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The Negro Leagues and Fairplay: 100 Years of Moving the Ball Forward

Posted 06/14/21 by Brett C

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 Crawfordsthe 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.

Adult

Cover of When the Game was Black and White: The Illustrated History of Baseball's Negro Leagues 

When the Game was Black and White: The Illustrated History of Baseball's Negro Leagues 

Cover of Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer

Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer

Cover of Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era

Last Train to Cooperstown: The 2006 Baseball Hall of Fame Inductees from the Negro League Baseball Era

Cover of Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African American Baseball

Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African American Baseball

Cover of The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History

The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History

Cover of Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues

Invisible Men: Life in Baseball’s Negro Leagues

Cover of Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League

Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone, the First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League

Cover of My Life in the Negro Leagues:  An Autobiography

My Life in the Negro Leagues: An Autobiography

Cover of Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players

Comeback Season: My Unlikely Story of Friendship with the Greatest Living Negro League Baseball Players

Juvenile

Cover of Just Like Josh Gibson

Just Like Josh Gibson

Cover of Satch & Me

Satch & Me

Cover of Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues

Baseball’s Leading Lady: Effa Manley and the Rise and Fall of the Negro Leagues

Cover of What Were the Negro Leagues?

What Were the Negro Leagues?

Cover of Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball's Negro Leagues

Mamie on the Mound: A Woman in Baseball's Negro Leagues

Cover of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball

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