There’s an article in today’s WaPo about Fleetwood Walker, a black man who played in the major leagues before Jackie Robinson, albeit in the 19th century.
I’m glad to see Fleet get the recognition he deserved, but I’m not even going to link to the WaPo article because it is basically wrong about everything. (Could Trump be right about “fake news”? I hope WaPo’s contributors know more about politics than they know about baseball.)
1) Fleetwood Walker wasn’t the first black man to play in the majors, although he was the first regular, as far as we know. The first one we are currently aware of was a star Brown University player named William Edward White, who played one game on June 21, 1879 when called into emergency service by an injury affecting the crosstown National League team, the Providence Grays. He had a single in four at-bats, two stolen bases, scored a run, and played errorless ball at first base, recording 12 putouts.
One of the very cool things about William Edward White is that he looks like a time-traveling Barack Obama!
2) Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first black man to play in the modern game, and therefore did not break the modern “color” barrier. His specific achievement was that he was the first African-American man to play in the 20th century. In 1944, however, three years before Robinson’s debut, an African-Cuban man named Tomas de la Cruz slipped under the radar as a regular starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. (De la Cruz’s achievement is doubly impressive, because he wasn’t even playing in a friendly home town. Cincinnati is just about a southern city, with suburbs in Kentucky! One must wince to think of the problems he must have endured.)
With WW2 raging, the majors were so desperate for players in 1944 that “Tommy” was barely noticed. Although he pitched respectably (9-9, 3.25 ERA), he was no longer on the roster once the first white guys started drifting back from the war. In an odd coincidence, de la Cruz also wore #42, the number Robinson would make famous.
3) De la Cruz was obviously a black guy, but even before him came at least three Latin-American players of mixed descent (some African included) who slipped under the racial radar: Roberto Estalella, Alex Carrasquel, and Hiram Bithorn.
4) Hi Bithorn also owns a claim to another bit of historical importance. He was the first Puerto Rican to play in MLB, and should also be called the first Puerto Rican star, easily preceding Vic Power and Roberto Clemente, because in 1943 he won 18 games for the Cubs and led the National League in shutouts. (Clemente was 9 years old at the time.)