Pre-Negro Leagues stars laid the foundation for integration
Believed to be the first African American to suit up with a white professional baseball team, way back in the spring of 1878, John “Bud” Fowler was feted with the naming of a street in his honor next to Doubleday Field. Additionally, a plaque denoting his trailblazing achievements was affixed to the brick wall near the ballpark’s entrance, just down the block from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
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Though small in stature (5-foot-7, 155 pounds), Grant packed a wallop, leading the IL in home runs (11) and extra-base hits (49), while also topping the Bisons in stolen bases (40). After Organized Baseball outlawed African-American players in 1889, Grant joined the Cuban Giants, and continued his diamond domination with black baseball’s preeminent teams until his retirement in 1903.
William Edward White is believed by some to be the first African American to play in the majors (1879). His mixed heritage and light complexion reportedly enabled him to pass himself off as a Caucasian and avoid the racial prejudice future black players would encounter. His MLB career, though, lasted just one game.
Five years later, catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker joined the Toledo Blue Stockings and became the first to play in the majors openly as a black man. Walker would be subjected to constant abuse from opponents, fans, the press and even some of his teammates. Blue Stockings pitcher Tony Mullane made no secret of not wanting to play with Walker, routinely throwing pitches that weren’t signaled just to cross up his catcher. Despite being an avowed segregationist, Mullane conceded years later that Walker “was the best catcher I ever worked with.”
Injuries would limit Walker to just 42 games, and he was released before the end of the 1884 season, finishing with a .263 batting average, third best on the team and 23 points above league average. His brother, Welday Walker, also played a handful of games for Toledo that year.
The man known as “Fleet” would hook on with the International League’s Newark Little Giants, and in 1887 teamed with pitcher George Stovey to form the first African-American battery in white professional baseball. Stovey would win 35 games that season. Walker spent the following two seasons with the Syracuse Stars before being released.
He would be the last African-American to play in white professional leagues until Robinson suited up for the Montreal Royals, Brooklyn’s top farm club, in 1946.
Scott Pitoniak is a freelance writer from Penfield, N.Y.