Over six decades separated the careers of Black baseball pioneers Moses Fleetwood Walker and Jackie Robinson.
Walker, who attended both Oberlin College and the University of Michigan Law School, played for the Toledo Blue Sox of the Northwest League in 1883.
A year later, when the NWL became the American Association, Walker would become the last African-American to play in the majors before the color line was established.
Moses Fleetwood Walker Played 63 Years Before Jackie Robinson
Some 63 years later in 1947, Robinson would make his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15. Both Walker and Robinson would go hitless in their first games. Ironically, the pair would also share other similar fates on and off the field.
In 60 games in 1883, Walker batted .251 in his initial season with Toledo. He helped lead the Blue Sox to the NWL title. A year later, Fleetwood played in 42 games in 1884 and hit .263; while his brother, Welday, played in six games.
Walker was considered a fine bare-handed catcher with a strong arm. He was also a fast and daring base runner. He was popular with the fans, but not necessarily with his teammates.
“I Disliked A Negro”
Toledo’s ace pitcher, Tony Mullane, later said that 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.”
Walker caught most of the year without knowing the speed, location or spin of the hurler’s deliveries. The result was an appalling number of passed balls, and an assortment of various injuries.
Walker was well received by most fans in the league, except for two southern towns. He was hissed in Louisville, Kentucky and an anonymous letter in Richmond, Virgina, promised Toledo manager Charlie Morton that there would be a mob awaiting Walker if he played in a series scheduled there in October.
However, Walker had his only major league season interrupted by a July injury (reported a broken collarbone or a broken rib). He played just sparingly thereafter and was released in September.
After playing two seasons in minor league baseball, Walker resurfaced in the majors playing for Newark of the International League in 1887. That season, he and star pitcher George Stovey formed the first black battery in organized baseball.
Newark folded after the season, and Walker spent the next two seasons in the International League with Syracuse, helping them to the championship in 1889, his last season.
Walker Faced Constant Racial Indignities: Charged With Murder
During these days, Walker would endure many more racial indignities from fans, opponents, and others. In 1888 in Toronto (where the previous year the crowd had chanted “Kill the nigger” at another black player) he greeted jeering fans with a loaded revolver and offered to “put a hole in someone.”
His resolve would be put to the test in 1891.
In April of that year, Walker was accosted by an angry group of whites as he walked home from a bar. True to form, Walker refused to back down and in the ensuing struggle, one of the mob was fatally stabbed in the groin.
A convicted burglar, Patrick Murray slapped Walker whereupon he drew his knife and made a stab at his assailant. Despite several of his teammates coming to his defense, Walker was charged with murder.
After pleading self-defense to second degree murder charges, Fleetwood was acquitted at trial by an all-white jury. Having to stand trial for defending himself, Walker’s perception of the country’s policies on integration had come full circle.
Walker Transforms Into Civil Rights Activist & Entrepreneur
He would launch a newspaper, The Equator, in which he expounded on his feelings of alienation. Again, accompanied by his brother, Walker undertook a successful foray into the world of commerce, opening a hotel and then owning and managing several movie theaters, and finally an opera house.
Fleet’s creative approach resulted in his patenting several inventions having to do with motion picture cameras and industry.
In 1908, he published “Our Home Colony,” a volume setting forth his conclusions:
“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,” he wrote, “Even forced Emigration would be better for all than the continued present relations of the races.”
Moses Fleetwood Walker died disillusioned and uncertain of his accomplishments in 1924 at the age of 67. More so than his predecessor Robinson, Walker suffered the most, was damaged the worst, and arguably paid the highest price.
NOTE: The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues, Only The Ball Was White, and A Complete History of The Negro Leagues 1884-1955 all contributed to this article.