Jimmy Claxton | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Jimmy Claxton

Jimmy Claxton, baseball player, stevedore (born 14 December 1892 in Wellington, BC; died 3 March 1970 in Tacoma, Washington). On 28 May 1916, Jimmy Claxton became the first Black person to play Organized Baseball (MLB and all of its affiliated minor leagues) in the 20th century. The left-handed pitcher did so 30 years before Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals. Claxton was also the first Black player to be featured on an American baseball card. He is the only Negro Leagues player from Canada to have his statistics upgraded to major league numbers. He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2021.

Early Years

Jimmy Claxton was born in Wellington, British Columbia. Claxton’s father, William Edgar Claxton, was a coal miner from Lynchburg, Virginia, who had relocated to BC for work. He met Emma Richards, a farmer’s daughter from Illinois, who had moved to Washington State. The two were married on 14 January 1892. The reverend overseeing the ceremony wrote in his remarks on their marriage registration that Claxton’s father was “a colored man” and his mother was “white.”

Claxton described his heritage as African American, French and Native American on his father’s side and Irish and English on his mother’s side. His multi-ethnic background confused census-takers and hampered his opportunities in baseball. At various times, his race was recorded as Black, white or mulatto.

When Claxton was three months old, his family moved to Tacoma, Washington. The first record of him playing baseball was as a 13-year-old catcher with the town team in Roslyn, Washington. He transitioned to the mound and become a dominant left-handed pitcher. When he was 18, he reportedly struck out 18 batters in his first start for a team from Chester, Washington.

Baseball Career

By his late teens and early 20s, Jimmy Claxton was one of the most in-demand left-handed pitchers in the Pacific Northwest. Between 1910 and 1916, he pitched for barnstorming and semi-professional teams, including the all-Black Hubbard Giants in 1914 and again in 1915, when they were called the Portland Giants.

When he was pitching for the Oak Leafs in 1916, an all-Black squad, Claxton came to the attention of the Pacific Coast League’s Oakland Oaks. The Oak Leafs’ manager, H.F. Hastings, who claimed to be part Indigenous, introduced the 23-year-old pitcher to the Oaks as a fellow Native American. Desperate for pitching, the Oaks offered Claxton a tryout and then signed the young hurler.

On 28 May 1916, the Oaks played the Los Angeles Angels in a doubleheader. Claxton drew the starting assignment in the first game. He is widely believed to be the first African American to play Organized Baseball (MLB and all levels of its affiliated minor leagues) in the 20th century. Claxton pitched into the third inning, allowing three runs on four hits while walking three batters. The Angels won the game 5–4. Claxton also appeared in the second game of the doubleheader. He entered in the ninth inning with two outs and the Oaks trailing 10–0; he walked a batter before recording the final out.

Those two outings were Claxton’s only appearances with the Oaks. He was released on June 3. Oaks manager Rowdy Elliott told the San Francisco Chronicle that Claxton “had nothing on the ball.” But Claxton claimed in a 1964 interview with the Tacoma News Tribune that, although he was never given a reason for his release, he was convinced it was because a friend had told the Oaks of his African American heritage.

After being released by the Oaks, Claxton became an itinerant pitcher for hire. He pitched for at least 22 different teams and for as many as five in one year. He later claimed that he played in 46 US states. In 1924, Claxton made history again when he and his brother-in-law, Ernie Tanner, played on a team in Tacoma’s industrial league and broke that circuit’s colour barrier.

Eight years later, a 39-year-old Claxton pitched briefly for the Pollock’s Cuban Stars and the Washington Pilots of the East-West League, a Negro League that was elevated to major league status in 2020. As of April 2023, Claxton is the only Negro Leagues player from Canada to have his statistics upgraded to major league numbers.

Claxton was still playing competitively for the South Tacoma Pines of the Valley League when he was 52. The last account of him pitching was when he threw a few innings in an old-timers game for the Pines when he was 63.

Baseball Card

Jimmy Claxton’s five-day tenure with the Oakland Oaks happened to coincide with the visit of the photographer hired by the Collins-McCarthy Candy Company to snap pictures for a series of baseball cards. This made him the first African American player on an American baseball card. Today, that series of cards is known as the 1916 Zee-Nuts set. Claxton is featured on card No. 25. The card has a value of between US$5,000 and $20,000.

Personal Life

After his barnstorming days, Jimmy Claxton settled in Tacoma, Washington, and worked as a stevedore. He married Juanita Ury on 25 June 1917 in Tacoma. They had a son, Edward James. Edward served in the US Merchant Marine in the Second World War before becoming a stevedore in Tacoma, like his father. Claxton died on 3 March 1970 and is buried in the Oakwood Hill Cemetery in Tacoma.

See also Trailblazing Black Canadian Athletes; Chatham Colored All-Stars; William “Hipple” Galloway; Jackie Robinson and the Montreal Royals (1946); Manny McIntyre.


Further Reading