A Fleeting Ambition
Feb. 1, 2009
By Josh Kleinbaum
Maybe Moses and Caroline Walker had a peek into the future when they named their third son back in 1857.
Moses Fleetwood Walker.
Moses: The Biblical leader who brought his people to the promised land, a man of faith who rebelled against the establishment for what he knew was right.
Fleetwood: quick as lightning, strong and hard as hickory, the perfect nickname for an athlete - and no sport lends itself to nicknames quite like baseball - given to him before he was old enough to walk.
Moses Fleetwood Walker was barely a child when baseball spread across the country. It was the early 1860s and the Civil War was tearing the country in two. And the soldiers played baseball.
Prior to the war, baseball was confined to the New York area, near the Elysian Fields, where the earliest-known baseball game took place.
When the war broke out, New York-area soldiers taught the game to others in their platoons. Soon, baseball games were one of the most common sights in camps of both Union and Confederate soldiers. And as the war spread across the nation, so did baseball.
One town it hit was Steubenville, Ohio, on the Ohio river in the eastern part of the state. Built on manufacturing and coal mining, Steubenville was known for being racially tolerant. That's why the elder Moses Walker moved his family there from Mount Pleasant, Ohio, in 1860.
As in many towns in the late 1860s and early '70s, Steubenville's youth played a lot of baseball. It was there Walker first played the game that would take over his life.
In 1877, Walker enrolled in Oberlin College, one of the first integrated colleges in the country. The college's African American enrollment was between 5 and 10 percent, a figure larger than many universities today and nearly unheard of in the 1870s. It had been a major stop on the Underground Railroad and had been admitting black students since 1834.
David Zang, author of "Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer," wrote that the racially tolerant atmosphere at Oberlin "may have led Fleet toward a false sense of possibilities."
During his freshman year, Walker caught for an Oberlin team that played local townsmen. In 1880, he starred on a junior class team that beat the senior class. In the spring of 1881, Oberlin College reversed a previous ban on playing teams from other schools, and Walker, along with his brother Weldy, a freshman, was on the first 'Oberlin nine,' as teams were called then.
A Black Wolverine
For Oberlin's last game of the season, Michigan's team came down from Ann Arbor. The Michigan team was struggling, and its biggest weakness was behind the plate. Michigan's catchers were so bad that the team frequently hired players to play the position. In the game, Oberlin defeated Michigan, 9-2.
According to the diary of Harlan Burkett, a pitcher on Walker's Oberlin team, the Michigan players were so impressed with Walker, a junior, and Oberlin pitcher Arthur Packard, a sophomore, that they tried to convince the two players to transfer to the University.
The integration of Michigan athletics was that simple. The Athletic Department was still young, and teams were run by the players and a student-manager. There was no coach to make decisions and there was no athletic director to say that he didn't want blacks in his department, as Fielding Yost would do at the end of the 19th Century and through the first quarter of the 20th. The players wanted Walker - they didn't care that he was black - so all he had to do was transfer, and Michigan would have its first black athlete.
Transferring was commonplace among athletes at the time. There were no rules governing eligibility yet - the NCAA was nonexistent - and athletes would frequently transfer several times.
But did Walker want to transfer? There is no question that he liked Oberlin, and he valued the experience he was getting. More than 20 years later, in an Oberlin alumni survey, there was a question asking what he felt about his Oberlin experience. His response? One word, underlined - "excellent."
So what would convince Walker to abandon Oberlin, without a degree, for Michigan?
The answer appears to be pretty simple - Walker fell in love. Despite being known as a liberal college, Oberlin had strict rules governing male-female relationships.
The summer before Walker enrolled in the Michigan law school, his girlfriend, Arabella Taylor, became pregnant. At Oberlin, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy would surely be frowned upon. So Walker and Taylor decided to move to Michigan.
Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, Walker ran into a major problem. After starting to take classes, the University's President James Angell ordered him to stop. Apparently, Walker cheated at Oberlin.
His papers from Oberlin said that he "at one time did not state the exact facts or did not wholly keep his promise respecting his preparation for a certain examination."
Angell sent a letter to his Oberlin counterpart, James Harris Fairchild, asking for an assessment of "the general character of the young man ..."
Whether or not Angell's letter was racially-motivated is unknown - the only mention of Walker's skin color in the letter was the word 'colored' in parentheses after Walker's name.
Regardless, Walker was in limbo.
Shortly after receiving Angell's letter, Fairchild got one from Walker's friend and pitcher, Arthur Packard, his fellow transfer.
Walker "is almost hopeless and thoroughly downhearted," Packard wrote. "This affair has had a very deep effect on Mr. Walker and I know he will be very grateful if you will do something for him."
Normally, a letter from a student shouldn't carry too much weight with a University president when making a character assessment. But Packard wasn't any student. His father, Jasper Packard, was a noted Civil War general and United States Congressman, something that likely weighed on Fairchild's mind when he replied to Angell.
There is no record of Fairchild's response, but Walker did enroll in classes. Whether or not he attended them is a different matter.
At Oberlin, his grades dropped and his absences increased each successive year. Baseball took up all of his time.
There is no reason to think that Walker's focus was any different at Michigan. He was not interested in pursuing a career in law; he wanted to be a professional baseball player.
For the Michigan baseball team, Walker was the missing link, the final piece of the puzzle that would make Michigan great. At least, that's what the players thought, and they wanted the whole campus to know it.
They did not want the whole campus to know that Walker was black.
In late 1881 and early 1882, before the baseball season began, Packard wrote two articles that appeared in The Chronicle, the student newspaper at the time, about the baseball team. In both, he said that Michigan's baseball team would be good, and it was because of Walker. He did not mention the catcher's skin color.
"All the steps have been taken to secure such a nine and we firmly believe that we will have one in the spring that will do honor to our University," Packard wrote in The Chronicle on Dec. 17, 1881. "The weak point in our nine has for some years been in our catcher. This will no longer be the case. We will have one in the spring who is second to no amateur catcher in the country. By many he is considered the equal of most of the League catchers."
A month later, Michigan, along with Northwestern, Wisconsin and Racine, formed the Western Baseball League, the second-ever collegiate athletic league and the predecessor to the Big Ten.
"That this is a step in the right direction no one will deny," The Chronicle wrote on Jan. 21, 1882. "It will present to us a chance of seeing games in which there is something at stake, namely, the reputation of our University which ought to be of universal interest."
In the past, baseball games were just nine men playing nine other men. Now, with the formation of the league, the nine men represented the University. Including Walker, a black man.
Michigan won the first Western Baseball League title, and Walker was much the reason why. He was strong at the plate and even stronger behind it, despite the fact that, typical of catchers then, he didn't even use a glove, let alone a face mask and chest protector.
Every article in The Chronicle on the baseball team that season raved about Walker's skill.
"Many doubts had been expressed previous to the game, as to the strength of our nine, but they are now all dissipated. Walker, as catcher, did some of the finest work behind the bat that has ever been witnessed in Ann Arbor," the paper wrote on April 29, 1883, after a loss to a Detroit professional team.
"Walker's catching cannot be too highly commended, and the general verdict is, that the man is a wonder," the paper wrote on May 27, 1882, after a victory over Wisconsin. "... With two men out and two on bases, Walker came to the bat. With two strikes called and the crowd in great suspense, the 'wonder' struck the ball square in the face for the most beautiful home run seen on the grounds this year."
The Chronicle frequently said that the fans took well to Walker, and there is no documented evidence of any racism in Ann Arbor. After his home run against Wisconsin, The Chronicle said that Walker was greeted by "tumultuous applause."
But the paper only referred to Walker's color once the entire season.
The Promised Land
Walker left Michigan after the 1882 season to begin a seven-year odyssey through professional baseball. His brother, Weldy, transferred from Oberlin to Michigan and played on Michigan's nine in the 1883 season.
Walker signed with the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1883, a team in the Northwestern League. The next year, the Blue Stockings joined the American Association, the precursor to the American League and considered a major league. Walker officially became the first black major league baseball player, 35 years before Jackie Robinson was born.
Weldy would join his brother on the Blue Stockings during the 1884 season, getting limited at-bats. After that season, the team folded due to financial difficulties, and no major league team would pick up either Walker. Moses and Weldy Walker were the only two black major leaguers before Robinson.
But Walker didn't give up his baseball career, or his dream of playing major league ball. He floated between four teams during the next five years - all of them integrated.
And he was met by racism nearly everywhere he went.
In September of 1884, when Walker was still with Toledo, his manager, Charlie Morton, received a letter before an Oct. 13-15 series at Richmond.
"We the undersigned do hereby warn you not to put up Walker, the Negro catcher, the evenings that you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground in a suit," the letter said. "We hope you will listen to our words of warning, so that there will be no trouble; but if you do not there certainly will be. We only write this to prevent much bloodshed, as you alone can prevent."
Whether there really was a lynch mob is unknown. Walker suffered an injury before the trip to Richmond and did not travel with the team.
In 1887, Walker was playing for a Newark team in the International League, along with the great black pitcher George Stovey, when they were scheduled to play the Chicago White Stockings of the National League. The White Stockings were managed by Cap Anson, a famed player, manager - and racist. Anson demanded that the two blacks not play, and the Newark team complied.
That same day, at an International League owners meeting, the owners voted 6-4 - the four dissenting votes were the four teams with black players - for the exclusion of all future contracts with black players. This set a precedent for all levels of organized baseball. Jim Crow was in full effect.
By 1888, Walker's frustration with the white baseball establishment was starting to show. Having been forced out of the International League, he was playing with the Syracuse Stars of the International Association.
In the third game of a three-game series at Toronto, Walker took the day off. Toronto manager Charlie Cushman asked Walker, who was sitting on the bench in street clothes, to leave the park. The details are sketchy, and why Cushman ordered Walker to leave is unknown, but the two exchanged words. As Walker left the park, he also exchanged words with the Toronto fans.
Behind the stands, some fans surrounded Walker. According to Sporting Life, a sports-oriented newspaper sympathetic towards black athletes, Walker "flourished a loaded revolver and talked of putting a hole in someone in the crowd."
He was arrested, his gun was impounded and he paid a fine. He was back in the lineup the next night.
"Fleet Walker's good-natured public demeanor was fraying," Zang wrote, "a process begun with his slide from the exhilarating heights of major league baseball."
Walker was cut by the Stars after the 1889 season and retired, staying in Syracuse. In April, 1891, Walker was walking home from a bar when he was accosted by a group of white men. Words were exchanged, Walker drew a knife and a man, Patrick Murray, was killed.
"Walker drew a knife and made a stroke at his assailant," Sporting Life wrote. "The knife entered Murray's groin, inflicting a fatal wound. Murray's friends started after Walker with shouts of 'Kill him! Kill him!' He escaped but was captured by the police, and is locked up."
Walker was tried for second degree murder. A number of his friends testified on his behalf, saying that he wasn't drunk, but rather dizzied from being hit in the head. Walker claimed self defense.
During the trial, the public supported Walker, who was popular with the Stars and considered charming and intelligent. When Walker was acquitted, Sporting Life wrote that "immediately a shout of approval, accompanied by clapping of hands and stamping of feet, rose from the spectators."
Despite the acquittal, Zang saw the trial as a turning point in Walker's life.
"At issue in the trial was something larger than an argument resolved with a knife: a determination of the source and limits of Fleet Walker's rage," Zang wrote. "It may have been no greater in 1891 than during any of the past dozen years, but when he allowed it that year to sneak past the well-heeled manners and handsome face and ignite the temper, he lost a treasured and cultivated ally.
"Anger reduced Fleet Walker's character to ashes."
A Change of Heart
After the trial, Walker returned to Steubenville and reunited with his brother, Weldy. The two opened a hotel, then owned and managed several movie theaters. Fleet used his motion picture knowledge and patented a handful of inventions having to do with the motion picture industry.
By this point in his life, Walker had developed a strong view on race relations in America. He felt that blacks could not be successful in America, that racism was an inherent and unavoidable human trait. Well before Marcus Garvey made the idea famous, Walker argued for the separation of the races. After a lifetime of attempting integration, he decided blacks should emigrate to Africa and start a new nation.
In 1902, Walker started the first of two ventures to spread his ideas. With Weldy at his side, he published a black-issues oriented newspaper called The Equator.
No copies of the paper survived time.
His second project was "Our Home Colony," a 47-page book in which Walker outlined his idea of separation of the races.
"The Negro race will be a menace and the source of discontent as long as it remains in large numbers in the United States," Walker wrote. "The time is growing very near when the whites of the United States must either settle this problem by deportation, or else be willing to accept a reign of terror such as the world has never seen in a civilized country."
Walker died on May 11, 1924 of pneumonia at the age of 67. He left behind an amazing and sometimes disturbing legacy.
He was the first black Michigan athlete and the first black major league baseball player.
But he faced hatred and racism throughout his life, spawning a hatred of the society that he lived in.
Walker tried to be the Moses of black baseball. Instead, Jackie Robinson accomplished that feat 23 years after Walker's death.
Moses Fleetwood Walker was driven by an ambition to integrate baseball, but his experiences and failures convinced him that integration was anything but the answer.
Reprinted with permisission. This feature originally appeared in The Michigan Daily on April 20, 1999.