Editor’s note: This article corrects the final vote in the Ohio House on Wednesday.
COLUMBUS — The Ohio House voted 93-1 Wednesday to set aside Oct. 7 each year in honor of the first African American to play under contract in baseball’s major leagues.
State Rep. Nino Vitale (R., Urbana) was the lone “no” vote.
Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker, a bare-handed catcher, was unaware that he'd made history when he caught for less than a season for the Blue Stockings in Toledo — described by Rep. Mike Sheehy (D., Oregon) on the floor as “that progressive city on the banks of the Maumee.”
Moses Fleetwood Walker
The Blue Stockings were briefly part of the American Association, which later evolved into the American League. In hindsight, that made Walker the first black player to play under contract in the majors. He was briefly followed on the team by his outfielder brother, Weldy.
At a time when slavery and the Civil War were still recent history, the thought of white players playing alongside black players led team owners to erect the unofficial “color barrier” that Jackie Robinson would be credited with breaking 60 years later.
“On May 1, 1884 many white Americans viewed African Americans as inferiors both intellectually and physically,” Craig Brown, an adjunct professor at Kent State University, said in testimony submitted to a House committee earlier this week. The bill is an outgrowth of a conversation in one of his political science and government classes.
“When Moses Fleetwood Walker walked into a field in Toledo, he did more than play a game,” Mr. Brown said. “He was more than just an athlete. He did more than throw, catch, or hit. That day and every day he played he started a conversation.”
House Bill 59, sponsored by Reps. David Leland (D., Toledo) and Thomas West (D., Canton), would recognize Walker’s birthday as Moses Fleetwood Walker Day. This marks the third time the bill has been introduced and the second time it has passed the House. Last session it was stranded in the Senate.
“Right now we’re at a full count,” Mr. West said. “We can hit a home run or we can strike out.”
This time the bill has cleared the chamber a year ahead of last session’s schedule. A similar measure has also been introduced in he Senate by Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo).
Walker was born to an African American physician father and white mother in Mount Pleasant near Steubenville in 1856. He was the first black player for Oberlin College, and he played for the University of Michigan before signing with the new minor league team in Toledo. The team soon folded, but not until after it had joined the American Association. History had been made.
Walker continued to play in the minors until 1889.
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