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 debuted in the league on May 1, 1884, with the Toledo Blue Stockings in a 5-1 loss against the Louisville Eclipse. Walker, a 26-year-old African American barehanded catcher from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, had abandoned his law studies a year earlier at the University of Michigan to play with the Blue Stockings.

According to Sporting Life, “Toledo suffered greatly through the errors of Walker, who made three terrible throws,” in his debut. But the Toledo Blade drew a different picture of his performance. “Walker is one of the most reliable men in the club, but his poor playing in a city where the color line is closely drawn as it is in Louisville should not be counted against him,” reported the newspaper. “Many a good player under less gravitating circumstances than this has become rattled 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 did not yet wear protective pads.) But racist objections to integrating baseball lay at the root of his release from the team. Before a game in Richmond, Toledo’s manager, Charlie Morton, received a letter declaring that a lynch mob of 75 men would attack Walker if he tried to take the field in the former Confederate capital. Walker didn’t 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 catcher I ever worked with,” said Toledo star pitcher Tony Mullane in a 1919 interview. “But I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything 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 keep African Americans off rosters until Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In his life after baseball, Walker became an inventor, cinema owner, author, newspaper editor and a fierce advocate for the emigration of African Americans to Africa.

Drawing The Color Line in Baseball

Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
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-physician 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 both Oberlin College and Michigan, Walker went professional when he joined Toledo, then a minor league operation, in 1883. (The team was invited into MLB's American Association the following year, after winning its league pennant, but only lasted a season before reverting 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 MLB players of the era, said he wouldn’t play an exhibition game against Toledo if Walker played. Ultimately, the game went on as planned after Anson, unwilling to lose his share of the gate receipts, reneged on his threat.

In 1887, when Walker was playing with a Newark, New Jersey minor league team, Anson, a Chicago White Stocking, again balked at playing in an exhibition with Black players. Walker and his Black teammate, George Stovey, ended up on the bench during the game. “Anson was one of the prime architects of baseball’s Jim Crow policies,” wrote baseball historian Jules Tygiel in Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. “The athletes’ antipathy for interracial competition reflected the ‘culture of professionalism’ emerging in late 19th-century America. Practitioners of different occupations formed organizations, established standards of performance and erected barriers to entry.”

“DRAWING THE COLOR LINE: Chicago Unwilling to Play With Stovey, No More Colored Players,” read a Newark Evening News headline the day after the game on July 15, 1887. That same day in Buffalo, the International League passed a resolution to not approve future contracts for African American players. Walker was already under contract with Newark, so he stayed in the league through the 1889 season.

Trouble With the Law

Moses Fleetwood Walker, Syracuse Stars Base Ball Club
Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images
Team portrait of the Syracuse Stars Baseball Club, including&nbsp;<em>Moses Fleetwood Walker (back row, far right)</em>, c. 1889

Forced out of baseball, Walker took a job in Syracuse handling registered letters on the New York Central Railroad. In 1891, Walker stabbed to death an ex-convict outside a Syracuse saloon. He argued that he had acted in self-defense after being struck 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. 

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

Entrepreneur, Publisher and Militant Author 

By the turn of the 20th century, Walker was running theater venues in Ohio, where he received patents for his work in early motion picture technology. One patent helped film projectionists determine more efficiently when a reel was ending. 

As the country became increasingly ensnared in racial violence, Walker became more engaged and militant on the issues facing African Americans. With his younger brother Weldy, he briefly edited The Equator, a newspaper that focused on race matters and offered a service to help African Americans emigrate 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 Negro race will be a menace and a source of discontent as long as it remains in large numbers in the United States,” Walker wrote. “The time is growing very near when the whites of the United States must either settle this problem by deportation or else be willing to accept a reign of terror such as the world has never seen in a civilized country.”

Walker and Weldy never led an emigration of Blacks to Africa or any other country—nor did they ever incite racial violence. “Though he thought Black people had innate powers of mind and body that might blossom if they emigrated from America, it was a strange prediction inasmuch as they would have to show their capabilities in Africa, a place Walker astoundingly found no irony in labeling, ‘the very midst of intellectual and moral darkness,’” wrote David W. Zang, the author of Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer.

Moses Fleetwood Walker’s Legacy

In 1924, Walker died at the age of 67 from pneumonia. At the time, he was working as a clerk in 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 Sporting Life, Weldy wrote eloquently and passionately in 1888 about the fate of Black ballplayers. “There should be some broader cause—such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence,” he wrote, “for barring a player, rather than his color.” To him and many others in the game, Fleetwood was possessed with all these traits that would make him a great player.

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