Never could two completely separate adages have come to me at a more seemingly random time.
Watching the celebration of Jackie Robinson Day throughout Major League Baseball yesterday reminded me of two truisms that are often repeated in our society, even in the world of sports.
The first by Winston Churchill: “History is written by the victors.”
The second by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.”
At this point, you may be asking, how does this have anything to do with Jackie Robinson or Major League Baseball?
But to those who have studied the history of baseball, it means everything.
See, the clear majority of society has been living under a false pretense for their entire lives. One that even the most credible sports news outlets have done nothing to change
Jackie Robinson was not the first to break the “color barrier” in baseball.
In fact, the day that Jackie Robinson is credited with integrating baseball (April 15, 1947), came nearly 63 years after Major League Baseball’s color barrier was really broken.
A man by the name of Moses Fleetwood Walker, a Michigan grad and catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings, is actually the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball.
Shocked to hear that?
Now, before I go any further, this article is not meant to discredit what Jackie Robinson did in any way.
The courage he showed in literally risking his life to pursue his dream cannot be diminished, no matter the truth of the situation. Instead, I seek to shed light upon one of the greatest injustices in not only the history of American sports, but American society.
Moses Fleetwood Walker’s incomprehensible accomplishment on May 1, 1884 will never be celebrated by Major League Baseball. All 32 teams will never wear his number.
But, what Moses Fleetwood Walker went through—and what his successes meant for players like Jackie Robinson—can never be replicated or overstated.
Walker rose through the collegiate ranks after transferring from Oberlin College to the University of Michigan in 1882 and experienced immediate success. Walker batted .308 for the Wolverines and helped lead the team to a solid 10-3 record.
After finishing his career in Ann Arbor, Walker signed with the minor league team, the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League in 1883.
Being a starting catcher during this time was not ideal, especially by modern standards. Walker (like most catchers during the late 19th century in major league baseball) did not wear gloves and protection.This would became a large factor in contributing to the injuries that would prematurely end his career.
Even worse, Walker’s participation on the Blue Stockings caught the ire of one of the most famous players during this time period, Cap Anson, who refused to take the field opposite Walker if he was in the starting lineup. Eventually Anson relented, but this was the beginning of Walker’s struggles as he attempted to fulfill his dream to make the big leagues.
Despite these hindrances, Walker would catch a lucky break that would change the course of history in Major League Baseball.
In the beginning of the 1884 season, a burgeoning professional baseball league, the American Association (which would later become the modern-day American League) formed.
Its mission was to compete with the dominant baseball league of this team, the National League. One of the American Association’s first moves was to add the Toledo Blue Stockings to its list of participating franchises.
This meant that on opening day of the 1884 season, the starting catcher of the Toledo Blue Stockings would become the first African-American player to play a professional baseball game.
On May 1, 1884, against the Louisville Eclipse, Moses Fleetwood Walker took the field, and in doing so, officially broke the color barrier of Major League Baseball.
Ironically enough, Walker would go on to have the worst game of his career on the day he integrated baseball, going hitless in four at-bats and committing four errors.
What could have contributed to this forgettable debut?
How about the constant hurling of racial slurs and death threats throughout the game.
Over time, after the nerves of the first game and the immense pressure began subsiding, Walker proved himself to be a solid contributor for the Blue Stockings.
In his time as the starting catcher for the Blue Stockings, Walker batted .264 (which was well above the league average in this pitching-dominated time period) and scored 23 runs. One of the greatest validations of Walker’s skills was that his backup, Deacon McGuire, would go on to catch 1,600 games in a career spanning 26 seasons.
We have all heard stories about what Jackie Robinson suffered through while playing baseball. His struggles, however, pale in comparison to what Moses Fleetwood Walker suffered through during his only season playing professional baseball.
Walker’s teammate with the Blue Stockings, pitcher Tony Mullane, once stated of Walker that he “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.”
This viewpoint was common among the Blue Stockings and was a contributing factor as to why several passed balls were attributed to Walker. In addition, these instances caused Walker to break his rib one game and play in the outfield in other games where he was too hurt to play catcher.
As such, it was no surprise that after playing in 42 games in 1884, Walker suffered a season-ending injury in July which finished his season.
It would be the last time he ever played Major League Baseball.
The Toledo Blue Stockings folded in 1885 and Walker bounced around different minor league teams until 1888.
In 1889, with Walker working his way back up to the big leagues, his dreams to return were dashed for good. It was in this year that the American Association and the National League “unofficially” banned African-American players, allowing for Major League Baseball to fall in line with the Jim Crow laws that were permeating throughout American society.
Unfortunately for Walker, his post-baseball career would take a turn for the worst that would deeply affect the latter stages of his life.
In April of 1891, in an act of self-defense, he stabbed and killed a man by the name of Patrick Murray. A jury acquitted Walker of second-degree murder, but the horrors of the trial would have an irreversible affect on his view of race relations in the United States.
In 1908, Walker published a book titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In it, Walker argued that whites and blacks could never peacefully co-exist in the United States, espousing views that alienated him from much of American society.
It is here that the tragedy of Moses Fleetwood Walker is realized.
Despite the immense courage he illustrated in doing what no African-American had done before, during a time in American society where threats on his life were the result, his actions were not celebrated.
Instead, his book and the ideology behind it caused American society in the early 20th century to diminish his achievements to the point where history no longer remembers him.
Which brings us back to Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball.
Jackie Robinson certainly displayed courage on April 15, 1947, a day celebrated across the country, and rightfully so.
But, lost in the annals of history is a man who overcame the ugly racial divide of the post-Civil War era and helped integrate a sport now know as the “American pastime.”
Which is why, despite the inherent truth displayed by Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King’s comments, we need to celebrate the true winners of the past.
Jackie Robinson did not make history. His achievement was made possible by Moses Fleetwood Walker, despite what history books may tell us today.