Thursday, March 25, 2010

Six Decades Before Robinson

Who was the first black Major League baseball player? Jackie Robinson you say? Actually Moses Fleetwood Walker played Major League Ball in 1884, 63 years before Robinson's debut and many historians name him as the first black Major Leaguer. Robinson's signing with the Dodgers in 1947 had an indisputable impact on baseball and the Civil Rights movement but he was not the first black Major League player.

Fleet Walker wasn't signed by a Major League team like Robinson, rather he was signed by the Toledo Blue Stockings the year before they joined the American Association. When the Blue Stockings joined the Association in 1884, Walker became the first African-American Major League ballplayer. He played 42 games and faced more than your typical heckling from fans and opposing players. At times opposing teams would refuse to play if Walker were on the field. Even some of his own pitchers refused to take signals from their black catcher so it was not unusual for Walker to have broken fingers and ribs from catching a game not knowing the speed or direction the ball was going to be coming at him.

Eventually American Association team owners buckled to pressure of fans and players and agreed to the same unwritten rules as the National League which meant they would no longer sign black players. The face of Major League baseball remained the same for the next six decades.

Walker's demeanor and attitude hardened in the years after he left baseball, surely impacted by the harassment he faced. He struggled with alcoholism, and was arrested for mail fraud and later for attempted murder during a racially charged incident. He was found innocent of murder on the basis of self-defense. Walker also became passionate about race relations. In his pamphlet The Home Colony: The Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race in America he proclaimed that blacks should return to Africa and that blacks and whites could never be fully integrated in society.

I couldn't find a copy of the pamphlet to read in its entirety but I imagine it would scream of the the pain he felt after years of oppression which may have led to internalized oppression. The story of Walker reminds me of the danger of internalized impression and also of how privileged white players were to be able to play for so many years in the Major Leagues while the black players were denied the opportunity. While it may seem that today the playing field is fairly level (both in baseball and in life), I find this document about white privilege to be thought provoking. Fortunately pitchers aren't refusing to take signals from their African-American catchers anymore, but if that catcher gets a cut while playing, can he buy a band-aid that matches his skin tone?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Myka! I saw a commercial about someone who was in the major leagues 60 years before Jackie Robinson. It is sad that I am just hearing about Moses Fleetwood Walker!

    Trivia... Did you know that Jackie Robinson was not the only Black player who played with the Montreal Alouettes in 1946?


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