Fleet Walker

For sixty years, Fleet Walker was the answer to two trivia questions: who was the first black player in the majors, and who was the last? When the Toledo club, Northwestern League champion in 1883, was admitted to the American Association in 1884, it brought Walker, their regular catcher, into the league. He was a fair singles hitter whose .263 average that year was 23 points above the league average, a fine bare-handed catcher with a strong arm, and a fast and daring baserunner. He was popular with the fans, but not necessarily with his teammates. Toledo’s ace pitcher, Tony Mullane, later said 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.” As much as the quote indicates the problems Walker had to face, its first part is a tribute to his talent as a catcher: The team’s other catcher (playing fewer games there than Walker) was star Deacon McGuire, who went on to catch 1,611 games in a 26-year major league career.

Walker, whose brother Welday played five games in the outfield for Toledo that year, was well received by fans in all the league cities, including Baltimore and Washington, except for two southern ones. He was hissed in Louisville, Kentucky, and a pseudonymous letter from Richmond, Virgina (which joined the league after the Washington franchise fell apart in mid-season), promised Toledo manager Charlie Morton that there would be a mob awaiting Walker if he played in a series scheduled there in October. However, Walker had his only major league season interrupted by a July injury (reported variously as a broken collarbone or a broken rib), played sparingly thereafter, and was released in September. Toledo folded following the season, and Walker played the next two seasons in weaker minor leagues. He joined Newark (International League) in 1887, forming, with star George Stovey, the first black battery in organized baseball. That July 14, Chicago manager Cap Anson prevented the two stars from playing against his team in an exhibition and led league directors to ban blacks, although this was officially reversed. Newark folded after the season, and Walker spent the next two seasons in the International League with Syracuse, helping them to the championship in 1889, his last season.

Off the field, Walker was well educated, handsome, and gentlemanly. He attended Oberlin College for three years and the University of Michigan for one, despite the fact that Oberlin did not even have a baseball team until his final year there. He took classes ranging from Greek, Latin, German, and French, to civil engineering, zoology, astronomy, and chemistry, but never graduated. In 1908 his book Our Home Colony advocated black emigration to Africa as the best response to increasing racial intolerance. He also published a newspaper, The Equator. He was later tried and acquitted of second-degree murder charges when he was attacked by a convicted burglar and killed him with a knife in self-defense.