The United States of America: land of the free, and home of the brave. Or is it? It is no secret that the US has been through some dark times. The wiping out of Native Americans, slavery, segregation – all of these are blights on the country’s history, but probably no other country in the world has worked so hard to right its wrongs and change things for the better. From abolishing slavery to ending segregation to the Civil Rights Act, the US continues to try to make positive changes in its culture and the lives of its people.
One of the important cultural changes that helped to end segregation happened in the world of sports. On April 15, 1947, the now-defunct Brooklyn Dodgers hired the first African-American to ever play Major League Baseball – Jackie Robinson. For Robinson, it was a crazy roller coaster ride. There were times when people in the stands, and even in the dugout of his own team, would shout horrible, racist slurs at him. Robinson is seen as a hero of integration and tolerance.
But Jackie Robinson, great as he was, was not the first African-American to play baseball on all-white teams, in a league that, for it’s time, was the Majors. These are the stories of the fearless African-Americans who endured racial taunts, threats, and extreme bias, to do what they loved: play baseball.
William Edward White was the son of a plantation owner from Georgia, and that man’s slave. As was all too common at that time, white plantation owners would have affairs with slaves, and the children they gave birth to would be considered slaves by default. White’s father, however, decided to send him to Brown University in Rhode Island, where he played on the baseball team.
Not too much is known about White, except that on June 21, 1879, he stepped in for an injured Joe Start, first baseman for the Providence Grays, a professional baseball team in what was then Major League Baseball. It is unfortunate that there is not more known about White, because he seems like a hero of the American dream and of the love of sports: despite being a former slave, he played baseball on an all-white team, in a time when such a thing was unheard of. I bet he was a man of strong character.
Put yourself in the shoes of Moses Fleetwood Walker, an excellent catcher in 1882 who played on the University of Michigan collegiate team. At the time, he also played for the White Sewing Machine Baseball Club based in Ohio. Imagine that you are in Kentucky with your team for a game, and the entire team goes out to dinner at a hotel restaurant. But when you show up, the hotel owners shout at you, call you racist names, and refuse to allow you to eat with everyone else. Imagine how you would feel as you slinked back to the bus to scrounge around for snacks, while everyone else on the team enjoyed a hot dinner.
Then at the game itself, the opposing team refuses to even step foot on the field when you go out as catcher. You give a sigh of sadness as an inferior player takes your place and your team begins to flag. Even so, Walker went on to the Major Leagues as a catcher with the Toledo Blue Stockings. But the abuse did not end there. His team’s pitcher, although admitting that Walker was the best catcher he had ever worked with, boasted that he ignored Walker’s signals because, as he put it, “I disliked a Negro.” Because he ignored Walker’s signals, one ball ended up breaking Walter’s rib.
Then there was Frank Grant (1865-1937) who played in the Negro Leagues as an infielder. He was a phenomenal hitter, with a .344 average when he played with the Buffalo Bisons. But that was in an era when, in 1887, Major League Baseball made an official segregation rule. Not letting that stop him, Grant went on to become a superstar in the Negro Leagues, effectively giving the finger to the racists of the establishment.
It is hard to imagine that sort of open bigotry and abuse toward a fellow American today, but it was very real for these forerunners of racial integration. And while Jackie Robinson made great advances toward a game where people of all races can play together, we should never forget the mistreatment, shame, and hatred that others before him also faced.
On the other hand, we should also remember that it was baseball that was the first American sport to officially integrate players. Along with other phenomena of the time, like Rosa Parks, baseball was the forerunner of integration in America. This speaks to the power of sports: baseball probably did more for racial justice, than all of the power of politicians, and all of the efforts of individuals.