Ashwill: The first professional baseball player from Africa

From SABR member Gary Ashwill at Agate Type on June 13, 2017:

Back on April 26, the utility infielder Gift Ngoepe, from South Africa, became the first African-born player in the major leagues—or so one might have thought. If you consider the Canary Islands a part of Africa, then Ngoepe missed out on being the first African big leaguer by more than a century.

Alfredo Cabrera, legendary Cuban shortstop and a native of the Canary Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Morocco belonging to Spain, appeared briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1913. Since Cabrera went 0 for 2 in his one game in the National League, Ngoepe, who singled in his first bat, does have the distinction of being the first African to get a hit in the big leagues.

As middle infielders mostly known for their defense, Ngoepe and Cabrera actually have a little in common. Cabrera was about an average hitter in the Cuban League of his time (with a 95 OPS+). Although he only had two at bats in the actual major leagues, in 47 games and 160 at bats against big league teams visiting Cuba Cabrera slashed .238/.282/.275, for an OPS+ of 80.

But Cabrera was not the first native African to play professional baseball. To find out who that was, we have to look back into the 19th century, all the way to the first “Negro league”—that is, the first professional baseball league with national ambitions set up expressly for African American ballplayers: the National Colored League of 1887. The NCL was actually a member of “organized baseball,” as it signed the National Agreement—a necessary precaution, since the Agreement protected the league’s clubs against raids by other leagues, and in the mid-1880s minor league teams were beginning to hire black players. 

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Originally published: June 15, 2017. Last Updated: June 15, 2017.