Moses Fleetwood Walker: 7 Things You Need to Know About Majors' 1st Black Player
Monday is Jackie Robinson Day all around Major League Baseball.
However, unless you know your baseball history inside and out, you wouldn't know that Robinson wasn't the first African-American to play professional baseball.
That honor goes to Moses Fleetwood Walker, who made his professional debut on May 1, 1884 with the Toledo Blue Stockings.
While most people don't know much about Walker, there are many fascinating things about him.
Here's a look at seven such things that you need to know about the majors' first black player.
Note: Quotes in this article were taken from Walker's biography, unless otherwise noted.
He Was Recruited to Play Baseball
Walker was recruited by the University of Michigan to play baseball in 1882.
That led to other opportunities to get paid to play the game.
He was good enough to become the school's top diamond star—and good enough to pick up some cash in the summer of 1881, suiting up for the White Sewing Machine team. One of the region’s best squads, the Cleveland club served as an incubator for several future major leaguers. Fleet was immediately installed as the team’s regular catcher.
It's not to say he wouldn't have had the opportunity to play pro baseball had he not taken the route, but it definitely helped.
Walker was the subject of racism throughout his playing days.
However, nowhere was this more evident than on a trip to Louisville.
According to the Louisville Courier-Journal from that day:
The Cleveland Club brought with them a catcher for their nine a young quadroon named Walker. The first trouble they experienced from Kentucky prejudice was at the St. Cloud Hotel yesterday morning at breakfast, when Walker was refused accommodations. When the club appeared on the field for practice before the game, the managers and one of the players of the Eclipse Club objected to Walker playing on account of his color. In vain, the Clevelands protested that he was their regular catcher, and that his withdrawal would weaken the nine.
The prejudice of the Eclipse was either too strong, or they feared Walker, who has earned the reputation of being the best amateur catcher in the Union. He has played against the League clubs, and in many games with other white clubs, without protest. The Louisville managers decided that he could not play, and the Clevelands were compelled to substitute West.
It would be the first of many times throughout history an African-American would not be allowed to play against a team because of his color.
Walker left the club after the season and started his classes at Michigan.
Hall of Famer Refused to Play
Hall of Famer Cap Anson had a great career in the big leagues.
However, one thing baseball historians note is that he refused to play in a game with Walker on the field.
The event happened on Aug. 10, 1883 when Anson's Chicago White Stockings had an exhibition game scheduled against Walker's Toledo team.
It was normal in those days for professional teams to schedule exhibition games against semi-pro teams.
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.
Sadly, the next time the two teams met in 1884, Anson had it written into his contract that Walker (or any other African-Americans) would not be eligible to play in an exhibition with his team.
During 42 games of his big league career, Walker batted .263 with 40 hits, including two doubles and three triples.
It is interesting to note that his brother, Welday Walker, became the second African-American to play professional baseball.
He only played in five games, batting .222 with four hits.
Regardless of how you look at it, the brothers began a history that is largely forgotten today.
Professional baseball was soon over for Walker, as the American Association soon adopted the same unwritten rules the National League had:
Unbeknownst to Fleet, the powers that be in the American Association had agreed with their National League counterparts to observe the N.L.’s unwritten rule banning blacks from its rosters. When the Union Association slipped into oblivion, the overall talent pool available to the leagues increased, which lessened the need to explore manpower alternatives.
After that, no African-American player would play in the major leagues until Robinson made his debut in 1947.
Acquitted of Murder
In those days, it wasn't uncommon for black men (or women) to be attacked for no reason.
The same thing happened to Walker in 1891 when he was attacked by a man before stabbing (and killing) him in self-defense.
Walker was put on trial, but was acquitted of murder, according to a newspaper article from the Cleveland Gazette.
Later in life, Walker published Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America.
It was there he recommended African-Americans to emigrate to Africa, as "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."
Not to discount anything Robinson went through, but Walker suffered more.
When you look at the fact that slavery had only been abolished less than 20 years before Walker, America was still getting used to that idea.
For many (including Anson), having an African-American ballplayer on the same field was unfathomable.
Whether they thought they were far superior or they still couldn't get used to the idea that slavery no longer existed, whites struggled with blacks being on the field.
Luckily for Robinson, teams couldn't refuse to play or else they forfeited the game.
Robinson took his own shots on and off the field and helped changed the course of history.
However, none of it would have been possible had it not been for the contributions of Walker.