Jimmy Claxton's uniform number was not retired. President Clinton did not speak at a ceremony commemorating the 80th anniversary of his achievement. No one based a documentary on his travails or the stone walls in his path. If he ever was a role model to the generations that followed, those generations have been pretty quiet about it. All of which is rather odd, because Claxton broke the color line in professional baseball in the 20th century.
This may come as a shock to those weaned on the stories of Jackie Robinson's trials by fire with Montreal in 1946 and Brooklyn in '47. Even the historically savvy who know of Fleet Walker and his brother, Welday, the first two African-American major leaguers, who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884, probably never heard of Claxton's brief dramatic stint in the Pacific Coast League 82 years ago this week. Nowadays we like our history neat, and the Jimmy Claxtons tend to get paved over—and rather thoroughly so.
In the years before World War I, Claxton was a prominent lefthanded pitcher in the crack amateur leagues of the Northwest. In early 1916, he recalled years later, his work with the all-black Oakland Giants caught the attention of a fan who was part Native American. This fan introduced Claxton as a "fellow tribesman" to the secretary of Oakland's Pacific Coast League team, the Oaks, and, in a haphazard manner typical of the way even top minor league teams secured talent in that era, Claxton was signed. He suited up and started against the visiting Los Angeles Angels in the first game of a doubleheader on May 28th.
Claxton lasted only into the third inning, allowing three runs, two earned, and four hits and three walks. He pitched to two batters in the nightcap, walking one and retiring the other. The San Francisco Call described him as "the Indian southpaw recently nailed by the Oaks from an Eastern reservation," so apparently the ruse had worked, albeit briefly. Claxton was, in fact, a Canadian who had grown up in Tacoma, the son of an Irish-English mother and an African-French-Native American father. Speaking nearly a half century later to Tacoma News-Tribune sports editor Dan Walton, Claxton said he thought that a "supposed friend" had alerted the Oaks to the full panorama of his racial makeup. He would make no other appearances for Oakland and was released on June 2.
The absence of any acknowledgment of Claxton in the traditional records of baseball's fitful integration underscores our tendency to oversimplify history. In a widely questioned documentary, the establishment of the color line was pinned almost entirely on Hall of Famer Cap Anson and dated to 1887. Yet Fleet Walker was still playing in the International League in 1889, there were all-black teams in various otherwise white minor leagues throughout the 1890s, and an African-American pitcher named Bert Jones excelled for Atchison of the Kansas State League in July 1898.
And 18 years later, there was also Jimmy Claxton, and May 28, 1916.