A Disgrace To The Present Age: Fleet Walker and The Color Line, Part One

The Negro race will be a menace and the source of discontent as long as it remains in large numbers in the United States. The time is growing very near when the whites of the United States must either settle this problem by deportation, or else be willing to accept a reign of terror such as the world has never seen in a civilized country.” – Moses Fleetwood Walker; Our Home Colony

May 1st will mark the anniversary of the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. That was May 1st, one hundred and thirty-two years ago. This was a man whose experiences in professional baseball, though ultimately only a small part of his remarkable life, would remain a strong influence on his life long after he left the diamond.

Moses Fleetwood Walker, generally called “Fleet” for short, was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, on October 7th, 1856 to Dr. Moses W. Walker and Caroline O’Hara Walker, the third son and fifth-born among six children (or seven; it is not known how many for certain). The family was living in nearby Steubenville by 1870, where Moses, Sr. worked as a cooper before he became one of the first black doctors in all of Ohio. Dr. Walker would also find wealth and respect among African-American professionals in his home state.

An introspective and highly intelligent young man, young Master Walker likely took to the game of baseball in his early teens, though it was after he enrolled at Oberlin College that he gained prominence as both a batter and fielder. Playing for Oberlin’s prep team, Walker batted in the leadoff spot and showed a natural talent at catcher during a time well before shin guards and face masks; indeed, it was a time before even gloves were worn at any position. By 1881, Walker was starring for the Oberlin varsity club, the school’s first intercollegiate team of any kind, as well as handling a full class load in pursuit of a law degree, though as his skill and success in baseball increased his grades began to decline. Fleet’s brother Weldy would join him on the roster, this same year.

Besides the responsibilities of a student-athlete, in the summer of ’81 Walker would play summer baseball for the White Sewing Machine Company team based in Cleveland, Ohio. On August 21st, the Cleveland nine found themselves in Louisville at Eclipse Park, preparing to take on a team that in the following season would join the then-minor-league American Association. Batting stars Pete Browning and William “Chicken” Wolf were not yet hitting their prime, and hurler Guy Hecker was just then entering the league. It was a formidable opponent for the baseballists from The Forest City, to be sure. It was a game, however, that almost never happened.

Nearly three thousand fans were on hand to see the two clubs battle it out, and were witness to a battle of an entirely different kind. Louisville’s players seemed to be caught off-guard by the presence of Walker on the field, with some refusing to remain while the “young quadroon” was present. The Cleveland players responded by saying that Walker was their regular catcher, and to remove him from the game would severely handicap their team. Walker’s skin color may have been only a small part of the issue, since he had by then gained a reputation for being one of the best amateurs in the region. He had played against other white teams without facing such an outcry, though these teams were north of the Mason-Dixon Line, and this was still only sixteen years after the end of the Civil War.

Still, the Louisville club refused to play as long as Walker was on their diamond. Finally the Cleveland team acquiesced, replacing Walker with a man named West, their backup catcher. After only one inning, West practically begged off for the rest of the game, as his hands were so badly bruised that he couldn’t bear to continue. At this stage in the game, Walker simply had to play. As he took the field (to great cheers from the crown, it should be noted), Louisville’s Johnnie Reccius and Fritz Pfeffer returned to their clubhouse, with other Eclipse players remaining but protesting vociferously. While Walker continued to warm up, the crowd began to cheer more and more loudly, quite obviously excited to see the young man whose fantastic reputation as a player had apparently travelled farther than any word of his skin color, to this point. Still the Louisville players persisted in opposing their opposition (so to speak), and ultimately Walker was replaced by Mr. White, who had been manning third base but essentially consented to catch because nobody else among those players actually allowed to take the field was up to the task.

After Walker left the field for good, the local crowd turned against the Louisville players with a vengeance. Every mistake was booed loudly, while Mr. White’s players were cheered for every effort. White, especially, was cheered to the echo for his heroic efforts as backstop. In the end, the Eclipse would defeat the visitors, 6-3, though it would be remembered in the Louisville Courier-Journal thusly:

“On the part of the visitors the only noticeable feature was Arundel’s pitching, which would have been almost invincible if he had somebody behind the bat to hold him.”

The catcher combo of West and White would allow a total of seven passed balls, between them.

Fleet was soon recruited to play for the University of Michigan, where he would bat .308 and help lead the team to a 10-3 record while continuing to star behind the plate. Following him to Michigan were his brother Weldy, who would play in six games, and his girlfriend Bella Taylor, who at that time was pregnant with their child. They would marry in 1883, and Walker studied law while at Michigan.

That same year, Walker was signed to his first professional contract with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League. This was the same year he would cross paths with perennial star Adrian Constantine Anson, better known as “Cap”.

On August 10th of that year, Anson’s White Stockings had scheduled an exhibition against Toledo. Walker was actually scheduled to rest that day by manager Charlie Morton, but Anson caught sight of the young catcher and made it very clear to Morton that his team would never take the field while Walker was in the lineup. Anson was unaware that Walker was not playing, but Ol’ Cap’s Southern sensibilities so infuriated Morton that he then inserted Walker into the lineup in center field. Morton and Anson argued back and forth for more than an hour, until Morton threatened Anson with the forfeit of Chicago’s gate receipts if they refused to play.

Faced with taking a financial loss, Anson gave in. This was the first time he would lose face to Walker’s team, and he would not forget it. According to the game recap in the Toledo Daily Blade:

Anson hauled in his horns somewhat and ‘consented’ to play, remarking, ‘We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the nigger in.’”

Walker, in the meantime, would help lead Toledo to the league championship and pocket a $2,000 salary (equivalent to $46,155.46 in 2015 dollars) in the process.

In 1884, Walker would find himself in a newly-crowned major league, in direct competition with the National League. The American Association would remain at the highest level of professional baseball until the end of 1891, undercutting the NL’s gate receipts by offering cheaper tickets, serving beer at their games (which the NL refused to do), and scheduling games on Sunday, which was widely frowned upon. The “Association”, as it was commonly called, took great pride in appealing to the working-man-type, blue-collar fans, becoming known as “The Beer and Whiskey League”. Neither the league nor its fans seemed to take any offense to what the NL considered an insulting label.

It was also a year that would become a formative one for both Walker and the league in which he played. Anson’s vindictiveness and blatant bigotry would help to change the course of professional baseball for decades, and while Anson was more or less a reflection of his times, sharing an attitude common among his contemporaries, it was (and is) a deplorable attitude nonetheless. Ironically, Anson’s encounter with Fleet Walker and other black players over the next several years, coupled with the prejudice shown openly toward men and women of color in those days, would lead a small cadre of “gentlemen” to one of the most infamous decisions in the history of sport.

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