fleet walker

FLEET WALKER

Seventy-five years ago, Jackie Robinson was celebrated as the first Black man to appear in a major league baseball game in Pittsburgh.

Fact is, Fleet Walker beat him to the punch — by 63 years.

Moses Fleetwood Walker, an outstanding defensive catcher who possessed “a shotgun arm,” became the first African American in big league history when he debuted with Toledo of the American Association on May 1, 1884. The AA had launched two years before as a big league rival to the established National League.

Walker made his first appearance against the Pittsburgh Alleghenies — later to be renamed Pirates — on May 30 before a crowd of 5,000 at Recreation Park, only blocks from where PNC Park now stands. He caught the second game of a holiday twinbill and went 1-for-4 as the Blue Stockings won 2-1 on Tony Mullane’s four-hitter.

“The game was one of the best ever played here,” noted the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette in its one-paragraph account. “The two clubs were so evenly matched that the interest in the contest never flagged.”

No mention was made of Walker in any of the Pittsburgh newspapers, perhaps an indication that he faced no — or only negligible — hostility from the fans or the Alleghenies. The 27-year-old rookie, who grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, hadn’t been so fortunate four weeks earlier when Toledo opened the season in Louisville. Walker went 0-for-3 and committed four errors as the Eclipse pulled out a 5-1 victory over Mullane and the Blue Stockings.

“Mullane did good work in the square, but was poorly supported,” noted the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Walker, the colored catcher, who has been spoken of as something of a wonder, appeared to be badly rattled.”

No surprise, given that he was subjected to a hail of racial slurs and death threats throughout the afternoon.

Walker appeared in 42 games that season — he was sidelined for an extended period by a broken rib, caused by a foul tip — and batted .263, the third-best average on the team.

Despite his obvious qualifications, Walker did not return to the Blue Stockings in 1885. A “gentlemen’s agreement” among baseball owners excluding Blacks took hold in the offseason and the majors were once more an all-White domain.

Not until 1947, when Robinson arrived, would an African American again appear in a big league game.