The Negro Leagues and Fairplay: 100 Years of Moving the Ball Forward
Posted on June 14, 2021
In December, 2020 – 100 years after the Negro National League (NNL) was founded – Major League Baseball made a major move toward correcting past racism by recognizing formally the legitimacy of seven Negro Leagues. This move corrects the historical record and provides a more accurate history of the game by including the achievements and stats of some of the best players to ever pick up a bat or a mitt.
While several Negro Leagues ball clubs – the Toledo Crawfords, the Toledo Cubs and the Toledo Tigers – enjoyed short stints as the city’s home team, Toledo’s most famous connection to the Negro Leagues was Moses Fleetwood Walker. A catcher who was known to play bare-handed, he made his mark 36 years before the NNL debuted.
The offspring of biracial parents, Fleetwood Walker grew up in Mt. Pleasant Ohio, a community founded by anti-slavery Quakers that became an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Such exposure to allies who went to bat for “Negroes” in the fight for racial justice no doubt instilled self-dignity, a fighting spirit, and a sense of fairness that prepared Walker for battle on and off the field – against the country’s racial divide and baseball’s systematic blackballing of Negro players.
Walker’s sporting life was one of achievement. He was the first African American to play baseball at the University of Michigan and Oberlin College. In May 1884, he became the first African American to play on a Major League team as a catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. Ask most people who was the first such player and they will point to Jackie Robinson, but Walker’s claim to that storied place in history came six decades before Robinson’s. Further, he and his brother Weldy (Wilberforce) Walker (who also played at Oberlin and U of M) were the first two African Americans to play in the Majors.
The history of local baseball and the Negro Leagues’ presence and impact in and around Toledo have, thankfully, not been totally whitewashed. The dwindling number of fans who packed Toledo’s Swayne Field to witness firsthand the feats of future Hall of Famers Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson (as well as local and barnstorming teams) is a reminder that it is way past time to acknowledge the accomplishments of the lesser-known players whose prowess and showmanship elevated baseball to America’s pastime. There are certainly way more Hall of Fame-worthy Negro Leagues players than the 35 who have been inducted to date.
Toledo has honored Fleetwood Walker with the Moses Fleetwood Walker Plaza at the Fifth Third Field entrance. More honors are sure to follow as more people become aware of his story and those of scores of other Negro League players who – during their careers and decades after – got the short end of the bat.
Thanks to sports scholars, fans, institutions such as the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), and grassroots organizations like the African American Legacy Project of Northwest Ohio’s Sports Legends (AALP), the achievements of thousands of smart, gifted athletes and business leaders have been unearthed, preserved, touted, and defended.
On June 19, in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the old Negro Leagues – and in observance of Juneteenth – the AALP’s Sports Legends will unveil a historical marker before an audience of invited guests at its Collingwood Blvd. location.
The books listed here, adult and juvenile, cover a lot of ground. For more materials on the Negro Leagues and other unsung events and heroes of American history, also check out the Art Tatum African American Resource Center special collection in the Kent Branch Library. Many books on the Negro Leagues are housed solely in the Tatum Center.