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If someone were to ask you “who was the first black player in the major leagues?”, you’d likely answer, Jackie Robinson. Right? Wrong.

The actual first African American to play in the major leagues is now generally thought to be William Edward White. Eighteen-year-old White, who at the time was a student at Brown University, replaced an injured Joe Start in a single game in the majors, playing for the Providence Grays on June 21, 1879. This was five years before Fleetwood Walker would make his Major League debut. In his only game, White went 1 for 4 and scored a run in a 5-3 win for the Grays. Not much is known about White other than he claimed he was white (his skin color was light enough that he could pass as such). This accounts for the fact that up until recent times, he was not credited with being the first African American to play in the major leagues. Instead, baseball historians bestowed that honor on Moses Fleetwood Walker.

Walker made his Major League debut on May 1, 1884 playing for the Toledo Blue Stockings against the Louisville Eclipse. He had already been playing for the minor league Blue Stockings when the team was added to the American Association (later becoming the American League).

By all accounts, Walker was no less of an amazing player than the great Jackie Robinson. How good was he? Hard to tell since statistics and game accounts of that period are somewhat sketchy. We do know that Walker played at the unenviable position of catcher. Why unenviable? Because catchers of that era caught without a glove or any major protection, resulting in catchers being frequently injured. Walker had it worse than most because many of the pitchers didn’t want a black man telling them what pitches to throw. As a result, Walker was in the nearly impossible position of attempting to catch baseballs without any idea of what kind of pitch was going to be thrown nor to what location. During the season, Walker batted a respectable .263 when the league average was a mere .242.

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He faced the same kind of challenges that Jackie Robinson experienced nearly 75 years later - death threats, physical attacks, name-calling, and players refusing to play if Walker were on the field. In one instance, the opposing team refused to take the field if Walker was playing. After Walker’s manager pointed out to that team that if they did not play, the game would not only be recorded as a loss for them, they would also forfeit half the ticket sales. Refusing to play against a black player was one thing, but losing money was another; the team took the field.

In another incident, Walker initially had to sit out because the other team refused to play if he did. However, the crowd grew more and more restless because Walker’s replacement was terrible. Due to the crowd’s continual chants for Walker, the other team finally relented and allowed him to play.

Eventually, injuries took their toll, making it impossible for Walker to swing a bat. After a mere 42 games in the majors, his career was over.

In 1887, the International League banned future contracts with black players, beginning an era of segregation that lasted until 1947.

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