A recent (and excellent) article on the Slate website tackles the complicated question of who was the first African American baseball player. While many of us immediately think of Jackie Robinson, baseball scholars give the honor to Moses Fleetwood Walker and his younger brother Weldy. Moses Walker, who often went by “Fleet”, played catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1883, which became a Major League team in 1884.
Walker faced many struggles, including pitcher from an opposing team, Cap Anson, who threatened to not play with Walker on the field. Walker endured discrimination from his own teammate, Tony Mullane, a star pitcher, who said Walker, “was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals.” One of Mullane’s errant pitches gave Walker a broken rib.
Walker returned to the Minors and bounced around from team to team until 1889, when baseball formally prohibited contracts with African American players. Until this point, Walker was allowed to play for the Syracuse Stars, but only in the off season. It was here he had his second run-in with Cap Arson, who again refused to take the field with Walker slated to play. Syracuse relented and put in a different pitcher. Walker clearly struggled as a minority in the sport, but he persevered, managing an impressive resume. After Walker was forced out of baseball for the color of his skin, he went on to become a successful businessman.
Weldy Wilberforce Walker played with his brother for the Toledo Blue Stockings, joining the team in 1884. When the Color Barrier went up, Weldy submitted an impassioned plea against it in an open letter to The Sporting Life. He wrote, “this law is a disgrace to the present age, and reflects very much upon the intelligence of your last meeting, and casts derision at the laws of Ohio – the voice of the people – that all men are created equal.”
Meanwhile, recent research has surfaced that the first African American baseball player in history probably did not face any of these barriers and that’s because he passed as white. William Edward White played as a substitute player in one professional baseball game in 1879. He played first base in “fine style” according to the Providence Morning Star. He got a hit, scored a run, stole two bases, and fielded 12 chances for the Providence Greys. White was an eighteen year old student at Brown University, and his college friends and teammates “howled from the sidelines” in support. While the Providence Morning Star reported that White was slated to play in upcoming games, he never did. In fact, he never played baseball professionally after that one turn at first base.
White is a mysterious character in the history of baseball. While there are those who want to recognize him as the first African American player, it is entirely possible, as the Slate article authors point out, that he was the only one on the field that day who knew he was one quarter black. White was born into slavery in 1860. White’s father was a successful white businessman in Georgia who had three children with White’s mother, who was of mixed race.
Sent north to be educated, friends of the family say that White did try to pass as white and after attending a Quaker school, enrolled at Brown University as a white man. Race is always a complicated issue and needs to be treated as such, but for White, born in the Confederate-era South, one was clearly (and legally) black or white. Moving up north and “passing” was probably isolating and terrifying. At any point, White’s background could be discovered.
White never graduated from Brown, but moved to Chicago, married a white woman and had three children. He and his wife separated and he was estranged from his family. The census from that time that reports White was white in 1880, 1900, and 1910. In 1920, it lists White as a black man. His death certificate, signed by his family, identified him as white.
While we will probably never know if White’s mixed-race background was discovered, or why he quit baseball, or why he left Brown, or whether he saw himself as white, black or trapped in between, he remains a fascinating man lost to history. Peter Morris and Stefan Fatsis’ wonderful State piece tries to understand the nuances of passing for white, and compile the details that we do know about White’s life. They conclude the article with “American history and its precision-loving subset of baseball history are filled with the sort of ambiguity that complicates the search for convenient, ironclad “firsts.” This much is indisputable: On June 21, 1879, a man born a slave in Georgia played in a major-league baseball game. A black man named White played for the Grays. Factually and figuratively, that seems right. And it seems worth celebrating.”