When we accept what basic-level textbooks tell us, we miss out on other parts of history–this may be because there wasn’t room to include everything in the text or it could be because of an author’s bias or the bias of the time when it was written. That means when you read something like “Jackie Robinson was the first black to play in a major league,” you take that as fact–because it is in a textbook. That’s not true, though–Robinson “only” broke the color barrier.
The first black man to play in a major league was Moses “Fleet” Walker who played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association–though it is “AAA” today, up until the early 20th century, it was every bit as significant as the National League. Of course, this gets more complicated because of a guy named William White who played base ball in 1879–turns out White was black, but claimed to be white and while playing base ball, lived as a white man. I don’t count White then…Walker lived with the prejudices of his time. –>see, that’s what good historians do…they keep digging for the truth. There was an assumption Walker was first on all counts. Research over several more years found the existence of White. That changed the story. It also emphasizes a sad truth of American history–that skin color was something to be hidden (White) or a “problem” to overcome (Walker).
By the way, the second black player? Walker’s brother.
In any event, Walker played in the majors for one year–less than 60 games–before playing in minor regional leagues for another five years. After base ball, Walker did some odd, cool things:
- He invented a shell for artillery projectiles.
- He owned multiple businesses.
- He wrote an academic treatise on black nationalism and why black Americans should leave the U.S. and return to their ancestral lands in Africa.
Apparently, Walker was an excellent writer…but I think it is a bit naive (for lack of a better word) to suggest packing up and going ‘home’–the 150+ years of slavery meant few black Americans truly knew where they were from–and if they did leave for Africa, they wouldn’t know the language or culture…they would be aliens there (rather than alienated as they were in the United States). Of course, given the treatment of blacks across much of the country in the Gilded Age, I see why he advocated for leaving.
In baseball’s history, Walker is usually mentioned in context with Cap Anson. In 1883, the Chicago base ball team, the White Stockings (today, the Cubs) refused to play Toledo and ‘their nigger catcher’ (that’s a quote). When Toledo noted the White Stockings would forfeit their revenue from the contest, Anson backed down–but using the word again, said that would be the last time he ever dealt with a black base ball player.
The following year before Chicago played Toledo–the Chicago owner wrote to Toledo’s owner saying that there’d be no game if a black player took the field, afraid that if they played, it would ’cause harm to the game’s integrity’. The Chicago owner said it wasn’t personal/didn’t matter to him–but that Anson had united the players on this issue. Toledo’s owner backed down and neither Walker brother played. Walker’s brother was shortly released, Fleet was released a month later.
Anson did this crap again a decade later against a team from Newark, New Jersey…and by that time, his agitation (along with others following his lead) led to votes by ownership boards and by the end of 1887, blacks were banned from playing base ball in America. Starting in 1889, blacks began efforts to create their own professional “major” teams. These efforts only bore fruit at the turn of the century and it wasn’t until 1920 that the Negro Leagues as they are remembered in history books truly come into existence.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Anson was scum–and that that wasn’t noted for a century of baseball history. His name was rarely brought up with Robinson and integration. No one wanted to point a finger at a famous Hall of Famer.
But when I sat down to write this, I wound up on a tangent and searched articles on Anson as well. It turns out that not only was Anson a racist…but he was involved in gambling on base ball. According to Howard Rosenberg, of 150+ incidents of players/managers covertly betting on games in the 19th century, Anson was involved in more than 1/3 of those cases….the next highest player? 5%.
So when you hear about Jackie Robinson being ‘first’–remember the real firsts (whether that is William White or Moses Walker)…and remember the forgotten other first, too: Larry Doby, the first black player in the American League. For more information, consider checking out the Negro Baseball Museum at nlbm.com (or going to visit it in Kansas City–it is a great museum). If research into baseball interests you, check out www.sabr.org. In all circumstances, pursue your passion and keep learning!!!