New York franchise for 1888. In September 1888, Walker had his second incident with Anson. When Chicago was at Syracuse for an exhibition game, Anson refused to start the game when he saw Walker’s name on the scorecard as catcher. “Big Anson at once refused to play the game with Walker behind the bat on account of the Star catcher’s color,” the Syracuse Herald said. Syracuse relented and someone else did the catching.
Walker remained in Syracuse until the team released him in July 1889.
Shortly thereafter, the American Association and the National League both unofficially banned African-American players, making the adoption of Jim Crow in baseball complete. Baseball would remain segregated until 1946 when Jackie Robinson “broke the color barrier” in professional baseball playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league affiliate in Montreal.
Business owner and inventor
In 1891, Walker was out of professional baseball, but he was not suffering by not playing the game. Walker purchased the Union Hotel in Steubenville. Seeing that moving pictures could be very popular, Walker bought a theater in nearby Cadiz. Walker applied for patents on several inventions for moving-picture equipment and even published a weekly newspaper. Also in 1891, Walker received patents for an exploding artillery shell.
Walker was attacked by a group of white men in Syracuse, New York in April 1891. He stabbed and killed a man named Patrick Murray during the attack. The Sporting Life reported “Walker drew a knife and made a stroke at his assailant. The knife entered Murray’s groin, inflicting a fatal wound. Murray’s friends started after Walker with shouts of ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ He escaped but was captured by the police, and [was] locked up.”
Walker was charged with second-degree murder and claimed self-defense. He was acquitted of all charges on June 3, 1891. Adding to the weight of the verdict, was that Walker was acquitted by an all white jury. The Cleveland Gazette reported “When the verdict was announced the court house was thronged with spectators, who received it with a tremendous roar of cheers… Walker is the hero of the hour.”
Walker became a supporter of Black nationalism and came to believe that racial integration would fail in the United States. In 1908 he published a 47-page pamphlet titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In that pamphlet he recommended that African Americans emigrate to Africa: “the only practical and permanent solution of the present and future race troubles in the United States is entire separation by emigration of the Negro from America.” He warned “The Negro race will be a menace and the source of discontent as long as it remains in large numbers in the United States. The time is growing very near when the whites of the United States must either settle this problem by deportation, or else be willing to accept a reign of terror such as the world has never seen in a civilized country.”
He died on May 11, 1924, in Cleveland, Ohio, and is interred at Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio.
Walker has traditionally been credited as the first African-American major league player. However, research in the early 21st century by theSociety for American Baseball Research indicates William Edward White, who played one game for the Providence Grays in 1879, may have been the first.