On the anniversary of the first game in MLB history, let us look back at the first player to step into the batter’s box: Elmer White.
Back in the early days of MLB, the White family was fairly prominent. Deacon White would go on to a Hall of Fame career as a catcher and third baseman, one of the few excellent hitting backstops in his time. His brother, Will White, was a successful pitcher, winning 229 games in his ten year MLB career. Their cousin, Elmer White, was an outfielder, who also spent some time at catcher.
Both Elmer and Deacon were with the Cleveland Forest Citys of the National Association in 1871, the year that Major League Baseball came into existence. Elmer earned the distinction of being the first batter in MLB history, facing off against Bobby Mathews of the Fort Wayne Kekiongas. When he stepped into the batter’s box for that first time, he ended up making history.
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Unfortunately, White’s season came to an end about halfway through the Forest Citys season. In one of his three appearances at catcher, White went after a badly thrown ball. He ran into a fence, breaking his arm, and subsequently ending his career.
At the time of his injury, White had produced a .257/.268/.286 batting line, with just two doubles and a walk in 71 plate appearances. While that production was quite below average, worth an OPS+ of just 60, it was still better than his replacements. The trio of Joe Batten, George Ewell, and William Johnson had a total of 15 hits in 74 plate appearances, as they were not even up to White’s standards.
Unfortunately, White would not be known just for being the first batter in MLB history. He was also the first former Major Leaguer to pass away, succumbing to tuberculosis on March 17, 1872 at just 22 years old.
No one can say what type of career that White would have had. His two cousins each had long and successful careers, and it is possible that Elmer could have joined them. He was more productive than the Forest Citys other options in the outfield, and at 21 years of age, could well have developed into a solid player in his own right.