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Is MLB's Jackie Robinson Day a fraud?

Baseball fans file into an MLB game.
Baseball fans file into an MLB game.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s been 130 years since the Walker brothers played major-league baseball and the insults from Major League Baseball keep coming, particularly every April 15.

In 1997, MLB officials retired No. 42 across the league in honor of Jackie Robinson, who wore that number when he broke the racial color barrier in baseball when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. In 2004, April 15 was named Jackie Robinson Day to honor the date of the first game the first baseman played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In 2007, MLB began the tradition of having all players wear the No. 42 on their jersey to honor Robinson.

But is Jackie Robinson Day a fraud?

Shouldn’t the day that everyone remember be May 1 and not April 15? Shouldn’t the person honored be Moses “Fleet” Walker, not Robinson? Shouldn’t fans know that Robinson was not the first African-American player in the Majors and that the color barrier he “broke” was actually erected by MLB itself?

The multitude of honors or ceremonies of racial integration MLB promotes on April 15 add insult to century-old injury to other race pioneers who fought long before Robinson did for the equality that is enjoyed today. In all of the ceremonies that MLB promotes, it’s important to note that Robinson is referred to as the man who “broke the color barrier” not the first African-American player.

Revisionism by baseball most baseball officials has relegated the first African-American major-league player as little more than a footnote. If MLB officials truly do have the racial consciousness they would have the world believe every April 15, they will make sure that the Walker brothers are given a fraction of the limelight bestowed upon Robinson.

Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker was the first African-American major-league baseball player, taking the field for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association (not to be confused with the minor league American Association that began in 1902), a major league on par with the National League and its star team, the Chicago White Stockings (later renamed Cubs). On May 1, 1884, Walker started at catcher for Toledo at Louisville; becoming the first black player in the majors. Not Robinson 63 years later.

Later that same season, Welday Walker, Fleet’s younger brother, signed to play for Toledo as well. Raised in Ohio, the Walker brothers were the first two African-American major-league players in history.

But from the revised history that the MLB presents, no fan would know about the Walker brothers. On the Jackie Robinson Day page at there’s no reference to the Walkers. In fact, fans would have to dig into the Negro League player profiles to find any acknowledgement that Fleet Walker and his brother even played in the Majors.

Jackie Robinson Day is supposed to be a day for everyone in baseball to remember the bigoted ways of the past so that they are never allowed to flourish again. However, this very ceremony that focuses on Robinson ignores the men who fought against worse conditions generations earlier.

The Walker brothers were the first two major-league baseball players in MLB history, taking the field in 1884. The Walker brothers faced bigoted fans less than 20 years after the end of the Civil War. Robinson’s historic 1947 season occurred generations later.

Nobody is trying to take away from what Robinson suffered through in breaking the color barrier. But lauding Robinson for overcoming something baseball officials created screams of hypocrisy on MLB’s behalf and insults the memory of the Walker brothers. After all, it was baseball’s officials - led by the Chicago Cubs’ vocal player/manager Cap Anson - who erected the color barrier in the first place after the Walkers took the field.

While it’s difficult to talk about (much less attempt to measure) the difference between racism in the 20th and 19th centuries, just imagine for a moment attempting to be the first black player while Confederate soldiers were still alive and possibly in attendance. By the time Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, World War I and II were both over, the Tuskegee Airmen had been formed and American jazz and blues was a global music pioneered and led by black musicians. The Walker brothers played in front of bigoted fans who had fought in the Civil War at a time in history, the 1880s, before African Americans were welcomed into common areas of life such as entertainment and the military.

Where Jackie Robinson faced death threats, boycotts, endless insults and countless “spikes up” plays on the bases, the Walker brothers faced all of that and worse in the wake of the Civil War. (Shin guards were invented by African-American second baseman John “Bud” Fowler in the late 1800s as a way to protect himself against the constant aggressive slides from white players.) Fleet Walker suffered broken bones in his catching hand due to the fact that pitcher Tony Mullane refused to cooperate with any of the pitches that his catched called, according to Walker biographer David W. Zang in “Walker’s Divided Heart” (pg 43).

The end of his playing days didn’t halt Fleet Walker’s problems with white society. Though he went on to become a successful businessman and author, Walker was attached by a group of white men in 1891 and to make his escape the catcher had to stab one of the men, Patrick Murray, who later died. Walker was acquitted of any wrongdoing in a subsequent trial, but the former University of Michigan Wolverine had experienced enough.

In 1908, Walker wrote Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America that called for a separation of the races.

Why did Fleet Walker grow to become more like Malcolm X than Martin Luther King? Largely because of the Chicago Cubs and Anson.

The Cubs, then called the White Stockings, had four run-ins with Walker between 1883 and 1888. Though Walker “won” the first battle, Anson and his racist supporters in baseball “won” the other three confrontations and made sure that black players like Walker were not a part of the Major Leagues until Robinson’s appearance in 1947.

The first battle occurred on August 10, 1883, when the NL champion Chicago White Stockings agreed to play an exhibition game in Toledo against the Blue Stockings (which played in the Northwestern League that season). Anson and his teammates refused to take the field “with no damned nigger.” Though Toledo manager Charles Morton had initially agreed to acquiesce to Anson’s demands and not play Walker, Morton changed his mind when the White Stockings constantly berated his players during warm ups. Furious at the low-class antics displayed by Chicago, Morton put Walker back into the lineup (right field). Though Chicago squeezed out a 7-6 win in 10 innings, Morton, Walker and the Toledo fan base who supported the Blue Stockings pushed the topic of racism and baseball further than it ever had moved before.

After a first-place finish in 1883, Toledo won the right to join the American Association in 1884, joining the Majors. On July 25, 1884, Toledo was scheduled to play at Chicago. The rematch between Anson and Walker was anticipated, but feared by many. Death threats had followed Walker the entire season, so that wasn’t anything new in Chicago. But the White Stockings management, led by A.G. Spalding, refused to allow Walker to take the field. Chicago issued a letter to Toledo that read, in part:

No colored man shal play in your nine and if your officers insist on playing him after we are there you forfeit the Guarantee and we refuse to play. Now I think this is fair as we refuse point blank to play colored men. (Zang, pg. 43)

The 1884 game was cancelled and never played.

Walker took his game east, where black players were more widely accepted. In 1887, Walker played for the Newark (N.J.) Little Giants of the International League where he became part of the first all-black batteries, joining pitcher George Stovey to set history. On July 14, 1887, Anson and the Chicago White Stockings had an exhibition game scheduled at Newark. As expected, the White Stockings refused to play if Walker and Stovey were allowed to take the field.

Newark management had no interest in battling Chicago over racial issues and kept both Walker and Stovey on the bench. Empowered by Anson’s ability to keep black players off the field, International League owners met later that night privately to alter baseball. Baseball officials at both the minor and major league levels had always made sure to hide any details of opposition to integration. But the Daily Journal learned of the secret meeting and published a story explaining that the International League owners decided “to approve of no more contracts to colored men.” (“The Color Line Drawn In Baseball”)

Starting that week, exhibition games across the country exhibition games between “white” and “black” teams were cancelled due to the widespread refusal of white players to take the field with their black colleagues. The color barrier had been erected thanks to the dedication of Anson, Chicago White Stockings management and other like-minded bigots in baseball who wanted to keep the game as white as the baseball.

Walker continued to play in the minor leagues. In 1888, he was playing for the Syracuse Stars when Anson and the White Stockings came to town for a fourth confrontation. This time, however, Walker didn’t even try to take the field.

Anson had won. Baseball was white. Until 1947, when Robinson broke the color barrier that MLB itself had erected.

So is Jackie Robinson Day a fraud? Not entirely, but the narrative is woefully short of details. And it seems sad that such a noble effort - integration of a country through sports - would honor one man while ignoring the efforts of others.

To fully celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, fans need to remember Fleet Walker and his brother, Welday, the first two African American players in MLB history.

NOTE: In 2003, baseball historian Peter Morris claimed that William Edward White was actually the first black player in the majors. On July 21, 1879, White played one game for the Providence Grays of the NL. Why did nobody take notice of White? Because he was white. While White may have had some African blood in his lineage, he passed the “eye test” of the day: he looked white. He passed himself off as white, registering on multiple United States census forms as “white.” And he only played one game. The Walker brothers were dark-skinned and were not able to pass themselves off as white. There was no question what race Fleet and Welday Walker were. They couldn’t hide their lineage. So while some baseball historians may consider White the first “black” major-league player, only you can decide what you think about a man who played one game (not a career like Fleet Walker had) and looked, talked, acted and presented himself as white like his teammates.

Scott Rowan is the author of “The Cubs Quotient: How the Chicago Cubs Changed the World” where you can learn much more about the Walker brothers and many other ways global evolution was altered by the Cubs.

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