Teacher Working to Ensure Pioneer Walker is Remembered
Vince Guerrieri | On 24, Jun 2015
Craig Brown grew up in Columbiana County. He wasn’t far from the final resting place of a baseball pioneer, but he didn’t know it – until he read “Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues.”
That was his introduction to Moses Fleetwood Walker. Before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 – 63 years before, in fact – Fleet Walker became the first black professional ballplayer. Like Robinson, Walker faced full-throated racism. And in fact, the unofficial ban of black ballplayers sprang up in reaction to Walker. “He and Robinson were both bookends,” said Brown, now a lecturer at Kent State and Stark State universities.
Brown and his students have undertaken the cause of Fleet Walker, and are trying to get Oct. 7 – Walker’s birthday – declared Moses Fleetwood Walker Day in Ohio. Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, educated at Oberlin, played for Toledo, died in Cleveland and is buried in Steubenville, so he has a connection to multiple parts of the state.
Twice, in the last legislative term and this one, Rep. Steve Slesnick (D-Canton), whose district encompasses Stark State, has introduced legislation for the day. And twice, it’s gotten out of committee, but hasn’t been sent to the House floor for a full vote. Brown is currently asking fans of baseball and history to write to House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger and ask him to bring the measure to the floor for a full vote by the House.
“It really is up to him,” Brown said. “We’re very happy to have made it this far twice, but we’d rather not have to do it a third time.”
It’s only the latest effort to bring some recognition to a man who had slipped into obscurity. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Steubenville until students from his alma mater of Oberlin College bought a marker for it. (The adjacent grave of his brother Weldy, who also played baseball, remains unmarked, Brown says.)
Fleet Walker and his family ended up in Oberlin when his father, Moses W. Walker, became the pastor of the Second Methodist Episcopal Church. Moses W. Walker, in addition to being a minister, was one of the first black doctors in Ohio. Walker enrolled at Oberlin College and played for the college’s first baseball team. He so impressed players and coaches at the University of Michigan that he was invited to transfer there (this was some 20 years before the establishment of the NCAA), which he did.
While at Michigan, he also played for a semi-pro team sponsored by the White Sewing Machine Company out of Cleveland, and a team in New Castle, Pa., just over the state line from Youngstown. In 1883, he joined the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern. Both he and the team acquitted themselves well enough that they were invited into the American Association – regarded at the time as a major league.
Walker experienced tense times when the Toledo team traveled to southern cities like Louisville, but also from people like Cap Anson, the future Hall of Famer, who played for Chicago. After an exhibition in 1883, Anson said in no uncertain terms he would not share the field with Walker. A fight was brewing if Walker made the trip with his team to Richmond – the former capital of the Confederacy – but he was cut from the Blue Stockings due to injury prior to that trip.
Walker continued to play minor league baseball, ending his career in the International League (he was also the last black player in that circuit until Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals in 1946). His post-baseball life was checkered. He was arrested for murder but acquitted, and later on served a year in federal prison for mail robbery while he worked for the U.S. Postal Service.
But he also owned and operated the LeGrande House, a hotel and opera house, during his playing career, and later ran the opera house in Cadiz, as well as the Temple Theater in Cleveland.
Fleet Walker died in Cleveland in 1924. He remains relatively obscure, although the street outside of Fifth Third Field in Toledo is Moses Fleetwood Walker Way. But Brown hopes that even if he’s unsuccessful in getting a day in the ballplayer’s honor, he’s increased awareness of him.
“He needed recognized in some way,” Brown said. “We’re starting a conversation.”