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Published: Monday, 2/7/2005

Prestige of 1st black major leaguer likely no longer belongs to Toledo


For many years, Moses Fleetwood Walker - and part of Toledo's baseball history - has been tied to one of the great trick questions in all of baseball: Who was the first black to play in the major leagues?

Yes, Jackie Robinson shattered the color line in 1947 when he became a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. But Mr. Walker, the scholar who went on to become a newspaper publisher and business owner, was the first to cross it when he played for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884.

If you didn't get that answer correct, then a new development announced last year will complicate things even more. Through the work of Michigan baseball researcher Peter Morris, Mr. Walker has apparently lost his title as the first to a virtual unknown named William Edward White, who played in one major league game in 1879.

One of the main reasons why Mr. White probably didn't come to light until last year was, until then, no one knew that he was African-American.

The discovery by Mr. Morris, a former Michigan State University professor and a member of the Society of American Baseball Research, has left many in a quandary. First of all, who is William Edward White?

Mr. Morris said it took probate and school records, wills, a White family genealogist, and Civil War historian Bruce Allardice to help him piece together the clues that identified Mr. White, son of a white Georgia businessman and one of his mulatto slaves.

He played in his only major league game June 21, 1879, with the Providence Grays against Cleveland. He had one hit, scored one run, and made 12 putouts without an error.

The other question is more simple: What does this discovery do to the legacy of Mr. Walker, whose baseball notoriety was just one part of an amazing life that few knew about?

Toledo attorney Peter Wagner, a baseball fan and one of the founders of the Moses Fleetwood Walker Society, bristled at the news, calling the researcher's discovery "incidental." He said it has no real impact on the game the way Mr. Walker's presence did.

"Moses Fleetwood Walker was a baseball player, student, and a true libertarian," Mr. Wagner said. "The story of Moses Fleetwood Walker should be celebrated, and he deserves a place in the Hall of Fame."

Mr. Walker, a native of Steubenville, Ohio, was a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings, joining the team in 1883. The following year, the Blue Stockings were accepted into the American Association, which was considered part of the major leagues.

Mr. Walker caught 42 games that season, batting .263, making him, then, the first black to play in the major leagues. His brother, Welday, played in five games for Toledo, making him the second black to play in the Majors.

Cap Anson, the popular manager-first baseman for the Chicago White Stockings and Hall of Famer, helped run Mr. Walker out of the league, proclaiming his team would never play against another team with a black. Other teams followed suit. When Mr. Walker did play, his life was often threatened if he took the field.

Mr. Walker had to fight some of his own teammates at times. Star pitcher Tony Mullane said he disliked blacks so much that he ignored Mr. Walker's catcher signs and purposely tried to cross him up to make him look bad.

Later, though, Mr. Mullane would say that Mr. Walker turned out to be the best catcher he ever had in his career.

Mr. Wagner said Mr. Walker beat out a catcher named James T. "Deacon" McGuire for the starting Blue Stocking job. When Mr. Walker left, Mr. McGuire became a star, playing in the major leagues 23 seasons over 26 years.

"Here's this guy who goes on to have a long, successful major league career and he couldn't beat out Moses for the starting job," Mr. Wagner said. "It shows you what [Mr. Walker] could have been if he had the opportunity."

The Walker society started casually about four years ago, Mr. Wagner said. When interest grew, the group formalized and raised money for central-city children.

Now, the Moses Fleetwood Walker Society has an annual dinner after the World Series. The dinner and dues help raise money to buy baseball items for underprivileged kids. The group also takes students to Mud Hens games in hopes of getting them interested in baseball.

"It's a great way to get the word out about Moses and help kids as well," Mr. Wagner said.

After baseball, Mr. Walker would go on to publish a newspaper called The Equator with his brother and operate several movie houses in the Steubenville area, inventing several patents for film reel technology.But Mr. Walker became depressed with the state of race relations in the country and advocated that blacks move back to Africa in his book Our Home Colony in 1908.

He died in Cleveland in 1924 at the age of 66.

Mr. Wagner and other Walker supporters say Mr. Walker managed to accomplish a lot in the face of racism and indignity. Baseball was only a part of his life, but one that defined his determination and talent.

Mr. Morris said Mr. White attended Brown University, where he played on the baseball team. He said it was not uncommon during that time for professional teams to grab a college athlete if they needed an extra player for a brief stint.

Mr. Morris said newspaper accounts talked positively about Mr. White's play but questioned why he never played again.

In the 1880 and 1890 U.S. Census, Mr. White identified himself as white. Mr. Morris said in a photo of Brown's 1879 baseball team Mr. White's skin color seemed darker than the other players but not definitively.

"The common theory about the game was that he was passing as white," Mr. Morris said.

"If they knew that he was black, you would think that would have been a big deal, but there's no indication of that. So there's a good chance that he was passing."

Mr. Morris said no one knows why he never played again. He said Mr. White married a white woman and continued to identify himself as white in other Census reports.

Mr. Morris said by the 1920s, Mr. White's trail, at least on paper, drew cold and there's no record of what happened to him.

Mr. Morris said that while there is still a lot of mystery around Mr. White, Mr. Walker's impact on major league baseball is distinct and noteworthy, with or without "the first" title.

"The only thing this changes about Moses Fleetwood Walker is that he's no longer the answer to a trivia question," Mr. Morris said.

"He's still first black [to] have had any kind of extended career in the majors. And as far as we know, the color line started with him until Jackie Robinson came along."

Contact Clyde Hughes at: chughes@theblade.com or 419-724-6095.

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