Jackie Robinson is often remembered by armchair historians and sports fans as the first African-American to play professional baseball, but the truth is more complex than that. It is true when Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 that he was the first African-American to play professional baseball in what is considered the modern era of baseball, but he was not the first African-American to ever play pro ball in the United States.
So who was the first?
Some questions remain about this topic.
Generally, Moses “Fleet” Walker is thought to be the first African-American to play professional baseball. History records that in 1883 Walker joined the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings, but then in 1884 the Toledo team joined the American Association, a major baseball league of the time. Walker, now considered a member of a major league team, played his first major league game on May 1, 1884, against the Louisville Eclipse.
It would seem Walker was the first African-American to play pro baseball. But the story does not end there.
Meet William Edward White.
White played a single major league baseball game. On June 21, 1879, he played as a substitute player for the Providence Grays.
The main question concerning White is this: Was he black? Was he African-American?
White was the son of a white plantation owner and a slave of mixed race. White having been born in 1860, was legally considered a slave at his birth.
Census records during White’s lifetime are also confusing. The 1870 census records White as a mulatto. The 1900 and 1910 census records record White as white. However, the 1920 census records White as black.
Then there is the fact no one knows for sure when and where White died. He was known to be living in Chicago as of 1920.
So, who was the first African-American to play professional baseball? The answer somewhat depends upon one’s own thoughts on the matter. Walker is generally accepted as the first black to play pro ball, but what about White?