Bill White (whitebi01)
William Edward White
- Bats Unknown, Throws Unknown
- School Brown University
- Debut June 21, 1879
- Final Game June 21, 1879
- Born October, 1860 in Milner, GA USA
- Died March 29, 1937 in Chicago, IL USA
Bill White is currently believed to be the first African American Major League baseball player. He played varsity baseball at Brown University and played one game with the Providence Grays in 1879. SABR did some research on him in 2003, and a 2004 Wall Street Journal article recounted the efforts to track him down at the time.
He got his chance to play a single game at first base with the Providence Grays on June 21, 1879 because Joe Start had broken a finger. 18 years old at the time, he did pretty well, getting a hit and scoring a run in 4 at-bats and fielding 12 chances flawlessly. However, his services were not retained further after that game, as Jim O'Rourke took over first base while Start recovered and the team decided to play short-handed for a while. Game accounts indicate that the young fill-in was usually the first baseman for the local Brown University team, but little else was known about White, until Peter Morris made some findings which he published in 2014.
The first step, back in 2003, was to identify Bill White as the son of Andrew Jackson White, a wealthy merchant and plantation owner from Milner, GA; however, the elder White had never married, so that left questions open about who his mother may have been. Further research indicated that he had three children from one of his slaves, a mixed race woman named Hannah White, including William and two daughters. The father devoted important resources to have his children educated, which may explain how William ended up in Providence, RI, first attending a Quaker boarding school before going to college. Andrew White died in 1888, by which time his fortune had evaporated. For all this time, Bill White "passed" as a white man, although, had he stayed in the South, he would have been considered black.
Brown alumni records showed that Bill White moved to Chicago, IL in 1880, before ever graduating. He was a bookkeeper and then a draughtsman, married a white woman named Hattie Hill and had three daughters, and is listed in census records and city directories for a few years, until his track goes cold in 1917. He had separated from his family during that decade and began living in cheap flophouses, making it hard to find a trace. It took Morris another decade to make further progress on the case. Attempts to locate White in the 1920 and 1930 census records were unsuccessful, and nothing turned up in Illinois death records, which Morris searched through up to 1932; attempts to locate his two sisters were likewise fruitless. The breakthrough came when a genealogist, the unrelated T.J. White, located a 1937 death record for a William White of similar age to the ballplayer. The death certificate matched a number of elements that were known about the ballplayer, including his profession of draughtsman. It also listed the name of his wife and a son-in-law, Albert Bierma.
It is not clear what White did during the 20 years he went missing from official records, although he was likely still in Chicago. It is possible that he left Chicago for war-related employment during World War I. The death certificate said that he had lived at his current address for ten years and had slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk on February 14th, breaking his arm; blood poisoning set in and he died on March 29th. Morris also managed to locate a living granddaughter of the ballplayer, but she knew very little about her ancestor.
Here is a photo of the 1879 Brown University baseball team with Bill White seated behind the manager.
Because White lived his entire life as a white man, there is some controversy about whether he should be considered an African-American pioneer. The brothers Fleet Walker and Welday Walker, who played in the American Association a few years later, were undoubtedly African-Americans and had to pay the price of their unambiguous racial status. However, some of the gray areas in White's biography - the fact he never played again after his successful debut, his leaving Providence never to return and his separation from his wife and fall on hard times - may all have been consequences of his racial identity having become known, causing those major disruptions. At this point, however, all of this is left to speculation.
- "William White Found", in Bill Carle, ed.: Biographical Research Committee Report, SABR, January/February 2014, pp. 1-2.
- Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis: "Baseball’s Secret Pioneer: William Edward White, the first black player in major-league history, lived his life as a white man", Slate, February 4, 2014.