First black player in major leagues? Hint: It wasn't Jackie Robinson

Moses Fleetwood Walker played one season, 1884, in the majors, 63 years before Jackie Robinson's debut

Mark Palmer wanders through a cemetery in a southeastern Ohio steel town looking for a man most of the world has forgotten.

Years ago, Palmer's grandmother told him the story of the man buried here. That's my uncle, she said, your great-grand uncle. His name was Moses Fleetwood Walker, and he was the first black baseball player in the major leagues.

Palmer occasionally mentioned this to his boyhood friends.

"Jackie Robinson was the first," they replied. "Everyone knows that."

So Palmer let it be.

Now, at Union Cemetery, Palmer meanders the grounds, wracking his brain. He can't find the grave site.

On the gentle sloping hills, it is cool and shady and it smells of fresh-cut grass. The chirps of crickets fill the thick air.

Palmer thinks the grave is close to the road, or perhaps near the mausoleum, so he checks there first.

At least the grave is marked now. Walker died in 1924 and it wasn't until 1990 that the Oberlin Heisman Club planted a headstone to commemorate its student from long ago. Palmer and a few others attended the ceremony.

A few locals know bits and pieces of Walker's story, but outside of this blue-collar region he remains largely unknown. Former Dodger Don Newcombe, a pioneer from the Robinson era, said he hadn't heard the name.

Walker played in the major leagues for one season, 63 years before Robinson. And after that one season, there wasn't another black player in the majors for six decades.

With no one to carry on his legacy, Walker all but disappeared from baseball's rich history. His one grandchild died in infancy. Palmer, who is thought to be Walker's closest living relative, needs to consult a map just to find the general area of his grave.

"Segregation in baseball actually started when he started," Palmer says. "That's sort of a period of history that baseball wanted to forget."

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For decades, no one knew who the first black major leaguer was.

Today, a consensus of the game's historians believe a former slave named William Edward White was the first.

White was a fill-in for one game in 1879. But until 2004, when researchers discovered more information about him, no one knew he was black.

Breaking the color barrier is a different kind of accomplishment. Walker lasted nearly a full season — and may have played longer if not for an injury — and endured all the taunts, insults and vulgarities that groundbreaking blacks were subjected to during those times.

He faced obstacles before he reached the majors. In 1883, Walker was playing for minor league Toledo when the Chicago White Stockings and their manager, future Hall of Famer Cap Anson, visited for an exhibition game.

Anson, using a racial slur that was quoted in the next day's Toledo Blade, said his team would not play against a team with a black player.

Walker, a catcher, had planned to take the game off to rest his hands — the players in those days did not use gloves — but his manager decided to challenge Anson by playing Walker in the outfield.

The following year, 1884, Toledo moved up to the major leagues, playing against teams such as the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics as part of the American Assn. Around midseason, Walker's younger brother, Weldy Wilberforce Walker, joined him on the team, becoming the third and final black major leaguer before Jackie Robinson.

Moses Walker batted .263 in 42 games during his one major league season, a year that wore on him emotionally and physically. He slept on park benches when he was denied entrance to some hotels in the South. Toward the end of the season, the team received a letter threatening Walker's life. It said a mob of 75 men was waiting for him if he played a game in Richmond, Va.

By then, though, Walker had been injured and dropped from the team. He remained in baseball another five years, researchers believe, bouncing around the minor leagues.

In 1887, he was playing for Newark of the International League when he encountered Anson again. The White Stockings manager had rallied more support for segregating the game, and he successfully had Walker and a black teammate removed from the lineup.

That same day, the International League's managers agreed in a vote not to sign any more black players.

The color line was drawn.

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Moses Fleetwood Walker was a complex man.

Born in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, in 1856, he was well educated and, by blacks and many whites, highly respected. He attended Oberlin College and spent a year at Michigan Law School. He was a businessman, a newspaper publisher and a scholar. He received patents for artillery shells and motion-picture devices. He wrote a book on race relations.

But he suffered, too. And when he suffered, he drank. And when he drank, he could turn violent.

In 1891, Walker was living in Syracuse, where he had once played for the Syracuse Stars baseball team. On an April afternoon, the Syracuse Courier reported, he was heading to the corner of Monroe and Orange streets in Syracuse when he encountered a group of white men.

Walker said one of the men shouted a racial insult at him, which prompted a confrontation. Witnesses disagreed about who attacked whom first, but one of the men struck Walker in the back of the head with a rock. Staggered, he pulled out a knife and stabbed the man in the groin.

The man was carried away by his companions, but the bleeding didn't stop. Walker was arrested and put on trial for murder.

Twelve white men sat on his jury. News reports said a large crowd, curious about what would happen to one of the local team's former ballplayers, packed the courthouse to hear the verdict: not guilty.

Elsewhere, black men were being lynched for less. But Walker was popular in Syracuse, and when the verdict was read the courtroom erupted in cheers so loud the judge reportedly broke his gavel trying to restore order.

However, the goodwill didn't last. Walker took a downward turn. He served time for mail fraud and ended up a billiards clerk. He was 67 when he died.

Toward the end of his life, Walker saw no place for blacks in what he viewed as a hostile society.

He became an advocate for emigration to Africa, and he wrote a book on the topic.

"There is absolutely no foundation either in reason or experience for a hope that the lot of the American Negro will grow better," he wrote.

Decades later, when author David Zang was researching Walker for the biography "Fleet Walker's Divided Heart," he struggled to find a copy of Walker's book.

The Library of Congress had somehow lost it from its rare-book collection. Oberlin College had it listed in its archives but the book wasn't on the shelves.

"I was just nosing all of those shelves," Zang said, "and found that it had fallen back behind them."

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The drive into Steubenville winds along the Ohio River, where steel mills once dotted the banks from Wheeling, W. Va., to Pittsburgh.

When Walker was born, the river divided free soil and the slave land of what was then Virginia, now West Virginia.

Little remains of Walker there now, as if his memory had been swept away by the current. His old house was long ago leveled. The theater Walker once operated is a furniture store.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has 212 pages in Walker's player files but no record of his descendants.

The Ohio Genealogical Society could find no links to anyone living. Oberlin, where Walker went to school, had nothing on relatives in its archives. Walker was a member of the Knights of Pythias, but they had no records either.

Palmer, now 62, hadn't been hiding, of course. But like most things with Walker, he was hard to find.

John Husman, historian for the Toledo Mud Hens minor league baseball team, held the key. Five years ago, he organized a Moses Fleetwood Walker Night. He wanted a relative of Walker's to throw out the first pitch, so he started putting together a genealogical chart. He got dead ends.

"It took me a long time," Husman said. Eventually, he came across an old newspaper article about the grave marker. Mickey Cochrane, an Oberlin alumnus and longtime coach at nearby Bowling Green State in Ohio, was mentioned. Husman met with Cochrane (no relation to the Hall of Fame catcher of the same name), and he remembered Palmer from the ceremony.

Palmer has lived his whole life in Steubenville, an unremarkable town of about 18,000 residents located about 40 miles west of Pittsburgh. The community recently made national headlines when two high school football players were convicted of a rape that was witnessed by other students and recounted over social media.

The brick house where Palmer lives with his wife, Vanessa, sits next to an old school. Sitting in the living room as he visits with a stranger who has shown up to talk about his distant relative, he is relaxed and quick to laugh.

He's not sure he can help much. He says he mostly knows what he's read.

"You kind of wonder after all this time, how come nobody really knew about it or said much about it?" he says of Walker's contributions to baseball.

He had been unsure himself until 1990, when the Oberlin Heisman Club contacted Palmer's father about the gravestone. Only then did Palmer know for sure his grandmother had been right.

Later, the first pitch at the Mud Hens game — his son threw it and he caught it barehanded — made the local news. Palmer emailed the video to skeptical friends. During college, he recalled, one woman had been particularly outspoken in her disbelief. Palmer made sure she was copied on the email.

Palmer kept a plaque with Walker's photo, and his wife added Walker to a family collage in the living room.

Ninety-four years separated his birth from Walker's, but he had seen some of his great grand-uncle's gloomy predictions come true.

"It wasn't like Jim Crow down South," Palmer says of growing up in Steubenville in the 1950s and '60s. "But there were some places that blacks couldn't go into or they weren't welcome."

Well-to-do white folks, he said, lived on top of the town's hills. Immigrants, the poor and blacks generally lived at the bottom. The Palmers were the first black family on their block halfway up the hill, meaning Palmer and his brother were the first black students in the elementary school. But soon, he said, the district lines were redrawn, conveniently missing Palmer's block.

Palmer's grandfather ran the black recreation center, which had the town's black swimming pool. To black residents, it was just "the pool."

White residents called it "the inkwell."

Palmer played baseball and football, but his days as a quarterback ended when he entered high school. Black boys weren't quarterbacks in those times, even if his midtown team routinely defeated the white team from the top of the hill.

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In the cemetery, a few dead leaves fall from branches. For a time, Palmer looks past plain graves marked simply by "MOTHER" or "BABY" before his search ends in the shade of a maple tree.

A tuft of periwinkle is brushed aside to show the inscription in granite: MOSES FLEETWOOD WALKER.

Under that: FIRST BLACK MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER IN USA.

Palmer recalls that as a child, he would sometimes camp out in the thick woods by his house with just a blanket, some sandwiches and a jar of milk.

He had no idea that about a half-mile through those woods Walker was buried.

zachary.helfand@latimes.com

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