From Stefan Fatsis at Slate.com on April 22, 2013, with mention of SABR member Peter Morris:
It is Jackie Robinson Day, and that means a flurry of stories about African-American baseball pioneers. The New York Times has one this morning, about Bud Fowler, who, when he suited up for the Lynn Live Oaks of the minor-league International Association in 1878, might have been the first black professional ballplayer. Fowler is the subject of an upcoming biography, a paper will be presented about him at the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual conference in Cooperstown this weekend, and he’s having a street named for him in Cooperstown because he grew up near there.
Fowler played 10 season of professional ball, all of it in the minors. Other blacks—most notably Frank Grant and Sol White—played in minor and semi-pro leagues in the 1880s before baseball imposed its gentlemen’s agreement racial barrier. The other name you might know is Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played 42 games for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884. He’s usually credited as the first African-American to play in the majors.
But every Jackie Robinson Day, I think of William Edward White, who was in all likelihood actually the first African-American major leaguer. White attended Brown University. On June 21, 1879, he filled in for the big-league Providence Grays of the National League. White got a hit, scored a run, fielded 12 plays flawlessly at first base—and never played in the majors again.
The background of William Edward White would have been lost to history were it not for researchers on SABR’s biographical committee, which is devoted to compiling biographical data for all 16,000-plus men who have played in the major leagues.
Originally published: April 22, 2013. Last Updated: April 22, 2013.