The First Integration

Fleet Walker

We all know Jackie Robinson and we justly celebrate his life, his achievements, and his courage. But he isn’t the first black American to play Major League Baseball. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Moses Fleetwood Walker.

Fleet Walker was born in Ohio in 1857. He played college baseball for both Oberlin College and the University of Michigan, then signed with Toledo in the Northwestern League (a minor league) in 1883. Some teams, notably Cap Anson’s Chicago Colts (now the Cubs) refused to play against a team with a black player, but Walker became the team’s regular catcher. In 1884 the team joined the American Association, then a Major League, with Walker remaining their catcher. He met with indifferent success. One of his pitchers, Tony Mullane, is reported to have refused to accept Walker’s signs when he (Walker) called for a pitch. Mullane’s also supposed to have declared Walker was the  best catcher he worked with. In July 1884 Walker suffered a season-ending injury. It also proved to be the end of his big league career. Toledo went bust at the end of the season and no one else was willing to pick him up. He caught on with Newark of the minor league International League (the same league that saw Robinson’s first game–also in Newark). He lasted the season when the league voted to exclude black Americans from its rosters. The league rescinded the ban the next year and Walker again served as a catcher, this time for Syracuse. He was ultimately released in July 1889, his career over. He died in 1924 after a lifetime working for black causes. His brother Welday also briefly played for Toledo in 1884.

How to assess Walker? His career is, of course, always tainted with racism. If you look at his stats he’s not a bad player, but unfortunately he’s nothing special. And that’s kind of the problem. He’s really nothing special. As a catcher he ranks in the middle of the pack among American Association catchers. His hitting stats aren’t expecially strong, but they’re better than about half the other regular catcher’s in the league. But he couldn’t be just average. Because he was black he had to be better, a lot better, than the other catchers to make it worthwhile for teams to take a chance on playing him. Why risk it for a mediocre player? Part of why Jackie Robinson works is because he’s a heckuva player and you simply couldn’t afford to ignore his ability or leave him out of the lineup. Walker? Well, you could do that with him. So he doesn’t become “The Chosen One” to tear down racial barriers and bring black Americans along with him. It seems he never gave up trying. RIP, Fleet.

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