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Jackie Robinson Really Wasn’t First

by Larry Patrick

    Today is one of the most important dates in baseball history, April 10th. It was on this date in 1947 that Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball to become the first black player in Major League Baseball.  But was he? To be more “correct,” Jackie Robinson was the first black player of the so-called “modern” era, after 1900.  He was not the “first” black man to play major league baseball.

    For some of you this is something you have never heard. If you were on a quiz show and the question of who was the first black player in major league baseball, 99.9% of us would say Jackie Robinson and the moderator would declare us “right.”  But in reality, we would be wrong.   There were black players in the 1870’s and 1880’s in the early days of major league baseball.  Following the Civil War, there was still plenty of racism but some black players were able to show their skill and played.

    The “real” first black player to play in the major leagues was said to be, Moses Fleetwood Walker, the son of a clergyman from Ohio.  He played with the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, which was a major league team at that time.  Toledo and the American Association still exist but as minor league teams with Toledo being called the Mud Hens.  Walker was a catcher and  faced a lot of bigotry.  Even one of his pitchers refused to take “signs” from him on what pitch to throw. The pitcher didn’t want to take any directions from a black man.  Walker didn’t play in the majors too long because he split his fingers while catching and was let go.  He then went on to play for several minor league teams but never made it back to the major leagues.

     Another black player that made it to the major leagues was a pitcher named George Washington Stovey.  He was said to have a good fastball and a wicked curveball. But he too, didn’t last a long time in the majors.  When Cap Anson, one of the major leagues biggest stars back then heard that the New York Giants were about to pick up Stovey to pitch for them, Anson made it clear that his team would never play another team that had a black player. This was in 1887.  Anson was known to be a racist but there were plenty of others in baseball at the time.  Finally, baseball owners decided to stop recruiting black players.

    To their credit, most newspapers and baseball magazines, like the Sporting News, took white players and team owners to task for banning black players back then. But their opposition did not prevent major league baseball from becoming a “whites only” game until 1947 when Jackie Robinson was signed by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers, some 60 years later.  Ironically, the first black player in major league history, Moses Fleetwood Walker, became a newspaper editor & owner in 1908. He wrote a pamphlet that described the “Future of the Negro Race in America.”  In it, he urged blacks to emigrate to Africa because they could expect nothing in America but failure and disappointment.”  Those words were written before Jackie Robinson was even born. Many of us know of the trials and tribulations that Robinson had to go through in breaking the color line a “second” time.

    You can learn a lot more about this and other great baseball stories of the past from the book, “Baseball, an Illustrated History.”  It was written by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns. It’s an intriguing look at baseball from its beginnings to the time the book was written in the 1990’s.

    Jackie Robinson deserves all of the acclaim he has received as a great baseball player and as a black man that endured the taunts of racism from white players, fans and others.  To have his jersey number, “42” on the fences in every major league park is the least amount of recognition we can give to this man.  But we should not forget that history has its nuances and it takes nothing away from the great Jackie Robinson, when I remind baseball fans that there were others that were first but not given the opportunity to be as great as Jackie Robinson was in the major leagues.

    It has been said that there were some players of color in the major leagues from 1887 to 1947 but they were considered of Indian or Cuban descent, which was not the same in the minds of many as long as you weren’t considered a “Negro.”

    Many black players went on to fame in the major leagues once Robinson broke the color line “again,” on this day in 1947.  How can we imagine baseball without the likes of Larry Doby, who came a year after Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Bob Gibson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and yes, Barry Bonds, to name just a few great black players.

    It is a bit ironic that today baseball is trying to lure more black kids to the game.  So many opt out for football and basketball.  Latinos have overtaken the black players as the largest minority in baseball today.

    This day in 1947 in baseball, helped pave the way for people like Martin Luther King to move the black race forward despite losing his life in doing so and it has brought us to today where for the first time in American history, a black man is running for U.S. president.  Whether he wins or should win is up to Americans of different races, color and creeds. In getting here, we owe Jackie Robinson our admiration for his courage, intestinal fortitude, his insight and his willingness to endure the hatred of many for a good cause.

Norman E. Wolak

Norman E. Wolak 11/11/1931 ~ 2/11/2024 Norman E. Wolak, 92, of Walsenburg, Colorado, passed away on February 11, 2024. He was born on November 11,

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