Breaking the color barrier a half century before Jackie Robinson

. April 5, 2017.

If you asked someone outside of Toledo who the first black Major League Baseball Player was, they’d likely answer Jackie Robinson. They wouldn’t be wrong to do it; in 1947, he was the first player of the modern era to break the color barrier. A Hollywood movie (42) was even made to celebrate his accomplishments. But Toledoans know the real story is Moses Fleetwood Walker, the true first African-American to desegregate professional baseball (however briefly). Known by his lifelong nickname “Fleet,” Walker played catcher in the major leagues a full half century before Robinson did. It wouldn’t last though and just as quickly as the door was opened for black players in 1884, it was slammed shut when Walker officially left baseball in 1889, and would remain shut for 58 years.

Making of a legend

Born in Mount Pleasant, on Oct. 7, 1856, Moses Fleetwood Walker was the son of a cooper (who would later become one of the first black physicians in Ohio). The third of six (or possibly seven) children, from parents who were themselves both of mixed race, Walker and his family eventually moved to Oberlin, where his father took up work at the Second Methodist Episcopal Church, and Walker is first reported to have become involved with baseball. Playing for Oberlin College with his younger brother Weldy (who would become the second person of color in the major leagues), Walker, a catcher, showed aplomb for the sport and was invited (along with Weldy) to play at the University of Michigan, after an exhibition game in which they beat the Michigan team 9-2.

During this period, Walker was paid to play for a semipro team, the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland (WSMC). A foreshadowing of things to come, the competing team in Louisville objected to playing against Walker, because of the color of his skin. Walker was held from the lineup, but during the first inning, the backup center became injured and refused to play. Walker was added to the lineup in the second inning, resulting in two objecting Louisville players leaving the field in protest. Ultimately, Walker was not allowed to play and the third baseman was pulled to substitute as catcher.

Going pro

Leaving school in 1883, Walker devoted himself to the pursuit of playing full-time professional baseball. He signed with a semi-pro team, the Toledo Blue Stockings, and though he was a strong defensive player, he batted a middling .251 for them. Paid $2000 that season when laborers were earning $10 a week, he was actually paid considerably, even amongst white players. The Blue Stockings performed well that year and were permitted to join the American Association in 1884, making Walker the first official African-American to join the major leagues. His brother would be picked up by the Toledo Blue Stockings shortly thereafter. Walker’s parents would ultimately move to Toledo, and continue to live here even after their sons’ careers in the city were over.

Before the merger though, Chicago White Stockings manager, outspoken racist and future hall-of-famer Cap Anson declared that his team would not play against a person of color. A popular player and manager, Anson’s declaration helped turn the tide and ultimately result in the ban of African-American players in 1887. While players already in the league were allowed to remain, no new African-American players would be signed to contracts.

Both Walker and his brother would last only a short time in the major leagues before being released. The Toledo team, which had done well as a semi-pro club, floundered in the major leagues and finished eighth out of ten teams and neither Walker, nor his brother, ever played in the major leagues again. Walker played with several minor league teams thereafter, but finally retired from baseball in 1889.

Life after baseball

Walker went on to manage an opera house and become an inventor, filing patents for an exploding artillery shell and devices to help change movie reels. He also got into legal trouble for killing a member of a drunken white mob, harassing Walker. On the charge of second-degree murder, he was acquitted by an all-white jury, but would later do jail time for mail fraud.

Walker died of pneumonia, May 11, 1924, in Cleveland. His only grandchild died in infancy, leaving the man who first broke the color barrier in professional baseball with no direct descendants. His legacy and courage lives on with the sport of baseball however, as a powerful reminder that we need to continually strive to do better in all things, including sports.