Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879

It’s a date and a place that is of great historical significance for baseball, maybe (or maybe not). There’s some dispute about who played first base for the Providence Grays that afternoon. Maybe it was just some guy named Bill White. But maybe it was the first black American to play in the Major Leagues. If it was, he was the only person born a slave to play in the Majors. Normally I would hold this until February when the US celebrates Black History Month and I do posts on the Negro Leagues, but I wanted to get it out so a few more people would know about it. Also I hope that by February the info will be more firm.

On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays had a home game. For reasons that aren’t exactly certain, first baseman Joe Start couldn’t start that game. He was ill, but I’ve been unable to find out what was wrong. Someone, who shows in the box score a “B. White” stepped in to play first for Start. White went one for four (a single), struck out once and scored a run. He successfully fielded 12 chances without an error. That was the total of his Major League career. Some baseball scholars and SABR researchers believe that “B. White” was William Edward White, who just happened to be of mixed race, which in 1870s America made him black.

William Edward White was born into slavery in Georgia in 1860. His father was the plantation owner and had 70 slaves, including William White’s mother (her name was Hannah). Unlike most slaveholders, White’s father acknowledged his son and provided for both the son and the mother in his will. There was enough money for White to enroll at Brown University where he began playing first base on the University baseball team. After graduation, White moved to Chicago and became a bookkeeper. He was apparently very fair-skinned and most acquaintances thought he was white. A couple of black friends of mine tell me this is called “passing” in the black community. So it’s entirely possible that Providence manager George Wright (Harry’s bother) did not know he’d chosen a mixed race man to hold down first base on 21 June 1879.

All of which brings us to a real problem. There is no actual proof that “B. White” in the box score in William Edward White. The box simply reads “B. White” and the accompanying story (which I haven’t seen, but have read articles by guys who did) does not refer to the first baseman as “that noted collegiate colored player” or words to that effect (and sorry to offend anybody, but “colored” is probably the word that would have gone in that sentence). It’s reasonable to presume that if George Wright knew he was going to have to replace Start for the game he would have used the local college first baseman on a temporary basis and didn’t know (or care) about White’s color. You have to presume that Wright had seen a couple of college games and knew what kind of first baseman the local team had available. The problem is we really can’t prove that’s what happened. It’s not like “Bill White” is that unusual as a name. I’ve known at least two that I can recall (one back in high school, the other in the Army). Between 1883 and 1888 there was a Bill White (William Dighton White) who played for four different Major League teams. He would have been the same age as William Edward White (both born in 1860). William D. White was from Ohio and first shows up in 1883 at Pottsville (he’s primarily a shortstop) and I frankly have no idea where he was in 1879. I doubt he was in Providence in June, but he’s simply a quick reminder that there are other people named “B. White” who play baseball. Having said all that Baseball Reference.com accepts that William Edward White is indeed the “B. White” indicated on 21 June 1879.

My best guess is that we are dealing here with the first black American to play in the Major Leagues. There’s just enough question to make it difficult to assert that the last sentence is true. Whatever the case, Providence ended up winning the National League pennant in 1879 (by 5 games over Boston). Just maybe an ex-slave helped them along the way.

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2 Responses to “Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879”

  1. William Miller Says:

    I hope you’re able to find more info about this so we can find out if it really is true or not. That’s a great and interesting piece of historical information.
    -Bill

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Please note an update dated 22 August 2013 for more info on this article.
    v

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