6 Decades Before Jackie Robinson, This Man Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier

Sixty-three years before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American in the modern era to play in a Major League Baseball game, Moses Fleetwood Walker made his league debut on May 1, 1884 with the Toledo Blue Stockings. in a 5-1 loss to the Louisville Eclipse. Walker, a 26-year-old African-American catcher from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, had dropped out of law school a year earlier at the University of Michigan to play for the Blue Stockings.

According to sports life, “Toledo suffered a lot from the errors of Walker, who made three terrible throws”, in his debut. But the Blade of Toledo painted a different picture of his performance. “Walker is one of the club’s most reliable men, but his poor play in a city where the color line is tightly drawn as it is in Louisville should not be counted against him,” the newspaper reported. . “A lot of good players in circumstances less interesting than these have become shaken and unable to play.”

In 42 games with the Blue Stockings that year, Walker had a .263 batting average with 40 hits and 23 runs scored. He made his last MLB appearance on September 4, 1884 after suffering a broken rib earlier in the season. (Catchers were not yet wearing protective pads.) But racist objections to baseball’s integration were the reason for his release from the team. Before a game in Richmond, Toledo manager Charlie Morton received a letter stating that a mob of 75 men would attack Walker if he attempted to take the field in the former Confederate capital. Walker did not make the trip to Virginia.

While most of his white Toledo teammates supported him, at least one shared the racist views of many of their opponents. “He was the best receiver I ever worked with,” Toledo star pitcher Tony Mullane said in a 1919 interview. I used whatever I wanted without looking at his signals.”

By the time Walker retired from baseball in 1889 after bouncing around in the minor leagues, MLB owners had established a “gentlemen’s agreement” that would exclude African Americans from rosters until Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. in 1947. In his life after baseball, Walker became an inventor, movie theater owner, author, editor, and a vocal advocate for African American emigration to Africa.

Draw the color line in baseball

Portrait of the Oberlin College baseball team, c. 1881. Among those pictured are brothers Moses Fleetwood Walker (middle row, left, number 6) and Weldy Wilberforce Walker (back row, second from right, number 10)

The son of a minister-turned-doctor and a midwife, Walker was born into a middle-class family in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a town that had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. After playing baseball at Oberlin College and Michigan, Walker turned pro when he joined Toledo, then a minor league operation, in 1883. (The team was invited to the American Association of MLB the following year, after winning his league pennant, but only lasted one season before returning to the minors.) Walker’s younger brother, Weldy Wilberforce Walker, briefly played with him in Oberlin, Michigan and Toledo .

After Walker signed with Blue Stockings in 1883, Cap Anson, one of the most dominant white players in MLB at the time, said he would not play an exhibition game against Toledo if Walker played. In the end, the game went as planned after Anson, not wanting to lose his share of gate receipts, reneged on his threat.

In 1887, while Walker was playing with a minor league team from Newark, New Jersey, Anson, a Chicago White Stocking, was once again balking at playing in an exhibition with black players. Walker and his black teammate, George Stovey, found themselves on the bench during the game. “Anson was one of the chief architects of baseball’s Jim Crow policy,” baseball historian Jules Tygiel wrote in The Great Baseball Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. “Athletes’ antipathy to interracial competition reflected the ‘culture of professionalism’ emerging in late 19th century America. Practitioners of different professions have formed organizations, set performance standards and erected barriers to entry.

‘DRAW THE COLOR LINE: Chicago doesn’t want to play with Stovey, no more players of color,’ read one Newark Evening News title the day after the game on July 15, 1887. The same day in Buffalo, the International League passed a resolution not to approve future contracts for African-American players. Walker was already under contract with Newark, so he remained in the league through the 1889 season.

Scroll to continue

READ MORE: The 19th century black sports superstar you’ve never heard of

Problem with the law

Moses Fleetwood Walker, Syracuse All-Star Baseball Club

Syracuse Stars Baseball Club team portrait including Moses Fleetwood Walker (back row, far right), ch. 1889

Forced out of baseball, Walker took a job in Syracuse processing registered mail on the New York Central Railroad. In 1891, Walker stabbed an ex-convict to death outside a Syracuse saloon. He argued he acted in self-defense after being hit in the head by a rock by one of his white attackers. After a sensational trial, an all-white jury acquitted him of second-degree murder.

After the trial, Walker moved with his family to Steubenville, Ohio, where he found work as a mail clerk. While on the job, he was arrested for stealing mail and served a year in prison.

Entrepreneur, Publisher and Activist Author

At the turn of the 20and century, Walker ran theaters in Ohio, where he received patents for his work on early motion picture technology. A patent has helped movie projectionists more efficiently determine when a reel is ending.

As the country became increasingly ensnared in racial violence, Walker became more engaged and militant on issues facing African Americans. Together with his younger brother Weldy, he briefly edited Ecuador, a newspaper that focused on racial issues and offered a service to help African Americans immigrate to Liberia. In 1908, Walker published a 47-page book, Our Home Colony, A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America, where he urged African Americans to return to Africa.

“The black race will be a threat and a source of discontent so long as they remain in large numbers in the United States,” Walker wrote. “The time is approaching when white people in the United States must either settle this problem by deportation or be prepared to accept a reign of terror such as the world has never seen in a civilized country.”

Walker and Weldy never led black emigration to Africa or any other country, and never incited racial violence. “Although he believed that blacks had innate powers of mind and body that could flourish if they emigrated from America, it was a strange prediction in that they would have to show their abilities in Africa , a place Walker surprisingly found no irony in labeling, ‘in the very midst of intellectual and moral darkness,’ wrote David W. Zang, the author of The Divided Heart of Fleet Walker: The Life of Major League Baseball’s First Black Player.

READ MORE: How a movement to send former slaves to Africa created Liberia

The Legacy of Moses Fleetwood Walker

In 1924 Walker died at the age of 67 of pneumonia. At the time, he was working as a clerk at a Cleveland pool hall. The Toledo Mud Hens, a Triple A minor league team in the Detroit Tigers organization, honored Walker in 2009, and there is a mural of him in Steubenville, where he attended high school with his brother Weldy.

For sports life, Weldy wrote eloquently and passionately in 1888 about the plight of black baseball players. “There should be a larger cause, such as lack of ability, demeanor and intelligence,” he wrote, “for excluding a player, rather than his color.” For him and many others in the game, Fleetwood possessed all those traits that would make him a great player.