Contrary to popular belief, Jackie Robinson was not the first black man to play major league baseball. That title belongs to Moses Fleetwood Walker, who lived and played nearly eighty years before
Robinson. Walker’s story is fascinating not only because of his baseball stardom, but also because an all white jury acquitted him of first-degree murder in 1891.
Historians do not know much about his early years. Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in Ohio. A minister’s son, he entered Oberlin College and planned to become a lawyer. While at school, however, it became clear that his passion lay elsewhere. Instead of going to class, Walker played baseball, and in 1883 he landed a spot in the minor leagues as a catcher with newly formed Toledo Blue Stockings. As a player, he impressed the press and the fans. Sporting Life, the nation’s largest sport publication at the time, wrote on September 15, 1883: “Walker, the colored catcher of the Toledos, is a favorite wherever he goes. He does brilliant work in a modest, unassuming way.” In 1884 Toledo joined the major competitor to the National League, the American Association. As a result, Walker earned his title as the first black player in the major leagues.
Unfortunately for Walker, tension between his teammates, unrelenting jeers from fans, and an injury led to his release. He bounced around the minors for a while, eventually ending his career in Syracuse. In 1891, upon leaving a bar in that city one afternoon, Walker encountered a group of white men, one of whom threw a rock at him, while the rest surrounded him. In a panic, Walker stabbed the closest man. He was indicted for first-degree murder. Amazingly, the all white jury found him not guilty.
Walker spent the rest of his life writing a treatise advocating the return of black Americans to Africa. He died of pneumonia in 1924 and until 1996 lay in an unmarked grave. America was not ready for Walker. C. Vann Woodward wrote in his Strange Career of Jim Crow that America in the 1880s was: "The twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history . . . . It was a time of experiment, testing, and uncertainty—quite different from the time of repression and rigid uniformity that was to come toward the end of the century. Alternatives were still open and real choices had to be made."
Instead of embracing integration, baseball’s managers drew the color line and Walker was forgotten. It was not until the 1980s when historians uncovered Walker’s story. For further reading, see David Zang’s Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer.