Black History Month Special: Baseball’s modern ‘Color Line’ Broken by Jimmy Claxton in Emeryville
Jackie Robinson is generally credited with breaking the modern color line by being the first black player to play in the 20th Century. Robinson took the field for the Montreal Royals of the International league in 1946 prior to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The truth is the professional baseball color line was actually broken here in Emeryville 30 years prior.
Robinson was obviously open about his racial background and his achievement was well documented in the history books. Jimmy Claxton’s meanwhile occurred under completely different circumstances (Moses Fleetwood Walker is generally credited with last breaking the color line before him in 1882).
James Edgar Claxton was born on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada in 1892 to a mixed-race family. His mother being Irish-English and his father of African-French-Native ancestry.
Claxton played in semi-pro leagues in the Pacific Northwest and in the Bay area as a member of the all African-American team the Oak Leafs (formerly the Lynne-Stanley Giants).
Claxton, a southpaw, had a reputation of being a bit wild, but overpowering when on his game. During one stretch for The Oak Leafs, he struck out 55 batters in 36 innings. This play earned notice by the local press and fans of the game.
At the time, the Oakland Oaks were in last place and in need of pitching. Claxton was introduced to the organization through a part-Native American friend who introduced Claxton as a fellow member of his Oklahoma tribe. Oaks Manager Harold “Rowdy” Elliot signed the then 23-year-old to the team.
Emeryville at the time had a well-earned reputation as a city of vice filled with card rooms, saloons and bordellos. Emeryville also had a reputation of being more integrated than other cities. “Every race, gender, and social class intermingled openly, in full view of the public within the borders of Emeryville when it came to gaming and sports,” according to The Shadow Ball Express which is blog dedicated to African-American Baseball History.
Claxton made his debut for the Oaks on May 28th, 1916 playing in both games of a doubleheader versus the Los Angeles Angels. Claxton started the first game before being pulled in the third inning after surrendering his third run (two earned). The next day’s Tribune write-up (misspelling his name “Klaxton” in the boxscore) described his outing as such:
“Claxton, Indian southpaw, received his first touch of Coast League treatment in the a.m. struggle by being driven out of the box by the Angels in the third inning. The youngster was wild and nervous on the rubber and he started his downfall by walking Koerner in the second inning. McLarry then bunted to the pitcher’s box, whereupon the Indian heaver tossed the pill wide to second and two were on. Kowerner tried to steal third, and was nipped by “Rowdy,” but Boles tagged the ball for a safety over second and McLarry scored.”
The Oaks lost the first game 5-4 on a controversial call by the ump in the 9th inning. Oaks fans reacted by storming the field and targeting the ump with bottles and pieces of the stands. “The right field bleacherites moved on the field en masse. A share of the grandstanders backed them up and before he knew what was happening,” reported The Los Angeles Times the next day. “Angels manager Frank Chance and Oaks pitcher Dutch Klawitter, who had relieved Claxton, braved a fusillade of pop bottles to escort the beleaguered umpire off the field.”
Claxton also pitched in the second game of the double-header finishing the 9th inning of a 10-5 loss.
Days later on June 3rd, Claxton was released from the team. Chronicle sports editor Harry B. Smith reported “According to Rowdy, the heaver had nothing on the ball, and he couldn’t afford to bother with him.” Later reports surfaced later that Claxton’s true ancestry was discovered and that was the reason for his release.
One thorough account says a member of Oaks management witnessed him kissing his African-American wife. Claxton maintained he was betrayed by a trusted friend, and that Elliott did not like him to begin with. Claxton later noted he had to show them his initial contract just to get paid for his time with the team. Decades later, Claxton was interviewed about his experience playing with the Oaks and his sudden release. “No reason was given , but I knew.”
This brief stint by Claxton might have faded into obscurity had it not have been for the fact that his playing ‘career’ overlapped the day pictures were taken for the Zee-Nut Candy Company Baseball card set. Today the collectible Oakland Oaks card is one of the most sought after baseball cards on the market going for upwards of $10,000.
While this was the end of Claxton’s career in white-professional baseball, he went on to play for several decades and into his 40’s for ‘negro league’ teams including the Shasta Limiteds and the Cuban Stars in 1932. At the conclusion of his playing career, Claxton claimed to have played in every continental state except Maine and Texas. Claxton died in 1970 at the age of 77.
Sadly, there is nothing in our city to acknowledge this important historic fact. The plaque buried in the Ivy on Park Avenue honors Billy Martin and Casey Stengel, but there is no mention of Claxton’s historic achievement.
In fact, the only acknowledgment in the city is buried deep within the Pixar campus where a small, hidden lounge is dedicated in his honor. The Brooklyn Hearth Lounge is filled with Oak’s memorabilia, some of it reportedly excavated from the site.
Vancouver Island baseball historian Tom Hawthorn wrote probably the most comprehensive piece on Claxton for The Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) and hasn’t given up on Claxton getting his due. “[Claxton] was a man ahead of his time and never really had a chance to show what he could do.”
The East Bay Yesterday podcast touched on this event in an episode covering Oakland’s early baseball history [7:13].