Many people in Northeast Ohio are rooting for the Cleveland Indians as they play in the American League Division Series. But some baseball enthusiasts are hoping they'll take time this weekend to remember an Ohioan whose baseball career was cut short because of racism. Today is Moses Fleetwood Walker’s birthday and thanks to a new state law, he will be honored on that day every year.
Many people think Jackie Robinson was the first African American player to play major league baseball. But David Leland, one of the members of the Board of Directors of the Columbus Clippers, the Cleveland Indians' AAA franchise, says that’s not true. Leland, who is also a Democratic state representative, says an Ohioan, Moses Fleetwood Walker, was the first. Leland says Walker played for a while in the 1880’s, that is, before Major League Baseball’s rules were changed, cutting Walker’s career short.
“You know we had just gotten through the Civil War and there was a period of reconstruction. And after a period of reconstruction, you had a lot of integration and a lot of opportunity. You had African Americans who were members of Congress, who were governors, even United States Senators. And people were becoming more integrated in our society. But slowly but surely in the country, through the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations, we reverted back to an America that existed before the Civil War. And baseball, you know, is a reflection of America and it’s always been a reflection of America. I love the game of baseball. And so, even though he was allowed to play in the 1880’s when he became the first African American to play the game of baseball, they took it away from him.”
Targets of racism
Morris Eckhouse with the Baseball Heritage Museum in Cleveland says both Walker and Robinson were targets of racist behavior in their own times.
“I think Fleet Walker was in some ways more isolated in that but certainly had to go through the same kinds of things, the same kinds of racism and with the difference being, again, when Jackie Robinson broke in spring training, there were places that did not want to allow him to play. There were talks of strikes and petitions when he got to the major league level and at every turn, he had enough back up that he was able to persevere.”
Eckhouse says Walker’s baseball career was short lived because he didn’t have the support Jackie Robinson had six decades later.
“Certainly he had to go through the same things that Jackie Robinson had to go through and it doesn’t seem like he ultimately had the people in his corner like Branch Rickey for instance and the ownership of the Dodgers that decided to go through with what has been called ‘the great experiment.’”
Setting the record straight
Eckhouse says Walker was eventually banned from baseball in 1887 because of his skin color. Still, Leland says the record should be set straight.
“And so I thought it was important to recognize this Ohioan who played an essential role in Major League Baseball and American history. I also viewed it as a cautionary tale because in this situation, we got it right the first time. He was actually playing Major League Baseball and then because of racism, hatred and bigotry, they took it away from him.”
So Leland sponsored a bill that has been signed into law. It makes every October 7th Moses Fleetwood Walker Day in Ohio. Walker died in Cleveland in 1927.
But if he were alive today, one could only imagine that he’d be doing what many Ohioans are doing this October, cheering for the Cleveland Indians.