Baseball History: Remembering Fleet Walker

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: The mask of catcher Brett Hayes
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 28: The mask of catcher Brett Hayes /

Jackie Robinson is often considered to be the first black player in baseball history. Instead, that honor belongs to Fleet Walker, who was born on this day in 1856.

In the early days of baseball history, the game was considered a refuge for miscreants and other various undesirables. Professional players were rough and tumble characters, often violent and profane. Baseball was considered a less than noble profession during those early days, a far cry from how things are today.

Back then, Fleet Walker was an anomaly. His father was a physician and, later in life, a minister. Walker went to Oberlin College before dropping out to play baseball, one of the few educated baseball players of his time. And, when he made his debut in 1884 with the Toledo Blue Stockings, Walker made baseball history. How? He became the first black player in the history of the game.

Walker had initially gotten attention for his baseball prowess, both behind the plate as a catcher and with the bat, while playing at Oberlin. He was recruited by the University of Michigan to help their struggling baseball program, fixing one of the biggest weaknesses on the roster. Walker also became a semi-pro player in 1881 while at Michigan, playing for White Sewing Machine Company’s baseball team. That year, he also encountered racism in the game for the first time, as the Louisville Eclipse refused to play their game against the company team if White was in the lineup.

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Even with the racial tension that remained in America, Walker’s ability was too great to be ignored. He signed with the Toledo Blue Stockings for the 1883 season, playing in the Northwestern League after being recruited by manager William Volz. Unfortunately, racism reared up again, as the Peoria entry brought forth a motion that “no colored player be allowed” in the league. The motion was defeated, but the die had been cast.

While Walker was able to play, and played well, the end of his career was coming. Toledo was set to face the Chicago White Stockings on August 10, 1883, featuring the legendary Cap Anson. A noted racist, Anson refused to play if Walker was in the lineup. He eventually relented, but swore he would never play another game with Walker on the field.

Boosted partially by Walker’s ability, the Blue Stockings became a major league team the following year, joining the American Association. On May 1, 1884, Walker suited up for Toledo, becoming the first black player in major league baseball history. Although he battled injuries, Walker put together a solid .267/.325/.316 batting line, impressive for a catcher. He had a 107 OPS+, and finished in the top three on the team in batting average. His brother, Welday Walker, joined him in Toledo for a brief stint that year, becoming the second black player in baseball history.

Walker also earned a reputation for being an excellent defensive catcher. He was tasked with being the primary catcher for star Tony Mullane, who was also one of the bigger racists in the game. Mullane would intentionally throw different pitches than Walker called for, purposely trying to cross him up. That led to Walker leading the league with 72 passed balls in his 41 games behind the plate, but he also earned the star’s respect. Years later, Mullane called Walker the best catcher he ever had.

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Unfortunately, that would be Walker’s only season in the majors. He was released by Toledo due to his injury issues, and returned to the minors. Walker went on to form the first all black battery with star pitcher George Washington Stovey, one of the best players to never appear in the majors. Interestingly, it may have been Walker’s time in Newark that led to segregation in baseball, as Anson and the White Stockings were set to play an exhibition game against the club. Anson again threatened not to play if Walker and Stovey were in the lineup, and Newark relented. The International League, in response, agreed not to sign any other black players to contracts.

Walker’s strong play in the minors continued to get attention. He impressed New York Giants manager John Ward during an exhibition game, and the manager attempted to ink Walker to a contract. Again, Anson reared his ugly head, and used his position within the game to stop Walker from returning to the majors.

After his career ended in 1889, Walker had quite the interesting life. He joined the postal service, and became an inventor. His first patented invention came in 1891, and was an outer casing that fixed problems with the Justin Gun, which fired artillery shells with air pressure instead of gunpowder. That year, Walker was also put on trial for second degree murder as the result of an altercation outside a saloon. A group of four white men hurled racial insults at Walker, and one of them threw a stone at his head. Walker defended himself by stabbing one of the assailants. The popular Walker was found not guilty by a jury of 12 white men, with the courthouse erupting into cheers when the verdict was read.

He had another brush with the law later in the decade. Walker was arrested for mail robbery, and was sentenced to a year in federal prison. During that decade, his first wife passed away from cancer, as did both his parents. Walker married a second time, again to a former Oberlin classmate, as he ended a difficult, and tumultuous, decade.

Walker remained in the news afterwards. He became a successful businessman, particularly in the movie theater business. He patented inventions to improve film reels, helping to push the industry forward. The Walker brothers produced a newspaper called The Equator, exploring the topic of Black nationalism. Fleet himself expounded on those theories in his book Our Home Colony, which was considered the most intelligent book written by a former baseball player. In it, he proposed that blacks return to Africa to escape the racism so rampant in America, and create their own nations. He passed away at 67 years old on May 11, 1924, succumbing to lobar pneumonia.

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Fleet Walker is remembered in baseball history for being the first black player in the majors. However, he was far more than that – he was a true Renaissance man whose contributions went far beyond the game of baseball.