My Great-Grandfather Is the Best Baseball Player You’ve Never Heard Of

The stadium scene.
July 24 2013 12:52 PM

The Hall of Famer

Deacon White invented the wind-up, popularized the catcher's mask, and got the first hit in a professional baseball league. Now, he’s finally in Cooperstown.

Deacon White, 1888.
James "Deacon" White as a Detroit Wolverine in 1888

Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

In the first game ever played in a professional baseball league, the first player to get a base hit was James “Deacon” White. He went on to play for the next 20 years or so, well into his 40s. More than one historian has called him the greatest of the bare-handed catchers. It was not until the late 1880s, after Deacon White had caught his final major-league game, that the catcher’s mitt came into popular use.

This weekend, more than 70 years after his death at 91, he will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. White is the only man who’s being inducted as a player in this year’s class. No living players, including the supposedly drug-tainted Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, garnered enough votes. Conveniently, the long-dead White is above reproach. He retired in the 1890s. Few have ever heard of him.

I am not a baseball fan. I have little interest in sports of any kind. But I do know about James “Deacon” White. He is my great-grandfather. I am named after him by way of my Uncle Jim Watkins, Deacon’s first grandchild.

Deacon was, above all else, a fire and brimstone Christian of the first order, a Jonathan Edwards, sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God Puritan. He very much believed that the world is flat, based on the Biblical passage about how Jesus “will send the angels out to the four corners of the earth to gather God's chosen people from one end of the world to the other.” He did not drink, smoke, curse, gamble, or take performance-enhancing drugs of any kind, as far as anyone knows.

“No one ever yet heard Deacon White say dammit,” reported the Detroit Free Press in May 1886, “no one ever saw him spike or trample upon an opponent; no one ever saw him hurl his bat towards the bench when he struck out; no one ever heard him wish the umpire were where the wicked never cease from troubling and the weary never give us a rest. And think of it! Nineteen years of provocation! Will anybody deny that Deacon White is a great and good man, as well as a first-class ball player.” In 1878, the Indianapolis Journal reported that an umpire had gone so far as consulting with Deacon before decreeing that a base runner was out. When the opponent complained, the ump replied that when “White says a thing is so it is so, and that is the end of it.”

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He was not a deacon as such, but taught Sunday school in churches that belonged to a small, fundamentalist denomination, the Advent Christian Church. Charles H. Porter, the one-time president of the National Association’s Boston ball club, told the New York Sun that Deacon received his nickname in 1873, the year he “became church struck.” Porter described meeting White in Corning, N.Y., and trying to convince him to play for Boston. “I had never seen Jim, but I had not been long in the town before I met a clerical-looking man, with a tall hat. He had a pair of the hardest-looking hands I ever saw, and one finger was badly smashed. I had decided that he was the man I was after, and sure enough it was Jim.”

The ballplayer was born in Caton, N.Y., near Elmira, in 1847. The family lore, also attested to in an interview with the Sporting News, is that he learned to play baseball from local veterans of the Civil War. He would have been in his late teens at the end of the war. As a little boy, I used to imagine him peering through the trees at a lost platoon of war-scarred former soldiers playing ball in the mist, like some outtake from a 19th-century Field of Dreams. In those days, Grandpa White was gazing on the dawn of the national pastime.

The farm boy could hit the ball. And he began to play the game more in his scant spare time. Pickup games in fallow pastures were the norm. Amateur leagues formed and afternoon games were played in front of makeshift backstops. The hard-playing White began to stand out as a leader. Between games and chores he found the time, as young men will, to court a little dark-haired girl named Alice who belonged to his church.

They were deeply in love. But the girl’s parents did not share their daughter’s affection for White. Yes, he was a teetotaling, church-going, scripture-quoting follower of the Lord. But he was still a ballplayer. And ballplayers were not coveted as potential sons-in-law in 1867, certainly not by respectable people.

So Jim White moved on to Cleveland and became the starting catcher for Forest City, a semi-pro team. When Forest City joined with other Midwest and Eastern teams to form the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, James L. White led off the first game with a stand-up double. It was May 4, 1871.

James "Deacon" White in 1874.
Deacon White in 1874

Courtesy of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

The National Association lasted five years. Mismanagement killed it. Heavy drinking and gambling were rampant. Before the association died, Deacon played for the Boston team. While there, he batted .392 in 1873 and then .367 in 1875, the year he was awarded the first-ever Most Valuable Player award, not by the association but by the Boston fans. It was a silver chalice.

When the National League formed in 1876, Deacon moved to the Chicago White Stockings, the team that went on to become the Cubs. He was instrumental in that team’s winning the first National League pennant. He had his best year in 1877, playing once again for the Boston Red Stockings. In that one glorious season White was the National League leader in batting (.387), hits (103), triples (11), runs batted in (49), and slugging average (.545).

While in the National League, he also played for the Cincinnati Reds, the Buffalo Bisons, the Detroit Wolverines, and the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. When catching got to be too much for him, he switched to third base. Playing that position he helped the Detroit Wolverines win the pennant when he was nearly 40 years old. After a brief stint as a player-manager with Elmira in 1891, his career was over at age 43.

When Jim White started playing ball in Cleveland, the catcher had no mitt, no mask or helmet, no shin guards or chest pad, no cup. He did not crouch behind the plate, but stood back and caught the ball on the bounce. The only piece of equipment commonly worn by catchers in the late 1860s was a “rubber,” a primitive tooth protector.