Black Pitcher Threw World a Curve

By Tom Hawthorn
Updated: May 30, 2006

VICTORIA, B.C. — The mere act of throwing a baseball made Jimmy Claxton a renegade.

The skinny pitcher dominated semi-professional games in the San Francisco Bay area in the spring of 1916, including one in which he struck out 23 batters.

The left-hander was signed to a contract by the struggling Oakland Oaks, a Pacific Coast League team in dire need of pitching.

The new player, whose skin was dark enough to raise questions as to his ethnicity, was introduced to teammates and reporters as a native American.

On May 28, Mr. Claxton took to the mound in a relief appearance against Los Angeles. He closed out the first game of the doubleheader and then started the second game. The Oaks lost both games.

Days later, the pitcher would be released by the team, dismissed not for the poor qualities of his pitches but for the colour of his skin.

He would never again play anywhere other than Negro, outlaw or semi-pro leagues.

Ninety years ago, a man born in British Columbia of mixed racial heritage slipped across baseball’s colour barrier.

He did so 30 years before Jackie Robinson donned the uniform of the Montreal Royals on his way to integrating the major leagues in 1947.

Though athletes of African-American ancestry played baseball in the formative years of the game, black players were banned from organized baseball under a “gentleman’s agreement” for more than a half-century.

“Jim Crow laws took them out of the game,” said William Humber, a baseball historian from Bowmanville, Ont.

Mr. Claxton was a coal miner’s son born in a coal-mining town on Vancouver Island. He spent much of his life as a baseball vagabond, pitching into his early 50s.

He is a forgotten man of baseball history, a racial pioneer who suffered discrimination and yet continued to pursue a livelihood in the sport. It will never be known what he could have accomplished had he played in a colour-blind world.

Mr. Claxton’s single day of work for the Oaks resulted in a modest linescore: 21/3 innings pitched, four hits, three runs (two earned), four walks, and no strikeouts.

The reviews in the next day’s papers were considerate. The new pitcher “was obviously nervous and cannot be fairly judged by his showing,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

“The Redskin had a nice windup and a frightened look on his face,” the rival San Francisco Call stated. “He lasted two innings. However, he may do better in the future.”

He would never get the chance. Released by the Oaks, Mr. Claxton would later blame manager Rowdy Elliott for not giving him a chance.

He also suspected a jealous teammate had told the club about his mixed racial background.

“I had been with Oakland for about a month when I got notice that I was released,” Mr. Claxton said in a 1964 newspaper interview. “No reason was given, but I knew.”

Mr. Claxton described his racial heritage as being black, French and native on his father’s side, Irish and English on his mother’s.

James Edgar Claxton, known all his life as Jimmy, was born on Dec. 14, 1892, at Wellington, a mining town at what was then the northern terminus of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway on Vancouver Island.

In Wellington, William E. Claxton, a widower, lived in a boarding house with a dozen other coal miners. A Chinese cook prepared meals for the men.

William Claxton married Emma Richards just 24 days after she turned 18. The wedding ceremony was conducted by Rev. John Flinton of the Church of England.

In a section reserved for remarks on their marriage registration, Mr. Flinton wrote: “The bridegroom is a coloured man; the bride a white woman.”

Those words would define Jimmy Claxton’s working life, as well as limit his opportunities on the baseball diamond.

The 1891 Canadian census, in which his father was recorded living at the boarding house, did not record race. The census takers in the United States first accounted for Mr. Claxton’s father as a nine-year-old in Campbell County, Va., in 1870. Jimmy’s paternal grandfather was recorded as mulatto, while his grandmother was listed as black. Their six children were mulatto, a designation Jimmy himself would have recorded beside his name in the 1910 census, by which time he was living with his father in the coal-mining town of Ravensdale, Wash.

Ten years later, Jimmy Claxton’s race would be recorded by the census taker as black. He was working then as a stevedore in Oakland.

“When he bares back his shirt his skin is as white as that of a Nordic,” a sports reporter wrote 42 years ago. “Perhaps from his Indian blood his hair is straight and jet black — or was before grey hairs and a high forehead came with the years.”

(Mr. Claxton’s sister, who was born at Wellington in 1896 and raised by her maternal grandparents, would be recorded in the United States as white.)

The itinerant moundsman claimed to have pitched in all but two of the 48 contiguous states (missing Maine and, somehow, Texas).

In 1932, he played for the barnstorming Cuban Stars, joining a stellar pitching staff anchored by Luis (Lefty) Tiant, father of the future major-league star hurler of the same name.

The lefthander would also pitch for the Washington Pilots, the Chicago Union Giants and the Nebraska Indians, before returning to his home at Tacoma, Wash., where he was a long-time figure on industrial-league sandlots. He died in Tacoma on March 3, 1970, only months after he was inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Hall of Fame.

Mr. Claxton’s stint with the Oaks was so brief as to have seemed a dream.

The proof of his short tenure can be found on card No. 25 of the 143 produced in a 1916 series by the Collins-McCarthy Candy Co. These are better known by their brand name as Zeenuts.

One of the rare cards, rated by condition as a 3 of 10 by Global Authentication, sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $7,200 (U.S.) last summer. It turns out Mr. Claxton’s week with the Oaks coincided with a visit by the candy company’s photographer. Mr. Claxton was the first black player to be depicted on a baseball card.