The details of Walker's dramatic and often contradictory life take on added meaning when one factors his race into the equation. As a mulatto who came of age in late-19th century America (and who was born before the advent of the Civil War), Walker inevitably was defined by the color of his skin first and his accomplishments second.
So it remains today. For Walker, to the extent he is remembered at all, is usually referred to simply as "the first black player in the history of the Major Leagues." He achieved this distinction when he spent the 1884 season as a catcher with the American Association's Toledo Blue Stockings, some six decades before Jackie Robinson's historic debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Recently, even Walker's "first black player in the Majors" designation has been called into question. In 2005, baseball researcher Peter Morris unearthed evidence that William Edward White, the son of a Georgia businessman and one of his mixed-race slaves, appeared in one game with the Providence Grays in 1879.
But to engage in semantic arguments and trivial hair-splitting about Walker's place in history distracts from the real issue at hand: Walker was a trailblazing and iconoclastic individual who experienced dramatic triumphs and tribulations both on and off the playing field. His life was a fascinating one and should be widely acknowledged and celebrated as a distinctly American story.
No one has put more effort into bringing Walker's story to a mass audience than David W. Zang, a professor at Towson State University and the author of Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer (upon which much of the information in this article is based).
"Walker was one of a handful of players who were playing in the predominantly white leagues in the 1880s," Zang said in a telephone interview. "It doesn't seem that at any point he thought of himself as the 'first.' It was unusual, but others were doing it as well. Given his class and educational background, it is more likely that he was expecting to be absorbed into the mainstream.
"My inclination was to focus on his story as representative of American life at the time that he lived. Walker's story is not a happy one, and I realize that people would rather celebrate the high points of history instead of looking back at the lows. Still, I am a little surprised that he hasn't gotten more attention, as he is a truly fascinating character."
In the Beginning ...
Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, in 1857, the fifth of sixth children born to Caroline and Moses W. Walker, both of whom were mulattoes. Despite the racial strife that was ripping apart the country at that time, the family found acceptance in Mount Pleasant, which had a large Quaker population and was known for its strong abolitionist stance.
Moses W. was an ambitious individual who made a living in a wide variety of occupations, including physician and minister. It was this latter calling that brought the family to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1877. That year, Walker enrolled at Oberlin College, a liberal institution with a black student population of 5 to 10 percent. While Walker was a bright and capable student when he applied himself, it soon became clear that his true major was baseball.
After spending several seasons as the star catcher for Oberlin's well-regarded varsity baseball team, Walker headed to Michigan to attend law school (accompanied by his pregnant soon-to-be-wife, Bella, and his brother, Weldy). He continued to play college baseball and in 1882 traveled to New Castle, Pa., for his first extended stint as a professional.
Walker was generally well-received in New Castle and was described in the local newspaper as "one of the best catchers in the country" and "a gentleman in every sense of the word, both on the field and off." His performance in this relatively remote Pennsylvania outpost attracted the attention of William Voltz, who signed him to play for the Northwestern League's Toledo Blue Stockings in 1883. Despite the fact that the position of catcher was an especially brutal one at this stage in baseball's development (largely owing to the nearly complete absence of protective gear), Walker was a fixture in the lineup and hit a respectable .251. The Blue Stockings dominated en route to the Northwestern League championship and also held their own in exhibition games against Major League teams.
A Major Leaguer
The Blue Stockings' success in 1883 led them to join the American Association for the 1884 season. Along with the National League, the AA was then considered one of baseball's "Major Leagues." During the season, Walker was often treated with hostility by opposing fans and press (especially in the South), and sometimes by his teammates. In fact, the club's ace pitcher, George Mullane, once remarked that Walker "was 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."
Despite the adverse circumstances under which he had to play, Walker hit a respectable .263 (well above the league average) in 42 games. Injuries kept him out of the lineup for a good portion of the season, however, and he was released in October. Also worth noting is the fact that his brother played briefly on the Blue Stockings that season, appearing in six games as an outfielder.
Walker spent most of the next two seasons playing in Waterbury, Conn. After the 1886 campaign, Waterbury manager Charley Hackett moved on to Newark of the formidable International League and brought Walker with him. In Newark, Walker was paired with standout black pitcher George Stovey, and the duo became one of the league's top draws. While the International League had a host of standout black players that season (including Frank Grant and Bud Fowler), an incident that occurred in the summer of 1887 set the tone for how organized baseball would deal with the race issue for decades to come.
On July 14, Newark was scheduled to play an exhibition game against the celebrated Chicago White Stockings. The club's player-manager was Cap Anson, one of the 19th century's biggest stars. Anson also was an unapologetic racist and refused to have his team play against Newark if Walker and Stovey took part in the game. Sadly, Newark relented and, one day later, the directors of the International League voted to no longer extend contract offers to black players. In Fleet Walker's Divided Heart, Zang aptly summarizes the ramifications of this incident.
"That Anson's bigotry had now gained a wider acceptance was a sad sign of how quickly the mix of racial ideology was setting," he wrote. "Many baseball observers have attempted to frame Anson as the single-handed villain in baseball's eventual decision to segregate. While this is wrong and trivializes the resistance to integrated play among a wide circle of players, in the case of Walker, Anson's impact was substantial."
The End of the Line
Despite the International League's decision to make overt racial discrimination an official policy, Walker managed to survive in the circuit (which was rechristened the International Association) for another two seasons. In 1888, Walker again relocated along with his skipper, Charley Hackett. This time, the destination was Syracuse, the only team in the league to secure permission to keep two black players on the roster (pitcher Robert Higgins was the other, although he left before the season was over).
Hostility toward blacks in the International Association at this time is well-documented, and the frequent antagonism took a toll on Walker. In one incident in Toronto that foreshadowed things to come, he threatened hostile fans with a loaded revolver. Nonetheless, Syracuse seemed to be a good fit for Walker. As Zang notes, he served as team spokesman at the club's year-end banquet and went into business with a local umpire at the end of the season.
The year 1889 marked the end of the line, however. Walker began the season as the last black player in the International Association and didn't make it through the end of the campaign. He was released in August after hitting .216 in 50 games, and his once-lauded defensive skills had deteriorated to the point he was ranked 20th out of the league's 21 catchers. Walker was 32 years old and never played professional baseball again. The Minor Leagues would not see another black player until Jackie Robinson suited up for the International League's Montreal Royals in 1946.
Inventor, Murderer, Racial Theorist
Walker's life after baseball was anything but sedate. He and his family remained in Syracuse, with Walker taking a job as a mail clerk. He also devoted time to outside pursuits, such as his 1891 invention of a guaranteed-to-explode artillery shell (an impressive accomplishment which was soon eclipsed by further developments in the field).
But whatever notoriety Walker gained as an inventor was quickly overshadowed by an incident that occurred in 1891. After downing several beers at a local bar, Walker and a group of white men outside another drinking establishment exchanged hostile words. One of the men threw a rock at Walker, and the group advanced upon him. In the ensuing scuffle, Walker stabbed one of his assailants, Curly Murray, in the groin. Murray died that evening.
Walker was charged with second-degree murder and the resulting trial riveted Syracuse. During the sensational trial, which received reams of coverage in the local press, several conflicting versions of the incident emerged. Walker, by all accounts, handled himself with poise and grace in the courtroom, and the constant presence of his wife and three children bolstered his image as a dignified family man. He was acquitted by an all-white jury, a verdict that sparked ecstatic pandemonium in the courtroom. One of the local papers described the atmosphere as being akin to the "hilarity and din of a base-ball field."
After the trial, Walker's life began to unravel further. His father died in 1891, his mother in 1893 and, most devastatingly, wife Bella died in 1895 at the age of 32 (Walker remarried in 1898 but did not have any more children). In 1892, while living in Steubenville, Ohio, he took a job as a railway mail clerk. It was at this position that he was arrested yet again, this time for mail robbery. Walker was found guilty and sentenced to a year in jail.
Walker's occupational choices throughout much of his adult life suggested a strong belief in racial assimilation and a hope that America would evolve into a truly egalitarian society. But as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, his behavior suggested he no longer held these views. In 1902, he and his brother began publishing The Equator, a black-issues newspaper (unfortunately, no copies currently exist). Six years later, Walker authored a 48-page book entitled Our Home Colony: The Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America, which called for American blacks to relocate to Africa.
Active Until the End
Walker did not take his own advice, however, and remained in the United States until his death. He spent much of his later life in Cadiz, Ohio, as the manager of the town's opera house. As Zang notes, "After 15 years out of baseball, Walker was again an entertainer, though now the exhibitor rather than the exhibited." By adroitly scheduling a mix of live entertainment and motion pictures (an emerging medium at the time), Walker and his second wife, Ednah, proved adept at running such an establishment.
Perhaps not surprisingly, given Walker's restless nature, he again turned to inventing. In 1920, at the age of 63, he developed what Zang describes in his book as "three improvements for [movie] reel loading and changing. ... Used in concert, Walker's inventions would help the projectionist alternate two machines efficiently by letting him know exactly when each reel was ending."
Ednah died in 1920 and Walker retired from the opera house two years later. He soon moved to Cleveland, where he continued to involve himself in various business ventures until dying of pneumonia in 1924. He was buried in Steubenville in an unmarked grave. This situation was remedied in 1990, however, when Oberlin College's Heisman Club added a headstone that read, in part, "First Black Major League Baseball Player in USA."
Zang, for his part, wonders what Walker would have thought of such a designation.
"The headstone reduced his importance to just one thing, and I believe he would have resisted that," he said. "The way that he lived his life shows that he saw himself in much broader terms."
Note: Thanks again to David W. Zang, whose book Fleet Walker's Divided Heart contributed immeasurably to this article. Information also was gleaned from Only the Ball Was White by Robert Peterson and Baseball's Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel. All three books are highly recommended.