The University Record, May 20, 1997

The Historical Record

By Patricia S. Whitesell

While the 50th anniversary celebration of Jackie Robinson's legend as the first modern major league baseball player to break the color barrier is still fresh in our minds, let us also celebrate two related, historical achievements that have a University of Michigan connection.

Did you know that the first record of an African American player on a major league baseball team dates back to 1884? That player was Moses Fleetwood Walker. "Fleet" Walker and his brother Weldy transferred to Michigan from Oberlin College, with Fleet entering the Law School (1882-83) and Weldy studying homeopathy (1882-84).

The brothers had played baseball at Oberlin, and both joined the University Baseball Club at Michigan. Baseball had been organized at Michigan in 1863 when a diamond was laid out on the northeast corner of the Diag, though cricket was the most popular sport at the time, with wickets set up on State Street. Both brothers excelled at baseball, particularly Fleet who was a homerun hitter and an even more superlative catcher. Michigan's student paper called him "the wonder."

In 1884, Fleet Walker entered the major leagues, joining the Toledo Club as its catcher. Weldy again followed him, playing for Toledo as an outfielder.

Participation by players who were in the racial minority met with prejudice, and by the late 1880s, the major leagues had unofficially banned participation by minorities. This persisted until 1947.

It was Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers who recruited Jackie Robinson in 1945 to play for the Dodger's farm club, the Montreal Royals, advancing him to the Dodgers' major league team in 1947. Rickey was a 1911 graduate of the Michigan Law School, where he had simultaneously coached Michigan's baseball team. Influenced by books such as Gunnar Myrdahl's An American Dilemma, a landmark study of race relations, Rickey's sense of justice and equality fueled his efforts to integrate baseball.

The University can be proud of these important contributions to athletics and diversity.

The Historical Record examines interesting aspects of the University's history. Send suggestions for future columns to Historical_Record@umich.edu.