Myth: Jackie Robinson Was the First Black Major-Leaguer
Truth: Moses Fleetwood Walker was the First
It's not generally known, but a number of black players found their way into the big leagues in the game's early years. The first seems to have been Moses Fleetwood Walker, a CATCHER who worked his way up from the college to the professional level, and by 1884 was a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the American Association.
Walker, an Ohio clergyman's son who first played varsity ball for Oberlin College, was the first black to make it all the way to the majors. (For career stats see Fleet Walker under Lists). When he joined Toledo as a catcher in 1884 he immediately ran into a wall of bigotry. The Irish pitcher, Tony Mullane, ignored Walker's signals because, he said, he wouldn't take orders from a black man. Cap Anson himself tried to have Walker ejected from an exhibition game, threatening not to play if someone didn't "get that n.... off the field!" Anson backed down only when he realized he'd forfeit his pay if he really did walk out.
At Richmond, the Toledo manager received a letter, said to be from "seventy-five dtermined men," who threatened to mob Fleet Walker if he dared make an appearance. By then, Walker had been let go, not because of his race, but because he had badly split his fingers behind the plate. As soon as his hand healed he returned to organized baseball, playing for several minor league teams before signing on with Newark in the International League, which included clubs in New Jersey, New York, and Canada and where prospects for blacks seemed brightest.
Walker was a favorite with many white Newark fans and one composed a tribute to him in verse:
There is a catcher named Walker
Who behind the bat is a corker
He throws to a base
With ease and grace
And steals 'round the bags like a stalker.
When a newspaper ridiculed him as "the coon catcher," The Sporting News came to his defense: "It is a pretty small paper that will publish a paragraph of that kind about a member of a visiting club, and the man who wrote it is without doubt Walker's inferior in education, refinement, and manliness."
Soon, Walker had a black teammate, a fastball pitcher named George Washington Stovey whose skills were described by a rueful reporter in Birmingham, New York:
Well they put Stovey in the box again yesterday. You recollect Stovey, of course -- the brunette fellow with the sinister fin and the demonic delivery. Well, he pitched yesterday, and as of yore he teased the Bingos. He has a knack of tossing up balls that appear as large as an alderman's opinion of himself, but you cannot hit 'em with a cellar door. What's the use of bucking against a fellow that can throw at the flagstaff and make it curve into the water pail?
With Moses Fleetwood Walker catching George Washington Stovey, they became the very first black battery in organized baseball. That year Stovey won 35 games which is still a record in the International League.