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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

Stars of the Negro Leagues

A true pioneer
Fleet Walker is first African-American to play in Major Leagues
By Justice B. Hill/MLB.com


Racism forced Fleetwood Walker to quit baseball after the 1889 season.
Born: Oct. 7, 1857, Mt. Pleasant, Ohio
Died: May 11, 1924, Steubenville, Ohio
Bats: Right
Throws: Right

He was the first, and no amount of revisionist history can rob Moses Fleetwood Walker of that historic distinction.

In 1884, Walker broke through the invisible barrier that had stopped black men from playing "Organized Baseball," and he had achieved this historic first more than a half century before Jackie Robinson reached the Major Leagues. In fact, Walker's experiences were not significantly different than Robinson's were.

"Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past," said James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues. "Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he'd go into the game. They'd call him names."

Walker was a good-field, no-hit catcher who came into the American Association, the Majors in its day, against all sorts of opposition. But his background seemed as suited to handle the overt racism as Robinson's was.

Born at a way station along the Underground Railroad in 1857, Walker was brought into this world with an abolitionist's bent. A tall, handsome mulatto with a college education, he was the son of a physician, and he seemed to have the right character to handle the trailblazer's role.

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Having played several seasons with a white "minor-league team in Toledo," he joined the American Association when the Toledo Blue Stockings were admitted to the league.

At the time, segregation in baseball was more a gentleman's agreement. Whites might not have liked black participation in their game, but they didn't turn to state or federal laws or draft a league-wide policy to stop a black person from playing.

So Walker, 26 at the time, was allowed to integrate the game, and his younger brother, Welday, followed him into the Majors later that '84 season.

"Most of the country wasn't ready for this," said Riley, who compiled "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues," the definitive text on black baseball. "You go back to 1884 and you know what he encountered."

Riley found no evidence that Walker's presence in a white league helped bring black fans into the ballpark. Also, Riley said, he couldn't find any record that would prove Walker had the fiery, competitive spirit that served Robinson so well when he entered the National League in 1947.

Walker would have needed that spirit to fend off the racism he would face -- in the dugout, on the diamond and outside the field, for the social climate in America was changing as the 1800s limped toward the 1900s. Social Darwinism was gaining currency, offering white people who advocated racial separation a justification for their movement.

They even found allies among some black intellectuals.

Booker T. Washington, a prominent black educator, spoke to the racial tenor of the times in his 1895 "Atlanta Compromise" speech. Washington said, "In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress."

Baseball was, of course, a purely social affair. It had yet to gain the foothold in America that sports like boxing and horsing had. Still, baseball had carved out a place in the changing world of pre-1900s America, and Walker and his brother wanted to be part of that sport.

They had long proved they were comfortable around whites, having attended integrated schools in Ohio, and they had honed their baseball talent at Oberlin College.

Yet, talent alone couldn't keep "Fleet" Walker in "Organized Baseball."

Cap Anson, a future Hall-of-Famer, had refused to play against Walker. Anson's position on blacks in baseball would become the standard of the period.

It might have been more difficult to exclude Walker had he had a star's talent. He didn't.

"As a player, he was not the equal of Jackie in any sense of the word," Riley said. "He wasn't that good. He was more of an average player."

"Average" wasn't good enough to keep Walker employed, not against the anti-black backlash that Anson led. So Walker soon found himself out of "Organized Baseball," bouncing around lesser leagues for several seasons.

Embittered by this experience, Walker left baseball for good in 1889. With his degree, he pursued other options outside sports. He became an inventor, an author and entrepreneur.

Along the way, he developed a liking for hard liquor, which might have caused Walker as much anguish as his brushes with overt racism.

In Syracuse, N.Y., Walker, reportedly drunk, killed a white man in a knife fight (an all-white jury acquitted him of murder). Years later, he spent time in an Ohio prison for mail theft.

By then, his anger toward America's caste system had hardened. He would become a vocal critic of integration, and he supported the "back to Africa" movement that black activist Marcus Garvey espoused.

Walker's about-face on integration might have made it easier to dismiss his baseball achievement, since his position had narrow appeal among blacks.

Judge his life and peculiar politics for what they were worth, but remember his baseball achievement for what it was worth, too: Moses Fleetwood Walker was a pioneer in a sport, as well as in a society, that had resisted efforts to fully integrate its ranks.

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer with MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.