There is no doubt as to the importance of April 15th, 1947 in both the world of sports and American society. The day Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers changed not only baseball but every aspect of life in America. In my opinion, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s started with Jackie Robinson.
Although Jackie Robinson might have been the most famous pioneer in baseball, and perhaps the most important, he was not first. As baseball and America turns its thoughts to Robinson's noble crusade, and rightfully so, The Serious Tip would like to take a moment to honor two men who more than 50 years before Robinson faced the hate of racism and were among the first to feel the barrier of bigotry.
Moses Fleetwood Walker
Born in Ohio in 1856, Moses Fleetwood Walker was taught how to play baseball by his local Civil War veterans. Walker took to the sport quickly and was on Oberlin College's first baseball team. After two years at Oberlin, Walker transferred to the University of Michigan with his brother Welday Wilberforce Walker. After a year at Michigan, Moses Walker floated from minor league team to minor league team before finally getting a shot with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League in 1883. After a successful '83 season, the Blue Stockings changed affiliations to the American Association, one of the two major league competitors to the National League. By joining the American Association, Toledo made Moses Fleetwood Walker the first African-American to play baseball in a major league.
Hated by both the opposition and his own teammates, Moses Walker took punishment after punishment throughout the season and often played hurt. Although he hit 23 points over the league average in 1884, Walker was released by Toledo, who had opted to follow the new American Association rule of minority exclusion. With the National League already banning people of color from employment, Moses Fleetwood Walker was exiled from major league baseball.
Still wanting to play baseball, however, Walker joined teams in the Western League, the Eastern League, and the International League, occasionally competing against and even besting major league competition. After his baseball career ended, Walker published Our Home Colony, a call for African-Americans to return to Africa as a solution for American prejudice.
Although once a professional baseball player and a published author, Walker became an alcoholic towards the end of his life and died May 11, 1924. He is remembered in Union Cemetery in Steubenville, Ohio.
Welday Wilberforce Walker
Brother of Moses Fleetwood Walker, Welday Walker followed his more famous sibling on many teams, from Oberlin College to the Toledo Blue Stockings. According to The Forgotten Leagues.com, "when the Toledo team of the American Association found itself shorthanded in the outfield due to injuries, (Welday Walker) joined (Moses Fleetwood Walker) on the ballclub, making him the second black player ever with a major-league team."
Welday Walker would only appear in five games for Toledo in 1884, batting .222 with two runs batted in. Like Moses, Welday would become a baseball vagabond after the American Association instituted its "color barrier." Walker would eventually play for Akron of the Ohio State League and Cleveland of the Western League before finishing his career in 1887 with the Pittsburgh Keystones, one of the eight original teams of the League of Colored Baseball Clubs.
After he and his brother were excluded, Welday Walker never again saw an African-American play major league baseball. He died November 23, 1937, barely 10 years before Jackie Robinson would make his Brooklyn Dodgers debut.
For more on the Walker brothers and the many other great ballplayers who never reached the pinnacle of their profession due to the ignorance of racism, see A Complete History of the Negro Leagues: 1884 to 1955 by Mark Ribowsky. Other quality books that touch on the struggle of African-Americans in baseball include Great Time Coming: The Life of Jackie Robinson from Baseball to Birmingham by David Falkner and I Was Right On Time by Buck O'Neil.