As Allie Moulton stepped onto the field for his major league baseball debut, he was no doubt already sweating. September 25, 1911, was unseasonably hot and humid—reaching temperatures not seen in Boston for decades. Then again, Allie had endured far worse early in his career playing in Mississippi and Arkansas. He had more reasons to sweat than the weather. Allie had something to hide.
Jogging out to take his position at second base, Allie may have felt like the “Kid” sportswriters had dubbed him because of his dugout exuberance and small stature—just over five feet. Only a year earlier, he was playing for the North Attleboro, Massachusetts, town team. Now he found himself in the St. Louis Browns lineup against the Red Sox’ legendary pitcher Smokey Joe Wood.
If only his father were there to see it. John W. Moulton had died unexpectedly two weeks earlier. Any of Allie’s family who made the trip to Boston would have shared in the bittersweet nature of the day. They would also have known Allie’s secret: His father John was of mixed African and European ancestry. By the laws and customs of the day, Allie was black.
Black men weren’t allowed in the big leagues. And they were certainly not welcome to play at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds, the hallowed field where the first World Series took place.
To date, Allie Moulton is the only man of African-American ancestry known to have played in the modern major leagues before Jackie Robinson.
The late baseball historian Jules Tygiel wrote about Major League Baseball’s impenetrable “color line” in his groundbreaking work Baseball’s Great Experiment: “At the dawn of the twentieth century the national pastime was a Jim Crow enterprise.”
People had suspected that men of African-American ancestry were “passing for white” in professional baseball since the day that the color line was raised. They were sure it was happening because men had tried and been caught. Anyone with darker-than-average skin was liable to be suspected. A few months after Allie joined the Browns, team manager (and future Baseball Hall of Fame inductee) Bobby Wallace told a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about an “exceptionally funny” incident involving a tryout for a young pitcher, sight unseen.
“When he came out, I almost dropped dead. He looked very dusky and had kinky hair. I immediately had visions of getting in bad with organized baseball for even giving a trial to a man I thought was a negro [sic]. But I told him to go in and pitch to the batters, thinking the while of how I was going to get rid of him.
“I stood behind him, and to each batter I tipped off what he was going to throw. After he had almost been knocked down by a couple of rifle-like drives, he turned to me and said: ‘Mr. Wallace, I think I was mistaken. I am not a pitcher.’”
Allie would have been considered “black,” “mulatto,” or “colored” if his father’s ancestry were known during his life. Although the definition of who was black and who was white has varied throughout the country’s history, by the time Allie played, a single known African ancestor, no matter how distant, would make a person black—the so-called “one drop rule.”
The history of African-American participation in professional baseball follows closely the complex arc of race relations in this country. After emancipation, blacks had hoped to become full and equal members of society.
More than four million freed slaves expected to be paid for their labor. They wanted access to land. They wanted the right to vote. And they wanted to play baseball.
As the country sorted out the new order, black men were elected to Congress for the first time. Others played for “white” professional baseball teams. But the advances for people of African descent were to be short-lived—on and off the diamond.
The first black U. S. Senator was elected in 1870, but federal troops pulled out of the South in 1877, leading to massive black disenfranchisement. African-American catcher Moses Fleetwood Walker played his first major league game in 1884, but major and minor league umpires publicly stated that they would make calls against any team with players of African ancestry. Soon enough, the last black U. S. Senator was driven from office, and Moses Walker was driven from the game. By 1887, Allie’s future team, the St. Louis Browns, refused to play in even an exhibition game against an all-black team.
The walls of Jim Crow apartheid had been fortified. Professional baseball’s “color line” had been erected. Occasionally black players would be allowed onto a minor league team by well-meaning or novelty-seeking team owners, but these players never lasted long. Until Jackie Robinson’s historic season with the Dodgers more than fifty years later, no man of African-American ancestry would again play Major League baseball. At least, not openly.
“Go up the Charles River till you find it so narrow that after a good run you could leap across it and you will find yourself in the town of Medway.” That’s how The Boston Globe described the Massachusetts town where Albert Theodore Moulton was born in January 1886. Allie’s descendants don’t know much about his father, who was born John W. Morton. They know that he was born in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and they have heard stories about him as a drummer boy in the Civil War. None of them knew, until recently, that Allie’s father was born to a “free mulatto woman”—of mixed African slave and European-American ancestry.
Throughout his life, Allie’s father was identified in legal records as mulatto, Indian, and white. Sometime after Allie’s eldest brother, Walter, was born and identified as mulatto, his father “passed” across the color line, bringing his family with him and changing their surname permanently from Morton to Moulton. In 1900, the federal census identified Allie’s father as a black man in the same house as his wife and his three youngest children, who were noted as his step-children and identified as white. In 1910 his father, by then widowed, was white once again in the census and his children again became his own. Allie lived with him; his occupation was listed as “baseball player.” He was white, too.
In 1907 Allie played second base and shortstop for semiprofessional teams in Boston’s western exurbs: Norwood, Walpole, North Attleboro, and Framingham. The color line, while still in force, was less policed in the amateur and semipro circuits than in the professional leagues. Though players and fans in these nearby towns may have heard about Allie’s mixed-race father, it is safe to assume that Allie’s multiracial background was not known when he went professional and was signed by the Little Rock, Arkansas, Travelers for the 1908 season. His short, stocky build was the only physical feature noted by the press. If there was such a thing as “looking black,” Allie, with his light skin and Northern “Yankee” demeanor looked anything but. Over the next two years, he made a tour of the Deep South with stints with the Vicksburg Hillbillies, the Meridian White Ribboners, and the Fort Worth Panthers. It was a rough-and-tumble time with fistfights among players, umpires, and fans. Allie himself is said to have punched out Hillbillies manager Smiling George Blackburn, earning him a one-way ticket to Meridian.
The Cotton States and Texas League teams where Allie played would be some of the last to integrate players of African American descent, adding their first players in the mid-1950s or choosing to go out of business before letting in blacks. Racism in the South during Allie’s career wasn’t just more overt than the bigotry in the North—it was more violent. On the same day that the Meridian Star lauded Allie’s excellent performance in a game against Gulfport-Biloxi on page three, the front page carried a story headlined “This Coon Liable to Get In Trouble” about a black man who was merely seeking to be allowed to become a licensed notary.
When asked what would have happened had Allie’s ancestry been known, historian Tygiel said, “They would have run him out of town, if he was lucky.”
But he wasn’t run out of town. He played all over the South, and by the end of the 1908 season Allie was cited by the league statistician as the best second baseman in the Cotton States League. He improved the following year with the Fort Worth team; he batted .250 and led the league in stolen bases. But, when the owner of the team decided that he would like to play shortstop himself in 1910, he planned to trade Allie once again, this time to the Savannah Indians. Allie told newspaper reporters that he was “sick of the South” by then and wanted to play in New England. After trying to join the higher-profile Waterbury, Connecticut, team, Allie went home and played the 1910 season at second base for his old North Attleboro, semi-professional team while trying to gain access to higher-level play elsewhere. The following year he made it; Allie led the Lowell Grays to the pennant, batting .318, setting a new league record of 116 hits, and signing a major league contract with St. Louis’ American League team.
The Boston papers were full of coverage of Allie’s first Major League performance. He “looked sharp and fielded well” and he was “fast on his feet.” The Post and the Morning Record both ran cartoons of Allie’s fast fielding and the run he scored in the second inning of the game. He played three more games—including a double-header against New York, in which Allie was at the top of the batting order.
The front page of the December 14, 1911 issue of The Sporting News featured a picture of Allie under the headline “Browns Can Use Him.”
“Moulton is proclaimed one of the fastest men under way that the game boasts. Fred Lake, who ‘scouted’ him in Lowell, is positive he will make good and give the Browns something sadly lacking—a base runner.”
Articles in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concurred, pronouncing Allie a “bear cat” with the bat. But before the winter off-season was over, Allie was traded south again, to the Memphis Turtles of the Southern Association. He would play three more seasons in the minors: one for Memphis and two for Lynn and Fitchburg back in the New England League. He suffered a series of injuries and, despite a great deal of local notoriety, he never made it back to the “the big show.”
We may never know why Allie was dropped by St. Louis after such an auspicious beginning. Perhaps word of his ancestry made its way to St. Louis in the off season. Or it could be that the team just had more faith in Del Pratt, the rookie second baseman they kept instead of Allie.
Shortly after World War I broke out in Europe, the Lynn (Massachusetts) Telegram printed the following exchange among the stars of the local baseball team.
“Johnson said he did not know just yet which country he was going to root for because he was a combination of English, German, and French. Mike Cunningham … said: “I am a thick Irishman and we Irish don’t know nothing.” Allie Moulton declared warmly: “I am a Yankee, but send a gang of Harps over there and they’d clean out the war.”
We don’t know what Allie really thought about his ethnicity. It could be that he identified solely with his mother’s lineage. His childhood home would have included the antiques and family heirlooms of his maternal great-grandmother, a woman who could trace her ancestry back to the Europeans who colonized America. The only person of known African ancestry in the town during that period was his father—a man who moved far from his family in Virginia and whose skin was no darker than Allie’s Italian immigrant neighbors.
Based on census data, researchers estimate between 3,000 and 15,000 light-skinned people of African ancestry crossed the color line each year between the beginning of the Civil War and 1950. As a result, a recent study by Mark D. Shriver and others claims that about one third of all Americans who today consider themselves white have recent African ancestry. Most of them, like Allie’s descendents, have no knowledge of this history. When interviewed about their multiracial forbears, members of the Moulton family expressed a range of views and feelings, but surprise was the first response in every conversation.
Allie’s granddaughter, a retired physical education instructor living near San Diego, had a common reaction. “As far as I know, my mom never knew. And she traced some of our ancestors back to France. My grandfather never said anything to me about it. It’s surprising, but now that I know, it seems to make sense. I can’t put my finger on why though.”
It would be outlandish to now consider these descendents “passing for white.”
Allie Moulton died in July 1968 at the age of 82 after a career as a machine tool engineer. It had been more than fifty years since Allie’s last professional baseball game. He had lived out-of-state for decades, but the largest obituary appeared in North Attleboro’s Evening Chronicle a week after his death under the headline “Allie Moulton, Old-Time Baseball Star Dead.”
“Whenever old time baseball followers get together to discuss the former local diamond greats, the name of Allie Moulton was always mentioned.”
His race was not noted.
This article appeared in different form in Sports Northwest.
In preparing this biography the author interviewed several people in person or via phone or email, including several Moulton relatives: a daughter-in-law, granddaughter, niece, nephew, and several cousins. He also relied on email and phone conversations with the late Jules Tygiel.
Shriver, Mark D., et al. “Skin Pigmentation, Biogeographical Ancestry, and Admixture Marking.” Human Genetics, 112 (2003), 387-399.
Newspapers via microfilm 1870-1917: Norwood Messenger (MA), Attleboro Sun (MA), Franklin Sentinel (MA), Framingham Gazette (MA), Lowell Sun (MA), Boston Post, Boston Evening Globe, Boston Evening Record, Boston Morning Journal, Lynn Telegram (MA), Daily Arkansas Democrat (Little Rock), St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Memphis Commercial Appeal, The Sporting News, Fort Worth Star Telegram.
Federal and state census records via Ancestry.com.