Moses Fleetwood Walker is mostly unknown, yet his accomplishment may be one of the most significant in baseball history. Though it is commonly believed that Jackie Robinson broke the MLB’s color barrier in 1947, that achievement belongs to Walker, who became the first black man to play professional baseball in 1884. Now to be clear, what Robinson accomplished for the sport is indescribable. However, Walker’s story does not get the same attention Robinsons does. Walker’s life of baseball, entrepreneurship, crime, and invention deserves to be known.
Walker was born in Ohio on October 7, 1856. He was the third child of seven. His brother, Weldy Walker, would go on to be the second black man to play in the MLB. Walker enrolled in Oberlin College in 1877 where he would begin his baseball career on their prep team. He quickly became their starting catcher and leadoff hitter. In 1881, Oberlin College upgraded their prep team to a varsity one. Walker continued his role on the now varsity team. He was a key component of their team. Oberlin finished their season with a 9-2 win over the Michigan Wolverines. Michigan was so impressed with Walker’s play that he was offered to transfer and play for the Wolverines. He accepted their offer.
Before he began his play at Michigan, he spent his summer playing for the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland, a semi pro team. This is where prejudice and racism began to interfere with his career. Although he was their starting catcher, there were instances where he was purposefully left out of the line up due to the other team threatening to not take the field if he were to play. This happened in a game against the Eclipse Nine, a baseball team out of Louisville, Kentucky.
“Players of the Eclipse Club objected to Walker playing on account of his color,” said the Louisville Courier-Journal.
However during the game, the backup catcher used as Walker’s replacement had gotten injured, forcing him into the game. Upon his entry several members of the Eclipse had left the field in protest. The objections from the Eclipse had caused the game to derail, leaving Walker compelled to leave the game. Cleveland’s third baseman went on to catch behind the plate.
Despite the bigotry he had experienced in the summer, he shined as a member of the Michigan Wolverines in 1882. He batted .308 on a Michigan team that would go 10-3 on the season. His 1882 season was his last at the collegiate level. In 1883 he signed a contract with the Toledo Blue Stockings, a minor league team in the Northwestern League.
In the 1883 season he hit .251 and played in 60 of the teams 84 games. He was proven to be durable and a strong defensive player.
At the time, the position of catcher was more stressful on the body, than it is now. Walker was known to wear only a mask and occasionally lambskin gloves with little padding to catch the ball. Toledo went on to win the pennant that season. This led to lots of praise from the local media as Walker became a known figure of the town of Toledo.
Despite his accomplishments on the field, many were still strongly opposed to a black man playing professional baseball. The wheels to not include African Americans in the game were set in motion during an in-season expedition game where the Chicago White Stockings played Toledo. Cap Anson, a future Hall of Famer and outspoken racist, famously was opposed to playing against a team with a black man on it. Toledo’s manager, as well as the town rallied behind Walker in response. “Walker has a very sore hand, and it had not been intended to play him in yesterday’s game.” Not content with this, the visitors declared that they would play ball ‘with no damned (racial slur).’ The order was given, then and there, to play Walker and the beefy bluffer was informed that he could play or go, just as he pleased. Anson hauled in his horns somewhat and ‘consented’ to play, remarking, ‘We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the (racial slur) in,’’’ said the Toledo Daily Blade.
Suddenly, because of how big of a name Anson was, the matter of black players in professional baseball became a topic of discussion. This eventually led to the banning of black players across the country.
In 1884, Toledo was promoted into the American Association after the success of their 1883 season. The American Association was the MLB equivalent at the time.
Walker would make this transition into professional baseball with the team, and in doing so, became the first black man to play professional baseball.
However, the move into professional baseball only further raised the tensions around Walker’s play. Slurs and death threats coming from the fans and opposing team created a hostile environment for Walker, and in his debut, he returned to Louisville. He went hitless in four at bats and committed four errors.
He eventually found some success as Toledo’s starting catcher, hitting .264 and scoring 23 runs in a period of baseball where offense was hard to come by. Regardless of his play, the racial bias against him had a serious effect on his performance.
“[Walker] was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals,” said pitcher and teammate of Walker, Tony Mullane.
With many of his own teammates sharing this view, Walker would commonly get credited for negative stats like passed balls that were undeserved. This also caused many injuries, which had an even greater impact on Walker. In some games he was left too battered to even catch and would be forced to play in the outfield. Eventually, the injuries became too much leading to his professional career ending in 1884 after only 42 games.
He would spend time bouncing around minor league teams, hoping to get back to the majors until 1889, when the American Association and National League unofficially banned African American players from playing.
Life would get even harder for Walker in 1891, where he would be attacked by a group of men which led to him fatally stabbing one of them. Walker was charged with second degree murder, but he pleaded self-defense, and was acquitted. His trouble with the law didn’t end there though, in 1898 he was charged with mail robbery. He was found guilty and spent a year in jail.
Later in life, Walker published Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America, a book that described his grim views on race relations in America at the time. He then went on to become an editor for The Equator, a black-issues newspaper. His endeavors did not end there. He also managed a hotel, and a local theater called the Opera House in Cadiz, Ohio. While he managed the opera house, he embraced the new medium of movies. He felt he could make improvements to the technology, and found ways to improve film reel loading and changing. He was even awarded three patents in the field. This wasn’t even his first invention though. In 1891, he received a patent for an artillery shell that would explode only at its target.
Moses Fleetwood Walker died in 1924, and is buried in Steubenville, Ohio. For many, he would be forgotten. His story would not be taught in schools, and there would not be movies made in his honor. Instead, Walker is barely a footnote in the history books.
Yet for what he accomplished, it is truly a tragedy he is not given the recognition he deserves.