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Baseball pioneer played for Edmonds team

 

February 29, 2016

After two years pitching for Mukilteo, Jimmy Claxton played for the Edmonds baseball team in 1925. Claxton is shown fifth from the left in the back row. Of note, the Edmonds team was managed by a woman – Ruth Hough.

In honor of Black History Month, the Edmonds Beacon is featuring Jimmy Clax-ton, the first black player in professional baseball in the 20th century. -Ed.

Thirty years before Jackie Robinson, an African-American man who once played for an Edmonds team broke professional baseball’s color barrier.

Jimmy Claxton pitched a doubleheader for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League in 1916. Robinson wasn’t even born yet.

“Everybody knows about Jackie Robinson, and he’s credited with breaking the color barrier, but here we have Jimmy Claxton, the one who really does it decades be-fore,” local historian Steven K. Bertrand said. “It was Jimmy’s legacy.”

Claxton, who was of mixed racial background, was originally allowed to play in the minors but was kicked out of the league after two games because he was too dark.

He is a forgotten man of baseball history, a pioneer who suffered racial discrimi-nation and yet continued to make a livelihood in the sport.

Though Claxton never again played professionally, he pitched into his early 50s for Negro, outlaw and semi-pro leagues, barnstorming throughout the Pacific Northwest.

“He’s described as this tall, lanky guy with a pretty fair complexion,” Bertrand said. “He’s this beanpole-type with long arms and very strong hands, like you’d see on a coal miner.

“His face was kind of ‘hangdoggie.’ There was always kind of a sadness there.”

Claxton described his racial background as being African-American, French and Native American on his father's side, Irish and English on his mother’s.

When he signed with the Oakland Oaks, he let the team believe he was Native American.

He suspected a jealous teammate had told the Oaks manager that he was black.

Oakland’s loss became Edmonds’s gain when he played for the Edmonds team in 1925.

“He was probably the best pitcher in the Puget Sound area,” said baseball histo-rian Dave Larson in a 2003 interview with the The Beacon, “and the most famous Afri-can-American pitcher” to play for Edmonds.

Claxton’s career

Claxton was 13 years old when he picked up a mitt and a newfound love for the sport in 1905. He threw and batted left-handed.

He was a catcher for the town team in Roslyn, Wash., before becoming a pitcher for the Chester, Wash. team, where he struck out 18 batters in his first start.

After that, Claxton could be found mostly on the mound.

Claxton was pitching for a San Francisco Bay Area semi-pro team when he came to the attention of the Oakland Oaks. He pitched two games for the Oaks on May 28, 1916.

A baseball vagabond, Claxton claimed to have pitched in all but two of the 48 contiguous United States, having never played in Maine or Texas, including for the Washington Pilots, Chicago Union Giants and Nebraska Indians.

“He’s jumping all over the place,” Bertrand said. “He’s playing sometimes for one team, and sometimes he’s playing for as many as five different teams in a season. He’s just jumping all over, to wherever opportunity presents itself.”

While pitching for Edmonds in 1925, Claxton shared the history-making spotlight with the team’s female manager.

“Ruth Hough wanted to coach the Edmonds team to keep an eye on her son,” Larson said in 2003.

In 1932, Claxton won a spot to play for the barnstorming Cuban Stars, the Cuban All-Star league, where he had a 1-2 record.

At 52, Claxton pitched for the South Tacoma Pines of the Valley League in his hometown.

He retired from baseball after throwing a few token innings in an old-timer's game in 1956. He had played the sport for more than 50 years.

Claxton was inducted into the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Hall of Fame in 1969, months before his death on March 3, 1970. He was 77.

“He is a very, very good pitcher, that’s really what he’s known for, but he has some years where he had a great batting average, as well,” Bertrand said. “It’s an im-pressive career.

“They say his lifetime batting average was .349. If you can hit over .300, you’re an All-Star.”

(The left-hander also had a trademark pitch: He started out facing second base, then spun around 180 degrees to deliver the ball over home plate.)

Making history

Though Claxton was the first black player in professional baseball in the 20th century, that’s not to say Robinson didn’t make history: While Claxton pitched in the mi-nors for the Oakland Oaks, Robinson was the first African American to play in the major leagues.

After signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson had an award-winning baseball career.

He won the inaugural Major League Baseball Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, was named an All-Star for six consecutive seasons from 1949-1954, and won the Na-tional League Most Valuable Player Award in 1949 – the first black player to receive the honor.

Robinson also played in six World Series, helping the Dodgers win the 1955 World Series championship.

Minors or majors notwithstanding, Claxton was the first black player to be fea-tured on a baseball card.

Though he pitched only two games for the Oaks, Claxton appeared on a “Zee-nuts” baseball card in 1916. He is on No. 25 of the 143 cards made by the Collins-McCarthy Candy Co.

The candy company’s photographer visited the team the week Claxton played for Oakland.

“The Zeenuts photographer snaps a picture of Jimmy Claxton,” Bertrand said. “He just happens to be there coincidentally that week that Jimmy is playing and even gets his picture taken. What are the odds?

“It kind of immortalizes this breaking of the color barrier in baseball.”

One of the rare cards of Claxton as an Oaks pitcher sold at auction for $7,200 in 2005.

Claxton’s family

James Edgar Claxton, known as Jimmy all his life, was born on Dec. 14, 1892, in Wellington, a British Columbia mining town on Vancouver Island.

Though Claxton was born in Canada, both his parents were American.

His father, William Edgar Claxton, was a coal miner from Virginia. Claxton’s mother, Emma Richards, was born in Illinois and grew up as a farmer’s daughter in Kitti-tas County.

On Jan. 14, 1892, Claxton and Richards, who had just turned 18, were married in Wellington.

In a section reserved for remarks on their wedding certificate, the minister wrote: "The bridegroom is a coloured [sic] man; the bride a white woman."

“Those words impact Jimmy Claxton for the rest of his life,” Bertrand said. “It really limits his possibilities as a baseball player, especially professionally.

“It all comes back to that wedding certificate.”

The family moved to Washington state soon after Claxton’s sister was born.

In 1910, Claxton’s race was recorded in the U.S. Census as being “mulatto.” He was living with his father in Ravensdale, Wash., another mining town, at the time.

Claxton’s sister, Emma Elmary Josephin Claxton, four years his junior and raised by their maternal grandparents in Washington, was listed as “white.”

Ten years later, while living in Oakland, Calif., his race was recorded as “black” in the census.

In baseball, Claxton was often described as American Indian and had the nick-names “Big Chief Claxton, “Chief Two Horse” and “Darkhorse.”

He also had the baseball aliases “Clawson,” “Clausen,” “Clauson,” “Clarkston” and “Klaxton,” as well as the name “Barton.”

He may have assumed the names because he had been banned from playing the sport.

Before he played for Edmonds, Claxton pitched for Mukilteo from 1923-1924.

A Mukilteo team player once pitched a no-hitter. Mukilteo beat Anacortes 10-0 on July 30, 1923. Though there is no record of it, Claxton may have been the pitcher for the game.

 

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