Sol White: Creating & preserving Blackball history
If you haven’t heard of Baseball Hall of Famer Sol White, that’s entirely forgivable. For the entirety of his life, 1868 to 1955, society did everything possible to marginalize Sol and his accomplishments. But while lesser men and women would have accepted their fate and faded from memory, Sol White made sure he preserved it.
So, who was Sol White?
It all starts in a busy river town along the Ohio River, just after the Civil War. Information on Sol’s parents are scarce, but they were originally from Virginia, most likely born into slavery. It is known that his mother’s name was Judith, or Jude, and she was listed in census records alternately as white or mulatto. Sol’s four older siblings, two brothers and two sisters, were all born down South and, like their parents, also into slavery. Sometime between the end of the Civil War and 1868, the family moved to Bellaire, Ohio, where King Solomon White was born on June 12, 1868.
By the time Sol was three, his father had disappeared from the picture, leaving Jude to raise the family on her earnings as a washer woman. A sixth child, Charles, was born around 1871, but who his father was remains unknown. From the records, it appears that the White children were encouraged to pursue an education; the census of 1880 lists three of the four White siblings still living at home as being in school. However, by the time Sol was a teen, he had only one thing on his mind: baseball.
Bellaire was right across the Ohio River from the much larger city of Wheeling, West Virginia. As a strategic river port, Bellaire had been the site of a major Union Army camp during the Civil War, and the town’s fascination with the relatively new game of “base ball” most likely comes from it being enthusiastically played by the soldiers stationed there.
Bellaire of the 1880s featured many semi-pro ball clubs, one of which was the Globes. Sol got his start in professional baseball in 1883 when he was tapped to take the place of an injured Globes player. A twist of fate that White later re-told with pride throughout his life was that Bellaire’s opponent that afternoon was a team from Marietta, Ohio, captained by Ban Johnson, later a sportswriter and finally creator and President of the American League.
Back in the early 1880s, it wasn’t too far of a stretch for Sol to have aspirations of playing professional baseball. William White had become the first Black player in the majors, playing a single game for Providence in 1879. Brothers Fleet and Weldy Walker were playing for Toledo beginning in 1884, and Frank Grant was a star second baseman for Buffalo at the time. Besides the very few select openings available on major and minor league teams, several professional Black ball clubs, such as the Cuban Giants and Pittsburgh Keystones, were operating successfully in the region. It is with the latter team that Sol White made his professional debut in 1887.
The Pittsburgh Keystones were members of the National Colored League, which began operations in 1887. Unfortunately, the league folded after a few weeks, and the Keystones continued on as an independent team, barnstorming around Western Pennsylvania. Life as a rootless barnstormer had no appeal for Sol, so he left the team at this point, returning to Bellaire.
The 19-year-old third baseman tried out for the Wheeling Green Stockings, part of the Ohio State League. Sol became the third Black player in the league, joining former major leaguer Weldy Walker, already playing for Akron, and Zanesville catcher Dick Johnson. Sol quickly became one of the best players in the league, hitting .370 with 20 extra base hits and a .502 slugging percentage in 53 games. To give Sol’s 1887 Green Stockings stats perspective, Gary Ashwill, in the forward to the Summer Game Books edition of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide, writes that his “teammate, the catcher/outfielder Jake Stenzel, hit .387 and slugged .474, with 8 extra bases in 41 games. Stenzel would go on to play over 700 games as a major league outfielder, batting .338 with a 134 OPS+.”
Ashwill goes on to state that future Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, then a 19-year old playing for Mansfield in the same league that summer, hit .351 to Sol’s .370. Delahanty would go on to hit .346 over his long big league career.
While it is not easy to project what a player would be like on a major league level, Ashwill’s comparison shows that Sol White had the same talent in the minors as did two of his contemporaries who would go on to star at the major league level. This very well might have been Sol’s destiny as well except for one thing–his skin.
* * *
SIDEBAR: A MOST DANGEROUS GAME
Baseball was a dangerous game back before the turn of the century–players not only had to contend with violent collisions and sharpened spikes on the bases, but beanballs at the plate and the perils of catching without any equipment. Fans were often drunk and rowdy, adding a sense of menace to the very ones that came out ostensibly to cheer them on. On top of all these usual pitfalls to their well-being, players on the 1887 Wheeling Green Sox had an additional fear: their own uniform. The green dye that gave the club their nickname also happened to be a particularly unstable and poisonous one. As the Indianapolis Journal reported on May 8, 1887, “Green stockings have poisoned the foot of one of the Wheeling players, and he will be laid up for two weeks.” A month later the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer wrote, “The Wheeling club is to have new and much needed uniforms.” The team switched to a more pedestrian maroon and grey, but while bland, the new togs presumably did not try to kill their wearers.
* * *
In the winter of 1887-88, the Ohio State League re-branded itself the Tri-State League and passed a rule banning all clubs from employing Black players. Inexplicably, an exception was made for Dick Johnson, Zanesville’s Black catcher.
It’s hard to see why Wheeling would agree to this new rule with Sol White being one of their best players the previous season. A sportswriter for the Wheeling Register wrote, “many of our citizens will regret this on account of Sol White, as he was a favorite with the patrons of the game in this city, being not only one of Wheeling’s best players, but also a perfect gentleman in his actions.”
Akron’s Weldy Walker was also out of a job. The March 5, 1888 edition of The Sporting Life carried a passionate plea to the president of the Tr-State League penned by Walker calling attention to he and Sol White’s plight. In it, Walker writes, “The law is a disgrace to the present age and reflects very much upon the intelligence of your last meeting, and casts derision at the laws of Ohio – the voice of the people – that say all men are equal. I would suggest that your honorable body, in case that black law is not repealed, pass one making it criminal for a colored man or woman to be found in a ball ground.” Walker’s letter makes sure to note White’s prodigious output the previous summer, writing, “Sol White, of the Wheelings, whom I must compliment by saying was one, if not the surest hitter in the Ohio League last year.”
Surprisingly, Weldy Walker’s letter opened the door back up to he and White, but not for long. Wheeling’s owner signed White to an 1888 contract and sent him on to Lima, Ohio, where the team, now known as the Nailers, were playing an away series. Unfortunately, Wheeling’s new manager, Al Buckenberger, refused to accept him, and promptly sent him away. Wheeling would finish three games behind first place Lima that fall, leaving many to wonder if Sol’s absence from the lineup cost the club the pennant.
Sol did not let his exclusion from the Tri-State League damper his pursuit of baseball as a career. He packed his kit and headed back to Pittsburgh to re-join the Keystones. In August, the Keystones traveled to New York as part of a four-sided tournament for the “Colored Championship,” with Pittsburgh finishing second to the Cuban Giants.
White was now regarded as one of the best Black players in the east. His stature and the lack of rules governing the independent Black teams meant that he could jump from team to team, free to pursue the highest salary. Over the next decade Sol pinballed between the Cuban Giants and the New York Gorhams, both laying claim to the title of best Black team in the land.
In 1895, White joined the Page Fence Giants, a new traveling team sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan. Organized by Bud Fowler and Home Run Johnson, two of the biggest Black players of the day, the Page Fence Giants would spend the next four summers completely dominating every team that took the field against them. White was making about $75 a week with the Page Fence Giants, a considerable sum at the time, and indicative of how much money could be made playing independent baseball.
Despite his success as one of the most highly sought after players in Blackball, White was not content. In 1896, he entered Wilberforce University where he would pursue a theology degree in the off-season. He also re-joined the Cuban Giants, which had now broken away from their original owner and re-emerged as the Cuban X-Giants. In 1900, Sol reunited with many of his Page Fence teammates who had moved to Chicago and taken the name Columbia Giants. He spent 1901 back with the Cuban X-Giants, then began the next phase of his career.
With the knowledge gained as a member of the best Black independent teams of the age, Sol White was ready to begin what he would later call, “the heyday of his glory.”
In 1902, White joined with two Philadelphia sportswriters, H. Walter Schlichter of the White Item and Harry Smith of the Black Tribune, to form the Philadelphia Giants. As well as playing second base, this marked the first time White would manage a team. The Giants immediately began a rivalry with the reigning Blackball champions, the Cuban X-Giants. In 1903, the two clubs battled it out in a series to claim the title of “Colored Base Ball Champions of the World.” The X-Giants won 7 games to 2 behind the pitching of Andrew “Rube” Foster, like Sol White a great player who would eventually go on to become one of the pillars of Black baseball. The Philadelphia Giants responded to the title loss by not only stealing Rube Foster away from the X-Giants, but also future Hall of Famer Pete Hill and Charlie Grant, a second baseman so talented that Baltimore Orioles manager John McGraw had tried to pass him off as a Native American to slip him past the major leagues color barrier. With this added fire power, White’s Philadelphians beat the X-Giants to become the Colored Base Ball Champions of the World.
Now, if that was the extent of Sol White’s career, historians would still look back on him as a pioneer of early baseball. Now here’s where it gets interesting–if not for what Sol White did next, both his career and the entire history of early Black baseball might have been lost forever.
In 1907, White was firmly at the helm of his Philadelphia Giants. Over the past five years the absolute top Black ballplayers had at one time or another worn a Giants uniform and managed the team to four consecutive championships from 1904 through 1907. But while his team was wildly successful, Sol White saw a big problem with Black participation in the National Pastime up to that point: it was completely undocumented.
Ever since the days of the old Knickerbockers at Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, White baseball received unlimited ink in newspapers, books and guides. Every detail of organized baseball had been recorded and compiled. Not so with Blackball. No matter how talented they were, teams like Sol’s Philadelphia Giants hardly merited a mention in newspapers, let alone a book or guide. So, just like he did when the Ohio State League booted him in 1888, Sol White put his head down and charged forward towards a solution.
That’s how Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide was born. In this 128 page volume, originally titled History of Colored Base Ball, White recorded everything he could about the history of Black participation in baseball together with the current state of the game. Had Sol not created this brilliant gem, the whole first part of Blackball history might have been lost forever. Sold through the mail and at Philadelphia Giants games for the next couple of summers, Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide preserved an important part of history. In its pages we learn about early giants such as Pete Hill, Rube Foster, Home Run Johnson and Frank Grant – all guys Sol White played with or against. The legacy of the Page Fence Giants, Philadelphia Giants and the Cuban X-Giants are preserved in its pages. And then there are the photographs – if it weren’t for Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide we would have no clue what some of Blackball’s legendary players looked like.
That’s not to say it was a perfect history. Remember, no one had ever tried to tackle something like this before, and there was not the wealth of newspaper reference as there was with White baseball. As Gary Ashwill states in his forward to the Summer Game Books edition of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide, he focuses on the teams and players located in the Northeast, with a nod to Chicago. This leaves out several influential early Black clubs, but when taken in the context of the times and information available to him, his bias is easily overlooked.
White subsequently updated the book in 1908, leading one to wonder if he was considering publishing his guide annually. However, there would be no more editions after this second printing and the original copies of his book dwindled down to about five that are currently in the hands of collectors. To underline the significance of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide, it was not until 1970, more than six decades after his book was written, that another history of Black baseball was published.
Though there was no “Volume 2” of his book published, Sol White apparently had written one. In 1927, he described it to sportswriter Floyd J. Calvin of the Pittsburgh Courier as “a kind of second edition to his old one, bringing the game from 1907 down to date.” White told Calvin that he was looking for a publisher, but unfortunately, apparently no one was interested. As Gary Ashwill writes in his forward to Sol’s book, the old ballplayer spent the next ten years publishing articles about the game’s history in various Black newspapers. So perhaps, at least, a portion of Volume 2 of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide had seen the light of day.
In the meantime, Sol White’s Philadelphia Giants were eventually raided of most of their good players, and he left after 1909. White was invited to manage the Fe club in the Cuban Winter League in 1911-12, then returned to the States where he skippered various independent clubs. He retired to Bellaire for a spell, but was coaxed back to the game in 1921 as the secretary for the Columbus Buckeyes of the Negro National League. He gave up his active participation in the game after coaching for the Newark Stars of the Eastern Colored League in 1926.
White passed away in 1955, having lived through the birth of the professional game, the long decades of segregation and marginalization and, finally, baseball’s reintegration. When Sol White passed away, he could look back at a long career of being a ballplayer, manager, team organizer and the man who wrote the book that single-handedly preserved the early history of Blackball.
* * *
The interesting thing about researching Sol White’s unique story is that much of the material available was compiled by Sol himself. Besides his Official Guide, Sol left behind a wealth of articles about early Black baseball history carried in several newspapers including the Baltimore Afro-American and the Pittsburgh Courier. I have to stress again that without Sol White, the story of he and his contemporaries might very well been lost forever.
For this piece I often referenced Gary Ashwill’s forward to the Summer Game Books edition of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide. Gary is one of the foremost historians of early Blackball and his forward and notes that accompany the Summer Game Books edition not only gives a good summary of Sol’s life but also puts his monumental book into historical perspective. If you want to read some more hardcore baseball research you won’t find anywhere else, stop by Gary’s blog at agatetype.typepad.com
While researching Sol White in contemporary newspapers I came across the seemingly incredible story of the poisonous green dye used to color Wheeling’s stockings and knew I had to depict him in the uniform of that team. Fortunately, there is a well-known black and white team portrait available of the 1887 club, so uniform research was quite easy compared to most of the obscure ball clubs I depict. I also found that Craig Brown’s website archive, The Threads of Our Game, has an entry on the 1887 Wheeling team. If you haven’t visited this treasure trove, set aside a few hours to do so because it is an invaluable resource where the uniforms of hundreds of 19th century ball clubs can be found. You can take a look by going to threadsofourgame.com
Lastly, I have to put in a shameless plug for the Summer Game Books edition of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide. I was fortunate to have been asked to design the cover for the 2020 edition, a project I had long wanted to tackle. Because Sol and his fellow Blackballers where excluded from the contemporary Spalding and Reach Base Ball Guides, I wanted to give the cover of Sol White’s Official Base Ball Guide the same Victorian design style as is found on the White-only guides. I was very pleased with the finished project, and it has been a thrill to not only have my art associated with Sol White, but also with the work of historian Gary Ashwill.
* * *
This week’s story is Number 23 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 2 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 018 and will be active through October of 2020. Booklets 1-17 can be purchased as a group, too.