Walker, Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet")
WALKER, Moses Fleetwood ("Fleet")
(b. 7 October 1856 in Mount Pleasant, Ohio; d. 11 May 1924 in Cleveland, Ohio), baseball catcher, inventor, businessman, author, and anti-racism activist, who in 1884 was the first and last African American to play Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Walker and his four siblings were born in Mount Pleasant, a southeastern Ohio community with strong antislavery sentiments. Walker's father, Moses W. Walker, initially worked as a barrel maker, but by 1860 he had relocated the family to Steubenville, Ohio, making his livelihood as a physician and later as a Methodist Episcopal minister. Walker's mother, Caroline O'Harra, was a homemaker.
In 1877 the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where Walker, a graduate of Steubenville High School, enrolled in Oberlin College's preparatory program. In autumn 1878 Walker gained admission to Oberlin College, which was in the vanguard of racial and gender integration, and played catcher on a club team in 1880. He joined Oberlin's first intercollegiate baseball team in 1881. The slender, handsome Walker, with his affability and athletic prowess, was popular on campus. After completing his junior year in summer 1881, Walker enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in spring 1882 to play baseball and study law. Walker neither received a law degree nor practiced law. He ended his studies at Michigan in 1883.
During summer 1881 Walker played semiprofessional baseball for the White Sewing Machine Company in Cleveland. In August, Walker's team traveled south to play the Louisville (Kentucky) Eclipse, where racial discrimination kept him from eating breakfast with his team at a hotel and prevented him from playing. The following summer Walker played semiprofessional baseball in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
Walker joined professional baseball in 1883, playing for the Toledo (Ohio) Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League. In sixty games the right-handed batter hit a modest .251. Although he weighed only 160 pounds, his agility made him a decent catcher during an era when a wire mask and calfskin gloves were the catcher's only protection. Walker encountered the racial hostility of Adrian "Cap" Anson, the future Hall of Fame player and manager for the Chicago White Stockings, who announced before an exhibition game in Toledo that his team would not take the field against an African American. However, the White Stockings agreed to play after being informed they would forfeit their share of the gate receipts.
In 1884 Toledo joined the American Association, which was recognized by the National League as the other major league. On 1 May 1884 Walker became the first African American to play baseball at the major league level. Despite playing in only forty-two of the Blue Stockings' 104 games due to injuries and despite facing threats of violence and verbal taunts, especially in southern cities, Walker hit a respectable .263. (During 1884 Walker's younger brother Welday also played six games for Toledo, making him the second African American to play in the major leagues.) In retirement the Irish-born Tony Mullane, Toledo's talented pitcher, claimed that Walker was the best catcher he ever worked with, "but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals." The gentlemanly, articulate Walker was a fan favorite in Toledo, but nonetheless was released by the club in October, making him the last African American to play for a major league team until Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Walker returned to minor league baseball in 1885, playing for Cleveland in the Western League and for Waterbury, Connecticut, in the Southern New England League. From 1887 through 1889 he played in the International League (Newark, New Jersey, in 1887 and Syracuse, New York, in 1888 and 1889). Syracuse released the nearly thirty-three-year-old Walker on 23 August 1889 due to injuries and diminished skills. Walker was the last African American to play in the International League, the highest level of the minors, until Jackie Robinson played for Montreal in 1946.
In 1890 Walker took a job as a railway mail clerk in Syracuse. Arrested for the stabbing death of a white man during a street fight on 9 April 1891, Walker was acquitted. Arabella Taylor, a former Oberlin classmate whom he had married on 9 July 1882, died on 12 June 1895. They had two sons and a daughter. Walker married Ednah Jane Mason, another former Oberlin classmate, on 14 May 1898. Arrested on federal charges of mail robbery on 19 September 1898, Walker served a one-year sentence, after which he moved back to Steubenville and purchased the Union Hotel. In 1902 he edited the Equator, a newspaper dedicated to African-American issues. In 1908 Walker wrote and published Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America, a book that expressed disillusionment with the United States and urged African Americans to return to Africa.
In 1904 he purchased the opera house in Cadiz, Ohio, which hosted opera, live drama, and motion pictures. In 1920 he registered three patents for equipment to expedite movie reel loading and changing. (In 1891 he had patented an artillery shell.) On 20 May 1920 his second wife died, and in 1922 he sold the opera house and retired to Cleveland, where he died from pneumonia. He is buried next to his first wife in Steubenville's Union Cemetery.
Walker, a journeyman catcher, competed with white players during a time when segregation eliminated most opportunities for African-American players. Baseball, believed to be a symbol for the American values of equality, fair play, and cooperation, was for Walker the American dream denied.
The Moses F. Walker file at the Oberlin College archives contains a range of documents, clippings, and secondary publications. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, has a clippings file on Walker. David W. Zang, Fleet Walker ' s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball ' s First Black Major Leaguer (1995), is an excellent source of information. See also two pieces by Jerry Malloy, "Out at Home," in The Armchair Book of Baseball II, ed. John Thorn (1987), which focuses on race relations in professional baseball in 1887, and "Moses Fleetwood Walker," in Nineteenth-Century Stars, ed. Robert L. Tiemann and Mark Rucker (1989), which provides a career overview and statistical record. Donald Lankiewicz, "Fleet Walker in the Twilight Zone," Queen City Heritage (summer 1992): 2–11, places Walker's baseball career in the context of changing race relations in the late nineteenth century. Obituaries are in the Steubenville Herald-Star (13 May 1924) and the Cleveland Gazette (17 May 1924).
Paul A. Frischm