Moses Fleetwood Walker
Major League stats:
Year Ag Lg G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG
1884 27 AA 42 152 23 40 2 3 0 0 0 8 0 .263 .325 .316
Moses Fleetwood Walker was born, the son of one of Ohio’s first black doctors, on October 7, 1856. Many happy hours of his childhood were spent watching the Union soldiers play baseball in the fields. Walker attended Oberlin College in Ohio. Fleetwood and his brother Welday helped establish baseball as a varsity sport. He left Oberlin and went to the University of Michigan. There Fleetwood starred in baseball where he was wildly popular with the fans who came to call him “the wonder.” Like other catchers of the day, Fleetwood played without a glove or protective gear. In an exhibition game in the summer of 1883, Fleet had his first run-in with Cap Anson, the National League’s most influential player. After arriving in Toledo with his Chicago team, Anson announced that he would not play with Fleet in the lineup. The Blue Stockings manager had originally planned to rest his catcher. But when served with this boorish ultimatum, he decided to start Fleet in rightfield—daring Anson to walk away from his split of the gate receipts. The game was held as scheduled, with the White Stockings winning 7-6.
Toledo joined the fledgling American Association for the 1884 season. Known as baseball’s “beer and whiskey” league, the two-year-old AA was one of three major leagues operating in ’84. Despite an unprecedented need for top-flight talent in professional baseball, Fleet was the only dark-skinned competitor in the majors when the year began. He made his debut on May 1, 1884—in Louisville, ironically enough. Two days later, Fleet got his first major-league hit, a single, in that same city. Later in the season, he was joined by Weldy, who became history’s second black major leaguer. Against the world’s top baseball competition, Fleet more than measured up. A crackerjack bare-handed catcher who possessed a shotgun arm, he proved a dependable singles hitter. His batting average in 1884 was .263, a full 23 points above the league mark. Tony Mullane the team’s best pitcher revealed years later that he disliked taking signals from his black catcher. In turn, Fleet caught most of the year without knowing the speed, location or spin of the hurler’s deliveries. The result was an appalling number of passed balls, and an assortment of injuries, including a broken rib. On many days, Fleet hurt too much to play, and on others he could only take an outfield position. When a newspaper ridiculed him as “the coon catcher,” The Sporting News came to his defense: “It is a pretty small paper that will publish a paragraph of that kind about a member of a visiting club, and the man who wrote it is without doubt Walker’s inferior in education, refinement, and manliness.” Teammates were not all supportive. The league included players who openly acknowledged playing halfheartedly behind black pitchers, and umpires that bragged of making calls against black ballplayers, and against the teams that employed them. In September Fleet had already left the club, due to injuries, when a group of Richmond fans sent the Toledo manager a note :
“We the undersigned do hereby warn you not to put up Walker, the Negro catcher, the evening that you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes to the ground in a suit. We hope you listen to our words so that there will be trouble, but if you do not here certainly will be. We only write this to prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent.” promising to “mob Walker” and “much bloodshed” if Fleet were to take the field in uniform.
We will never know if a lynch mob would have met Walker because he was injured prior to the Richmond series and he was through for the season. He suffered a broken rib when he was struck by a tipped foul ball.
Fleet hooked up with Newark, of the prestigious International League, in 1887. There he joined forces with pitcher George Washington Stovey, to form the first all-Negro battery in white baseball. 1887 proved to be an opportune season for black players, as seven men of color appeared on six teams. That year, on July 14, the “Father of Apartheid Baseball,” Adrian “Cap” Anson threatened Newark officials to bench Walker and Stovey, or forfeit the game. It was here that Anson shouted his infamous remarks, “Get that nigger off the field, there’s a law against that!” Anson, an excellent player and future Hall of Famer, had clout on and off the field. That very day all the owners got together after Cap told John Ward not to ever sign another man of color. The next day league officials of the American Association and the National League announced that teams would not be allowed to hire black players in the future, because of the “hazards” black players imposed. This was the day that the “gentlemen’s agreement” was made by all the owners of the game. The color curtain was in place for the next sixty years. Like any revolutionary when the battle is lost, Fleet became moody and disillusioned. In 1888 in Toronto (where the previous year the crowd had chanted “Kill the Nigger” at Frank Grant) he greeted jeering fans with a loaded revolver and offered to “put a hole in someone.” The following year injuries and politics took their final toll and Fleetwood Walker’s baseball career was over at the age of 33, just because of one man with racism and power, Cap Anson.
But the bigotry that had greeted Fleetwood at every turn refused to be shaken. A handsome, proud, intelligent black man looked like a target to too many, and in April, 1891 Fleetwood was accosted by an angry group of whites as he past a bar on his way home from church in Syracuse. . True to form Fleetwood refused to back down and in the ensuing struggle one of the mob was fatally stabbed in the groin. After pleading self-defense to second degree murder charges, Fleetwood was acquitted at trial, leading Sporting Life to report that “immediately a shout of approval, accompanied by clapping of hands and stamping of feet, rose from the spectators.” Once again the general public backed Fleetwood like it did back when he was banned in Louisville. After the trial Walker and his family moved back to Steubenville where he served as a railway mail clerk and continued to drink. In 1898 he was arrested for mail robbery and spent one year in jail.
Next came his innovative and his inventive years. Fleetwood, again accompanied by Welday, undertook a successful foray into the world of commerce, opening a hotel and then owning and managing several movie theaters, and finally an opera house. Fleet’s creative approach resulted in his patenting several inventions having to do with motion picture cameras and industry. He received a patent for a dynamite artillery shell that exploded on impact. Mr. Walker’s shell became out-of-date within ten years when a new invention, a rapid-fire gun, took its place.
He launched a newspaper, The Equator, in which he expounded on his feelings of alienation. In 1908 he published “Our Home Colony,” a volume setting forth his conclusions. “The only practical and permanent solution of the present and future race troubles in the United States is entire separation by Emigration of the Negro from America,” he wrote, “Even forced Emigration would be better for all than the continued present relations of the races.” Walker remained an angry man, and in 1908 became a racial theorist, publishing Our Home Colony: The Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In this volume, Walker advocated black immigration to Africa as the answer to white racism in America. Moses showed considerable self-hatred directed toward the mulatto. The divided heart of Walker was evident in that, at the same time he was penning a volume advocating racial separatism, he was purchasing an opera house in Cadiz, Ohio, where for the next 15 years he provided film and live entertainment (including minstrel shows) for racially mixed audiences. In 1922, he sold the opera house and moved to Cleveland, dying two years later. At the time of his death, the ambitious Walker was working as a clerk in a billiards parlor. Concluding that Walker remained a divided man until the end of his life, Zang writes, “As a black separatist he was a man who could not abide white society’s shunning of merit but could never bring himself to actually separate from white society”
Most of this article was taken from the book “Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer.” By David W. Zang.
The Fan’s Commish