6 Decades Before Jackie Robinson, This Man Broke Baseball's Color Barrier
Sixty-three years before Jackie Robinson became the first African American in the modern era to play in a Major League Baseball game, Moses Fleetwood Walker debuted in the league on May 1, 1884 with the Toledo Blue Stockings in a 5-1 loss against the Louisville Eclipse. Walker, a 26-year-old African American barehanded catcher from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, had abandoned his law studies a year earlier at the University of Michigan to play with the Blue Stockings.
According to Sporting Life, “Toledo suffered greatly through the errors of Walker, who made three terrible throws,” in his debut. But the Toledo Blade drew a different picture of his performance. “Walker is one of the most reliable men in the club, but his poor playing in a city where the color line is closely drawn as it is in Louisville should not be counted against him,” reported the newspaper. “Many a good player under less gravitating circumstances than this has become rattled and unable to play.”
In 42 games with the Blue Stockings that year, Walker had a .263 batting average with 40 hits and 23 runs scored. He made his last MLB appearance on September 4, 1884 after suffering a broken rib earlier in the season. (Catchers did not yet wear protective pads.) But racist objections to integrating baseball lay at the root of his release from the team. Before a game in Richmond, Toledo’s manager, Charlie Morton, received a letter declaring that a lynch mob of 75 men would attack Walker if he tried to take the field in the former Confederate capital. Walker didn’t make the trip to Virginia.
While most of his white Toledo teammates supported him, at least one shared the racist views of many of their opponents. “He was the best catcher I ever worked with,” said Toledo star pitcher Tony Mullane in a 1919 interview. “But I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything I wanted without looking at his signals.”
By the time Walker retired from baseball in 1889 after bouncing around in the minor leagues, MLB owners had established a “gentlemen’s agreement” that would keep African Americans off rosters until Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In his life after baseball, Walker became an inventor, cinema owner, author, newspaper editor and a fierce advocate for the emigration of African Americans to Africa.
Drawing The Color Line in Baseball
The son of a minister-turned-physician and a midwife, Walker was born into a middle class family in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, a town that had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. After playing baseball at both Oberlin College and Michigan, Walker went professional when he joined Toledo, then a minor league operation, in 1883. (The team was invited into…
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