If you happened to turn on a Major League Baseball game on Wednesday, you probably noticed every player, coach and even umpire involved in every game was wearing the number 42.
On April 15, 1997, the entire league retired number 42 in honor of former Brooklyn Dodgers star Jackie Robinson who — as you don’t have to be a big baseball fan to know — broke the color barrier that kept African-Americans out of the league. He made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947. Each year since 1997, on April 15, the entire league wears his number to honor a man who is quite possibly the most influential man in the history of American sports.
At a time when Jim Crow laws were still in full effect, Robinson faced hatred, bigotry and ignorance at every turn. Even more impressive than his Hall of Fame career was the class and perseverance he showed in the face of such treatment. Robinson is one of the few athletes who is as or more important culturally than he is in the world of sports. Honoring him with a retired number and a day in his honor is one of the best traditions Major League Baseball has.
But many people know the story of Jackie Robinson, so that’s not what this blog post is about. While he deserves every honor that has ever been bestowed upon him, there is one big mistake many people make when discussing him. Often times he’s referred to as “the first black player in the major leagues.” That actually isn’t true.
More than 60 years before Robinson stepped into the batter’s box at Ebbets Field, there was a man who doesn’t get recognized nearly as much as he should. The man’s name was Fleetwood Moses Walker and though his name is not widely known for anyone who isn’t as baseball-obsessed as myself, by most accounts he was the first black player in the major leagues. (To be fair, there are some who believe that distinction belongs to William Edward White. Sports records from the 19th century are often muddy at best.)
Walker, who was born in Ohio nine years before the end of the Civil War, made his major league debut on May 1, 1884, with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. (At the time, the major leagues were the American Association and the National League.) He was a catcher for the Blue Stockings who played in — somewhat ironically — 42 games in 1884, amassing a career batting average of .263 and scored 23 runs. He certainly didn’t have the Hall of Fame career that Robinson did, but he faced an equal amount of adversity.
According to Walker’s Wikipedia page (I know, I know. But I trust this one), star pitcher and teammate Tommy Mullane said 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.” This, of course, made Walker look bad because of the number of passed balls he allowed when Mullane was on the mound. It also resulted in a number of injuries for Walker.
Toledo’s team folded after that season, and though he played in the minor leagues until August 1889 — facing more and more hatred along the way — he never played in the majors again. It was in that month when Walker was forced out of professional baseball because, in light of pressure from people within the league, a “gentlemen’s agreement” was made between team owners that no team would sign another black player.
With that agreement, the color barrier in U.S. professional sports was created. It wasn’t broken until Robinson came along nearly 60 years later, ensuring no player would be forced away from the game as Walker was in 1889.