He is relatively unknown as compared to Jackie Robinson, but Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first to break the barrier that prevented black men from playing organized baseball.
Born October 7, 1857, in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, Walker became the first African American to play major league baseball in the nineteenth century. He took to the fields in the 1880s during a period of upheaval in the United States when African-Americans were seeking equality with whites.
The bare-handed catcher made a name for himself as he played individual games for the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland (August 1881), the New Castle (Pennsylvania) Neshannocks (1882), and with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League (1883).
Throughout his career, Walker received backlash and death threats from white players and team owners who did not favour playing on the same field with him and his brother, Weldy.
One of the most famous players during this time period, Cap Anson, in August 1883 said his team would not play Toledo with Walker in the lineup.
They eventually played but this marked the start of Walker’s major challenges, including the erection of a “colour barrier” in the game.
At the beginning of the 1884 season, professional baseball league, the American Association (which would later become the modern-day American League) was established and it added the Toledo Blue Stockings to its list of participating franchises, moving Toledo from the minor to the major league level.
This implied that on the opening day of the 1884 season, the starting catcher of the Toledo Blue Stockings would become the first African-American player to play a professional baseball game.
On May 1, 1884, Moses Fleetwood Walker took the field against the Louisville Eclipse, and with that, he officially broke the colour barrier of Major League Baseball.
He did not have a good game though as he committed many errors, a situation he attributed to frequent death threats and racial slurs.
Between May 1 and September 4, Walker played forty-two games for Toledo. He continued to play in the minors until 1889, but he would never again play on a major league team.
But why is Jackie Robinson often idolized more than the Walker brothers?
Many have attributed this to their lives after baseball. Walker and his brother became highly political and in 1908, after editing their own newspaper The Equator for six years, they published a 47-page pamphlet, Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America, to support the Back-to-Africa movement.
Walker, born to an African American physician father and a white mother, was also the first black player for Oberlin College. In 1891, he was tried for second-degree murder for stabbing to death a white man who had attacked him with friends.
Walker pleaded self-defence and was acquitted.
On May 11, 1924, Moses Fleetwood Walker died and was buried in Steubenville, Ohio. Seventy-six years later the Oberlin Heisman Club financed the erection of a headstone on his grave.