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Moses Fleetwood Walker

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Moses Fleetwood Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker.jpg
Born: (1856-10-07)October 7, 1856
Mount Pleasant, Ohio, United States
Died: May 11, 1924(1924-05-11) (aged 67)
Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.
Batted: Right Threw: Right
MLB debut
May 1, 1884, for the Toledo Blue Stockings
Last MLB appearance
September 4, 1884, for the Toledo Blue Stockings
MLB statistics
Games played42
Batting average.263
Runs scored23

Moses Fleetwood Walker (October 7, 1856 – May 11, 1924) was an American professional baseball catcher who is credited with being one of the first black men to play in Major League Baseball (MLB). A native of Mount Pleasant, Ohio, and a star athlete at Oberlin College as well as the University of Michigan, Walker played for semi-professional and minor league baseball clubs before joining the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (AA) for the 1884 season.

Though research by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) indicates William Edward White was the first African-American baseball player in the major leagues, Walker, unlike White (who passed as a white man), was open about his black heritage, and often faced racial bigotry so prevalent in the late 19th century United States. His brother, Weldy, became the second black athlete to do so later in the same year, also for the Toledo ball club. Walker played just one season, 42 games total, for Toledo before injuries entailed his release.

Walker played in the minor leagues until 1889, and was the last African-American to participate on the major league level before Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947. After his baseball career, he became a successful businessman and inventor. As an advocate of Black nationalism, Walker also jointly edited a newspaper, The Equator, with his brother. He published a book, Our Home Colony (1908), to explore ideas about emigrating back to Africa. He died in 1924 at the age of 67.

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The great Jackie Robinson accomplished an amazing amount in his lifetime both on and off the field. Despite all the adversity and pressure he experienced, he somehow managed to put up legitimate Hall of Fame numbers doing what is often described as the hardest thing in all of sports- hitting a round ball with a thin round stick. One thing that he didn’t do, something that’s often credited to him, was become the first African American person to play in the Major Leagues. That was something that had been done at least three times before Robinson made his historic Major League debut on April 15, 1947. Now if you happen to be a trivia buff and knew that already, odds are you think the first was actually Moses Fleetwood Walker, the second was his brother Weldy Walker, and you’re probably scratching your head trying to come up with the third. It turns out, that’s probably not correct either, although the verdict is still slightly out on the matter (being a very recent discovery). The real first African American to play in the major leagues, and the only former slave to do so, is now generally thought to be a man by the name of William Edward White. Eighteen year old White, who at the time was a student at Brown, replaced an injured Joe Start in one single game in the Majors, playing for the National League Providence Grays on June 21, 1879. This was five years before Fleetwood Walker would make his Major League debut. In that game, White went 1 for 4 and scored a run in a game the Grays won 5 to 3. While not a lot is known about White, what is known is that he officially claimed he himself was “white” and not of African heritage (his skin color apparently being light enough to pass as such). This is why up until very recently he wasn’t given credit for being the first African American to play in the Majors, with that honor going to Moses Fleetwood Walker. This all changed when members of the Society for American Baseball Research, more commonly known as “SABR”, uncovered the fact that, according to an 1870 U.S. census, White’s mother was a woman named Hannah White, one of the 70 slaves owned by the person William White listed as his father according to Brown University’s records- Andrew Jackson White. Hannah’s other two children also appear to have been fathered by Andrew Jackson White. A.J. White also left the bulk of his estate to Hannah’s three children when he died, including William White, though he only acknowledged them as “the children of my servant Hannah”, rather than his own children. In the context of solving the mystery of whether William White was the first African American to play in the Majors, the important bit in the Will is that he named William the child of Hannah, which backs up what the U.S. census stated. Thus, with the evidence at hand so far, it appears William White was the first African American to play in the Majors. As to why he never played again after that game, it isn’t known, but of course speculation is that his heritage was discovered, though it may have simply been that a better player was in the wings, as his replacement was future Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke. Whatever the case, the person long considered to have been the first African American to play in the Majors was, as mentioned, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker made his Major League debut on May 1, 1884 playing for the Toledo Blue Stockings against the Louisville Eclipse. He had been playing for the then minor league Blue Stockings when the team was added to the American Association, which later became the American League. By all accounts, Walker was no less of an amazing player than the great Jackie Robinson, and is deserving of a lot of credit for what he went through during his time in the Majors. How good was he? Let’s just qualify the stats with the fact that Walker was a catcher… who caught without a glove or any other major protection, as was common at the time. Needless to say, catchers of the day were incredibly injury prone and rarely did well offensively because of the beating they took behind the plate. Walker had it worse than most because many of the pitchers didn’t want to let a black man ostensibly tell them what to do by calling the pitches. As one pitcher, Tony Mullane, stated: [Walker] was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked [the] Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals. As a result, Walker was in the unenviable position of crouching behind the plate attempting to catch baseballs with no protective gear nor glove and not knowing the location nor what pitch was going to be thrown. Despite this, in his 42 games played in the Majors, he batted .263 (some accounts claim .264). Now that might not sound impressive, but you should consider the fact that this was well above average in his day- the rest of his team combined for an average of just .231 with the league average just .240 the season he played. Further, as catchers took an incredible beating (and still do today, though to a drastically lesser extent), most catchers typically batted between .100-.200 in his day. He was so good with his bat, that when he was too beat up to catch, they’d typically put him in the outfield so as not to lose his offensive production. He also had to overcome the same type of obstacles as Jackie Robinson, including death threats, constant personal and physical attacks, and certain players refusing to play if Walker was allowed on the field, such as future Hall of Famer Adrian “Cap” Anson (the first major leaguer to accumulate more than 3,000 hits, finishing with 3,481). In fact, Fleetwood Walker’s brother, Weldy Walker, who also played in the Majors (5 games), blamed Anson for the banning of African American players in the Minor and Major leagues in the first place. (In truth, Anson’s despicable antics probably didn’t have nearly that much to do with it, though Anson was quite vocal about his opinions on the matter and not shy at all about trying to pressure others into advocating for the same stance.) For instance, in Anson’s first encounter with Walker, Walker was supposed to have the day off, but when manager Charlie Morton heard that Anson and his team, the White Stockings, were refusing to play if Walker was allowed on the field, he put Walker in the lineup and told Anson that not only would they be forfeiting the game if they refused to play, but they’d also forfeit the money from ticket sales. Once money was brought into it, Anson and the White Stockings begrudgingly agreed to play. After being injured to the point where he couldn’t bat, Fleetwood Walker’s Major League career ended up being over. Once he was healed up, he continued his career in the minors (which in 1887 boasted 13 African Americans despite rampant segregation). He also played in a few other leagues before finally both the National League and the American Association decided on their “gentleman’s agreement” to not sign any African American player, with that decision trickling down to other leagues that had not already instituted similar bans. Robbed of the ability to play in the American and National Leagues as well as most others of any note at the time, Fleetwood Walker left baseball, as his brother also later did after playing and managing in a Negro league that ultimately failed. The two went on to various business ventures, at which they were seemingly quite successful, such as owning an operating a hotel, a movie theater, as well as a series of restaurants. Fleetwood Walker even attempted to get patents on a few different pieces of equipment he invented for showing “moving pictures”; he also held a patent for a certain type of exploding artillery shell. The two also became involved in politics with Weldy Walker serving on the Executive Committee of the Negro Protective Party, which was formed in response to the government turning a blind eye on the frequent lynchings that occurred at the time. The two also owned and operated the newspaper, The Equator. I’ll close this with an excerpt from an open letter from Weldy Walker to the President of the Tri-State League published in The Sporting Life on March 14, 1888, after African Americans were officially banned from playing in those leagues when a law permitting them to be signed was repealed by the league: …It is not because I was reserved and have been denied making my bread and butter with some club that I speak; but it is in hopes that the action taken at your last meeting will be called up for reconsideration at your next. The law is disgrace to the present age, and reflects very much upon the intelligence of your last meeting, and casts derision at the laws of Ohio- the voice of the people- that say all men are equal. I would suggest that your honorable body, in case that black law is not repealed, pass one making it criminal for a colored man or woman to be found in a ball ground. There is now the same accommodation made for the colored patron of the game as the white, and the same provision and dispensation is made of the money of them both that finds its way into the coffers of the various clubs. There should be some broader cause–such as want of ability, behavior, and intelligence–for barring a player than his color. It is for these reasons and because I think ability and intelligence should be recognized first and last–at all times and by everyone–I ask the question again, why was the “law permitting colored men to sign repealed, etc.?” Yours truly, Weldy W. Walker While on the whole the Walker brothers did quite well for themselves financially in their lives after baseball, particularly considering the racial obstacles they had to deal with at the time, Fleetwood Walker was once attacked by a group of white men. During the ensuing melee, Walker killed one of the men, Patrick Murray. The remaining attackers attempted to kill Walker, but he escaped, though was later arrested and imprisoned. Somewhat surprisingly given attitudes at the time, on June 3, 1891 at the conclusion of his trial, a jury of all white men acquitted Walker on all charges.



Early life

Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in 1856 in Mount Pleasant, a working-class town in Eastern Ohio that had served as a sanctuary for runaway slaves since 1815. Its population included a large Quaker community and a unique collective of former Virginian slaves.[1][2] Walker's parents, Moses W. Walker and Caroline O' Harra, were both mulattos.[3] According to Walker's biographer David W. Zang, his father came to Ohio from Pennsylvania, likely a beneficiary of Quaker patronage, and married O' Harra, who was a native to the state, on June 11, 1843.[4] When Walker was three years old, the family moved 20 miles northeast to Steubenville where Moses W. became one of the first black physicians of Ohio and later a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church.[5] There, Walker's fifth or sixth sibling, his younger brother Weldy, was born the same year.[6] Walker and Weldy attended Steubenville High School in the early 1870s, just as the community passed legislation for racial integration.[7]

As an adult, Walker enrolled at Oberlin College in 1878, where he majored in philosophy and the arts. At Oberlin, Walker proved himself to be an excellent student, especially in mechanics and rhetoric, but by his sophomore year he was rarely attending classes.[8] How Walker first came to play baseball is uncertain: according to Zang, the game was popular among Steubenville children, and while in Oberlin's preparatory program Walker became the prep team's catcher and leadoff hitter. Oberlin men played baseball as early as 1865—including a “jet black” first baseman whose presence meant Walker was not the college's first black baseball player—with organized clubs that engaged in intense matchups.[9] Walker gained stardom and mentions in the school newspaper, The Oberlin Review, for his ball handling and ability to hit long home runs.[9][10]

In 1881, Oberlin lifted their ban on off-campus competition. Walker, joined by Weldy who enrolled in the class of 1885, played on the baseball club's first inter-collegiate team.[6][11] By Oberlin pitcher Harlan Burket's account, Walker's performance in the season finale persuaded the University of Michigan to recruit him to their own program. Accompanying him was Walker's pregnant girlfriend, Arbella Taylor, whom he married a year later.[12] Michigan's baseball club had been weakest behind the plate; the team had gone as far as to hire semi-professional catchers to fill the void.[5] With Walker, the team performed well, finishing with a 10–3 record in 1882. He mostly hit second in the lineup and is credited with a .308 batting average (BA).[13]

1882 University of Michigan baseball team (Walker front row, third from right).
1882 University of Michigan baseball team (Walker front row, third from right).

During his time at Michigan, Walker was paid by the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland to play for their semi-professional ball club in August 1881. Walker's presence was controversial when the team arrived for a game in Louisville, Kentucky, the first place to have a major issue with his race.[14] As the team arrived in the early morning of the game, Walker was turned away from the Saint Cloud Hotel.[15] More issues arose during game time: members of the Louisville Eclipse protested Walker's participation; Cleveland relented and held him out of the lineup. After one inning, his substitute claimed his hands were too badly bruised to continue, and Walker hesitantly walked on to the field for warm-ups. Louisville again protested and refused to resume play until Cleveland's third baseman volunteered to go behind the plate.[16]

Baseball career

In mid-1883, Walker left his studies at Michigan and was signed to his first professional baseball contract by William Voltz, manager of the major league Toledo Blue Stockings, a Northwestern League team. As a former sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Voltz watched Walker play for Oberlin; his signing reunited Walker with his former battery-mate Burket.[17] Though Walker hit in decent numbers, recording a .251 BA, he became revered for his play behind the plate and his durability during an era where catchers wore little to no protective equipment. The Blue Stockings' ball boy recalled Walker “occasionally wore ordinary lambskin gloves with the fingers slit and slightly padded in the palm; more often he caught barehanded”.[18] Nonetheless, he played in 60 of Toledo's 84 games during their championship season. At the core of the team's success, one sportswriter at Sporting Life pointed out, were Walker and pitcher Hank O'Day, which he considered “one of the most remarkable batteries in the country”.[5]

Walker's entrance into professional baseball caused immediate friction in the league. Before he had the opportunity to appear in a game, the executive committee of the Northwestern League debated a motion proposed by the representative of the Peoria, Illinois club that would prohibit all colored ball players from entering the league.[19] After intense arguments, the motion was dropped, allowing Walker to play. On August 10, 1883, in an exhibition against the Chicago White Stockings, Chicago's manager Cap Anson refused to play if Walker was in the lineup. In response, Charlie Morton, who replaced Voltz as Toledo's manager at mid-season, challenged Anson's ultimatum by not only warning him of the risk of forfeiting gate receipts, but also by starting Walker at right field.[20] Anson is alleged to have said “We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the nigger in”.[21] The White Stockings won in extra innings 7–6.[19]

The Blue Stockings' successful season in the Northwestern League prompted the team to transfer to the American Association, a major league organization, in 1884. Walker's first appearance as a major league ball player was an away game against the Louisville Eclipse on May 1, 1884; he went hitless in three at-bats and committed four errors in a 5–1 loss.[22] Throughout the 1884 season, Walker regularly caught for ace pitcher Tony Mullane. Mullane, who described the rookie ball player as “the best catcher I ever worked with”, purposefully threw pitches that were not signaled just to cross up the catcher.[23] Walker's year was plagued with injuries, limiting him to just 42 games in a 104-game season. For the season, he had a .263 BA, which was top three in the league, but Toledo finished eighth in the pennant race. The team was also troubled by numerous injuries: circumstances led to Walker's brother, Weldy, joining the Blue Stockings for six games in the outfield.[24]

Toledo's team, under financial pressure at season's end, worked to relieve themselves of their expensive contracts. Not yet fully recovered from a rib injury sustained in July, Walker was released by the Blue Stockings on September 22, 1884. During the offseason, Walker took a position as a mail clerk, but returned to baseball in 1885, playing in the Western League for 18 games.[24] For the second half of 1885, he joined the baseball club in Waterbury for 10 games.[25] When the season ended, Walker reunited with Weldy in Cleveland to assume the proprietorship of the LeGrande House, an opera theater and hotel.[5] According to Zang, Walker could afford the business venture after commanding a $2,000 contract as a major leaguer.[18] Though he could no longer negotiate such a salary, his skills were still highly attractive to teams: Walker returned to Waterbury in 1886 when the team joined the more competitive Eastern League.[5]

Despite a lackluster season for Waterbury, Walker was offered a position with the defending champion Newark Little Giants, an International League team. Together, with pitcher George Stovey, Walker formed half of the first African-American battery in organized baseball.[26] Billed as the “Spanish battery” by fans, Stovey recorded 35 wins in the season, while Walker posted career highs in games played, fielding percentage, and BA.[27] Walker followed Newark's manager Charlie Hackett to the Syracuse Stars in 1888. Although he slumped at the plate during his two years playing for the Stars, he was popular among Syracuse fans, so much so that Walker was their unofficial spokesman and established business ties in the city.[28] On August 23, 1889, Walker was released from the team; he was the last African-American to play in the International League until Jackie Robinson.[5]

Later life

Walker stayed in Syracuse after the Stars released him, returning to a position in the postal service. Around this time, a former Syracuse University professor, Dr. Joel Gibert Justin, had been experimenting with firing artillery shells with gunpowder rather than compressed air, culminating in his failed invention the "Justin Gun". Fascinated, Walker designed and patented an outer casing in 1891 that remedied Justin's failure.[29][30] The first of his four patented inventions, Walker invested in the design with hopes it would be in great demand, but the shell never garnered enough interest.[30]

On April 9, 1891, Walker was involved in an altercation outside a saloon with a group of four white men exchanging racial insults.[31] Members of the group, including bricklayer Patrick "Curly" Murray, approached Walker and reportedly threw a stone at his head, dazing him. Walker responded by fatally stabbing Murray with a pocket knife. A compliant Walker surrendered to police, claiming self-defense, but was charged with second-degree murder (lowered from first-degree murder).[32] On June 3, 1891, Walker was found not guilty by an all-white jury, much to the delight of spectators in the courthouse. He returned to Steubenville to, again, work for the postal service, handling letters for the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad.[33]

On June 12, 1895, Walker's wife Arabella died of cancer at 32 years old; he remarried three years later to Ednah Mason, another former Oberlin student.[34] The same year, Walker was found guilty of mail robbery and was sentenced to one year in prison which he served in Miami County and Jefferson County Jail.[35] After his release during the turn of the century, Walker jointly owned the Union Hotel in Steubenville with Weldy, and managed the Opera House, a movie theater in nearby Cadiz.[5] As host to opera, live drama, vaudeville, and minstrel shows at the Opera House, Walker became a respected businessman and patented inventions that improved film reels when nickelodeons were popularized.[36] In 1902, the brothers explored ideas of Black nationalism as editors for The Equator, although no copies exist today as evidence.[37] Walker expanded upon his works about race theory in The Equator by publishing the book Our Home Colony (1908). Regarded as “the most learned book a professional athlete ever wrote”, Our Home Colony shared Walker's thesis on the victimization of the black race and a proposal for African-Americans to emigrate back to Africa.[37]

Ednah died on May 26, 1920. Widowed again, Walker sold the Opera House and managed the Temple Theater in Cleveland with Weldy. On May 11, 1924, Walker died of lobar pneumonia at 67 years of age. His body was buried at Union Cemetery-Beatty Park next to his first wife.[38]


Although Jackie Robinson is commonly miscredited with being the first African-American to play major league baseball, Walker held the honor among baseball aficionados for decades.[39] In 2007, researcher Pete Morris discovered that another ball player, former slave William Edward White, actually played a single game for the Providence Grays five years before Walker debuted for the Blue Stockings.[39] Despite these findings, baseball historians still credit Walker with being the first in the major leagues to play openly as a black man. On the subject of White, John R. Husman wrote: “He played baseball and lived his life as a white man. If White, who was also of white blood, said he was white and he was not challenged, he was white in his time and circumstances”.[39] Like Robinson, however, Walker endured trials with racism in the major leagues and was thus the first black man to do so.[5]


  1. ^ Gurrieri, Vince (2016). "First professional black baseball player: 'Fleet' Walker honed skills at Oberlin College in 1881". The Chronicle. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  2. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 2–3.
  3. ^ "Baseball's First African-American". Jock Bio. 2004. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  4. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 3–5.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Husman, John R. (2016). "Moses Fleetwood Walker". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  6. ^ a b Husman, John R. (2016). "Weldy Walker". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  7. ^ Zang 1995, p. 15.
  8. ^ Zang 1995, p. 18.
  9. ^ a b Zang 1995, pp. 20–22.
  10. ^ Jordan 2013, p. 199.
  11. ^ "Moses Fleetwood Walker". Oberlin College. Archived from the original on August 30, 2004. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  12. ^ Zang 1995, p. 24.
  13. ^ Grisby 2010, p. 193.
  14. ^ "African Americans in Toledo Sports" (PDF). Toledo's Attic Essays. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  15. ^ Zang 1995, p. 27.
  16. ^ Robertson 2016, p. 16.
  17. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 35–36.
  18. ^ a b Zang 1995, p. 37.
  19. ^ a b Husman, John R. (2016). "August 10, 1883: Fleet Walker vs. Cap Anson". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  20. ^ Rosenberg, Howard. "Cap's Great Shame". Cap Chronicled. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  21. ^ Rosenberg, Howard. "Cap Anson". Cap Chronicled. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  22. ^ Husman, John R. (2016). "May 1, 1884: Fleet Walker's major-league debut". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  23. ^ Britcher, Craig (2014). "The Next Page / Before Jackie Robinson, baseball had Moses 'Fleet' Walker". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  24. ^ a b Zang 1995, pp. 44–45.
  25. ^ "Moses "Fleet" Walker". Kansas State University. 2006. Archived from the original on April 14, 2017. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  26. ^ Macuso, Peter (2016). "May 2, 1887: First African American battery". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  27. ^ Zang 1995, p. 53.
  28. ^ Zang 1995, p. 60.
  29. ^ Slaby 2004, p. 61.
  30. ^ a b Zang 1995, p. 68.
  31. ^ Kirst, Sean (1994). "Struggles of a baseball pioneer: In Syracuse, the trials of Fleet Walker". Retrieved May 24, 2018.
  32. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 65–66.
  33. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 78–81.
  34. ^ Zang 1995, p. 82.
  35. ^ Hill, Benjamin (2008). "Walker's interests were far and wide". Retrieved March 15, 2017.
  36. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 108–110.
  37. ^ a b Zang 1995, pp. 96–97.
  38. ^ Zang 1995, pp. 122–125.
  39. ^ a b c Husman, John R. "June 21, 1879: The cameo of William Edward White". Society for American Baseball Research. Retrieved March 15, 2017.


  • Grisby, Daryl (2010). Celebrating Ourselves: African-Americans and the Promise of Baseball. Dog Ear Publishing. ISBN 978-160844-798-5.
  • Jordan, John (2013). Black Americans 17th Century to 21st Century: Black Struggles and Successes. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4907-1732-6.
  • Robertson, John R. (2016). The Games That Changed Baseball: Milestones in Major League History. McFarland Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4766-6226-8.
  • Slaby, Patricia (2004). The Inventive Spirit of African Americans: Patented Ingenuity. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-275-96674-7.
  • Zang, David W. (1995). Fleet Walker's Divided Heart. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4913-6.

External links

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