Most of you know at least a little of the story. Moses Fleetwood Walker, not Jackie Robinson, was the first black man to play Major League baseball (not counting the guy from Providence in the 1870s who got into one game and no one’s sure he was black). Fleet Walker played one season for Toledo in the American Association (1884) then both he and Toledo were dropped from the league after that single season. He never got back to the big leagues and baseball’s “gentleman’s agreement” meant that no one else who was black was going to get there either until 1947.
This is not a biography of Fleet Walker, although his bio is fascinating. What I wondered was why no one picked him up to play Major League baseball again. Was it simply race, or was he clearly not big league caliber? As Walker was a catcher by trade, the obvious thing to do was compare him against the other Association catchers.
In 1884 there were 12 teams in the American Association. During the season Washington folded and a new team set up in Richmond, Virginia to play out the season, so a cursory look at the standing sometimes shows 13 teams. As Washington and Richmond used different catchers, I included both teams. I looked at the stats of the primary catcher for each team. And a quick caveat here: Walker only played 42 games at Toledo, so I added Toledo’s other catcher, Deacon McGuire (not to be confused with Deacon White who just made the Hall of Fame), in the mix so I’m looking at 14 total men.
I looked at a handful of stats (hits, runs, average, OBP, slugging, and OPS) only. The Association stats for 1884 are very sparse so some stats like RBIs, stolen bases, etc. are missing. Of what existed, I went with the ones listed above. I did not deal with fielding stats because the position of catcher was so different in 1884 that the stats are, to me, meaningless (no glove, no chest protector, standing back several feet from the batter, etc). Walker did lead the Association in passed balls, but much of that can be laid at the feet of Tony Mullane, a pitcher who hated the idea of throwing to a black man. Walker’s triple slash numbers are: 263/325/316/641.
If I had to rank the catchers in order of hitting ability I would place Walker in the fourth, fifth or perhaps sixth position. Someone named Jim Keenan (who I’d never heard of) is clearly the best hitting catcher in the Association. His triple slash numbers are .293/343/418/751. All are first among catchers (actually the slugging percentage is tied for first and I didn’t work it out to four or five figures to see if it was actually first). He played for Indianapolis which finished last (he was easily their best player). Jocko Milligan (who tied with Keenan on slugging percentage) at Philadelphia, and Pop Snyder at Cincinnati were the second and third best hitting catchers (and Snyder managed the Reds). Next there’s something of a logjam that includes Walker, Sam Trott of Baltimore (and one of few left-handed catchers) and Dan Sullivan of Louisville for the fourth position. There’s not much difference between them in percentages, but because Walker plays so many fewer games, his hit and run totals are less. Because has more hits than games played (as do Keenan, Snyder, and Milligan) I’ll put Trott fourth, but Walker is probably next. You can get these stats at Baseball Reference.com and compare them yourself. You might make different choices. But one thing you will surely agree with me on is that Walker was certainly better than McGuire, who played three more games at Toledo (not all games for either McGuire or Walker were behind the plate, but it was their primary position). Here’s McGuire’s triple slash numbers: 185/217/252/468. Based just on hitting, who you want?
So it seems to me that Walker was legitimately a middle of the pack hitting catcher in 1884. When the Association contracted to eight teams in 1884 a number of the survivors had weaker catchers than Walker, but none chose to pick him up. It’s very hard to see any reason for this other than his skin color. So to answer my title question, he was probably not good enough to be a real star, he was certainly good enough to play at the highest level