Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Moses Fleetwood Walker and the Toledo Blue Stockings

The Major League Baseball season is underway. Most people believed the phenomenal athlete Jackie Robinson was first to break the color barrier in 1947. It was Moses Fleetwood Walker who holds that distinction. Born in Mount Pleasant in 1856, Walker, better known as “Fleet,” was the son of Moses W. Walker, one of Ohio’s first black physicians and a Methodist Episcopal minister. Fleet and brother Weldy both enrolled at Oberlin College where in 1880 they played intercollegiate baseball.
Moses Fleetwood Walker
Courtesy of Wikimedia

So impressive were the Walkers, they were recruited by the University of Michigan, where Fleet studied law. With Fleet as its superb catcher and power hitter, Michigan won 10 of 13 games. That summer he played for an amateur team at New Castle, Pennsylvania. Local papers referred to him as a “wonder.”

1882 University of Michigan Baseball Team
(Walker, bottom third from right)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

 In the spring of 1883, Walker left school to play pro ball in Toledo, a part of the Northwestern League, where he was signed as the team’s catcher. But before the season even opened, the league’s executive committee attempted to block Walker and any African American from playing baseball. Bitterly contested by his team’s management and backed by the “Toledo Blade,” Walker took to the field and led the way to a pennant-winning season. According to baseball historian John Husman, the “Toledo Blade,” praised Walker as being of “greater value behind the bat than any catcher in the league.” The following year, theToledo Blue Stockings joined major league baseball’s American Association. With Fleet and then Weldy on the roster, the brothers became the first and second African Americans to play in the major leagues. It was a dismal season for the Toledo Blue Stockings and the Walkers. 

Toledo Blue Stockings
(Walker, top row center)
Courtesy of Wikimedia

 Fleet, who caught barehanded, was plagued by injuries. (Catchers’ only protective gear was the mask.) He was released in September and the Blue Stockings returned to the minor league. Fleet with his wife and two children remained in Toledo, where he worked as a postal clerk. He caught on with several minor league teams and later, he and his brother bought a theater in Cleveland. It was here that Fleet patented several improvements in film’s early technology. In 1891, while playing with the Syracuse Stars, Fleet killed a man in a fight with three other white men. Fleet claimed self-defense. An all-white jury found him not guilty. A few years later, Walker was convicted of mail fraud and sentenced to a year in prison. Subjected to racial harassment throughout their lives, Fleet and Weldy Walker published the “Equator.” As editors, they wrote about black nationalism and proposed that African-Americans emigrate to Africa. Fleet detailed these ideas in a book titled “Our Home Colony.” Walker owned several more theaters before his death in Cleveland in 1924. 

One final note: Baseball researcher Pete Morris discovered ballplayer William Edward White, who played a single game for the Providence Grays some five years before Fleet Walker. White was born into slavery, but passed as white. Despite these facts, baseball historians still credit Moses Fleetwood Walker as the first to play openly as an African American in the major leagues.

For more about Moses Fleetwood Walker and the Toledo Blue Stockings, check out "Toledo's Attic" online.

1 comment:

Dorene from Ohio said...

So interesting to learn about this baseball history in our state!