The Man Who Broke Baseball’s Color Line Before Jackie Robinson

Why did Jackie Robinson have to break baseball’s color line in 1947 after another man broke it almost 70 years before?

Moses Fleetwood Walker didn’t have a good game for the Toledo Blue Stockings against the Louisville Eclipse on May 1, 1884. Hitless in four at bats and charged with four errors while playing catcher, Fleet Walker played poorly, but he had a good excuse—death threats. On that day, 132 years ago and 63 years before Jackie Robinson, Walker became the first African-American player in major league baseball. We remember Jackie Robinson each year with special days and retired numbers, but Fleet Walker’s faded into the past in the memory of the public at large. Both Walker and Robinson faced bigotry and abuse to realize their dream of equality on the playing field. Today, the question of who did it first isn’t as important as why baseball’s color line had to be broken not once, but twice. What does that fact say about the “color lines” being drawn today?


 

  • Image: Portrait of Moses Fleetwood Walker, circa 1884. Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, in 1856, Fleet Walker (shown above, around 1884, the year he broke baseball’s color line) belonged to the first generation of African Americans who enjoyed the benefits of the post-Civil War racial environment. His father, Dr. Moses W. Walker, was the first African-American physician in that part of Ohio. Fleet’s mother was white, making his origins even more remarkable for the age. Fleet attended segregated schools in Ohio until desegregation finally arrived. Walker’s life, even before that first game, constituted a series of crossing color lines. Sadly, as with baseball, many of those lines were redrawn, including the de facto, illegal re-segregation of Ohio schools until the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s.

  • Image: 1882 University of Michigan baseball team (Walker front row, third from right). Image source: Wikipedia.
  • After high school, Fleet Walker attended the integrated Oberlin College. In 1881, he joined the college’s first varsity baseball team, along with his younger brother Weldy Wilberforce Walker (team photo at top of post). After starring as Oberlin’s catcher, Fleet moved on to the University of Michigan in 1882, where he studied law and played baseball for one year (team photo shown above). At the time, professional baseball remained in its infancy, with professional teams and professional leagues popping up everywhere. If fact, baseball was too young even to have formulated its racism yet. So, when young Fleet Walker took his talents to Toledo to play for the Blue Stockings in the newly founded professional American Association league, his talent trumped any “unwritten” rules about race.

  • Image: 1888 Syracuse Stars baseball team (Moses Fleetwood Walker back row, far left). Image source: Wikipedia.
  • Looking at the integrated team photos that include the Walker brothers, you’d imagine some team racial harmony, but pictures can deceive. Walker’s teammate, the ambidextrous pitcher Tony Mullane, called Walker “the best catcher I 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.”  Mullane, who still holds baseball’s record for wild pitches in a career, asserted his “intellectual superiority” by disregarding Walker’s signals, which resulted in the catcher having no idea what pitch was coming—a dangerous idea even now, but almost life-threatening in the era before gloves or any protective gear for catchers. How many of barehanded Walker’s errors came from Mullane and others’ views is unknown, but at least one pitch by Mullane broke one of Walker’s ribs, forcing him to miss a large part of the season injured.

     

  • Image: High grade example of this 1887 N28 Allen & Ginter Adrian C. “Cap” Anson card that sold at auction. (Photo by Iconic Archive/Getty Images)
  • Hotels and restaurants often refused service to Walker when his team travelled, especially in the South, where Fleet would sometimes sleep on park benches the nights before games.  Crowds shouted slurs and death threats arrived steadily as they travelled to each new town.  But the man who became Fleet Walker’s true nemesis is none other than Baseball Hall of Famer as the first player to achieve 3,000 hits, Adrian C. “Cap” Anson (shown above). In 1883, before Toledo entered the professional league, Anson’s Chicago White Stockings visited Toledo to play an exhibition game.  Anson refused to play if Walker played.  Anson only relented when Toledo’s owner threatened to withhold Chicago’s share of the gate.  Ironically, Walker was scheduled to rest that game (a common occurrence in an era when catchers needed to rest their battered hands after a day of catching baseballs barehanded), but Toledo’s manager played Fleet in the outfield just to spite Anson. 

    In 1887, Anson struck again, this time more permanently.  Injury and, perhaps, other issues led Toledo to release Fleet Walker by the end of 1884.  He bounced around the minor professional leagues for several years in hopes of returning to the majors.  Fleet’s team, the Newark Little Giants of the International League, featured not only Walker as catcher, but also a great African-American pitcher, George Stovey.  Anson, now the Chicago manager, not only refused to play again, but colluded with other managers in the International League to no longer sign African-American players.  The unwritten rule against African-American major league baseball players was now written down on July 14, 1887.

     

  • Image: Weldy Walker, circa 1883.
  • At the time of the racial ban, thirteen African Americans were playing in minor professional leagues, including Fleet and his brother Weldy (shown above), who was playing for the Akron Acorns of the Ohio State League.  When the bans spread across the country, Weldy wrote an open letter published in the March 14, 1888 edition of The Sporting Life titled “Why Discriminate?” “The law is a disgrace to the present age, and reflects very much upon the intelligence of your last meeting, and casts derision at the laws of Ohio – the voice of the people–that say all men are equal,” Weldy Walker wrote. “There should be some broader cause–such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence–for barring a player, rather than his color.”  For intelligent, talented men such as the Walker brothers, the arguments that African-American players weren’t smart or talented enough to keep up with white players rang hollow. 

     

  • Image: Jackie Robinson #42 of the Brooklyn Dodgers poses for a portrait circa 1947-1956. (Photo by Photo File/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
  • Why do we not remember Fleet and Weldy Walker, yet remember and lionize Jackie Robinson (shown above)?  Perhaps the Walker brothers’ post-baseball lives have something to do with it.  Whereas Jackie Robinson kept his politics to himself and held his tongue while assimilating (letting his playing do the “talking”), the Walker brothers became highly political after baseball.  In 1908, after editing their own newspaper The Equator for six years, the brothers published a 47-page pamphlet, Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America, to support the Back-to-Africa movement.  “The Negro race will be a menace and the source of discontent as long as it remains in large numbers in the United States,” Our Home Colony argues. “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.”  Send us back to Africa, the treatise cries out, if you won’t accept us in America.  For those uncomfortable with the more militant elements of #BlackLivesMatter, the Walker brothers’ writings sound like a very familiar, very honest threat.

     

  • Image: Oakland, CA-April 15, 2016: (L-R) Marcus Semien #10 of the Oakland Athletics, former Athletics Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson, Coco Crisp #4, former Athletic Johnny “Blue Moon” Odom, third base coach Ron Washington #38, former Athletic Vida Blue, and Khris Davis #2 stand together for the National Anthem prior to the game against the Kansas City Royals at O.co Coliseum on April 15, 2016 in Oakland, California. All players are wearing #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
  • Compared to Jackie Robinson (celebrated during Jackie Robinson Day above), Fleet Walker seems an uncomfortable reminder of the first failures of post-Civil War civil rights for African Americans.  The promise of Reconstruction died in 1877 to be replaced with Jim Crow laws that would hold sway until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which viewed Robinson as a peaceful pioneer to emulate.  The story of Fleet Walker’s breaking the color line only pointed out that the color line had to be broken again and suggested, perhaps, that it would have to be broken once again in the future.

     

  • Image: Bobblehead doll of Moses Fleetwood Walker.
  • Efforts have been made to remember the achievement and lesson of Moses Fleetwood Walker’s life, including a bobblehead of the player (shown above).  New research suggests that William Edward White, who appeared in 1879 in one game for the Providence Grays while passing as white, may have been African American and, thus, the first to cross the color line, however briefly and deceptively.  But Fleet Walker (and his brother Weldy) crossed it more honestly, lasted much longer, and fought back much harder.   The story of Fleet Walker needs to be told and recalled because it reminds us that racial progress has never been linear.  It’s always been a series of advances and regressions, with attitudes often lagging behind legislation strongly enough to sometimes reverse that legislation.  Standing here in 2016 America, in a country and election cycle dominated by racial questions, remembering that Jackie Robinson wasn’t the first should inspire us to make sure he’s the last.

  • [Image at top of post: The first varsity baseball team of Oberlin College in Ohio in 1881. Moses Fleetwood Walker is marked as “6” in the middle row, while his brother Weldy Wilberforce Walker is marked as “10” in the top row.]
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    • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
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    On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

    How did the camps get their start?

    With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

    Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

    "I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

    DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

    "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

    Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

    Life in the camps

    Japanese American concentration camp

    Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

    For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

    Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

    Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

    As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

    The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

    Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

    "They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

    Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

    The aftermath

    When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.