“I'm not concerned with your liking or disliking me... All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” (Jackie Robinson)
In his introduction to The Jackie Robinson Reader, sports historian Jules Tygiel succinctly observed, “Extraordinary lives often reveal ordinary truths. Jackie Robinson was born in 1919 and died in 1972. He crammed into these brief 53 years a legacy of accomplishment, acclaim, controversy, and influence matched by few Americans. He was, even before his historic baseball breakthrough, an athlete of legendary proportions. He won fame and adulation as the ﬁrst African-American to play in the major leagues in the twentieth century, launching an athletic revolution that transformed American sports. He garnered baseball's highest honors: Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and ﬁrst-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. More signiﬁcantly, Robinson became a symbol of racial integration and a prominent leader in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Jackie Robinson's half century among us illuminates not just the contours of an exceptional life, but much about the broader African-American experience of those years.”
Tygiel is, of course, correct in his assessment of Robinson’s life, and any biography of the baseball legend will share with its listeners some of the amazing stories of his life, beginning with his difficult birth in Cairo, Georgia, following him across the country to California, and then north to Montreal and south to Florida. Along the way, listeners learn of a man once consumed by rage who learned, through time and practice, as well as the influence of several important mentors, to rein in his anger and use it to change the world. Though born in a sharecropper’s cabin, he corresponded with presidents. Growing up in the shadow of an Olympian older brother, he found his own place in the sun, and, more importantly, he smoothed the journey to success for countless others. His name has gone down not in just one but in two pantheons of history, both on and off the baseball field as a noble fighter for equal rights.
Given his legacy, many Americans today believe Jackie Robinson was the first black man to play in Major League Baseball, but that answer is wrong. As far back as the late 19th century, there had been professional baseball leagues that were every bit as segregated as any other aspect of society, but before that, there were, for a brief shining moment, there were teams of black and white men playing with and against each other.
One of the first black men to play on such a team was Moses Fleetwood Walker, and he was the first who openly identified as black. In an essay entitled “African-Americans in Toledo Sports”, one author observed, “Moses Fleetwood Walker's promising but all too short professional baseball career mirrors the experience of most of the great African American ballplayers before the Negro Leagues began play in the early twentieth century. Walker was a gifted defensive catcher and adequate offensive player, but his career would be cut short by racism...Walker, well educated for a man of any race in the late 19th century, respond to this racism first with ambivalence, later with anger, and finally with prose. Walker's seminal work, Our Home Colony put him directly in line with the thoughts and words of future leader Marcus Garvey in his call for a separation of the races and a return of African Americans to Africa.”
To this day, over 130 years after he played, Walker’s life and his contributions to baseball history remain mostly forgotten, obscuring how a fascinating athlete with many talents experienced racism without letting it break him.