Moses “Fleet” Walker: The First African-American to play Major League Baseball

Hello there! Today is opening day for the Boston Red Sox, and around here, everyone can’t wait for the start of the season! Fenway Park was once again open, and the reminder of Boston baseball led yours truly (Lee) to do a little deep dive into baseball history that doesn’t always get covered-the leagues that made space for athletes of color, all the way back in the 1870’s! This post is a photo-heavy exploration of the amazing pioneer Moses “Fleet” Walker, and his impact on the history of baseball in America.

From the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, MO:

“African-Americans began to play baseball in the late 1800s on military teams, college teams, and company teams. They eventually found their way to professional teams with white players. Moses Fleetwood Walker and Bud Fowler were among the first to participate. However, racism and “Jim Crow” laws would force them from these teams by 1900. Thus, black players formed their own units, “barnstorming” around the country to play anyone who would challenge them.

In 1920, an organized league structure was formed under the guidance of Andrew “Rube” Foster—a former player, manager, and owner for the Chicago American Giants. In a meeting held at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., Foster and a few other Midwestern team owners joined to form the Negro National League. Soon, rival leagues formed in Eastern and Southern states, bringing the thrills and innovative play of black baseball to major urban centers and rural country sides in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The Leagues maintained a high level of professional skill and became centerpieces for economic development in many black communities.”


Moses Fleetwood Walker

“The Moses Fleetwood Walker story is an American story about a constant need to fight for justice, equality and freedom” Rep. David Leland of Columbus, Ohio

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Nickname: Fleet
Career: 1883-1889
Positions: c, of, 1b
Teams: minor leagues (1883, 1885-1889), major leagues (1884)
Bats: Right
Throws: Right
Born: October 7, 1857, Mt. Pleasant, Ohio
Died: May 11, 1924, Steubenville, Ohio

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Seated left, Moses Walker. Top row, third from the left, Weldy Walker.

From the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s eMuseum, which is a wonderful online resource for educators and baseball fans alike:

Photo353083“The son of a doctor, he was born at a waystation on the underground railway for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada, and as a youngster his parents moved to Steubenville, Ohio, where he attended integrated schools and played on integrated baseball teams. Tall, slender, handsome, and intelligent, he became the first black player to play in the major leagues when he played 42 games with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association in 1884, batting .263 for the season. A catcher with the ballclub, later in the year he was joined by his brother, Weldy Walker, who joined the team as a replacement outfielder for an injured player. 

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(Click to Read) Weldy Walker’s 1888 letter challenging the passing of laws banning black players from playing Major League baseball

In 1887 he played with Newark in the International League, where he and George Stovey formed the first black battery, and Walker hit .263 and stole 36 bases for the season. The superstar of the era, Cap Anson, refused to play in the game because of their presence, setting the stage for future exclusion of blacks from the established leagues.”

Life After Baseball

From the New York Times’s larger Overlooked series, that for Black History Month in February profiled “remarkable black men and women never received obituaries in The New York Times — until now. We’re adding their stories to our project about prominent people whose deaths were not reported by the newspaper”.

“After that one season in the minors, his year in the majors, and five more seasons in the minors, Walker left professional baseball in 1890. He fell upon difficult times.

In April of 1891, he was embroiled in an argument with several white men on a street in Syracuse, where he had played minor league ball. He pulled a pocketknife and fatally stabbed one of them. The questions of whether the episode stemmed from racial epithets, and whether Walker was hit in the head with a rock hurled by one of the men before or after he wielded his knife, were in dispute. An all-white jury found him not guilty, believing he acted in self-defense.

Walker pursued business opportunities with his brother Weldy in his post-baseball life. Their ventures including an entertainment center in Ohio that offered motion pictures, plays, opera and vaudeville. He patented inventions that facilitated the loading of film reels by his projectionists at a time when the movie industry was in its infancy.

201_246b3bec8c178c3642cb42553eb7d9f7“Back to Africa” Movement

By the turn of the 20th century, if not earlier, Walker had become dispirited by bigotry. In 1902, Moses and Weldy coedited a short-lived newspaper, The Equator, which focused on racial matters. In 1908, Moses wrote a published tract titled “Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race in America.” It was a scholarly work but essentially a cry of despair.

When Walker died of pneumonia on May 11, 1924, in Cleveland, he was working as a clerk in a billiard parlor. He outlived his first wife, Arabella, with whom he had three children, and his second wife, Ednah, both having been his classmates at Oberlin. He was about 66. He was buried in an unmarked grave at Union Cemetery in Steubenville. Weldy, who died in 1937, was buried alongside him.

William Edward White

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White photographed as a member of the 1879 Brown University baseball team

Researchers with the Society for American Baseball Research have found that a Brown University student named William Edward White played in one game at first base for the Providence Grays of the National League in 1879. White was the son of a Georgia slave owner and his mixed-race house servant. But he lived as a white man and was not regarded otherwise when he played in that major league game.

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Mural depicting Walker at Fifth Third Stadium, home of the Toledo Mud Hens

Moses Fleetwood Walker remains the first major leaguer recognized in his time as an African-American. In recent decades, the Walker brothers have emerged from obscurity. The minor league Toledo Mud Hens have posted a historical marker outside their ballpark chronicling Moses’s career, and the Ohio Legislature passed a measure in 2017 establishing an annual Moses Fleetwood Walker Day on his birthday. Private fund-raising has financed gravestones at the Walker brothers’ resting sites. Moses’s marker, dedicated in 1990, reads in part: “First Black Major League Baseball Player in the USA.”

“When Moses Fleetwood Walker played, people had never seen African-Americans of his caliber before. You’re talking about an African-American baseball player who was at the top of his game, and intellectually sharp as a tack. In these trying times, with so much division right now, so much violence and so much misunderstanding between groups of people, we need this story. It’s a sad story, but so inspirational.”

Craig Brown, adjunct instructor at Kent State and Stark State College and a Society of Baseball Research (SABR) member who led fundraising efforts to purchase a headstone for Weldy Walker’s gravesite (next to his brother Moses’ gravesite).

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Moses Fleetwood Walker’s grave at Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio
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Weldy Wilberforce Walker’s grave at Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio

Title Image: Ars Longa Art Cards “Pioneer Portraits”

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