Weldy Walker was an African-American whose professional baseball career is little more than a footnote in baseball’s record book. Of note, however, is his professional and major-league debut with Toledo on July 15, 1884, in an American Association game. When he stepped onto the field that day he became the second black man to play in a major-league contest. He followed his older brother, Moses Fleetwood Walker, who had made the first race-breaking appearance for the same team earlier that same season. Weldy and his brother Fleet spent much of their lives in concert, sharing baseball, education, activism, and business experiences.
Weldy (a.k.a. Welday) Wilberforce Walker was born in the eastern Ohio community of Steubenville on July 27, 1860. He was the fourth son and last born of the six or seven children reared by Moses W. Walker and Caroline O’Harra Walker,1 both of whom were of mixed race. The early history of both parents is unclear but by 1870 the family had moved to Steubenville, where Moses W. Walker worked as a cooper. Moses later became one of the first black physicians in Ohio and a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The first record of Weldy’s play appeared after his father’s call in 1877 to serve the Second Methodist Episcopal Church in Oberlin, Ohio. Weldy enrolled in Oberlin College’s Class of 1885. In what would be a familiar theme, he joined brother Fleet on the school’s first varsity inter-collegiate team in 1881. Weldy joined Fleet for a few games with the semipro New Castle Neshannocks late in the summer of 1882 and then followed his sibling to the University of Michigan. There he enrolled in the homeopathic medical school. He pursued his degree for two seasons and played baseball during the springs of 1883 and 1884. He left school without completing his medical studies.
Weldy next turned up in 1884 in Toledo, where Fleet was employed as the regular catcher on the otherwise all-white entry in the American Association, a major league at the time. Fleet was among several disabled Toledos when the Toledo Evening Bee reported on the July 15 game against Philadelphia: “To fill out the nine, the Toledos secured the services of Weldy Walker, the brother of the Toledo catcher, who is visiting here, and put him in left field.”2 The younger Walker performed well and drove in two runs when he sent “the ball down among the daisies in left field for two bags. …”3 His Toledo and major-league career lasted but four games and he and Fleet were never in the lineup together. The local press made no mention of his color.
In October of 1884, Weldy joined with a partner in the restaurant business when they assumed operation of the Delmonico Dining Rooms in Mingo, Ohio, near his Steubenville home.4 The venture lasted but six months when he sold his interest and joined brother Fleet again, this time in operating the LeGrande House in Cleveland.5 The brothers also played baseball briefly that summer of 1885 as members of the Cleveland entry in the short-lived Western League. This too appeared to be a brief venture, as Fleet’s baseball career took him elsewhere. Weldy apparently remained in Cleveland for a time; he was listed as the third baseman for the amateur Excelsior Club there in 1886.6
As Weldy established himself in the hospitality business, he also became an activist in racial issues. About the time of his involvement in the Mingo restaurant, Weldy and a black friend attempted to integrate a Steubenville roller rink. They were refused admittance. They then sued and were awarded damages.7 He would continue to raise his voice for this cause for the remainder of his life.
Weldy continued to attempt to make his professional baseball career a reality but without success. The aborted 1885 season was followed by a short stop in Akron of the Ohio State League in 1887 and with the Pittsburgh Keystones the same year. That Pittsburgh team played in the League of Colored Baseball Players (or National Colored Baseball League), which was the first made up entirely of black teams. The league survived just two weeks. A note in the Cleveland Gazette in 1888 told of Walker’s last known baseball engagement, as catcher and manager for the then independent and nonprofessional8 Keystone Base Ball Club of East Liverpool and later Steubenville, Ohio.9 His record there is not known; otherwise his professional baseball career consists of just 15 documented games, four at the major-league level.10
Politically Walker was a prominent Republican in Steubenville and was a member of the Executive Committee of the Negro Protective Party.11 He was co-editor with Fleet of the black-issues-oriented newspaper The Equator. He supported his brother’s views as expressed in Fleet’s 1908 book, Our Home Colony, advocating the return of the black race to Africa. Weldy once listed his occupation on an Oberlin questionnaire as “General Agent for ‘Our Home Colony’ and Liberian emigration.”12 He was an intelligent, learned, and well-written man and sometimes expressed his views in newspaper-published open letters. Following is one such letter, written in 1888 and transcribed in its published entirety:
An Appeal to the Tri-State League by a Colored Player
W.W. Walker, a well-known colored player, requests THE SPORTING LIFE to publish the following open letter to the president of the Tri-State (late Ohio) League:
Steubenville, O., March 5[, 1888]. – Mr. McDermott President Tri-State League. – Sir: I take the liberty of addressing you because noticing in THE SPORTING LIFE that the “law permitting colored men to sign was repealed, etc.” at the special meeting held at Columbus, Feb. 22, of the above-named League of which you are the president. I concluded to drop you a few lines for the purpose of ascertaining the reason of such an action.
I have grievances, and it is a question with me whether individual loss subserves the public good in this case. This is the only question to be considered – both morally and financially – in this, as it is, or ought to be, in all cases that depend upon the public for success – as base ball. I am convinced beyond doubt that you all, as a body of men, have not been impartial and unprejudiced in your consideration of the great and important question – the success of the “National game.”
The reason I say this is because you have shown partiality by making an exception with a member of the Zanesville Club; and from this one would infer that he is the only one of the three colored players – Dick Johnson, alias Dick Male, alias Dick Noyle, as THE SPORTING LIFE correspondent from Columbus has it; Sol White, of the Wheelings, whom I must compliment by saying was one, if not the surest hitter in the Ohio League last year, and your humble servant who was unfortunate enough to join the Akrons just ten days before they “busted.”
It is not because I was reserved and have been denied making my bread and butter with some club that I speak; but it is in hopes that the action taken at your last meeting will be called up for reconsideration at your next.
The law is a disgrace to the present age, and reflects very much upon the intelligence of your last meeting, and casts derision at the laws of Ohio – the voice of the people – that say all men are equal. I would suggest that your honorable body, in case that black law is not repealed, pass one making it criminal for a colored man or woman to be found in a ball ground.
There is now the same accommodation made for the colored patron of the game as the white, and the same provision and dispensation is made of the money of them both that finds its way into the coffers of the various clubs.
There should be some broader cause – such as want of ability, behavior, and intelligence – for barring a player other than his color. It is for these reasons and because I think that ability and intelligence should be recognized first and last – at all times and by everyone – I ask the question again, why was the ‘law permitting colored men to sign repealed, etc.?’
Weldy W. Walker”13
When Weldy’s brother Fleet played for Toledo against Chicago in an exhibition, it may have marked the beginning of the end of African-American participation in Organized Baseball. The game of August 10, 1883, played in spite of the protest of Chicago manager Cap Anson, certainly brought the issue of racially integrated baseball to the forefront and began an open, blatant, and successful effort to bar black players. This letter by Weldy came near the end of baseball’s first integrated era. Ironically, he was caught up in the end of the process that his brother may have started in Toledo five years previously.
In 1897 Weldy opened an oyster and fish store in Steubenville14 and beginning at about the start of the 20th century he settled into his life’s work at Steubenville’s Union Hotel, where he was proprietor and/or manager for more than two decades.15 He lived at the Union Hotel with his nephew Thomas. During Prohibition years he worked as a bootlegger,16 not his first involvement in an illegal activity. He had been indicted previously by a Steubenville grand jury for keeping a gambling house.17 Weldy remained with Thomas in the hotel until his death, caused by influenza,18 on November 23, 1937, at age 78. Never married, Weldy Wilberforce Walker was buried in Steubenville’s Union Cemetery.
The author relied heavily on David Zang’s definitive biography of Moses Fleetwood, Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart. The work well-researched, well-documented and well-written and contains many references of Weldy Wilberforce Walker.
Chalk, Ocania, Pioneers of Black Sport (New York:Dodd, Mead & Company, 1975).
Lin Weber, Ralph Elliott, ed., The Toledo Baseball Guide of the Mud Hens 1883-1943 (Rossford, Ohio: Baseball Research Bureau, 1944).
Zang, David W., Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
Toledo Evening Bee
Toledo Daily Blade
Wheeling (West Virginia) Register
Hurd, Jay, SABR BioProject, “Sol White”
1 Though Weldy Walker was reared by Caroline O’Harra Walker, there is some question of his maternity as his death certificate denotes his mother as Maria Simpson.
2 Toledo Evening Bee, July 16, 1884, 4.
4 David W. Zang, Fleet Walker’s Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball’s First Black Major Leaguer, 45.
5 Zang, 51.
6 Cleveland Gazette, August 21, 1886, 2.
7 Zang, 46.
8 Jay Hurd, SABR BioProject, Sol White, sabr.org/bioproj/person/2f9d1227.
9 Cleveland Gazette, June 2, 1888, 1.
10 The author’s research reveals that Weldy Walker played four games for Toledo 1884. References indicate five games played. The difference is most probably due to crediting the game of August 6, 1884, in which Fleet Walker played center field for Toledo to Weldy Walker. Correcting the error diminishes Weldy’s short career but raises his batting average from .222 to .286 and removes the two errors charged to him.
11 Cleveland Gazette, October 30, 1897, 1.
12 Zang, 100.
13 Sporting Life March 14, 1888, 5.
14 Cleveland Gazette, December 18, 1897, 1.
15 Zang, 108.
16 Zang, 124.
17 Wheeling Register, January 17, 1887, 3.
18 Zang, 124.