In honor of Black History Month, The Athletes Hub will highlight and recognize African-American athletes who made significant contributions to their respective sport and paved the way for other black athletes to succeed where they previously weren’t allowed to.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: One of the quotes contains a racially insensitive word. Viewer discretion is advised.
As I covered in my piece on Josh Gibson, baseball hasn’t always been as inclusive as we see today. Baseball eventually let go of their grudge, allowing black players to compete with white ones. Black and Latin American players in some cases, played their ball in the Negro Leagues. That changed in 1947 when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby signed major league contracts.
What if I told you they were not the first black baseball players?
Enter the story of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Walker was a catcher who was one of the first professional baseball players. When baseball was first played, it was an amateur’s game. It was frowned upon for players back then to be paid. Then, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were born, and professional baseball teams sprouted all over.
Walker born in Ohio and went to college in Michigan, playing baseball during his attendance. He was apart of the 1882 Michigan Wolverines baseball team and left in the middle of the 1883 season to sign with the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League. However, one story before he went pro really shines a light on how extreme the racial tensions were back then.
In 1881, Walker was paid to play for a semi-pro team in Cleveland. A game against a team from Louisville, Kentucky put Walker’s inclusion with the team in question. First, he was turned away from the hotel the team was staying at. Come game time, players for the Louisville club protested Walker’s participation, and he was held out of the lineup.
After an inning, Cleveland’s catcher claimed his hands were too bruised to continue. Walker began to warm up when Louisville players refused to play if Walker was to partake. This squabble was ended when Cleveland’s third baseman volunteered to get behind the plate.
Walker was not an offensive catcher, hitting just .251 with Toledo. However, he became known for his abilities behind the plate. His durability was also marveled. The Blue Stockings ball boy once said Walker would “occasionally wore ordinary lambskin gloves with the fingers slit and slightly padded in the palm; more often he caught barehanded”.
As with the previous anecdote about Walker’s semi-pro game, his inclusion in the league was met with hostility and objection. The Peoria club proposed a motion that would block colored people from entering games, but this motion was dropped. The Chicago White Stockings once refused to play against Toledo if Walker was to play. The manager of Toledo called their bluff, and it is said that White Stockings manager Cap Anson declared, “We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the nigger in”.
Toledo won the championship and were promoted to the American Association, the major league at the time. Walker regularly caught ace Tony Mullane, who described Walker as the best catcher he had worked with. Mullane would also intentionally throw pitches that weren’t called to cross up the rookie receiver. Injuries plagued Walker’s 1884 season, limiting him to 42 games.
Walker and the entire team dealt with injuries, which lead to Weldy Walker, Moses’ brother, being signed for six games. Due to financial issues and nagging injuries, Walker was released by Toledo after 1884. Walker would bounce around teams and leagues, finding little success until 1886. That is when he and pitcher George Stovey formed one of the first black battery units in baseball history. This unit produced the best years in the careers of both players. Three years later, Walker was released from his final contract. He would go on to pass away at the age of 67 due to lobar pneumonia.
The inclusion of Walker left a mark on baseball and inspired many black athletes. He was able to give them hope that they’d be able to follow in his footsteps. He was a pioneer, and for that, we honor him.
Photo Credit: Bleacher Report