The year was 1884, a year of firsts: the first fountain pen, the first cigar-rolling machine, the first telephone service between New York City and Chicago, the first edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the first ladies' day baseball game (thanks to the New York Giants) and the first baseball game to be played under electric lights, in Fort Wayne, Ind.
In the spring of that year another first occurred in baseball, albeit quietly and without the fanfare that accompanied the first night game. One May afternoon on a small island of green in a bustling Midwestern city, Moses Fleetwood Walker, a tall, athletic young man, stepped onto a baseball diamond as the catcher for the Toledo Mud Hens of the American Association, becoming the first black major league baseball player. (Two years earlier the American Association had been established as the second major league, which it remained until 1891, when it was absorbed into the National League.) Walker, the son of a physician, broke the major league color barrier 63 years before Jackie Robinson's 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
When Fleet Walker, 26, joined Toledo in 1883 it was ostensibly so that he could make enough money to finish his college education, which he began at Oberlin in 1878. He took courses at the Ohio college in a variety of subjects—from Tacitus to trigonometry—but left in 1882 in order to study law at the University of Michigan. At both schools he played on integrated baseball teams.
Walker was well liked by most of his teammates in Toledo, but as the Mud Hens traveled across the country he was sometimes the object of insults from fans and opposing teams. Local sportswriters, too, were often racist in their game accounts, and on at least one occasion an anonymous death threat was made. Late in the '84 season before a game in Richmond, the manager of the Mud Hens, Charley Morton, received a letter stating that "seventy-five determined men have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground in a suit." (A confrontation was avoided because Walker had just been released.) Baseball innovator and manager Adrian (Cap) Anson once threatened to take his Chicago White Stockings off the field if Walker wasn't removed from the game. The Mud Hens not only refused to bench Walker but also insisted he would play even if the management had to get spectators from the stands to replace the White Stockings. Anson backed down.
Before the Mud Hens let him go at the end of the '84 season, Walker played in a scant 46 games. (His younger brother, Welday, who joined the team after Moses left, played in only six games, mostly as a substitute for injured players.) Though his tenure with the team was brief, Walker ended his second season with 40 hits and a .263 batting average. Astonishingly, he also made 40 errors. Walker wasn't an inept catcher, but he seldom knew where the ball was going to be pitched. He mostly caught for ambidextrous pitcher Tony Mullane, and while Mullane admitted that Walker was the best catcher he had ever worked with, he said he "disliked Negroes" and, therefore, ignored Walker's signals.
Both Walkers were let go by Toledo after seeing only limited playing time, but Moses continued to play in the minor leagues for several more years, until integration was unofficially outlawed there. After leaving baseball and despite failing to complete his college education, Moses, having settled permanently in Ohio, became a businessman, the owner of a theater and opera house, and the publisher, along with Welday, of his own newspaper, The Equator. In it Moses and his brother urged black people to return to Africa, some 30 years before the flamboyant Marcus Garvey did.
In their hometown of Steubenville, the brothers opened an office for those who wanted to immigrate to Liberia. Eventually, Moses wrote Our Home Colony, a book detailing the history of his race and advocating immigration. Although both Walkers had witnessed the failure of integration and had felt the sting of racism, they never took their own advice.
Only 19 years after the end of the Civil War, there was a small window of acceptance in the world of major league baseball through which Moses Walker and his brother Welday squeezed. The window, however, quickly closed. That it would open again could only have been a dream to these two men. It was a dream they would not live to see become reality.
In April 1947, almost 23 years after Moses Walker's death, Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate in Ebbets Field and grounded out to the Boston Braves' third baseman, Bob Elliott. The color barrier in baseball was broken—for the second time.