COLUMBUS — History credits Jackie Robinson as the first African-American to break through the “color barrier” of major league baseball.
But that color barrier was erected after — and perhaps because of — the man believed to have been the first black man to play under contract in the majors more than half a century before Mr. Robinson took to the field — Toledo Blue Stockings catcher Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker.
Mr. Walker is largely forgotten today, a timeline credit and photo in an exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., compared with huge displays honoring Mr. Robinson. But Mr. Walker may get some due through a bill just introduced in the Ohio House.
House Bill 436 would designate Oct. 7, his birthday, as Moses Fleetwood Walker Day each year in Ohio.
“Justice is slow, but justice still happens anyhow,” said Craig Brown, the adjunct lecturer at Kent State University and Stark State College whose American politics class led to the effort to have Mr. Walker recognized in state law.
Born in Mount Pleasant near Steubenville in 1856, Mr. Walker played baseball first for Oberlin College and then the University of Michigan before signing with a new minor league team in Toledo called the Blue Stockings.
When that team joined the American Association, a precursor to the American League, in 1884, the team’s sole season in the big leagues also represented Mr. Walker’s controversial sole season behind the plate in a major-league uniform, enduring the pain of catching bare-handed.
Even Mr. Walker probably didn’t realize at the time that he’d made history.
“When Jackie Robinson came along, there was a clearly defined major league,” said Dave Zang, a professor of sports and American studies at Towson University near Baltimore. His book, Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer, was published in 1995.
“When Walker played, newspapers weren’t referring to the American Association as a major league,” he said. “It was only retroactively that historians saw the American Association as a major league. He became, after the fact, the first black in the major leagues.”
Weldy Walker, Fleet’s brother, soon joined him on the team, playing in the outfield for six games that season.
Injury ended Fleet Walker’s season early, and the team folded after one season. Controversy with some players and some fans, particularly in southern cities, over having a black man on the same field with white players ultimately led to the unofficial decision by professional team owners to ban African-American players.
“Baseball Hall of Famer Cap Anson is well-known for helping erect the color barrier in baseball in the 1880s that would last until 1947, largely as a result of Anson’s racist opposition to playing on the same field with Walker,” wrote Burt Logan, executive director of the Ohio Historical Society, in support of House Bill 436.
The color barrier held until Mr. Robinson walked on the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The bill’s reference to Mr. Walker as the first African-American to play “under contract” on a major-league field may be an important distinction. The Society for American Baseball Research has suggested that William Edward White — who, like Mr. Walker, was of mixed race — may actually be the first black player in the major leagues, having played one game for the Providence Grays on June 21, 1879.
“Census records later referred to [Mr. White] as white,” Mr. Brown said. “Certainly Moses Fleetwood Walker could not have hid his racial makeup in any sort of way.”
‘A great lesson’
Growing up, state Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) was unaware of Mr. Walker. Later as a city councilman, he said he worked with the Mud Hens to honor him when the new downtown stadium was opened. A state historical society marker at the stadium commemorates Mr. Walker, and the Toledo Civic Hall of Fame inducted him last year.
“At the height of segregation in 1930s and 1940s, an African-American like Jackie Robinson comes along, and it’s the big time,” Mr. Ashford said. “Because of the media, Jackie Robinson had much more of an impact than Fleetwood did. ... I hope that if Ohio is able to recognize having the first African-American in baseball, it might get into the classroom so they’ll have an understanding of what really happened.”
Rep. Steve Slesnick (D., Canton) introduced the bill at the request of Mr. Brown’s class.
“This is a great lesson for the class to learn the legislative process,” he said. “I never knew about [Mr. Walker], and I’m a big baseball fan. When you look at African-American heritage and history, he was kind of left out. The negro leagues developed, and Jackie Robinson went from the negro leagues to the major league. But there wasn’t even a negro league for [Mr. Walker].”
Mr. Walker continued to play in the minors until 1889, but the years that followed were tough ones.
In 1891, he was charged in Syracuse, N.Y., with second-degree murder after stabbing and killing a white man, who, with friends, attacked Mr. Walker. He was acquitted by an all-white jury, which agreed he had acted in self-defense.
He also served a year in jail for mail theft.
He married twice, outlived both wives, and had three children. He returned home to Steubenville, where he bought a hotel and then a nearby early movie theater. He also published a weekly newspaper focusing on civil rights.
Because of his own experiences, Mr. Walker believed whites would never accept blacks as equals in society, so he advocated in writing for blacks to leave postslavery America to go to their ancestral Africa. Despite this, Mr. Walker never left the country himself.
He died in 1924 while working as a clerk in a Cleveland pool hall. In 1990, 76 years later, the Oberlin Heisman Club paid for a headstone for his previously unmarked grave in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery.
In case there should be any doubt, Mr. Walker’s tombstone has etched it into stone: “First Black Major League Player In USA.”
“If you look at his life from start to finish, he lived a colorful life, good things and bad things,” Mr. Brown said. “I hope that, as people look at him, they will look with an understanding of that time period and the circumstances and challenges he faced. As an African-American in that time period, he spent most of his life in a white-dominated culture.”
Mr. Walker’s biographer said Mr. Walker’s story is a tougher sell than Mr. Robinson’s.
“I thought I’d hear a lot in 2007 when Major League Baseball commemorated Jackie Robinson’s anniversary,” Mr. Zang said. “But Walker’s story is a little different. It’s not a story with a happy ending.”
Mr. Walker’s portion of the timeline exhibit, Pride and Passion, in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum includes a large team photo of the Blue Stockings.
“There are no artifacts for him,” said Erik Strohl, hall vice president of exhibitions and collections. “We know of only two photos — the Oberlin team and the Toledo team in 1884.”
He characterized Mr. Walker and Mr. Robinson as “bookends” on opposite sides of an era with different effects.
“It’s an important moment and a first in baseball history, but [Mr. Walker] didn’t have an impact on the game,” he said. “Things didn’t change. It didn’t open the floodgates for more African-American players in the major leagues. Quite the opposite happened.”
Contact Jim Provance at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 614-221-0496.