Biggar: When Jimmy Claxton briefly broke baseball’s color barrier

From Hugh Biggar at VICE Sports on May 28, 2016, with mention of SABR members Tom Hawthorn, Amy Essington, and Dick Beverage:

May 28, 1916, was not just another workday for Jimmy Claxton. The ballplayer pitched two baseball games for the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks, posed for a baseball card, witnessed a riot, and in doing so quietly pushed past organized baseball’s de facto color line 30 years before Jackie Robinson.

The son of a black man and a white woman, Claxton’s integration of white baseball was brief, and the pitcher faded quickly into obscurity. Today only a few baseball historians and fans have heard of him. Search the Baseball Hall of Fame website and his name doesn’t pop up. The go-to site for all things baseball, Baseball Reference, has him listed in two separate entries, as Claxton and Klaxton.

Why Claxton has yet to receive his full due speaks to his era’s rigid race lines, erratic record keeping, and itinerant careers.

“An obsession with race common at that time—he was listed in official records as mulatto, black, Native American—came to define his life in a lot of ways,” says Tom Hawthorn, a baseball historian from Vancouver Island, which is where Claxton was born in 1892.

Baseball wasn’t immune from this, and the major leagues had an unwritten policy of excluding African-Americans dating back to the 19th century.

“Before the late 1940s, it really came down to an issue of skin color. There were a handful of Asian Americans, Hawaiians, Hispanics in the PCL, but only those with lighter skin and defined as not black,” says social historian Amy Essington, who is writing a book on the integration of the PCL. Native Americans were also able to participate in organized baseball, with some players such as pitcher Charles Albert “Chief” Bender earning stardom in the major leagues.

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Originally published: June 9, 2016. Last Updated: June 9, 2016.