King Solomon "Sol" White was born June 12, 1868 in the industrial city of Bellaire, Ohio merely three years after the Civil War ended, but right smack in the middle of a time period that saw baseball explode in popularity. During his extraordinary life, Sol was to witness great changes, not only in the development of baseball but in our society as well. He, perhaps like no man before him or since, was to not only participate in, but later to chronicle, the very history of the game that he loved dearly. But he was also to feel "up close and personal" a much darker side of the game, a part that must have broken his heart.
Even though baseball is rightfully and proudly called the National Pastime, the game also reflected the deep-seated racial animosity that permeated post Civil War America, an animosity so strong that it would, for over six decades, prevent Sol and countless others from playing ball alongside of whites in the major leagues. Tragically, they were barred from playing "America's Game," not because of a lack of talent but because of the color of their skin. What quiet pride Sol must have felt when, as an old man living alone in Harlem, he saw Jackie Robinson break down the blight on the game we now, quite antiseptically, refer to simply as the "color barrier."
A Baseball Career Begins
Sol was raised in Bellaire, a small town located within the Ohio Valley, merely a stone's throw from the more industrial Wheeling, West Virginia which was an emerging hotbed of baseball activity during the 1870's. As a sports minded 15-year-old, Sol first haunted the baseball diamonds in his hometown and later directly in Wheeling. Records indicate that he first began to play regularly with the Bellaire Globes, a top amateur team of the region. The team was integrated, a fairly common occurrence in areas throughout rural America for the first few decades after the Civil War. Sol played just about every position on the field during the summers of 1883 through 1885, but he became mostly adept as an infielder.
Those early years playing with other youngsters would leave a deep impression on Sol forever. Later in life, during an interview with a New York City newspaper reporter, Sol recalled with pride that in one of his very first games with the Globes, he was called on to play against the strong Marrietta team, a squad that boasted as their second baseman a gentleman known as Ban Johnson. Johnson would, of course, become the brains behind the establishment of the American League in 1903 and eventually he was viewed as the most powerful single man in organized baseball for many years.
Life was good for the young 19-year-old Sol during 1887. As he honed his baseball skills, Sol set his sights across the Ohio River in Wheeling where the caliber of ball playing was fairly sophisticated. In early June of that year, the Wheeling Green Stockings, a "big city" team that played in what was equivalent to the minor leagues today, hired a gentleman known as T.M. "Parson" Nicholson as a player/manager to guide the floundering franchise. This proved to be fortuitous to Sol White. "Parson," a respected white man, quickly sought out and beckoned his friend, teammate, and fellow infielder from the Globes, Sol White. Within short order, White donned a "Green Stocking" uniform and started third base. The new manager's confidence in Sol paid off immediately. On July 2nd, during his very first game with the club, Sol smacked four hits and the struggling team won! As July turned into August and the season closed, Sol hit at a torrid pace, finishing the season with a .381 batting average. Clearly this was a notable debut for the rising star as Sol distinguished himself on a team that boasted some outstanding baseball talent. In fact, several of Sol's teammates, all of them white, went on to have distinguished careers in the major leagues. That group included Jake Stenzel, who batting .339 after nine years in the big leagues, and Sam Kimber, who went on to pitch a no-hitter with the (1884) Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers.
As a ball player, Sol's prowess on the diamond blossomed and in 1888 he signed on to become a member of the all black Pittsburg Keystones in the newly formed Colored National League. Up to this point, Sol had freely played with blacks and whites near his hometown. Even though the baseball diamond could be a liberating place where a person's talent would be their main attribute, the races lived and played in a mostly separate society. After all, only seven years later, the United States Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on the separation of the races when it ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that "separate but equal" was not only constitutional but was an accepted and perfectly legitimate part of American life.
The Color Barrier Comes Crashing Down
Against this backdrop, for those African American players like Sol and many others, it was hoped that this first attempt at an organized all black league would draw big crowds and revenue in major eastern cities. Why couldn't the same or similar crowds enjoy organized black teams playing regularly in ballparks that sprouted throughout the land, just like they did for white society? But that was not to happen, for after only several weeks the league's organizers ran out of money and the players, including Sol, disbursed. If life on the baseball diamond was full of promise for Sol personally when he played ball in the Wheeling area and later in Pennsylvania, the reality of the times proved to be disastrous for black ball players in general for not only did the all black league fail, but Cap Anson — perhaps the most popular baseball player of the 19th century — refused to play against Newark for reasons that went right to the heart of the matter.
Why did Anson refuse to play baseball, the game he virtually represented, at the time? Well, Newark boasted not one, but two, African Americans. Fleet Walker and George Stovey, both outstanding ballplayers, played on the otherwise all white Newark Eastern League team. As history tells us, no sooner than Anson would threaten to walk, the "color barrier" came crashing down with stunning quickness all across the nation. Sol White would later write that Anson, with "venom and hate," made "strenuous and fruitful opposition" to blacks gaining admittance into major league baseball. Anson simply, White recorded "hastened the exclusion of the black man from the white leagues." That stain on the game would continue for decades. It also effectively and totally eliminated Sol's chance to progress onto a major league baseball diamond.
Remarkably, Sol did not give up on the game he so loved. In fact, his baseball activity remained unabated for 15 to 20 more years even though he played on a different stage different which was far less financially rewarding or popular as the white major leagues. We know now that the quality of play on the black diamonds was outstanding considering the conditions that the players were subjected to. Historians have found box scores which confirm that blacks often played white major leaguers and won their fair share of games. Thankfully, players like Sol and others kept their dream alive by hook or by crook. As the 19th century drew to a close, White played on several great all black teams including the famous Cuban Giants, historically the very first professional (that is, salaried) black ball club, and the Page Fence Giants, the touring barnstorming team that dominated play in the mid west. After returning home to Ohio, Sol even managed to go to college in 1895 when he enrolled in Wilberforce University, the historic all black institute of higher learning. This was no small feat for a ballplayer with little cash reserves.
The Philadelphia Giants and Sol Turns Author
As the new century began, White's baseball acumen took another significant turn. In 1902, a white man by the name of Walter Schlichter befriended White and would remain close to him for many years. Schlichter, sports editor of the Philadelphia Item, funded and organized an all black ball club called the Philadelphia Giants. As a first order of business, he recruited White to manage the team and play on occasion as well. The team was, by all accounts, magnificent! Over the next few years the Giants would dominate black ball, and Sol used his baseball wiles to help advance the careers of many greats including Hall of Famers "Pop" Lloyd and Rube Foster, as well as other outstanding ballplayers such as "Home Run" Johnson, Bruce Petway and the fabulous "black Ty Cobb", Dick "Spotswood" Poles.
White's managerial and organizational skills were impressive but during the height of the Giants' domination on the field, Sol did something that is perhaps today considered the most significant of his many achievements. In 1906, White, with the financial backing of his mentor Mr. Schlichter, wrote and published The History of Colored Baseball, an extremely scarce but essential booklet jammed packed with valuable black ball history. Sol's book is a gem, not only because it is well written but because there is no question that the history of the black ballplayers in the 19th century would be lost today had it not been for White's foresight and tenacity. After all, newspapers of the day barely mentioned the black teams, so White's written words are the only references we now have that tell the story of how African Americans played organized ball despite the obstacles they faced. That great little volume has been reprinted twice since 1980 and is essential reading for anyone interested not only in the very early years of the Negro Leagues but in baseball itself.
Sol White's baseball activities and writings continued well into the 1930's and 40's. I am presently scouring the records and will write a book on this interesting and significant man. The one notable character trait that comes across loud and clear is that Sol was a real gentleman and a kind soul. It is said that throughout is life, although he lived modestly, he gave his own limited resources to other black ball players to help them develop their skills when there existed a "glass ceiling" on the diamond. In a real sense, Sol White was to black baseball what Henry Chadwick was to white baseball, its earliest and tireless promoter. It is not an exaggeration to say that without White, there likely would not have been a Jackie Robinson.
After a very distinguished life as a baseball player, manager, organizer, historian and determined promoter of the game, Sol spent the latter part of his life quietly still preaching the baseball gospel. In an article written in a New York newspaper, the city where Sol spent the last years of his life, he talks to the author of spending leisurely hours pouring over baseball history books at his local library. Although Sol died in 1955 and was not able to finance part two of the history of black ball that he authored 50 years prior, happily he was able to witness Jackie Robinson break the "color barrier," the wall of shame that prevented he, and generations of others, from ever having a chance to play in the major leagues.
At long last, Sol, you are being celebrated along with many others in July of this year at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains are principals of FC Associates, a business specializing in museum consulting, appraisals and legal services. If any readers have interesting ideas for other articles on the Negro Leagues, please email Frank at or Carol.