The Debunker: Who Was the First Black Major League Ballplayer?

by Ken Jennings

To true American sports fans, October means only one thing: Weeks 5-8 of the NFL season baseball’s mythic World Series! Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is from Seattle, where the baseball season never extends into October, so he has plenty of time this month to take a swing at four popular misconceptions about four of the league’s most storied ballplayers.

The Debunker: Was Jackie Robinson the First African-American in the Major Leagues?

It’s hard to overstate Jackie Robinson’s achievement—and grace under pressure—when he made his major league debut during the 1947 season. Yes, Robinson broke a well-established “color barrier” in baseball, winning Rookie of the Year honors while putting up with racial abuse from opponents and teammates alike. He was the only black player in baseball at the time the Dodgers called him up, and that was no accident: despite the talent obviously available in the Negro Leagues, the major league teams (and players, and fans) had a deeply engrained “whites only” view of the game. But often Robinson’s achievement is inadvertently embellished, to claim he was the first African American player ever to play in the majors. And that’s not true.

In fact, baseball’s color line had largely been a response to one man: Moses Fleetwood Walker (right), a catcher for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings during the 1884 season. Walker’s major league career ended prematurely due to a leg injury and the shuttering of the Toledo club, but his post-baseball story is a happy one: he became a successful businessman, inventor, and pamphleteer for black nationalism!

But new research by baseball scholars suggests that Walker wasn’t the major leagues’ first black player either! He was the second. Five years earlier, on June 21, 1879, a backup infielder named William Edward White had played first base for the National League’s Providence Grays. He went 1-4 and scored a run in the Grays’ win, and never played again. The obscure infielder, who went on to become a bookkeeper in Chicago following his retirement from baseball, was light-skinned enough to pass for white, but census records suggest that he was the son of a Georgia plantation owner born to a slave woman named Hannah. In other words, White was black! If this new research holds up, William White was not only the first African American major leaguer, but the only former slave ever to play as well.

Quick Quiz:What uniform number was retired league-wide in 1997, in honor of Jackie Robinson?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.