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The story of the first black major leaguer. Maybe. Kinda.

Feb 5, 2014, 9:23 AM EDT

Old Baseball

Fascinating article at Slate today about William Edward White, who played a single game for the Providence Grays in 1879. The significance? White was the first black man to play a game in major league baseball.

Or was he? That’s the subject of the article (the fact of White’s lone game has been reported for over a decade). You see, White was born to a white father and a mixed-race mother who, at the time, was his father’s slave in pre-Civil War Georgia. By law and general social rules of the time, that made White black.

But White’s father and mother — who stayed together as a family and raised White — sent him north for his education in the 1870s and, as was often the case for mixed-race people of the time, White passed as white. Indeed, he did so for the rest of his life, being listed as white in his educational records, census records and death certificate. And, one presumes, the Providence Grays — who picked White up from Brown University for his single game — assumed he was white as well.

Which leads to the interesting philosophical/social/historical question of whether or not one should consider White to be the first black baseball player. On the one hand you can say it’s merely a matter of biographical/genetic information: White was partially black and, per the understanding of the times, would be considered black by all who knew his heritage, ergo he was. On the other hand, we don’t laud Jackie Robinson simply because he was able to be slotted into a demographic group when he played. He laud him for his bravery and leadership in breaking a barrier and visibly and forcefully righting a wrong. White wasn’t likely trying to do anything other than live his life and play some baseball. Which he did, based on the available evidence, while thinking of himself as a white man.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion in the linked article from historians and the like. It’s a truly fascinating conversation about identity and race and social convention. And, of course, baseball.

  1. rbj1 - Feb 5, 2014 at 9:42 AM

    True story: one colleague of mine went to Howard University in DC, a HBCU. As per one of the standards, his email consisted of his first initial and last name plus the school’s name. His name is A____ White, so the email address was awhite@howard.edu.

    He is Caucasian. We all got a big kick out of it.

    The Toledo Blue Stockings played in the old American Association and had Moses Fleetwood Walker as their catcher in 1884. It’s debatable as to whether it was a major league, but the Mud Hens contend it was and honor him.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_Fleetwood_Walker#Major_leagues

    Stupid racism

    • brettcc1 - Feb 6, 2014 at 4:45 AM

      So White was black, went to Brown, and played for the Grays?

  2. leahariel - Feb 5, 2014 at 9:43 AM

    What about Moses Fleetwood Walker?

    • chacochicken - Feb 5, 2014 at 9:51 AM

      I think Walker came a bit later in the 1880’s.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:15 AM

      He’s mentioned in the article.

  3. Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:01 AM

    Well, even by antebellum standards Edward White’s racial classification would depend on just how mixed-race his mother actually was. If she was mulatto (one white and one black parent), quadroon (two mulatto parents, usually) or even octaroon (two generations of mixed race parents and grandparents, usually), yes, technically, he was still black. The problem is that racial mixing between slaveowners or overseers and their black chattel was so endemic – the south was already rife with jokes about slave children resembling their owners well before the Civil War – that if White’s was “legally” octaroon his bloodline would have been too “diluted,” as it were, for him to be classified as black even in many southern states except for the fact that his father could have declared him a slave because daddy owned his mother.

    A peculiar institution, indeed.

    • chacochicken - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:06 AM

      Momma always said “don’t sleep with the help”.

    • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:32 AM

      Actually, racial classification was much more loose prior to the 1890’s. That’s when most Jim Crow laws were enacted in the south — although legal precedent in the US dictated that your status was drawn from your mother’s from the colonial era. It was the 1890’s and after that states made a point of legalizing the “drop of African blood” standard — largely because people were often loosey-goosey about it and passing was possible. This was especially true in the south where mixing was so common, as you suggest. Strict segregation was more the practice up north prior to the late 1880’s.

      • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:49 AM

        Yep, it was. I think Baltimore was reputedly one of the worst for it. It makes sense, though, when you realize that northern Democrats were among the most virulent opponents of abolition and that New York Democrats spearheaded congressional opposition to the 13th Amendment. But the north gets a pass in the popular imagination because that’s also where so many of the moralists came from.

        And also because they won.

        The antebellum classification system was looser in the sense of being less completely codified because slavery was entrenched and the social boundaries were understood and accepted. During and after reconstruction, legally speaking those lines were blurred and panicked southerners felt a need to clarify what was and wasn’t permissible in writing. It was pretty pisspoor eugenics but it was also the era of the rise of quack, pseudo-scientific racial theories in Europe, and American segregationists seized on those “developed” theories and converted them for their own use.

        Histy, I’m sure you know this one but for most others, one of the best, most readable historical studies of those theories is the late great paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. Gould ackcherley got his ass booted out of South Africa in the bad old days for lecturing about phony eugenics theories at some university forums down there and criticizing apartheid as a hangover from nineteenth century quackery. Good for him.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:07 AM

        I always love how people accentuate “slave” when talking about Sally Hemings (and Thomas Jefferson) instead of “dead wife’s half-sister”. he he

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:09 AM

        Oh, and Wikipedia still will not list the Wayles family as Hemings’ relatives. Sigh. At least it stopped listing her “occupation” as “servant.”

    • anxovies - Feb 5, 2014 at 3:31 PM

      Reading this discussion has reminded me of Mark Twain’s novel, Puddn’head Wilson. Fascinating little book and a great read.

      • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:42 PM

        Absolutely. Especially considering the way MLB has sold its fans down the river.

  4. psly2124 - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    I’m sick and tired of the race b.s. Enough already

    • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:59 AM

      Yep, turning your back on the issue will certainly help it go away. But if you insist on being pro-active about it, here’s an eraser. You can start with Jamestown in 1619. Good luck.

    • asimonetti88 - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:38 AM

      How is this race BS? It’s just a history lesson.

  5. johnnysoda - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    I have a hard time considering the first black ballplayer, considering:

    (a) he was only 1/4 black
    (b) he attempted to conceal his black heritage as much as possible (of course, I’m sure this was common among biracial people back then)

    • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:56 AM

      (b) It was. Another famous would-be “passer” was Ferd de Menthe, aka Jelly Roll Morton. Morton would fly into a near-psychotic rage when questioned about his ancestry. And it goes on.

      And it goes on. There’s an interesting story somewhere online by a ridiculously beautiful and smart local Macondo news anchor named Constance Jones about the pressure to try and pass for white when she was a grade school and college student and then starting out in broadcasting – and this is within the last decade or so.

      • umrguy42 - Feb 5, 2014 at 1:38 PM

        Pretty sure in the last few months I’ve seen stuff go by online about some newsanchor or reporter who (at least at first?) was told she looked “too Asian” for TV.

      • clemente2 - Feb 5, 2014 at 5:38 PM

        My wife (half Asian) was told in college by friends that because she could she should pass as Caucasian. Her Asian friends. Still going on…

    • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:14 AM

      Oh, we are totally getting ahead of ourselves here. Before we get there, we need to ask why we want to decide whether he was black or not and why/if that counts more than what he decided.

      • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:43 AM

        We want to decide he was black because it’s the better…narrative.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:46 AM

        Why I outta….

      • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:55 AM

        Now, now…

        Okay, here’s the link to that Constance Jones column. It’s not actually about Jones herself, I see now, but about a friend of hers from school. It’s very telling – again, we’re talking about within the past few years:

        http://thecraftyreporter.blogspot.com/2013/07/passing-for-white-growing-up-mixed.html

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 12:00 PM

        I have a friend who was promoted to a senior management position with her company in the last couple of years, and she suddenly started using her initials instead of her first name professionally. I thought those days were long gone.

        PS “Constance Jones” would be a dead giveaway.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 12:45 PM

        BTW, I have no idea what the hell I was spelling there…

  6. philliesblow - Feb 5, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    “….the Providence Grays — who picked White up from Brown University for his single game…”

    Very colorful post.

    • gloccamorra - Feb 5, 2014 at 7:43 PM

      If only we knew what team the Grays played in that National League game. It could have been the Cleveland Blues (defunct), the Chicago White Stockings (Cubs) or the Boston Red Stockings(Braves)!

  7. Fantasy Football Consultant - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    I’m lost. If your half black and half white, your black? Why is that? Someone please explain.

    • Old Gator - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:49 AM

      History and, above all, capitalism. If you follow some of the exchanges above, you’ll note that there were both unofficial and legal standards in America for whether you were black or not, based not merely on skin color but on parentage. This had to do, first, with issues of property ownership; keeping slaves and their miscegenated offspring “owned” depended on declaring very small components of black blood as the deciding factor. Like Eddy Murphy said, follow the rich white man. Later, as Histy explained above, with enforcing segregation laws not only in the south but in some northern states as well.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 12:10 PM

        Honey, you’re trying to reason with football. smh

      • stex52 - Feb 5, 2014 at 12:13 PM

        Now, philiac, Mr. Football asked. We need to be helpful where we can.

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 12:35 PM

        Fiiiiiiiiiiine

  8. happytwinsfan - Feb 5, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    there were probably dozens of “passers” in the “major” leagues before jackie robinson. babe ruth in his day was suspected of being a passer because of his complexion and the shape of his nose. i’d wager that at least some of the passers were privately known about inside baseball. there were probably dozens of players with an african component in their not too distant family tree who didn’t know about it. ty cobb should have been more careful, he might have been “black”.

    adapting to and living within the ideologies formed around the fictional concept “race”, must have been a routine fact of life that became second nature to those who needed to. i don’t know (or care) how mr white should classified, but it is very interesting to try and imagine how things were prior to jackie robinson.

  9. crackersnap - Feb 5, 2014 at 4:49 PM

    I don’t know why this is a question. If White was presenting himself as Caucasian, and his employers and community saw him as Caucasian, exactly what social stigmas and pressures and violence and retribution were being stood up against in defense of racial equality? What party was taking what, if any, risk in order to advance anything? This is so remarkably distant from the story of Jackie Robinson, or even all the players in the Negro Leagues, that it is a disservice to even bring it up.

    Even on a technical basis, if I am caught on a corner buying a bag of weed, I am culpable even though the product only turns out to be oregano. White was selling himself as Caucasian, his employers were buying his service as a Caucasian, and his society was treating him as a Caucasian. Ergo, in the technical terms of baseball history, White was a Caucasian baseball player.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 5, 2014 at 5:24 PM

      Even on a technical basis, if I am caught on a corner buying a bag of weed, I am culpable even though the product only turns out to be oregano. White was selling himself as Caucasian, his employers were buying his service as a Caucasian, and his society was treating him as a Caucasian. Ergo, in the technical terms of baseball history, White was a Caucasian baseball player.

      The weed analogy is so hilariously off the mark, I don’t even know what to say.

      We’re never going to know what he felt of himself, but there’s a multitude of examples and reasons why a person would try to pass himself off as white. Here’s just a small sample of things that happened AFTER he played in that game:

      Mary Turner, an African-American woman who was hanged in 1918 in Valdosta, Georgia, alongside her husband, and of Dorothy Malcolm, a seven-month-pregnant black woman murdered alongside three others by a lynch mob in Monroe, Georgia*. No one was charged in either case, since blacks had no legal recourse at the time.

      We need to hear of Dr. J.L. Cockrell, an African-American dentist in Houston who was castrated by KKK members on March 3, 1921 for rumors of associating with white women.

      We can’t afford not to hear of Ferdie Walker, who as a child in 1930s Fort Worth, Texas, was harassed by white policemen while waiting for the bus to arrive. They’d often expose themselves to her while she stood helpless.

      We need to hear of Bobby Hall, a black man who was beaten and shot twice in the head in the 1940s by the sheriff of Baker County, Georgia.(*)

      Jim Crow, the Rosewood massacre in 1923, Medger Evers, The Civil Rights Movement…

      And on and on and on. Being able to live your life without any sort of discrimination, from merely being looked at funny to murdered for no reason must have made his life just a little bit easier…

      * – from this link http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/12/the-real-em-duck-dynasty-em-scandal-phil-robertsons-comments-on-race/282538/

      • historiophiliac - Feb 5, 2014 at 11:09 PM

        I just want to go off on the “Caucasian” thing. I can’t even. Sigh.

      • crackersnap - Feb 6, 2014 at 12:29 AM

        @church) I am saying not a single thing about all the greater societal risks and injustices that drove White to pass in the first place. I am saying that once he passed, he was no longer standing out in public placing himself in harm’s way in order to pursue his passion for baseball as 42 did. By the way, since you are mining the unfortunate legacy of our national disgrace in order to prove some point, can you please find examples of lynching, castration, massacres, etc., occurring in Providence Rhode Island, which is the context of this man’s baseball pursuit?

        Further, since his baseball employer wouldn’t know that White was black, is his employer really credible as any trailblazer for social justice? If the public didn’t know White was black, was White having any impact on the public in the interest of racial justice? The answer to both these questions is no and no. The perception of White defines the standing of White.

        @historio: Go ahead and go off on me. I just couldn’t get past the distraction of working around White and black and not white but not black.

  10. gloccamorra - Feb 5, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    Well, Torii Hunter knows why descendents of African slaves brought to South America and the Caribbean to work on plantations are not “black”, so maybe somebody should ask him to clear this up.

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