Moses Fleetwood Walker (No. 6, middle row) and his brother Weldy (No. 10), shown on the Oberlin College team, later played major league baseball for Toledo.
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COLUMBUS — Mickey Cochrane has known about the historical significance of Moses Fleetwood Walker for decades even as most of Ohio did not.
The man behind the Bowling Green State University Athletic Archives and Museum was present in 1990 when the Oberlin Heisman Club had a headstone installed on “Fleet” Walker’s unmarked grave in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery.
That tombstone proclaims Walker’s place in history as the “First Black Major League Player in USA.”
To honor Black History Month, lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously passed House Bill 87 to declare Oct. 7, Walker’s birthday, to be Moses Fleetwood Walker Day each year in Ohio.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Slesnick (D., Canton), now goes to the Senate.
“He was a unique individual who brought more to the table than just his athletic ability,” Mr. Cochrane said. “This was an appropriate thing to do.”
Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings which, for a single season in 1884, was part of the American Association, a precursor to the American League. The team quickly folded, and his brief major-league career was over.
Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier when he took the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Rep. Michael Ashford (D., Toledo) said. “But what we don’t know is that 60 years earlier there was a guy by the name of Moses Fleetwood Walker that played for Toledo Blue Stockings.”
The backlash that followed helped lead to that color barrier that Robinson is now credited with breaking.
“Fleet’s baseball life ... was devastated by rising racism and discrimination as managers would refuse to allow their batters to bat because they were too close to an African-American as he was catching,” Mr. Slesnick said.
Walker played on the first baseball team at Oberlin College before moving on to the University of Michigan. Mr. Cochrane was a student at Oberlin in 1990 and played a role in having the player admitted to the school’s Heisman Hall of Fame.
“Other than his one year with Toledo, he was almost barnstorming,” he said. “He played with three or four teams. ... I don’t think people knew of it, and as other Negro League players came along, he was pushed further behind.”
Walker has a timeline credit and a photo in an exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., but it pales in comparison to the displays for Robinson. A historical marker was erected in 2002 in his honor near Mud Hens stadium.
The House’s commemoration was spurred by Craig Brown, an adjunct instructor, and his introduction-to-politics class at Stark State College.
“These guys upstairs [in the House] are talking about this,” Mr. Brown said. “Moses would never have thought that to be possible in America. Who would ever have imagined that?”
Weldy Walker, an outfielder, briefly joined the Blue Stockings while his brother was on the roster. Injury prematurely ended Fleet Walker’s sole season in the majors. After the Blue Stockings folded, he played in the minors until 1889.
In 1891, he faced trial for second-degree murder in Syracuse, N.Y., after stabbing and killing a white man who with his friends had attacked Walker.
“He did a great job proving he was attacked,” Mr. Cochrane said. “Because he had been stabbed in the back meant that he didn’t attack the guys. The evidence made it hard to get a conviction.”
He was acquitted by an all-white jury, but he later served a year in jail for mail theft. He bought a hotel in Steubenville and then a movie theater. He published a weekly newspaper focused on civil rights.
He never believed America would accept blacks in society and advocated for blacks to return to ancestral Africa. But he never left.
“[Walker] wasn’t a quiet man,” Mr. Brown said. “He and his brother [Weldy], these were the type of people that, if they were slighted, let you know how they felt. These weren’t the kind of folks who really knew that their place was in the back of the bus.”
Walker died in 1924 at the age of 67 while working as a clerk in a Cleveland pool hall.
Contact Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.