The First African-American Major League Baseball Player

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website or at Facebook.

Okay, all you baseball fans, here's your question of the day: Who was the first African-American Major League baseball player? Ha! Easy one. Piece of cake. Everyone know Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers broke baseball's color line in 1947.

No so, my baseball-loving friends.

Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, on October 7, 1856. "Fleet" was the son of Moses D. Walker, the first African-American physician in Mount Pleasant, and a white mother. Fleet grew up attending the segregated African-American schools of the time, until his family moved to Steubenville, where he attended Steubenville HIgh School.

Oberlin's first varsity baseball team. Fleet Walker is sitting on the left; his brother Welday is in the back row.

Tall, good-looking, and an outstanding athlete, Fleet matriculated into Oberlin College, a liberal arts college known for their fairly unique (at the time) characteristic of admitting African-American (and female) applicants. Aside from his studies, Fleet spent most of his time on the baseball diamond.

In 1881, Fleet's senior year, Oberlin fielded its first varsity baseball team, with Fleet becoming a major force on its roster. A year later, he enrolled at the University of Michigan Law School. There, he also played varsity baseball and was soon the star of the team.

In 1883, he signed on with the Toledo Blue Stockings, then part of the minor's Northwestern League. The following year, Moses "Fleet" Walker was elevated to the majors along with his team the Blue Stockings, as part of the American Association (there were three major leagues at the time, the American Association being one of them).

On May 1, 1884, Fleet played in his first game versus the Louisville Eclipse. This effectively made him Major League baseball's first-ever African-American player. Two days later, Fleet (a catcher, by the way), got his first big-league hit.

Okay, if Fleet Walker was the first, then who was the second-ever African-American Major League player? Later in the season, Moses' kid brother, Welday, joined the club. The Walker brothers thus became Major League baseball's first two African-American players (Welday was a replacement outfielder).

The 1884 Toledo Blue Stockings. Walker is in the center of the top row.

As one might imagine (being aware of the times), Fleet and Welday Walker were scorned and jeered by opposing ballplayers. The fans, too, often baited and yelled cruel epithets at the Walkers. Worst of all, some of their own teammates turned on them.

Toledo ace pitcher Tony Mullane was to openly declare that Fleet Walker "was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked the negro and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals."

This not only hurt the team (causing many passed balls), but hurt Walker physically, causing him various injuries, including a broken rib. Weakened by injuries he incurred over the season, Fleet had to play his last few big league games as a substitute outfielder. Known as a rocket-armed catcher and an alright hitter, Fleet ended the 1884 season with a .261 batting average in 42 games, with 23 runs scored. He played his last big league game on September 4, 1884.

Walker was never to play in the majors again, but he did play for various minor league teams over the course of the next few years. In 1888, while he was catching for the Syracuse minor league franchise, Fleet was scheduled to play in an exhibition game against the National League Chicago White Stockings, a team led by baseball's best player, Adrian "Cap" Anson.

The Syracuse Stars. Walker is in the top row on the right.

An undeniably gifted player, Anson was also a notorious racist and race-baiter. Seeing Fleet Walker's name on the scorecard, Anson adamantly refused to play with him "because of his color." The Syracuse team knuckled under, and a substitute catcher replaced Walker that day.

Understandably bitter for much of the treatment he'd received, Fleet finally retired from the Syracuse team in 1889. Soon thereafter, baseball's unofficial Jim Crow laws were put into place and the Major Leagues' "gentlemen's agreement" lasted for almost the next 60 years.

Leaving baseball didn't keep Fleet Walker down, and he led a very interesting post-baseball life. In 1891, he bought the Union Hotel in Steubenville. Seeing the potential huge popularity of motion pictures, he also purchased a theater in nearby Cadiz. Walker applied for several patents on motion picture equipment and even published a weekly newspaper. He achieved a patent for an exploding artillery shell in 1891.

Sadly, also in 1891, Walker was assaulted by several white men on the street in Syracuse. In the melee, he stabbed and killed one of his attackers. Charged with second-degree murder, he was tried and acquitted by reason of self-defense.

Growing more and more embittered by his treatment both on and off the field, Walker grew to become an ardent black nationalist. He came to believe that integration between the races was doomed to failure and he became an advocate for the mass exodus of blacks from America to Africa. In 1908, he published a 47-page pamphlet titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, present, and Future of the Negro Race in America.

Moses Fleetwood "Fleet" walker died on May 11, 1924. Jackie Robinson made his debut as first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. One wonders if Jackie knew or was ever aware of the existence of Fleet Walker, who laid the groundwork for his historic debut 63 years later.  

Note: it was recently discovered that William Edward White, a student at Brown University, was revealed to have substituted in one game for the Providence Grays Major League team on June 21, 1879. That was five years before Fleet Walker's Major League season. But White's qualifications are uncertain.

White was only a brief stand-in, never a regular player, and he was also the son of a white father and a biracial mother. It should be remembered that at the time, a person was considered black if only one of his progenitors was African-American, even three or four generations back.

News articles from the time indicate that contemporary reporters were unaware of White's racial background and considered him to be white. In other words, he "passed." That being the case, there is no way White needed the courage of either Fleet Walker in 1884 or Jackie Robinson in 1947.

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