The First Black Player in the Major Leagues Lived His Life as a White Man

The stadium scene.
Feb. 4 2014 11:52 PM

Baseball’s Secret Pioneer

William Edward White, the first black player in major-league history, lived his life as a white man.

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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

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.” 

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William 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?

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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?

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.

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