Baseball’s First Black Player — Moses Fleetwood Walker
All across Major League Baseball, April 15th is Jackie Robinson Day–commenmorating the day in 1947 when Robinson first saw action as a Brooklyn Dodger. Most people think Jackie was the first African American to play in the majors, however, before Robinson, there was Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Walker first played for the Toledo Blue Sox of the American Association on May 1, 1884, nearly sixty-three years before Robinson’s first game for Brooklyn. Walker’s brother, Welday Wilberforce Walker joined him on the Toledo team in July 1884.
His Early Life
Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, the son of Dr. Moses W. Walker, the first African-American physician in Mount Pleasant, and Caroline, his white mother, a midwife by trade. During his childhood, his family moved from Mount Pleasant, to Steubenville. Walker was educated in the black schools, until the schools in Steubenville were integrated. Both Moses and his brother Welday attended Steubenville high school.
In 1877, Walker enrolled in Oberlin College, one of the first integrated colleges in the country. (see picture below: Walker sits to far left). The college’s African American enrollment was between 5 and 10 percent, a figure larger than many universities today and nearly unheard of in the 1870s. It had been a major stop on the Underground Railroad and had been admitting black students since 1834.
He was recruited by the University of Michigan and played varsity baseball for Michigan in 1882. On March 4, 1882, the University of Michigan student newspaper, The Chronicle, reported: “M.F. Walker, of the class of ‘83 at Oberlin, arrived in town last week, and intends to enter the University. Mr. Walker caught for the Oberlin base-ball, and last year corresponded with the manager of the Bostons with a view to traveling with the latter nine during the summer, but at length concluded not to do so. Packard and Walker will form the battery for ’83’s nine this spring.
After college, Walker first played baseball for the Toledo Blue Sox of the Northwest League. In 60 games in 1883, Walker batted .251 in his initial season with Toledo. He helped lead the Blue Sox to the NWL title. A year later, Fleetwood played in 42 games in 1884 and hit .263; while his brother, Welday, played in six games. Toledo, now part of the American Association, was officially a major league in 1884.
Walker was considered a fine bare-handed catcher with a strong arm. He was also a fast and daring base runner. He was popular with the fans, but not necessarily with his teammates, largely because of racial prejudices.
… Moses Fleetwood Walker, of the semipro Toledo Mudhens, will forever be linked to Cap Anson (pictured below)
The date was August 10, 1883. At the time, it was a common practice for Major League teams to schedule exhibition games against semipro teams as a way of earning more money. An exhibition had been scheduled between the Toledo team and Anson’s White Stockings. It would prove to be a fateful encounter.
Toledo’s roster included the young, black scholar-athlete Moses Fleetwood Walker, the team’s regular catcher. By all accounts, Walker was a gentlemanly, educated player. On this day, Walker was injured (a common occurrence among catchers in the days before catcher’s mitts were invented) and was told to take the day off by his manager Charlie Morton.
Unaware of the injury but full of his own prejudices, Anson announced to Morton that his team would not play with Walker on the field. This attitude infuriated Morton, who responded by putting Walker into his lineup at centerfield. The game was delayed for over an hour as the two managers argued. Finally, Morton declared that if Anson forfeited the game, he would also forfeit the gate receipts. It seems Anson’s racism ran only as deep as his wallet, as this argument convinced him to play the game. The game was played with Walker and further incidence was avoided.
Moses was an accomplished inventor and businessman. He had several patents, published a newspaper (a black-issues oriented newspaper called The Equator), and ran several business including a theatre that offered opera, live drama, and motion pictures. However, Walker’s life was a complicated one as he battled alcoholism and had several brushes with the law including robbery and 2nd degree murder charges–the latter situation, for which he was acquitted, arising from a racially-motivated mob that accosted Walker when he left a bar.
Moses’ racial experiences led him to become a supporter of Black nationalism and came to believe racial integration would fail in the United States. In 1908 he published a 47-page pamphlet titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In that pamphlet he recommended African Americans emigrate to Africa: “the only practical and permanent solution of the present and future race troubles in the United States is entire separation by emigration of the Negro from America.
Walker died on May 11, 1924 of pneumonia at the age of 67 and is buried in Stuebenville, OH in the family plot at Union Cemetery. In 1991, Walker was elected to the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame.
People who love baseball and its rich history should learn more about Walker and about the important era, led most notably by Cap Anson, that ended up banning Blacks from the game for almost 60 more years. This knowledge should not, however, diminish our admiration for Jackie Robinson’s struggles. We should have a new found appreciation for April 15th and think about it as the struggle of many across many decades and not merely the tribulations of a single man.
To learn more, read David W. Zang’s biography of Walker, entitled Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart–The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer.
Book DescriptionMoses Fleetwood Walker was the first black American to play baseball in a major league. He achieved college baseball stardom at Oberlin College in the 1880s. Teammates as well as opponents harassed him; Cap Anson, the Chicago White Stockings star, is blamed for driving Walker and the few other blacks in the major leagues out of the game, but he could not have done so alone.A gifted athlete, inventor, civil rights activist, author, and entrepreneur, Walker lived precariously along America’s racial fault lines. He died in 1924, thwarted in ambition and talent and frustrated by both the American dream and the national pastime.
About the AuthorDavid W. Zang has taught sports studies and American studies at the University of Maryland, The Pennsylvania State University, and Towson University.
Other Related Books:
- Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson
- Baseball’s Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel
- Beyond the Shadow of the Senators by Brad Snyder