Moses Fleetwood Walker
Moses “Fleet” Walker (1857-1924) was born at a way station along the Underground Railroad in Mount Pleasant, Ohio. He was officially the first African-American to play Major League Baseball (MLB) in the 19th century.
In 1882, Moses “Fleetwood” Walker was the first African-American to play baseball at the University of Michigan. Walker may have also been the first African-American to play college baseball. He left Michigan in 1883, without a degree, to join a professional baseball team in Toledo. He became the first African-American major leaguer when that Toledo team joined the American Association.
The University of Michigan’s “Michigan Wolverines” Baseball Team Photo, 1882
(Sources: Robert Edward Auctions, University of Michigan Library)
According to James A. Riley, a baseball historian and the author of several books on the Negro Leagues:
Walker was playing at a time when the Civil War was not in the distant past. Many of the fans would yell things out of the stands when he’d go into the game. They’d call him names.
He soon left “organized baseball”.
The “Toledo Blue Stockings” Team Photo with Fleet Walker standing at back
(Source: Official Site of the Philadelphia Phillies)
He then played in the minor leagues on teams in Cleveland (1885), Waterbury (1885, 1886), Newark (New Jersey; 1887) and the Syracuse (New York; 1888, 1889), of the International League.
The “Syracuse Stars” baseball team photo taken in 1888 with Fleet Walker at top left and Bob Higgins at bottom left
(Credit: Bill Burgess, MLB historian John Thorn)
Walker left baseball for good in 1889.
The New York Age reported of Walker on January 11, 1919:
Toledo once had a colored man who was declared by many to be the greatest catcher of the time and greater even than his contemporary, Buck Ewing.
There Were Others
The 1879 Brown University Varsity Baseball Team
(Credit: MLB historian John Thorn)
According to writer John R. Husman with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR):
Moses Fleetwood Walker of the 1884 Toledo team is, without question, the first to play major league baseball openly as a Black man. His brother Weldy became the second to do so that same year, also in Toledo. Jackie Robinson, the best known of these Black players became the third, much later. There is no quarrel that Toledo was a major-league city that year or that the Walkers were team members. Baseball historians, researchers, writers, the Mud Hens, yours truly, and John Thorn, major-league baseball’s official historian, all agree. Thorn has said of Walker, “He would be the last Black player in the major leagues until 1947."
Former Slave William Edward White
ESPN provides this information about White on their website:
White attended Brown University, was born in 1860 and was the son of A.J. White of Milner, Ga., according school’s records.
Weldy Wilberforce Walker
In the spring of 1881, the Walker brothers played on Oberlin College’s first varsity inter-collegiate baseball team. Weldy, a freshman, played right field while Fleetwood, a junior, was the catcher.
Oberlin College (now called the “Yeomen”) baseball team photo taken in 1881 with Moses Fleetwood Walker seated at left and Weldy Walker standing in back row
(Source: Oberlin College Archives)
Arthur Packard, Weld’s fellow team pitcher and transfer from Oberlin College to Michigan, wrote in The Chronicle on Dec. 17, 1881:
All the steps have been taken to secure such a nine and we firmly believe that we will have one in the spring that will do honor to our University. The weak point in our nine has for some years been in our catcher. This will no longer be the case. We will have one in the spring who is second to no amateur catcher in the country. By many he is considered the equal of most of the League catchers.
After the 1881 baseball season, Weldy’s brother Fleetwood transferred to the University of Michigan and played as a catcher in 1882.
The Chronicle wrote on May 27, 1882, after a victory over Wisconsin:
Walker’s catching cannot be too highly commended, and the general verdict is, that the man is a wonder… With two men out and two on bases, Walker came to the bat. With two strikes called and the crowd in great suspense, the ‘wonder’ struck the ball square in the face for the most beautiful home run seen on the grounds this year.
After his home run against Wisconsin, The Chronicle reported that Walker was greeted by “tumultuous applause.”
The University of Michigan’s “Toledo Blue Stockings” Baseball Team Photo, 1883
(Source: University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library)
In the fall of 1882, the Oberlin Review reported:
Weldy Walker, ’85 leaves to assist his brother in making the ‘Ann Harbor’ nine a little more able to compete with Oberlin.
Two weeks later, a writer for an Ann Arbor newspaper noted:
We have added to the list Weldy Walker, a magnificent fielder, safe batter, and phenomenal base runner.
Fleetwood left Michigan to play professional baseball for a team from New Castle, Pennsylvania.
During the 1883 season, Weldy became the second African-American to play for the baseball team at the University of Michigan. He played third base for Michigan and also served on the Board of Directors of the University Base-Ball Association.
On April 29, 1883, after a loss to a Detroit professional team, the paper wrote:
Many doubts had been expressed previous to the game, as to the strength of our nine, but they are now all dissipated. Walker, as catcher, did some of the finest work behind the bat that has ever been witnessed in Ann Arbor.
The paper referred to Walker’s color only once in the entire season.
Facing Racism and Segregation
Weldy Walker became involved in a civil rights lawsuit in 1884 after a roller-skating rink in Steubenville denied entry to Walker and his friend, Hannibal Lyons.
During the 1884 season, Chicago White Stockings player-manager and Cap Anson refused to play against Toledo until the Walker brothers were benched.
Racial pressure against both Fleet Walker and the club was constant. Prior to the Toledos’ visit to the Southern city of Richmond, Virginia, Toledo manager Charlie Morton received this letter written September 5, 1884 and published in the Toledo Evening Bee two weeks later:
Manager Toledo Base Ball Club:
Later in 1887, Anson again refused to play against the Newark team on which Fleetwood played.
In 1884, Toledo’s workhorse pitcher Tony Mullane was one of the players on Fleet’s own team who gave him grief.
The New York Age of January 11, 1919, reported:
Tony Mullane … than whom no pitcher ever had more speed, was pitching for Toledo and he did not like to be the battery partner of a Negro. “He [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. One day he signaled me for a curve and I shot a fast ball at him. He caught it and came down to me. … He said, ‘I’ll catch you without signals, but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you signals.’ And all the rest of that season he caught me and caught anything I pitched without knowing what was coming.
In October 1884, Weldy and a partner went into business operating Delmonico Dining Rooms in Mingo Junction, Ohio, near Steubenville.
By early in the year 1887, there were 13 African-Americans playing in the “White” minor leagues, including four in the Ohio State League. Weldy began the 1887 season with the Akron Acorns of the Ohio State League. However, he appeared in only four games for the Acorns. During this year, racial segregation began to become the official policy in certain minor leagues.
Tri-State League (which was the successor to the Ohio State League) had abandoned racial integration. In March 1888, Weldy wrote a letter to the league’s president protesting the decision. In his 1970 book History of Racial Segregation in Baseball, Robert Peterson described Weldy’s letter as 'perhaps the most passionate cry for justice ever voiced by a Negro athlete.'
On March 14, 1888, and at Weldy’s request, his letter was published in The Sporting Life under the headline “Why Discriminate?”
Here is part of what is written in the letter:
The law is a disgrace to the present age, and reflects very much upon the intelligence of your last meeting, and casts derision at the laws of Ohio – the voice of the people – that say all men are equal. I would suggest that your honorable body, in case that Black law is not repealed, pass one making it criminal for a colored man or woman to be found on a ball ground … There should be some broader cause – such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence – for barring a player, rather than his color. It is for these reasons and because I think ability and intelligence should be recognized first and last – at all times and by everyone – I ask the question again, ‘Why was the law permitting colored men to sign repealed, etc.?’
There was no answer.
Walker and other African-Americans in Ohio left the Republican Party and formed the Negro Protective Party in response to a failure on the part of the Republican governor to investigate an incident in June 1897 in which residents of Urbana, Ohio, formed a lynch mob, removed a Black man named “Click” Mitchell from the town jail, and publicly killed him by hanging.
The party adopted a platform (published in the Annual Report of Ohio Secretary of State) demanding “an immediate recognition of our rights as citizens such as have been repeatedly pledged and as often violated,” and declaring an intent “to take immediate political action that we may show to the world that we are no longer the plaything of politicians or chattels for sale to the highest bidder.” The party also began publishing The Negro Protector.
In 1897, Weldy and Joe Jetters opened an oyster and fish store on North Sixth Street in Steubenville as recorded in the Cleveland Gazette (the longest-publishing African-American weekly in the United States and one of which Weldy had a freindship with the chief editor and owner Harry Clay Smith).
Fleet Walker’s life seemed to take a spiral turn after the sport.
In April, 1891, a group of White men, all of whom were drunk, exchanged words with Walker and attacked him while he was walking home from a bar. Walker, also reportedly drunk, stabbed one of them, Patrick Murray.
Sporting Life wrote of the details:
Walker drew a knife and made a stroke at his assailant. The knife entered Murray’s groin, inflicting a fatal wound. Murray’s friends started after Walker with shouts of ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ He escaped but was captured by the police, and is locked up.
Walker was tried for second degree murder. A number of his friends testified on his behalf, saying that he wasn’t drunk, but rather dizzied from being hit in the head. Walker pleaded self defense.
During the trial, Walker, who was popular with the Stars and considered charming and intelligent, received support from the public. When Walker was acquitted, Sporting Life wrote:
immediately a shout of approval, accompanied by clapping of hands and stamping of feet, rose from the spectators.
After this, he became involved with the Knights of Pythias and then the Negro Masons.
In September 1898, while employed as a railroad postage clerk, postal inspectors charged Walker with embezzling the contents of registered letters addressed to a dozen different persons. He was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail.
When he was finally released, Fleet joined his brother Weldy in operating the Union Hotel at 105 Market Street in downtown Steubenville, Ohio and in 1904 Fleet became the manager of the Opera House in nearby Cadiz, Ohio, hosting opera, live drama, vaudeville, and minstrel shows. Around this time, he became a vocal critic of integration. Inspired by the “Back to Africa” movement, he and Weldy jointly edited a Black-issues newspaper, The Equator and a 1908 47-page book, Our Home Colony: a treatise on the past, present and future of the Negro race in America.
Here are two quotes from the book:
The only practical and permanent solution of the present and future race troubles in the United States is entire separation by Emigration of the Negro from America.
The Negro race will be a menace and the source of discontent as long as it remains in large numbers in the United States. The time is growing very near when the whites of the United States must either settle this problem by deportation, or else be willing to accept a reign of terror such as the world has never seen in a civilized country.
Fleet Walker was an established inventor, responsible for an exploding artillery shell and techniques related to the improvement of changing movie reels.
Fleet Walker married twice and had three children. On May 11, 1924, Fleet Walker died of lobar pneumonia at 67 years of age at his home in Cleveland. His sole grandchild did not survive infancy, and so he left no direct descendants. He was buried, in a grave unmarked until 1991.
Weldy Walker never married. In November 1937, he died from pneumonia at his home at 100 Market Street in Steubenville. You can see Weldy’s death certificate here.
Both were buried at Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio.
In February 2016, the Ohio House passed a bill honoring Fleet Walker as the first Black professional baseball player. The measure mandated that October 7th be declared Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker Day each year in Ohio.
Read More on Fleet Walker from a biography “Fleet Walker and the Twilight Zone” published 1992 by Donald Lankiewicz in the Queen City Heritage and More on Weldy Walker from a biography “Fleeting Evidence: A Case Study of Handwriting and History” published by David Zang in the Journal of Sport History.
Scientific Researcher, Independent Historian, and Co-Founder of Black Research Central
[This article was originally posted on our WordPress blog on September 4, 2017.
It was re-posted here on July 20, 2019.
View the original article here.]
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