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First professional black baseball player: ‘Fleet’ Walker honed skills at Oberlin College in 1881

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Before there was Jackie Robinson, there was Moses Fleetwood Walker.

Robinson is famed for being the first black player in modern times in Major League Baseball, breaking in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, followed 10 weeks later by Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians, the first black player in the American League.

But in 1884, “Fleet” Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, then regarded as a major league. In fact, his brief baseball career — just one act in a life as an entrepreneur, inventor and journalist — led to the “gentlemen’s agreement” that barred African-American players from the major leagues.

Walker, whose baseball career started in earnest at Oberlin College, slipped into relative obscurity after his death in 1924. But an effort is being made to remember and celebrate him and his brother Weldy.

“He was more than just a baseball player,” said Craig Brown, a lecturer at Kent State University and Stark State College, who is trying to get Walker’s birthday of Oct. 7 declared Moses Fleetwood Walker Day in Ohio. “He was really a civil rights activist. Honestly, he was a pretty amazing figure.”

Ohio roots

Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in 1856 in Mount Pleasant, a village in Jefferson County near the Pennsylvania state line that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. He grew up in nearby Steubenville.

In 1877, his father, Dr. Moses W. Walker, one of the first black doctors in Ohio as well as a minister, was sent to Second Methodist Episcopal Church in Oberlin. Fleet Walker enrolled in preparatory classes at Oberlin that year, and the next year formally enrolled in Oberlin College, an austere place at the time, with no alcohol, no tobacco and no “secret societies” such as Greek organizations. Students had to go to church every Sunday.

“It was the same kind of discipline he probably saw at home,” said Oberlin College Archivist Ken Grossi.

New in 1881 was a baseball team. “It became an outlet for students,” Grossi said. “The faculty agreed it would probably help them.” Walker, who had learned the game as a child from returning Civil War veterans, was the team’s starting catcher, probably the most difficult position to play. There were no chest protectors or catcher’s mitts.

“Walker was a really good catcher,” said Major League Baseball historian John Thorn. “Anyone who caught in the major leagues was a terrific player under those circumstances. They were regarded as having remarkable endurance, which is the stuff of heroism in the 19th century.”

After Oberlin beat the University of Michigan, he was recruited to Ann Arbor — the NCAA was 25 years away. He also played semiprofessional baseball for the White Sewing Machine Co. of Cleveland.

In 1883, Fleet Walker was signed to play for the Toledo Blue Stockings, then a minor-league team in the Northwestern League. He wasn’t the first black professional baseball player, but the following year, when the Toledo team moved from the Northwestern League to the American Association, he became the first everyday black player for a major league team.

Major League shakeout

The National League formed in 1876. The next major league was the American Association, which started in 1882. Thorn said the American Association and National League winners typically met after the season to compete in a forerunner to the World Series.

Walker’s playing career had been marked with resistance from opposing teams, from his days at Oberlin to Toledo. And that continued when the Blue Stockings became a major league team.

“There were racial incidents from the get-go,” Thorn said.

When the Chicago team came to town, future Hall of Famer Cap Anson said he wouldn’t put his team on the field if Walker played. Walker had a scheduled day off, but his manager put him in the lineup to spite Anson, who backed down.

A team from Richmond, Va. — the former capital of the Confederacy — warned manager Charlie Morton not to play Walker, “as we could mention the names of seventy-five determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground in the suit. … We only write this to prevent much bloodshed.”

As it turned out, Walker was released before the team went to Richmond — because of a hand injury, not giving in to bigotry — and until Robinson in 1947, there were no players in the major leagues who identified themselves as African-American. Thorn noted stories of black players passing as white.

Walker continued to play baseball through 1889, with his last stop at Syracuse in the International League. He was the last black player in the International League until Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals in 1946, the year before he made his Major League debut.

By then, the color line had been drawn. Several players, like Walker, had been grandfathered into the minor leagues, but ultimately, they retired, leaving professional baseball for whites only until the advent of the Negro Leagues.

The American Association had given up the ghost as well, succumbing in 1890 during the brief lifetime of the Players League.

“Two leagues could compete happily,” Thorn said. “Three could not.”

The Players League collapsed after just one season, leaving the National League as the only major league until the establishment of the American League in 1901.

After baseball

After baseball, Walker worked as a postal railway clerk. He went on trial in 1891, accused of stabbing a man in a drunken brawl in Syracuse. He was acquitted by an all-white jury, and shortly thereafter returned to Steubenville, where he was a member of the Knights of Pythias and the Masons.

In 1898, he was convicted of mail robbery, spending a year in a federal prison. After his release, he and his brother Weldy — who also played briefly for Toledo — ran the Union Hotel in Steubenville, and the Opera House in nearby Cadiz. He received four patents for various inventions, and ran a small newspaper, publishing a book in 1908 called “Our Home Colony,” advocating the return of blacks to Africa and saying that racial harmony was an unachievable goal.

After Walker’s wife died in 1920, he sold the Opera House and moved to Cleveland, where he and Weldy ran the Temple Theater on East 55th Street. Grossi said he returned an alumni questionnaire in 1920, when he was asked to sum up his experience at Oberlin. He used one word: “Excellent.”

He died in 1924 of pneumonia, and was described in his obituary in the Steubenville Herald-Star as “one of the best baseball catchers in the United States.”

He was buried in an unmarked grave at Union Cemetery — an oversight that was remedied when the Oberlin Heisman Club paid for a gravestone in 1990. His brother, buried next to him, is still in an unmarked grave — something Brown is trying to fix, soliciting donations through the Society of American Baseball Research for a gravestone.

When the Toledo Mud Hens built a new ballpark in downtown Toledo, the street outside of it was renamed for Fleet Walker. A bill advocated by Brown to make Oct. 7 Fleet Walker Day was introduced into the Ohio House of Representatives. It’s gotten out of committee, Brown said, but is awaiting a vote by the full house.

“We’re in a holding pattern,” he said, “but we’re hoping it becomes a priority.”

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