On the morning of May 28, 1916, a lean, lefthanded pitcher took the mound in Oakland for the hometown Oaks. Jimmy Claxton's debut in the Pacific Coast League was with a team desperate for pitching. The Oaks had already slipped into the basement, where they would remain for the rest of the season, finishing 72-136.
The 23-year-old was a coal-miner's son born in a coalmining town. He would spend much of his life as a baseball vagabond, pitching for barnstorming and semiprofessional teams well into his 40s. His wandering ways had brought him to the Bay Area, where he hurled for a local semi-pro team before coming to the attention of the Oaks.
Claxton got through the first inning against Los Angeles without allowing a run to score, but the visiting Angels touched him for a run in the second. He was pulled in the top of the third, having surrendered four hits and three walks. He'd committed an error, and recorded two assists, one of those starting a pitcher-to-second-to-first double play. The Angels had a 3-0 lead before the Oaks pulled ahead by a run. The visitors scored another run in the eighth to tie the score. In the top of the ninth with two outs, left fielder Rube Ellis, the former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, singled, stole second, and took third on an overthrow. He scored when Harry Wolter beat out a grounder to shortstop. The umpire's verdict on the close call at first was not shared by hometown fans.
"As the Oaks were retired with no scoring," the Los Angeles Times reported the next day, "the right field bleacherites moved on the field en masse. A share of the grandstanders backed them up and before he knew what was happening, (umpire) Guthrie was the target for cushions, scantlings and anything that came handy." Angels manager Frank Chance and Oaks pitcher Dutch Klawitter, who had relieved Claxton, braved a fusillade of pop bottles to escort the beleaguered umpire off the field. Both of them carried a bat.
The umpire returned to the field for the concluding afternoon game of the Sunday doubleheader. The Angels got to Oaks starter Speed Martin early and often. Claxton came on in relief in the ninth, issuing a walk before recording the final Angels out. By then, the score was 10-0 for the visitors, and a five-run outburst in the home half of the inning only made a game that had been a laugher look respectable.
Claxton's work for the day: 2-1/3 innings pitched, four hits, three runs (two earned), four walks, and no strikeouts. The reviews the next day were considerate. Claxton "was obviously nervous and cannot be fairly judged by his showing," the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The rival Call told readers the rookie hailed from an Indian reservation back east. "The Redskin had a nice windup and a frightened look on his face, but not quite enough stuff to bother L.A.," the newspaper noted. "He lasted two innings. However, he may do better in the future."
He never got get the chance. Claxton was released by manager Rowdy Elliott on June 3 without ever again taking to the mound.
"According to Rowdy, the heaver had nothing on the ball, and he couldn't afford to bother with him," Chronicle sports editor Harry B. Smith reported. "Claxton pitched last year, according to reports, with the Oakland Giants [a black team], but Manager Rowdy declared that he had appeared at the Oakland headquarters with an affidavit signed before a notary showing him to be from one of the reservations in North Dakota."
He was indeed from the north, but not the Dakotas. James Edgar Claxton, known all his life as Jimmy, or Jimmie, was born on December 14, 1892, at Wellington, a British Columbia mining town at the northern terminus of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island. Though he was born in Canada, both his parents were American. His father, William Edgar Claxton, was a stout miner from Lynchburg, Virginia, where his father had been a farmer, and his older sisters worked as domestic servants. Jimmy Claxton's mother, Emma Richards, was born in Illinois to a farmer, and by age 13 was living on a farm in Kittitas County, Washington.
In Wellington, William E. Claxton, a widower, lived in a boarding house with a dozen other American coal miners, where a Chinese cook, Mah Ping, prepared meals for the men and the house's keeper, a 29-year-old widow and her two daughters. On January 14, 1892, Claxton and Richards, who had turned 18 just 24 days earlier, were wed by Reverend John W. Flinton, an English-born minister with the Church of England. In a section reserved for remarks on their marriage registration, the minister wrote: "The bridegroom is a coloured man; the bride a white woman." Those words would define Jimmy Claxton's working life, as well as limit his possibilities on the baseball diamond.
In a 1964 newspaper interview, the pitcher recounted his career, including how his brief tenure with the Oaks stemmed from his time pitching for the Giants. "A fellow named Hastings, a part-Indian from Oklahoma, I believe, followed every game we played. He was a baseball nut," Claxton said. "He introduced me to Herb McFarland, secretary of the Oakland Coast League club, and told him I was a fellow tribesman. I was signed to an Organized Baseball contract."
Claxton's memory was somewhat faulty in recounting events from almost 40 years earlier. He told Tacoma News Tribune sports editor Dan Walton that he had three starts and two relief appearances with the Oaks, although his name, misspelled Klaxton, only appears in boxscores for the May 28 doubleheader. He was on the roster for about a week, not the month he remembered.
In any case, Claxton felt he had been betrayed by a friend who told management about his racial heritage. "I had been with Oakland about a month when I got notice that I was released," he said. "No reason was given, but I knew." The pitcher also blamed Rowdy Elliott for doing "everything to keep from giving me a fair chance."
Claxton described his ethnic heritage as being Negro, French and Indian on his father's side, and Irish and English on his mother's. The 1891 census in Canada, in which his father was recorded living at the boarding house, did not record race. The census takers in America first accounted for Claxton's father as a nine-year-old in Campbell County, Virginia, in 1870. Jimmy's paternal grandfather John Claxton, 48, was recorded as mulatto, while wife Susan, 43, was listed as black. Their six children were mulatto, a designation Jimmy himself would have recorded beside his name in the 1910 census, by which time he was living with his father in the coal-mining town of Ravensdale, Washington. Ten years later, Jimmy Claxton's race would be recorded by the census taker as black. He was working then as a stevedore in Oakland.
"When he bares back his shirt his skin is as white as that of a Nordic," Walton wrote in 1965. "Perhaps from his Indian blood his hair is straight and jet black -- or was before grey hairs and a high forehead came with the years." His sister, Emma Elmary Josephin Claxton, was born in Wellington in 1896, and raised by her maternal grandparents in Washington state. She appears in the U.S. census as being white.
Claxton was referred to as a Native American for much was an Indian from "the wilds of Minnesein (sic)," while the Washington Post called "Big Chief Claxton" an "Osage Indian portsider."
As an itinerant moundsman, Claxton claimed to have pitched in all but two of the contiguous 48 states (missing Maine and, somehow, Texas). He began playing in Washington as a 13-year-old catcher for the town team in Roslyn, 50 miles east of Seattle, before becoming a pitcher with Chester, next door to Spokane, where he was said to have struck out 18 batters in his first start.
Claxton said he pitched for teams at Shasta, California; Good Thunder, Minnesota; Eureka, South Dakota; as well as for town and industrial teams in Los Angeles (Jim Alexander's Giants), Seattle (Queen City Stars), Portland (Sellwood), Edmonds, Washington, and Tacoma, where he would long make his home. In 1924, he and brother-in-law Ernie Tanner belonged to a longshoreman's team admitted to the city's industrial league, their presence on the roster breaking its color line. Tanner had been instrumental in fighting for blacks' inclusion in the union in the first place.
In 1932, Claxton won a spot on a stellar pitching staff anchored by Luis (Lefty) Tiant, father of the future major league star hurler. Others in the rotation included Barney Brown, a screwball throwing left-hander sometimes billed as Brownez; Cuban all-rounder Lazaro Salazar, a reliable pitcher and a solid hitter; and, seven-foot-tall submariner Cuneo Galvez. The team played as the Cuban House of David in Florida during April, before heading north as the Cuban Stars to compete in the East-West League.
Claxton's league debut came in the season's second game, as he came in to relieve a game against the Detroit Wolves and slugging Mule Suttles. Down 5-0, Claxton failed to stop the bleeding, managing to record only a single out while being charged with three runs.
Claxton got the start in the second game of a May doubleheader against the Baltimore Black Sox, striking out seven in six innings. He also gave up seven hits, two walks, and six runs in being charged with the loss in a 7-6 defeat. The Cuban Stars had seen enough, and Claxton was soon pitching for the rival Washington Pilots. He lost his first start, a scoreless first inning followed by a four-run second and a second loss. Two days later, the Pilots called on Claxton as a pinch-hitter in a game against his old team, and he came through with a single.
The East-West League would not survive the Depression, folding in midsummer 1932. Claxton's record was 1-2, his lone victory coming in relief. He had given up 25 hits and eight walks in just 21 innings pitched. He was age 39. Claxton would have other barnstorming adventures in his career with the Nebraska Indians and others, even enjoying a 20-1 record with the Chicago Union Giants in a 43-game touring series against a House of David team.
He was still playing competitive baseball at age 52 for the South Tacoma Pines of the Valley League in his hometown, calling it a career after throwing a few token innings in an old-timer's game at age 63 in 1956.
In 1969, Claxton was inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Hall of Fame. He died in Tacoma on March 3, 1970, survived by his wife, Juanita (who died in 1983), and a son who died in 1998. Ernie Tanner, who had married Claxton's sister, Emma, had been inducted as a three-sport star (baseball, football, and track) in 1964. Tanner had been a teammate on the Tacoma longshoreman's team. The Tanners had two children, one of them being Jack Edward Tanner, who sat as a judge at U.S. District Court in Tacoma until his death there at age 87 on Jan. 10, 2006.
Claxton's stint with the Oaks was so brief as to have seemed a dream, and forgivably, his memory expanded the length of his breakthrough. The proof of his short tenure on the Pacific Coast League club can be found on baseball card No. 25 of a 143-card set produced by the Collins-McCarthy Candy Company. These cards are better known by their brand name as Zee-nuts. One of the rare cards, rated by condition as a 3 out of 10, sold at auction by Sotheby's for $7,200 in June 2005.
It turns out that Claxton's week with the Oaks coincided with a visit by the candy company's photographer, making Claxton the first African-American baseball player to be depicted on an American baseball card
A version of this article originally appeared in the 2006 SABR publication Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest, Mark Armour (editor), photos from the David Eskenazi Collection.
Bailey, Arnold. "Obscure pitcher was first to break card color barrier," Providence Journal, Oct. 20, 2002
Dolgan, Bob. "Claxtonwas really first," Cleveland Plain Dealer, Sept. 15, 1997
Hawthorn, Tom. "Before Jackie there was Jimmy," (Victoria, B.C.) Times Colonist, April 20, 1997
Olbermann, Keith. "Remembering a pioneer," Sports Illustrated, June 1, 1998, p. 90
Riley, James A. The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. New York:
Carroll and Graf, 1994
Walton, Dan. "Sportslog," Tacoma News Tribune, May 17, 1964
Weiss, William J. "The First Negro in 20th Century O.B.," Baseball Research Journal, 1979
Los Angeles Times
The Sporting News
Interview with Marc Blau, Shanaman Sports Museum of Tacoma-Pierce County, Wash.