Before There Was Jackie Robinson: There Was Moses Fleetwood Walker
Jackie Robinson gets the credit for being the first black person to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. There was a black man who played professional baseball in 1884. His name was Moses Fleetwood Walker. Before him, there was another black man who played professional baseball. His name was William Edward White, and he is technically the first black man to play professional baseball. White was a light-skinned black man who was able to have others in professional baseball believe he was a white person. This enabled him to avoid all the racism associated with being a black man playing a professional sport. Moses Fleetwood Walker never tried to be anything other than a black man when he played professional baseball. He was forced to experience the racism and struggles associated with being black during the late 1800s. White played a professional baseball game in 1879. Moses Fleetwood Walker played in a game in 1884 and is recognized as the first openly black person to play professional baseball.
In 1856, Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. It was known as a working-class town. In 1815, the town was recognized as a sanctuary for runaway slaves. Most members of the town were either part of the Quaker community or former slaves from Virginia. Walker's father was named Moses and his mother's name was Caroline O' Harra. They were married in 1843. At the age of three, Walker's family moved northeast to Steubenville, Ohio. This is when Walker's father became one of Ohio's first black physicians. During the early 1870s, he attended Steubenville High School. This happened after the local community passed laws covering racial integration in education.
In 1878, Walker became a student at Oberlin College. His major was the arts and philosophy. Walker established himself as a very good student. In Steubenville, baseball was an extremely popular sport with everyone in the community. When Walker was in a college preparatory program for Oberlin College, he became the school's leadoff hitter and catcher. In 1865, the Oberlin College baseball team had a first baseman with the nickname “Jet Black.” Walker was not the first black person to play for this college’s baseball team.
His excellent play during games was often recognized by the college newspaper called The Oberlin Review. Walker was acknowledged for his ability to hit long home runs and his excellent ball handling. He played on the college baseball team's first inter-collegiate team. During the last game of the season, Walker played so well that he was recruited by the University of Michigan. In 1882, Walker played with the Michigan baseball team. The team finished the season that year with a record of 10-3. Walker had a .308 batting average.
In 1881, Cleveland's White Sewing Machine Company paid Walker to play for their semi-professional team. Walker's presence on an otherwise all-white team became a problem. When the team arrived in Louisville, Kentucky for a game, he was turned away from the hotel because of his race. During the game, members of the Louisville team complained about Walker's participation. The team ultimately took Walker out of the lineup. A player from Walker's team was struggling to play because of an injury. Walker was told to go onto the field, warm-up, and get ready to play. The members of the Louisville team refused to play until Walker's team had a white person playing the catcher position. His team again replaced him to continue playing the game.
Professional Baseball Career
Walker left his studies at Michigan in 1883. He was offered a baseball contract by the Toledo Blue Stockings. Their coach was named William Voltz and the Blue Stockings were part of the Northwestern League. Voltz had spent time watching Walker play at Oberlin College. During his initial season with the Blue Stockings, Walker had a respectable hitting record with a .251 batting average. He distinguished himself for his play as a catcher and his durability. This was a time when catchers used little or no protective equipment. Like most catchers during this time, Walker wore a lambskin glove with finger slits. They also had a little padding in the palm. He was known to prefer playing barehanded. Out of Toledo's 84 game schedule that year, Walker played in 60 of the games. It was a championship season for Toledo.
Walker playing caused immediate friction within professional baseball. Before he played his first game, the League discussed a proposal by the representative of the baseball team from Peoria, Illinois. The motion would have prevented all blacks from playing in the league. This led to intense arguments among the league's executives. Eventually, the proposal was dropped and Walker was able to play. During a game with the Chicago White Stockings in August 1883, the manager of the Chicago team refused to play if the Toledo team would have Walker in their lineup. Toledo's manager said if the Chicago team did this they would forfeit the game as well as the receipts from the gate. Chicago then played the game. The White Stockings won 7-6 in extra innings.
The Toledo Blue Stockings season was so successful they were transferred to a major league organization called the American Association On May 1, 1884, Walker played his first game against the Louisville Eclipse as a major league baseball player. It wasn't a good game for him. He went hitless and committed four errors. During the season, Walker was the catcher for the team's ace pitcher Tony Mullane. He described Walker as one of the best catchers he had worked with when playing the game. Walker was injured and was only able to play 42 games of the 104-game season. He had a 263 batting average and this made him among the top three batters in the league. The Blue Stockings finished the season in eighth place.
End of Career
Walker still struggled with an injury he experienced in July 1884. The Toledo team was under financial pressure and tried to eliminate their most expensive contracts. Walker was released from the team in September 1884. He then worked as a mail clerk in the offseason but played 18 games of professional baseball for a Western League team in 1885. Walker played for a Waterbury, Connecticut team in 1886 and 1887. He played for a Syracuse, New York team during the 1888 baseball season. In August 1889, Walker was released from the Syracuse team. He would be the last black man to play major league baseball until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Walker was part owner of Steubenville's Union Hotel. He also managed an Opera House that hosted vaudeville, opera, live drama as well as minstrel shows. Walker became a respected community businessman. He was also able to patent inventions to improve a film reel and more. Walker also published a book called Our Home Colony.
Walker died of lobar pneumonia on May 11, 1924. He was 67 years old. He was buried next to his first wife at the Union Cemetery-Beatty Park in Steubenville, OH.