Throwback Thursday: Jimmy Claxton Briefly Breaks Baseball's Color Barrier

May 28, 1916, was not just another workday for Jimmy Claxton: he pitched two major league games, posed for a baseball card, witnessed a riot, and in doing so quietly pushed past organized baseball's de facto color line 30 years before Jackie Robinson.

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May 26 2016, 3:12pm

Courtesy Shanaman Sports Museum Collection

Each week, VICE Sports takes a look back at an important event from this week in sports history for Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.

May 28, 1916, was not just another workday for Jimmy Claxton. The ballplayer pitched two baseball games for the Pacific Coast League Oakland Oaks, posed for a baseball card, witnessed a riot, and in doing so quietly pushed past organized baseball's de facto color line 30 years before Jackie Robinson.

The son of a black man and a white woman, Claxton's integration of white baseball was brief, and the pitcher faded quickly into obscurity. Today only a few baseball historians and fans have heard of him. Search the Baseball Hall of Fame website and his name doesn't pop up. The go-to site for all things baseball, Baseball Reference, has him listed in two separate entries, as Claxton and Klaxton.

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Why Claxton has yet to receive his full due speaks to his era's rigid race lines, erratic record keeping, and itinerant careers.

"An obsession with race common at that time—he was listed in official records as mulatto, black, Native American—came to define his life in a lot of ways," says Tom Hawthorn, a baseball historian from Vancouver Island, which is where Claxton was born in 1892.

Baseball wasn't immune from this, and the major leagues had an unwritten policy of excluding African-Americans dating back to the 19th century.

"Before the late 1940s, it really came down to an issue of skin color. There were a handful of Asian Americans, Hawaiians, Hispanics in the PCL, but only those with lighter skin and defined as not black," says social historian Amy Essington, who is writing a book on the integration of the PCL. Native Americans were also able to participate in organized baseball, with some players such as pitcher Charles Albert "Chief" Bender earning stardom in the major leagues.

Claxton and his father. Courtesy Shanaman Sports Museum Collection

The Canadian-born, mixed-race Claxton (his background included Native American, European, and African-American ancestry) began his career near where he grew up in the Northwest. He bounced around small town teams in Washington and Oregon until he landed in Oakland in the spring of 1916 to pitch for the Oakland Giants, soon renamed the Oak Leafs.

An African-American team, the Oak Leafs played all-comers, including Bay Area white teams and college squads. Claxton did well, earning notice and pictures in the local press. He also came to the attention of a local baseball fan who recommended him to the Oakland Oaks of the top level, white-only Pacific Coast League (considered a rough equivalent of the then East-bound Major Leagues).

Importantly, this local fan was Native American, according to an interview Claxton gave later in his life, and recommended Claxton as a fellow "tribesman."

Looking to add quality pitching to their rotation, the Oaks signed Claxton, who later said he brought a notarized document declaring him Native American. They desperately needed it: by May, the Oaks had slid to last place in the six-team PCL, where they would wind up remaining the whole 208-game season.

Despite finishing the year with a 72-136 record, the 1916 Oaks had talent. Sixteen of Claxton's teammates would play in the Major Leagues at some point in their careers. One of the Oaks top pitchers, Sleepy Bill Burns (so-named because of his lethargy on the mound), earned infamy three years later when he served as a fixer between gamblers and ballplayers in the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal.

Claxton, 23, joined the team at some point in May. Most accounts have his stay at about a week, though Claxton later remembered it being a month. After a few days of pitching batting practice, Claxton got his chance on the morning of May 28 against the much better Los Angeles Angels.

The Angels were in town for a double-header at Oaks Park. Claxton started the morning game, and yielded four hits and three walks before being pulled in the top of the third inning. True to form, the Oaks lost, this time on a close play that sparked a mini-riot.

Rube Ellis, a former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder, reached base on a single, and then advanced to third after a steal and a throwing error. Ellis scored when the batter hit a grounder to the shortstop and barely beat the throw to first, giving the Angels the win.

In response, Oakland fans stormed the field, throwing seat cushions and bottles as they went.

The fans had returned to their seats by the time Claxton returned to the mound during the afternoon game, coming on in relief at the tail end of a 10-run bashing by the Angels. He gave up a walk before ending the game with an out.

Claxton's stats were underwhelming: a 7.71 earned run average in little more than two innings of work, plus an error in the field. Part of that might have been nerves. The San Francisco Call wrote, "The Redskin had a nice windup and a frightened look on his face, but not quite the stuff to bother Los Angeles ... he may do better in the future."

By the end of the week, though, Claxton was gone, under circumstances that are not entirely clear.

"The Claxton incident was very short," Dick Beverage, secretary-treasurer of the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America, said. "He was said to have been of Native American stock when he signed with the Oaks, but within a matter of days the Oaks learned that he was actually part African American, and they released him."

Claxton maintained he was betrayed by a trusted friend, and that the manager, Rowdy Elliott, did not like him to begin with. Essington, also a lecturer in sports history at California State University, Fullerton, says that Oaks management may have seen him kissing his African-American wife. Either way, the team released Claxton and, he later said, he had to show them his initial contract just to get paid for his time with the team.

At the very least, however, Claxton's brief time on the Oaks roster coincided with a visit by a photographer from a San Francisco candy company. The pitcher posed in a throwing motion and had his own card in the Zeenut series, the first baseball card to feature an African-American player (earlier cards featured Afro-Cubans). Today it is considered the rarest of the Zeenuts cards, and highly valued by collectors.

After being cut, Claxton returned to the Oak Leafs. After the season, he stayed in Oakland for several years, pitching for semi-pro teams and working as a stevedore.

The PCL would not include another African American until 1948, when the San Diego Padres signed local star John Ritchey. The Oaks signed their first African-American player, Artie Wilson (who would later reach the major leagues), the next season.

Jimmy Claxton (second row, fourth from left) on the Western Washington League Casinos in 1941. Courtesy Shanaman Sports Museum Collection

Claxton's career as a pioneer for racial equality wasn't entirely over, however. In the 1920s, he returned to his hometown of Tacoma, Washington, and with his brother-in-law helped integrate the local stevedore's union. He also broke the color line in Tacoma's city leagues.

Claxton's pitching career lasted well into his 40s, and he claimed to have played in every continental state except Maine and Texas. Even so, his only other mention in Baseball Reference (other than with the Oaks) is as a 39-year-old in 1932 with the Cuban Stars West, a barnstorming team that included the father of future baseball great Luis Tiant. (At the end of his life Claxton would meet Luis Tiant when he too pitched in the PCL.)

At the time of his death in 1970, at the age of 77, Claxton's main recognition was election to the Tacoma-Pierce County Hall of Fame for his stellar career in local leagues and breaking the city's color barrier.

With the help of Internet access to old newspaper articles and official records, though, Claxton is slowly receiving more recognition for his achievement. Hawthorn has written a lengthy profile of Claxton on the Society of American Baseball Research website. The Hall of Fame says they are certainly are aware of him, and has clippings of a few articles on Claxton and an interview he gave in 1964 to a Tacoma newspaper.

The old Oaks Park where Claxton had his busy debut is now a part of Emeryville, California, and bordered by a busy strip of fast-food outlets, Pixar's studios, and a school athletic field currently under construction. The only remaining signs of the Oaks are a small sports bar with the name Oaks Corner in pink neon script, and a bronze plaque commemorating the team's time at the 7,000-seat stadium, from 1913 to 1955. Former Oaks Billy Martin and Casey Stengel are mentioned. Claxton is not.

Hawthorn would like to see him gain a broader recognition, if not in Oakland then perhaps closer to his hometown of Tacoma. "The Seattle Mariners, who are actively interested in Negro League history, could hold a Jimmy Claxton day as a nice tribute," he says. (Seattle, coincidentally, was the last PCL team to integrate.) "Claxton may have not had good stuff that day he pitched, he may have just been nervous, but he was man ahead of his time and never really had a chance to show what he could do."