handsome, urbane, a man of letters, and a superb athlete, Fleet Walker
was an absolute Renaissance man who had a bright major-league career cut
short by the atavistic mentality that ruled late 19th-century American
Moses Fleetwood Walker was born on October 7, 1857, in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio. His mother, Caroline, and father, Moses W., were both of mixed race. Caroline worked as a midwife, while Moses was an expert cooper and jack of all trades. The boy everyone would come to call “Fleet” was their fifth child.
Mt. Pleasant, located in eastern Ohio, had a large Quaker population. In the pre-Civil War era, this suggested anti-slavery leanings. In the case of Mt. Pleasant, this was especially true. A hard night’s walk from the slave markets of Wheeling, West Virginia, the town served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
During Fleet’s childhood, his family moved from the relative peace of Mt. Pleasant to bustling Steubenville, where the elder Walker took up medicine. The Walker children were educated in black schools until Steubenville’s school system integrated. After that, Fleet and his brother, Weldy, attended Steubenville High. Their father later became a minister, and was one of the wealthiest and most highly regarded black professionals in the state.
After a year of preparatory classes, Fleet enrolled in Oberlin College in 1878, a school nationally recognized for its admission policy regarding women and blacks. His freshman year featured solid academics, budding romance, and a growing interest in baseball—a game he had played, and played well, as a teen in Steubenville.
By Fleet’s sophomore year, girls and baseball were taking up most of his time, a fact reflected in his grades. As a junior, he was becoming obsessed with the sport. The point of no return came during an October 1880 game between Oberlin’s junior and senior classes. Fleet, a catcher, belted a home run that cleared the heretofore unreachable Cabinet Hall, hundreds of feet away. The talk of the campus, he reveled in his celebrity.
In the spring of 1881, Oberlin fielded a baseball squad, its first intercollegiate team of any kind. Fleet was the star, joined by his newly enrolled brother, Weldy. The catcher played so well that he was recruited to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor the following year. He accepted, as did pitcher Arthur Packard, the son of Civil War General and U.S. Congressman Jasper Packard. And Weldy—though not nearly the athlete his brother was—decided to transfer, too. Accompanying them later in the fall was Fleet’s girlfriend, Bella Taylor, who was pregnant with his child. They were married the following year.
Fleet, a persuasive orator, decided he would study law at Michigan. Still, there was no denying he was in Ann Arbor primarily to play baseball. He was good enough to become the school's top diamond star—and good enough to pick up some cash in the summer of 1881, suiting up for the White Sewing Machine team. One of the region’s best squads, the Cleveland club served as an incubator for several future major leaguers. Fleet was immediately installed as the team’s regular catcher.
Fleet traveled with the White Sewing Machine team to Louisville, and checked into the St. Cloud Hotel. The account of what transpired was captured vividly in the next day’s Louisville Courier-Journal.
Cleveland Club brought with them a catcher for their nine a young quadroon
named Walker. The first trouble they experienced from Kentucky prejudice
was at the St. Cloud Hotel yesterday morning at breakfast, when Walker
was refused accommodations. When the club appeared on the field for practice
before the game, the managers and one of the players of the Eclipse Club
objected to Walker playing on account of his color. In vain, the Clevelands
protested that he was their regular catcher, and that his withdrawal would
weaken the nine.
the first inning, West was ‘burned out’ by the terrific pitching
of Jones, and when the Eclipse went to bat in the second inning, after
one or two efforts, West said he could not face the balls with his hands
so badly bruised, and refused to fill the position.
very large crowd of people present, who saw that the Clevelands were a
strong nine laboring under disadvantage, at once set up a cry in good
nature for ‘the nigger’. Vice President Carroll, of the Eclipse,
walked down in the field and called on Walker to come and play.
“He made several
brilliant throws and fine catches while the game waited. Then Johnnie
Reccius and Fritz Pfeffer, of the Eclipse nine, walked off the field and
went to the club house, while others objected to the playing of the quadroon.
pitcher, was not supported adequately, and if Walker had caught, it is
probable the Eclipse would have been defeated. It was a very small part
of business, particularly when Walker was brought out as a substitute
for a disabled man and invited to play by the Vice President of the Eclipse,
who acted very properly in the matter.
“Walker shook the dust of Louisville from his feet last night and went home. The succeeding games will be totally uninteresting, since without him the Clevelands are not able to play the Eclipse a good game.”
After the season, Fleet left Cleveland and began classes at Ann Arbor, which was considerably less enlightened than the college town he had left behind. Still, he was a celebrated addition to the baseball team, which had limped through the 1881 season. Catching had been a particular sore point, with Michigan actually paying semipro backstops to play in big games.
Michigan went 10-3 in the spring of 1882, including a victory over Oberlin’s sophomore squad. Fleet batted second most of the season, and gained widespread attention for his defensive prowess. Records show he also clouted a mammoth home run in a game against Madison. For the year, he batted .308 against Western College League opponents.
After classes, Fleet
joined the Neshannocks in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a half-day’s
journey north of Pittsburgh. Though technically amateurs, the “Nocks”
fielded an excellent team, including Harlan Burket, an old college battery
mate of Fleet’s. Both men were paid handsomely for their services.
Weldy showed up, too, and played a handful of games at second base. When
National League star catcher Charlie Bennett of the Detroit Wolverines
brought his club into town for an exhibition, Fleet’s performance
seemed every bit as good as his counterpart’s.
The following year, Fleet was contacted by William Voltz, a former sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who had been hired to manage the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League. He helped the team win the league championship, and pocketed around $2,000 in the process—a princely sum for any man in 1883, regardless of race.
In an exhibition game that summer, Fleet had his first run-in with Cap Anson, the National League’s most influential player. After arriving in Toldeo with his Chicago team, Anson announced that he would not play with Fleet in the lineup. The Blue Stockings manager had originally planned to rest his catcher. But when served with this boorish ultimatum, he decided to start Fleet in rightfield—daring Anson to walk away from his split of the gate receipts. The game was held as scheduled, with the White Stockings winning 7-6.
That loss aside, Toledo’s success on and off the field in 1883—specifically the battery of Fleet and hurler Hank O’Day—convinced the club to join the fledgling American Association for the 1884 season. Known as baseball’s “beer and whiskey” league, the two-year-old AA was one of three major leagues operating in ’84. Along with the Union Association, it posed a direct challenge to the older National League.
Despite an unprecedented need for top-flight talent in professional baseball, Fleet was the only dark-skinned competitor in the majors when the year began. He made his debut on May 1, 1884—in Louisville, ironically enough. Two days later, Fleet got his first major-league hit, a single, in that same city. Later in the season, he was joined by Weldy, who became history’s second black major leaguer.
Against the world’s top baseball competition, Fleet more than measured up. A crackerjack bare-handed catcher who possessed a shotgun arm, he proved a dependable singles hitter, and displayed speed and élan on the basepaths. His batting average in 1884 was .263, a full 23 points above the league mark. Another gauge of Fleet’s ability was the quality of his backup, Deacon McGuire, who went on to catch more than 1,600 games in a record-setting 26-year major-league career.
The Blue Stockings finished in eighth place at 46-58 in the ‘84 campaign. The team’s best players were second baseman Sam Barkley, pitcher Tony Mullane, and Fleet.
Mullane revealed years later that he disliked taking signals from his black catcher. In turn, Fleet caught most of the year without knowing the speed, location or spin of the hurler’s deliveries. The result was an appalling number of passed balls, and an assortment of injuries, including a broken rib. On many days, Fleet hurt too much to play, and on others he could only take an outfield position. At the end of the year he was released by Toledo, and accepted a job in the post office.
Unbeknownst to Fleet,
the powers that be in the American Association had agreed with their National
League counterparts to observe the N.L.’s unwritten rule banning
blacks from its rosters. When the Union Association slipped into oblivion,
the overall talent pool available to the leagues increased, which lessened
the need to explore manpower alternatives.
Where Fleet Walker would have gone as a ballplayer will never be known. But where he went as a blacklisted ballplayer and tortured soul we do know.
In 1885, Fleet hooked up with Cleveland of the Western League. The team folded in June, and he headed east looking for work. There he hooked up with Waterbury, a member of the Eastern League, and played for theclub through 1886.
The following year, Fleet joined Newark of the International League, a relatively open circuit for black players. There, with ace pitcher George Stovey, he formed the first black battery in organized baseball. Stovey, the first great black pitcher in American baseball annals, reeled off a 34-14 record. Fleet batted a respectable .263 and swiped 36 bases.
The pair was particularly impressive in an exhibition victory over the vaunted New York Giant. Stovey held the major leaguers to a meager two runs, and Fleet nailed player-manager John Ward trying to steal second. After the game, Ward inquired as to the availability of the Newark stars. But as word spread of the inquiry, Cap Anson railed against the suggestion of letting blacks back into the N.L., and apparently had enough high-level support to foil Ward’s plan.
When the White Stockings played Newark in an exhibition, Fleet and Stovey watched from the bench as Anson led his club to victory.
Newark later folded, and Fleet spent 1888 and 1889—his last seasons in organized baseball—with the Syracuse Stars of the International League. A final slap in the face was delivered that year by the ubiquitous Anson, whose refusal to take the field against black ballplayers was now accepted by club owners hoping to pull in money with exhibition games against Chicago. When the White Stocking swung north for a game against the Stars, Fleet found himself riding pine again.
Nearly two decades later, in 1908, an embittered Fleet Walker published a book entitled Our Home Colony, which called for black emigration back to Africa as the only alternative to racial prejudice. His publishing career also included a newspaper, The Equator.
Towards the end of
his life, Fleet battled unsuccessfully with the demons of alcohol, and
was tried and acquitted on charges of second-degree murder following an
attack by a convicted burglar, whom he had killed with a knife in self-defense.
Fleet died on May 11, 1924, in Cleveland at age 67.
Of all baseball’s
black players, Moses Fleetwood Walker suffered the most, was damaged the
worst, and paid the highest price. And he endured his fate not simply
because he was the sport’s first African American. Indeed, in the
relatively insular world in which he first achieved athletic prominence,
Fleet fostered expectations that were unreasonably high—even, it
could be said, by today’s standards.
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