One of the interesting elements about the Baseball 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.
Every year on April 15th baseball gathers to celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, as he was the first African-American to ever play in Major Leagues. This notion, however, is not entirely true; Robinson was in fact not the first black player to play in the Majors, that honor goes to Moses Fleetwood Walker. Walker broke the color barrier on May 1st 1884. 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 White Stockings’ best player, said that he would never play against or with a black player and that he would refuse to play the game if Walker or any other black player were playing. The White Stockings on August 10, 1883 did not 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. This meant that when the Blue Stockings took the field on May 1st 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. On that date he became the true first African-American to play organized, professional baseball. The game was played against the Louisville Eclipse and Walker played catcher. Catchers during that time, however, had a very difficult job as most of them had to catch without gloves. Walker’s first game in the big’s though wasn’t very memorable as he went 0-4 and committed four errors.
This proved to only be a blimp 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 countless amounts of abuse from fans apposing players and teammates. Some of his pitchers on his team would just throw what ever 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.
Celebrating what Jackie Robinson did in re-breaking the color barrier in baseball is a wonderful tradition. The problem 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, and only Jackie Robinson, broke the color barrier in baseball; it’s time to change that.
Sources:EW Rewind: Episodes 15 and 16
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