The First Negro in 20th Century Organized Baseball

This article was written by William J. Weiss

This article was published in the 1979 Baseball Research Journal


In the last two decades of the 19th century, some 30 Negro players saw service in leagues in Organized Baseball. After 1898, however, the doors of the majors and the members of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues were closed to Negroes, although there were no rules anywhere prohibiting them from playing. It is, of course, possible that a light-skinned Negro of mixed racial background may have “passed,” to use the expression of the time.

Thus, the first documented instance of a Negro playing in Organized Baseball in the 20th century was Jackie Robinson, signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, who made his debut with Montreal of the International League in 1946, right? WRONG!!

Exactly 30 years earlier, in 1916, a Negro named Jimmy Claxton pitched for the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League, briefly, to be sure, but he was there. Jimmy was a well-known baseball figure in the Pacific Northwest and, in 1969, was elected to the Tacoma-Pierce County Hall of Fame. Claxton was a baseball player for more than 40 years.

James E. Claxton was born in 1892 at Wellington, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada. His family moved to Tacoma, Wash., when he was three months old and he always considered that city to be his hometown. His mother was Irish and English, his father was Negro, French and Indian.

As chronicled by Tacoma News-Tribune sports editor Dan Walton in a 1964 column, “Jimmy began playing baseball as a left-handed catcher with the Roslyn town team as a 13-year old. He held the job for five years. He started pitching in 1912 with the Chester team, near Spokane, and fanned 18 in his first game.” Walton went on to say:

His travels took him to such teams as the Tacoma Giants; Sellwood of the Portland City League; Good Thunder, Minn.; Homestead in the Stevens County League; Shasta (Calif.) Limiteds; the Lincoln Giants of the Los Angeles Winter League; the Seattle Queen City Stars; Mukilteo of the Snohomish County League; the Chicago Union Giants; the Tacoma Longshoremen; Eureka, S.D.; the Cuban Stars of the Negro American League; the Nebraska Indians and many way points.

He had a 20-1 record with the Chicago Giants the season they played 43 barnstorming games against the House of David, he won 20 games in 20 starts at Edmonds, managed and pitched Roslyn to three titles in four years in the Central Washington League, and had Luis Tiant, Sr., as a fellow left-hander with the Cuban Stars in 1932.

How did he get to the Pacific Coast League in 1916?

“I got off to a real good start as a southpaw pitcher with the Oakland Giants in a Colored League in the spring of 1916,” Jimmy told Walton.

A fellow named Hastings, a part-Indian from Oklahoma, I believe, followed every game we played. He introduced me to Herb McFarlin, secretary of the Oakland Coast League club, and told him I was a fellow tribesman. I was signed to an Organized Baseball contract, but the manager was against me and did everything to keep from giving me a fair chance.

I had been with Oakland about a month when I got a notice that I was released. No reason was given, but I knew. They tried to get out of paying me, but I had my contract and the notice of release. They had to come through with the money.

After 48 years, Claxton’s memory was a little off as to the time he spent with the PCL club, but otherwise research indicates he was correct.

The San Francisco Chronicle for Sunday, May 28, 1916, reported, “Claxton, the Indian pitcher who works from the port side and hails from an Indian reservation in Minnesota, will make his PCL debut (today).” Being a Sunday, the Oaks were playing a morning-afternoon doubleheader with visiting Los Angeles, then managed by Frank Chance and fielding such players as Harl Maggert, Johnny Bassler, and Harry Wolter.

Claxton started the first game, pitched two-plus innings, allowed four hits and three runs, two of them earned. He walked three, struck out none. Jimmy left the game with the Oaks trailing, 3-0, but got off the hook when his teammates tied the score in the fourth. The Angels won the game, 5-4.

Claxton finished the second game that afternoon, pitching one-third of an inning, giving up no runs or hits and walking one batter. Los Angeles won that contest handily, 10-5.

The press was reasonably kind in the next day’s editions. The Chronicle stated, “Klaxton (some incorrectly spelled his name with a K), the Indian youngster who made his PCL debut, was obviously nervous and cannot be fairly judged by his showing.”

The San Francisco Call reported, “Klaxton, the Indian southpaw recently nailed by the Oaks from an Eastern reservation, stepped into the box for the first time yesterday morning. The Redskin had a nice windup and a frightened look on his face, but not quite enough stuff to bother L.A. He lasted two innings. However, he may do better in the future.”

Unfortunately, for Claxton there was to be no Pacific Coast League future. His name next appeared in the press on June 3, when his outright release was announced.

The Call reported it rather matter-of-fact. “Elliott (Oaks’ manager Harold “Rowdy” Elliott) has given the gate to George Klaxton, the Indian southpaw recently secured from an Eastern reservation. Klaxton appears to have a lot of stuff, but he’s not quite ripe for this company. He’s a free agent and will probably make a stab to secure a job in the Western League.”

The Chronicle, however, had a little different twist to the story. In his 1964 interview with Walton, Claxton indicated he always suspected that a “supposed friend” had tipped off Oakland officials that he was part Negro.

The Chronicle’s story, signed by sports editor Harry B. Smith, said, “George Claxton, the Indian pitcher who was signed by Elliott, has been handed his release. According to Rowdy, the heaver had nothing on the ball and he couldn’t afford to bother with him. Claxton pitched last year, according to reports, with the Oakland Giants, but Manager Rowdy declared that he appeared at the Oakland headquarters with an affadavit signed before a notary showing him to be from one of the reservations in North Dakota.”

The commentary was somewhat different after it became known Claxton was part Negro!

Despite his very brief Pacific Coast League trial, Claxton did have enough ability as a pitcher to say that, had he been born 30-40 years later, he might well have made the majors. For example, in 1919, in what the Oakland Tribune called “the greatest semi-pro game ever put on here”, Claxton pitched the Shasta Limiteds to the Northern California championship by beating Best Tractors, 2-1, on a five-hitter. His mound opponent that day was Johnny Gillespie, who, three years later, was pitching for Cincinnati. Best’s first baseman and cleanup hitter was Babe Danzig, former Red Sox and PCL performer, and their catcher, Andy Vargas, later played several years in the Coast League.

Claxton must have been a pretty fair hitter, too. The box score for that 1919 game shows him batting fourth and, while the game was still a scoreless tie, he drew an intentional walk to load the bases.

Claxton was still pitching once a week at the age of 52, in fast semipro company. According to a nephew, he pitched, and won, a two-hitter when he was 61! He died in Tacoma on March 3, 1970, at the age of 78.

Anton’s “timing!’ might not have been the best, in that he was born too soon to be a major league player, but it was uncanny in another context. Believe it or not, Jimmy Claxton is the first Negro player who ever appeared on a baseball trading card.

From 1911 to 1939 a candy company in San Francisco Issued the famous “Zeenut” cards, the longest continuous series of baseball cards printed, until they were recently surpassed by Topps. Clsxton may have been with the Oaks for just one week, but he happened to be there when the photographer was around taking the pictures for the 1916 set of Zeenut cards, and his card was issued with all the rest that year.

© SABR. All Rights Reserved