Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first Black player to play Major League Baseball, and “Moses Fleetwood Walker” was the first song that I wrote about a baseball player.
Walker was no ordinary man, and this was no ordinary story to me. I felt I couldn’t, in good conscience, use his name without doing it justice, so I needed the song to mean something. More than having a specific story to tell, I wanted to raise awareness for this man. He lived, he accomplished something incredible, and he has been almost entirely forgotten.
Fleet Walker, as Moses was commonly known in his day, was born in Ohio and played ball at Oberlin College for two seasons. He was such an incredibly gifted catcher — this back in the days before the catcher wore a glove or any protective gear beyond a mask — that after Oberlin played against the University of Michigan, Walker was recruited and ended up transferring to Michigan, where he studied law and built his reputation as one of the best catchers in the game.
He left Michigan after one season and started playing ball for a minor league team in Toledo, and after winning a league championship in 1883, the Toledo team joined the American Association, which was one of the “major leagues” of the time.
So, on May 1, 1884 — Opening Day of the American Association season — Walker started at catcher and became the first Black player to play in the big leagues. His brother, Weldy, appeared in a handful of games later that year, too. Moses appeared in only 43 games and was released late in the season due to injury.
Walker continued to play professional baseball on and off for the next several years, and he was the only Black player in virtually every pro game he ever played. But he never again played in a Major League game after 1884, and neither did any other Black players for more than six decades.
In addition to baseball, Walker owned and operated a theater and opera house with his brother, patented four different inventions, and published an anti-racist newsletter for many years. He was an imaginative, successful, confident man of many talents.
But the lightning-strike event of his post-baseball life came in Syracuse, when he stabbed and killed a white man among a group of white men during a late-night, alcohol-fueled confrontation. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture the terrifying scene that unfolded that night.
Astoundingly, Walker was subsequently acquitted of second-degree murder by a jury of 12 white men.
In the end, Moses was a man who had lived a hard life despite what seemed like a promising, improbably sunny road in his earlier years. And he eventually became understandably jaded, burned by a life in racist America, living a story that didn’t have a happy ending. Like so many other Black people in America both then and now, he had been swimming against a current of systemic and interpersonal racism, and he faced repeatedly violent barriers when trying to pursue ambitions that matched his great abilities.
It’s often difficult to grab hold of the wisp of an idea long enough to really turn it into something, and this song is also an example of the strength that comes from periodically leaning on the ones you love. When I wrote “Moses,” I was playing in a band with Louie, my sister, my future brother-in-law, and a couple other close friends. I brought “Moses” to them, and they helped me finish it.
Louie helped me scrap the strange middle part that I had written and came up with the idea of Moses as a footnote. Kari, my sister, wrote the violin melody that appears throughout and played it as in a three-part round with Gabe and Nathan
The song has continued to evolve over the years, and has itself sat for long periods untouched on a shelf. The version you’re hearing now came to life through the talents of new friends, with Jeff Woollen at Raven Cries Recording Studio arranging and producing this recording, which includes Kelly Erb on the violin, Dick Gordon on banjo, Andre Calderon on bass, Jon Halvorson on harmony vocals, and Kenneth Maldonado on the drums.
If this song’s meaning has changed for me at all over the years, it is that the ending — the idea that things never change — has pushed me to taken new action and make different choices. Moses Fleetwood Walker faced the same violent racism that Jackie Robinson faced 60 years later, though it had morphed and changed shape, and the same that Colin Kaepernick has faced in these past few years. It is not a thing of the past, but a perpetually shifting manifestation of age-old racial violence.
Today, then, Moses Fleetwood Walker is a reminder for me to be bold, a nudge to be different if that’s what it takes, knowing that doing the same old thing will just leave us back where we’ve always been.
My youngest son was born in the summer of 2019, and we named him Moses.
Last but not least, this song is for him, and it is a prayer: May I be so brave and so lucky as to live a life worthy of my children.
released May 1, 2021
Words and music by Matt Halvorson
Produced, engineered, mixed and mastered by Jeff Woollen at Raven Cries Recording Studio
Matt Halvorson on acoustic guitar, melodica and lead vocals
Kelly Erb on violin
Andre Calderon on bass guitar
Dick Gordon on banjo
Jon Halvorson on harmony vocals
Kenneth Maldonado on drums
Cousin Wolf is the indie-folk music project of Matt Halvorson. An earnest, prolific songwriter, Halvorson’s songs plumb the
depths of his soul, and he sings each delicate tune with captivating intensity. Stay tuned for upcoming singles from the long-awaited baseball concept album "Nine Innings," set to be released throughout the 2021 baseball season....more