Author explores Walker's life

April 22, 1995|By Brad Snyder | Brad Snyder,Sun Staff Writer

David W. Zang had read all the five-page articles on Moses Fleetwood Walker, baseball's first black major-leaguer, and he could sum them up in six words: "Black man made bitter by baseball."

Zang, who lives in Mount Washington and teaches sports history at Towson State, revealed so much more in his biography of the man who preceded Jackie Robinson, "Fleet Walker's Divided Heart: The Life of Baseball's First Black Major Leaguer."

Walker played in the American Association in the 1880s when it was considered a major league. He was more than just a ballplayer -- a mulatto uncertain of his racial identity, a college student who aspired to be a lawyer, a convicted felon, an inventor, an alcoholic, a businessman and an author who supported the back-to-Africa movement.

About 10 years ago, Zang needed a topic for a sports history convention and chose Walker. The professor of physical education figured he had enough material for a 15-minute presentation.

"I thought I had exhausted the resources," said Zang, 44, who has lived in Mount Washington for 15 years. "Over the years people kept passing on to me those same five-page articles. I just decided to see what was there."

Zang's book, recently published by University of Nebraska Press, is a scholarly 150-page look at Walker's life and times, a culmination of two years of intensive research. Zang embarked on numerous trips to Walker's native Ohio, pored over census records, uncovered federal documents and pieced together the

turbulent life of one of baseball's little-known yet more fascinating historical figures.

Perhaps Zang's best historical find came out of a black Ohio newspaper's one-line mention of Walker's previously unknown mail fraud conviction. Zang found extensive postal records that documented the case, including a letter from Walker asking President William McKinley to pardon him.

"When I opened that letter that he had written, I knew no other researcher had ever seen it," Zang said. "Clearly it hadn't been unfolded since they had put it there 90 years ago."

Walker, who also had been acquitted of murder, alternated between a life of entrepreneurship and lawlessness that the author attributes to his alcoholism and his insecurity over his mixed racial heritage.

Zang also has written a fictionalized two-hour movie screenplay about Walker. The author had mixed feelings about his subject until his last trip to the ballplayer's gravesite in Steubenville, Ohio, when Zang realized that Walker's life will be forever connected to his own.

K? "I was standing there," Zang said, "and I just got chills."

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