Jackie Robinson’s story has long inspired black athletes and African-Americans in general. He is the model of grit, perseverance, and dignity. Nobody can ever take away his career .311 average, his 1949 NL MVP award, and, most importantly, his enduring legacy and contribution to the advancement of African Americans everywhere. That being said, he was NOT the first black man to play baseball in the Major Leagues. That distinction belongs to Mr. Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio in 1856, Walker was the mixed son of a respected black physician and his Caucasian wife. His talent for the game of baseball was evident early on, but it wasn’t until he attended college at Oberlin when his real potential was apparent. Walker was a star catcher for the team. He was so good in fact that he was recruited away from Oberlin to play varsity baseball for the University of Michigan.
He began playing semi-professional baseball with a local team while at Michigan when he first experienced mistreatment at the hands of his opponents. They refused to take the field when he came on to catch. Eventually, he had to be subbed out for a worse player. Still, Walker had an incredible run with Michigan, hitting .308 and leading the team to a reported 10-3 record. He would later parlay his excellent season into a minor league contract with Toledo Blue Stockings.
Now, the Blue Stockings belonged to the Northwestern League, a collection of minor league teams in the Midwestern United States. In 1884 though, the league would be absorbed by the American Association, which was a Major League, actually competing against the present day National League to be the baseball’s only league. On May 1st, 1884, nearly 35 years before Jackie Robinson was born, Moses Fleetwood Walker became the first man to break the color barrier in baseball.
His tenure with the Blue Stockings in the Major League was, unfortunately, brief and marred with difficulty from white players. Catchers back then didn’t wear any protective gear, not even gloves. As a result, he dealt with a litany of injuries throughout his brief pro career, including a broken rib. Also, he had run-ins with many white players, even his teammates. White pitchers wouldn’t listen to the calls he made, instead throwing whatever pitch they felt like. This hurt the overall play of the team as well as his performance. Walker was demoted to the minor league and would never get his second chance in the majors.
Walker would go on to enjoy success as a businessman and a prominent advocate of black nationalism. One notable incident that occurred after his career was a murder charge brought against him after a mob of white men attacked him. He was charged with second-degree murder, but acquitted, by an all-white jury in 1891, on the basis of self-defense.