Remembering Moses Fleetwood Walker

The interesting element about the Hall of Fame is that it always get’s me digging on the history of the game. This year I found something that shocked me to my very core.

Every year on April 15th we gather around the game of baseball to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, as he was the first African-American to ever play in the Major Leagues. This notion, however, is false; Robinson was in fact not the first black player to play in the Majors. That honor goes to Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker broke the colour barrier on May 1st 1884, and he played for the Toledo Blue Stockings, who were part of the American Association, which later became the American League. The contest was held in Louisville, and Walker played catcher.

Walker was born October 7th, 1856, in Mount Pleasant, located in eastern Ohio. Walker was part of a large family; he had around 7 siblings. The actual account of when Walker first started playing baseball is unclear or rather unknown. It is, however, believed that Walker probably started his relationship with the game of baseball in Steubenville. Walker then went on to Oberlin College where he became renowned as a great baseball player. In 1882 Walker transferred from Oberlin College to the University of Michigan. Walker at the same time played for an amateur team called the Neshannocks, located in New Castle.

In 1883, Walker left school and signed with a minor league team called the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League. Walker was now pursuing baseball as a full-time profession. On the team many players were not paid; Walker was one of the few that were. The season, however, was not uneventful, for Toledo and Walker, especially when they were scheduled to play the Chicago White Stockings in an exhibition game. Cap Anson, the team’s best player, said that he would never play against or with a black player. Anson also stated that he would refuse to play the game if Walker or any other black player was playing. Anson on August 10, 1883 never did play against Toledo and sparked a debate in baseball on whether to outlaw African-Americans from the game.

The team, however, had immense success throughout the season and when the American Association was formed, a league designed to compete with the National League, the Toledo Blue Stockings were one of teams chosen to join the league. This meant that when the Blue Stockings took the field on May 1st 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker broke the colour barrier in Major League Baseball. On that date he became the true first African-American to play baseball. The game was played against the Louisville Eclipse and Walker played catcher. Catchers during that time had a very difficult job as most of them had to catch without gloves. Walker’s first game in the bigs though wasn’t very memorable as he went 0-4 and committed four errors.

This proved to only be a blip on the radar as Walker went on to have a very successful season, accumulating a .264 batting average. Walker finished the year with 40 hits, a .325 OBP, a .361 SLG and a 107 OPS+. Walker, even with a poor slash line, was better than league average offensively due to the poor run environment of the era. Walker though only played in 42 of the 104 games that season. In fact he suffered an injury in July, which ended his season. Walker would never play in the majors again. Throughout the season Walker had to face heavy amounts of abuse from fans, apposing players and teammates. Some of his pitchers on his team would just throw whatever they wanted as they refused to take orders from an African-American ball player.

Walker then went on to play a few more years of minor league baseball until 1889 when the National League and American Association decided to ban all African-American players from playing professional baseball.

After that there would not be another African-American player in the majors for 63 years, until Jackie Robinson played his first game in the majors in 1947.

I think it’s a great tradition, celebrating what Jackie Robinson did in re-breaking the colour barrier in baseball. The problem I have is that Moses Fleetwood Walker is a player that should also be remembered and celebrated in his own right as the first African-American to ever play in the majors. He seems to have truly been forgotten from the history of the game. Almost everyone will tell you that Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball; it’s time to change that.

We hoped you liked reading Remembering Moses Fleetwood Walker by Julien Assouline!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Julien Assouline is a journalism student at Ryerson University, and writes for Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee. Follow him on Twitter @JulienAssouline.

newest oldest most voted
jpomrenke
Guest
jpomrenke

Fleet and Welday Walker certainly deserve more attention than they get, but they also were not the first major-league players of African-American heritage. That would be William Edward White, who appeared in one game in 1879:

http://sabr.org/gamesproj/game/june-21-1879-cameo-william-edward-white

Julien Assouline
Guest
Julien Assouline

In my defence William Edward White was mulatto. But no I’m only just kidding you’re 100% right I’m surprised I didn’t come across this in my research.

Bobby Mueller
Member
Member

Julien, I agree, Moses Fleetwood Walker should be better recognized. I wrote about him a few years ago, when I first heard about him. Here are a couple of excerpts from what I wrote: Walker played in 42 games for Toledo in 1884, hitting .263, which was well above the league average for that season. He was also praised for his catching ability, despite the racist attitude of the team’s best pitcher, Tony Mullane, who once said that Walker “was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him… Read more »

Julien Assouline
Guest
Julien Assouline

Ya Bobby that’s great stuff, I really have no idea why he’s not that recognized and the saddest part of all this is that Cap Anson is in the Hall of Fame and Walker is essentially forgotten from history.