Posts Tagged ‘William Edward White’

An Update to Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879

August 22, 2013

In the post of 12 August 2013 titled Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879, I commented that I was still researching the issue of whether “B. White” in the box score was William Edward White, first baseman for the Brown University baseball team. Here’s an update on what I’ve found.

There is a wonderful new book out titled Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century Edited by Bill Felber and published by SABR. In it there is an article by John R. Husman that looks at the 21 June 1879 game. The article quotes extensively from both the Providence Journal and the Providence Morning Star. Although neither newspaper addresses White’s race (if you look at my previous article you’ll find they may not have known he was of mixed race), they do give answers to two questions I couldn’t answer previously.

1. Providence first baseman Joe Start was out because of a broken finger. I was unable in the previous post to explain why Start didn’t play (and I just resisted an awful play on word by saying I didn’t know why Start didn’t start).

2. The newspapers make it clear that the sub is indeed the Brown University first baseman. “‘ White, the first baseman for the University nine”‘, appears in the Journal and the Morning Star adds that “the Varsity boys lustily cheered their favorite.”‘. This indicates that the first baseman playing for the Providence Grays (against the Cleveland Blues) was indeed William Edward White.

All this makes a compelling case for declaring that White is the only former slave to play in a Major League game (at least that we can find so far).

BTW  if you’re interested, you can pick up the book from Barnes and Noble.


Providence, Rhode Island: 21 June 1879

August 12, 2013

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 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.