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Was Jackie Robinson the First Black MLB Player?

Jackie Robinson famously broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, but was he the first black player to grace the diamond? The answer is nuanced, revealing a complex history of race in America's favorite pastime. Uncover the trailblazers who paved the way for Robinson and the untold stories of integration in baseball. Who were these unsung heroes? Join us to find out.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

Even if you're not much of a baseball fan – or a history buff – the name Jackie Robinson means something. After all, when he started for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he broke Major League Baseball's color barrier and became the first African-American MLB player of the modern era. However, over 60 years earlier, several black baseball players had already made their marks in the major leagues.

In the 1880s, African-American baseball players like catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker braved racism from both fans and fellow athletes when they took the field. Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings (which was briefly in the majors in 1884) and several minor league teams. However, it was only a few years before black players disappeared from integrated professional baseball altogether, as team owners decided not to offer new contracts to African-American players. Until Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in the 1940s, black players would be restricted to playing in the segregated "Negro leagues."

Baseball pioneers, 60 years apart:

  • Moses Fleetwood Walker also played baseball at Oberlin College and the University of Michigan. He studied law at Michigan before joining the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1883. His brother Weldy Wilberforce Walker also had a stint with the Blue Stockings. After his baseball career ended in 1889, Moses Fleetwood Walker pursued other interests, as a newspaper editor, inventor, and cinema owner, and advocate for African-American emigration to Liberia.

  • Although he was also hampered by a rib injury, racism led to the demise of Walker's brief professional career. In one notable incident, the Toledo Blue Stockings received a letter warning that Walker would be attacked by a lynch mob if he took the field for a game in Richmond, Virginia.

  • Jackie Robinson won the MLB's inaugural "Rookie of the Year" Award in 1947, was the National League MVP in 1949 and a six-time All Star, and made six World Series appearances, including helping the Dodgers win the championship in 1955.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • Sixty years before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, Moses Fleetwood Waker played for the MLB's Toledo Blue Stockings.
      Sixty years before Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, Moses Fleetwood Waker played for the MLB's Toledo Blue Stockings.