William Edward White was the first Black player in Major League Baseball history, playing for the National League’s Providence Grays. However, due to societal standards of the period, genetic ‘laws,’ and the capacity to pass as White, this title became a source of contention.
The team competed from 1878 to 1885, winning two pennants in 1879 and 1884. His career is notable for two other reasons: its duration and the fact that he passed as White. It took some time for research into him to reveal that he was the first Black player.
In 1879, he played baseball for Brown University’s baseball team after being born in October 1860. That summer, almost 138 years ago, White made his professional debut.
On June 21, 1879, William Edward White made his debut for the Providence Grays as a replacement for first baseman Joe Start. White stole two bases and scored a run in the Grays’ 5-3 victory over the Cleveland Blues in his debut. White then fades from baseball history.
He does not appear to have played for any other professional teams, either nationally or internationally, or for development league teams. His collegiate performance at Brown is also undocumented. Despite the fact that his performance in this one game demonstrated that he had the potential to be a major player if given more pro league opportunities.
White died almost 58 years later, on March 29, 1937, from blood poisoning. According to speculation, White discovered his ethnic heritage before traveling to Brown and followed his father’s suggestion to pass himself as White.
White worked as a bookkeeper in Chicago before his death. By 1910, he had married, had three children, and divorced. According to investigations, William Edward White was one of two people around the same age in the same city. However, because census records from this era were frequently vague, it’s difficult to tell which William Edward White he was during this time period.
His significance in baseball and sports history stems primarily from his status as the first African-American player in the major leagues. This was frequently given to the Walker brothers, who arrived five years later. Because he was a replacement and didn’t have a career—whether legendarily great or legendarily awful—he didn’t get much more than a footnote. That is, until the Society of American Baseball Research discovered he was Black.
This was only discovered after delving deeper into White’s ancestry, as traceable Census records show him as White. In the end, he was overshadowed as a pioneer by Black players who had a greater impact.