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Before Jackie Robinson, There Was Jimmy Claxton

Before Jackie Robinson, There Was Jimmy Claxton” is the title of an article on The Tyee about James Edgar Claxton, born on Dec. 14, 1892, in Wellington, Robert Dunsmuir’s coal-mining town on the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway line. (The old town site is now part of Nanaimo.) His father, William Claxton was a coal miner of black and aboriginal ancestry who had been born in Virginia. His mother, Emma Richards, was of Irish and English ancestry.

The family moved to Tacoma, south of Seattle, three months after Jimmy was born, though they later returned to Vancouver Island where a sister was born four years later.

Claxton’s brief foray across baseball’s odious colour line would be the last for a black player until the great Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals for the 1946 season. Robinson’s subsequent ascension to the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League the next season is the subject of the Hollywood biopic 42, which opened this weekend.

Claxton’s story is little known outside of a coterie of baseball historians and fellow obsessives. James A. Riley, the author of the landmark reference work “Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Major Leagues,” figures Claxton would have been a major leaguer were it not for the colour barrier.

After Claxton returned to playing black baseball, newspapers praised the pitcher as someone who “would be in organized baseball but for his color” (Oakland Tribune) and as “the foremost negro ballplayer in America” (San Jose Evening News).

As it turned out, Jimmy Claxton slipped across the colour line in an auspicious week. While the Oaks were flailing and the day in which he pitched included an incident where the umpire was chased across the diamond by enraged fans, Claxton’s time on the roster coincided with a visit to the ballpark by a lens-man hired by the Collins-McCarthy Candy Co. of San Francisco. He snapped an image of Claxton in his pitching follow-through, stepping forward on his right leg while his empty left hand is thrown across the body.

This likeness later appeared on a Zeenut baseball card. It is now one of the most coveted pieces of cardboard in the hobby, as it depicts the first black player to appear on an American baseball card.

Ignored in his lifetime, the British Columbia-born player is now remembered for defying convention.

After baseball closed the door on Claxton, another 30 years would pass before Jackie Robinson opened it for himself

You may read the full article by Tom Hawthorn at The Tyee site here.