What if you were told the first African American player to hit a ball in the major leagues was not Jackie Robinson in 1947? And what if “the most important” Black player in MLB history was Moses Fleetwood Walker but “not the first”?
“That would be William Edward White, in his one game replacing first baseman Joe Start with the Providence Grays,” Major League Baseball historian John Thorn told Bally Sports.
Walker, who’s known to have helped the Toledo Blue Stockings win the 1883 Northwestern League championship, played a total of 42 games with Toledo in the American Association and batted .263. The first African American to play in the major leagues was White, an 18-year-old Brown University student and baseball player.
White was called to replace the Grays’ starting first baseman who was injured with a broken finger. During this time, it was not unfamiliar for college players to jump to the big leagues and back, as there was no association to make such restrictions on college athletes.
On June 21, 1879, White filled some pretty big shoes when the Grays, a National League club, defeated the Cleveland Blues 5-3. He got a hit, scored a run, stole two bases and fielded 12 plays without an error.
On the same day in 1879, White also made history that most baseball fans weren’t aware of (and still aren’t aware of) until a study by members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) revealed White’s racial story.
According to SABR, William Edward White was born in 1860 to a successful merchant and railroad president, A.J. White, who owned about 70 slaves throughout his lifetime, and a Georgia slave, Hannah. As a kid, William was sent north to attend boarding school in Providence before eventually attending Brown University.
While researchers have not located a birth date, date of death or place of death, records at Brown confirm that A.J. was William’s father and, on those documents, William’s race was identified as white. His father’s will of 1877 also confirmed he had three total children with his mulatto domestic servant, Hannah. However, their children were listed as Hannah’s children in the will and were to be the beneficiaries’ of A.J.’s estate.
“No one in Providence, prime abolitionist territory, would have questioned his mixed-race status when he played his one game in MLB,” Thorn said.
Reasons as to why William Edward White only played one game for the Grays is still unknown, but he was replaced for their next game against Boston by future Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke. Despite White’s big-league experience being short-lived, he returned to Brown’s team to win the championship in 1879 before leaving the team and school after the 1880 season.
During the rise of Jim Crow and in a league where Blacks were not widely accepted in baseball, it is realistic to think that someone as light-skinned as White may have “passed” for white. The findings of Pete Morris, SABR’s lead researcher, support this.
Morris discovered that White declared his race to be white in the 1900 and 1910 censuses. However, in the 1920 census, Morris found a discrepancy where White was listed as a 60-year-old black man who was born in Georgia — details that are different from previous entries. The 1920 census would be the last findings of any documents related to William’s life.
“At the (Negro Leagues) museum, we've always recognized Moses Fleetwood Walker, who certainly was of darker skin,” Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro League Museum, told Bally Sports. “There was no question about his ethnicity. But in terms of somebody's DNA record keeping, to that point, you cannot deny that William Edward White was indeed black.”
So why is White never recognized during Black History Month? Is it because he only played one game in the major leagues? Is it because he passed as a white man?
“When we start to look at Jackie and the modern era of Major League Baseball, this is literally a game changer,” Kendrick said. “It changed things so dramatically, both on and off the field. I think that's why Robinson rightfully gets the fanfare that he should for his pioneering role.
“The other players accomplished what they accomplished, but it didn't have nearly the impact of what Jackie was able to accomplish and the effect that he had on the games moving forward.”
Black History Month places a vital spotlight on the achievements of African Americans. It is crucial to recognize those who paved the way for the generations who’ve followed and benefited from their sacrifices.
Walker is recognized for his time playing with Toledo when opponents refused to play his team because he was Black (his brother Weldy joined him for a short stint). Robinson famously broke baseball’s modern-day color line, transforming the major leagues forever.
We also have to acknowledge that the first Black player in the major leagues was born a slave, and his name is William Edward White.