Jackie Robinson was the first African American baseball player in the major leagues.
Don’t Believe That!
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers (now the Los Angeles Dodgers). This was an important moment in professional sports and the civil rights movement, but contrary to (very) popular belief, Jackie was not the first African American player in the major leagues – or even the second.
63 years before Jackie Robinson’s famous debut, Moses Fleetwood Walker played an entire season for the Toledo Blue Stockings. Moses had been a star athlete at Oberlin College, one of the very few institutions at the time that admitted persons of color (and was the first to admit women!) After graduating from Oberlin, Walker attended the University of Michigan law school, where he again excelled on the varsity baseball team.
In 1883, Walker was recruited by a minor-league Toledo team, as a catcher. The following year, the Toledo Blue Stockings joined the American Association (one of three major baseball leagues at that time), and he played his first game on May 1, 1884. He had a difficult time dealing with the racism of other players and the general public. Some hotels in the South even refused to let him stay with the rest of his team, and he resorted to sleeping on park benches.
Walker’s younger brother Welday joined the team as outfielder the same season – making him the second African American to play in the majors.
Walker’s major-league stint ended prematurely due to injury, and he bounced around the minor leagues for a few more years. In 1887, the National League and American Association voted informally to not sign any more black players, a restriction that remained intact for the next six decades!
Why are Jackie Robinson’s accomplishments celebrated and the Walker brothers’ largely forgotten? It was at least partially due to the fact that Jackie played in the modern era, and he was the first to break the “color barrier” instituted in 1887. Also a factor was the elder Walker’s unpopular attitude, expressed in a book he wrote after retirement, that blacks of African heritage should return to Africa as they would never be accepted in the United States.