The new headstone at the grave of Weldy Walker. (All photos courtesy the Moses Fleetwood Walker Day Facebook page)
Editor’s note: Because I’m a little swamped now with attending to matters outside of my work, research and writing, I decided to solicit guest commentaries, posts and comments from outside contributors on subjects with a recent news peg or angle. I’m extremely grateful to everyone who has volunteered and agreed so far, and if anyone else has something timely they like to pitch, definitely shoot me an email at email@example.com.
This post marks the first installment of that effort. It’s a commentary from SABR member Craig Brown, who toiled with the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project to raise money for, create and place a headstone at the previously unmarked grave of Weldy Walker, the second openly African American to play in the Majors, following is brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker. The efforts of Craig and others came to fruition last month, when a beautiful new marker was installed at Weldy’s burial spot. Below is a commentary written by Craig to mark the occasion. Enjoy, and congrats to Craig and his helpers on their success!
Welday Walker: The 2nd African American in MLB
By Craig Brown
The harsh reality is that no one remembers who came in second place. Whether it is fair or not, that is the truth. Who is the Olympic athlete with the most silver medals? Who was the second man to lead a ship to the New World? Well, that was Christopher Columbus. We only know that because so many people believe he was first. The second African American to play Major League Baseball was Welday (Weldy) Walker, and nobody remembers him.
It is disappointing nobody talks about the people who came in second place. After all, they worked hard and accomplished great things in their own right. Maybe it is because people only have so much room in their head, and they just want to save space for only the most “Important” of things.
Welday Walker was “second” throughout his life. He was the second son of Moses W. Walker and Caroline O’Harra Walker. He was the second Walker boy to attend Oberlin College and play baseball. He followed his older brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker, to the University of Michigan. He later became the second African American to play Major League baseball on July 15, 1884 as a Toledo Blue Stocking. Of course, this is after his older brother debuted as the first African American to play Major League Baseball on May 1, 1884. Walker was used to doing things after his brother. We can only imagine the intensity of this sibling rivalry.
Still, there is a very good reason that Welday should be remembered in his own right. Being one of only two African Americans to openly play Major League Baseball as almost 80 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier is a pretty big deal. The very presence of the Walker Brothers in Major League Baseball actually created the color barrier. Both of these men were pioneers and deserve credit for showing the world that African Americans were capable and in every way equal to white Americans. They were testaments against the prevailing view of Social Darwinism.
Both Walker Brothers are historic figures. They are both important pages in the book of baseball history and were both civil rights pioneers. It is in the latter respect where Welday separates himself from his older and more recognized brother.
Shortly after the Civil War and in an environment rife with racial tension, Welday and a friend won an anti-discrimination lawsuit. In 1884, Welday and Hannibal Lyons were denied admission to a skating rink in Steubenville, Ohio, because they were black. They sued. They were portrayed in the media as troublemakers, but the judge issued a favorable ruling. Each plaintiff was awarded $15, but as indicative of the times, they were still not allowed to enter the rink.
By the end of 1884, the unofficial ban on blacks in baseball would keep the Walker Brothers and other talented African Americans out of Major League Baseball, but for a few years, the Walkers and others would play in “minor” leagues.” Of course, eventually racism would end their playing days on that level too.
In 1887, Welday was playing for the Akron Acorns. That year Welday learned that racial segregation was becoming the norm in minor leagues and he learned his days playing on an integrated baseball field were coming to an end.
This prompted Welday to commit his most memorable act. He penned a letter to the president of the Tri-State League objecting to this policy based on racial discrimination and ignorance. He argued, “There should be some broader case – such as want of ability, behavior, and intelligence — for barring a player than his color.” Two years earlier, while playing for the Cleveland Forest Cities, Welday batted .375. His ability was never the issue.
Ten years after Welday’s short time with the Acorns, a black man was lynched by the citizens of Urbana, Ohio. Welday was outraged by the lack of action by state government. He blamed Gov. Asa Bushnell for a shoddy investigation, and formally left the Republican Party. He then helped form the Negro Protective Party.
Both Moses Fleetwood Walker and Welday Walker were interred in unmarked graves in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery. In 1998 Oberlin College’s Heisman Club erected a tombstone at Moses’ grave. The act made headlines and once again revived the memory of Moses Fleetwood Walker as what he accomplished as the first openly African-American player in Major League Baseball.
A couple of months ago enough money was raised in connection with the Society for American Baseball Research to buy Welday Walker a headstone. We hope to plan a ceremony in the spring. It is our hope that people will begin to talk about the African-American man who was second to play Major League Baseball. We also hope that this act will lead to a broader discussion about Welday’s life as a vocal opponent against discrimination and as an early civil rights pioneer in his own right.