One of several extraordinary advertising trade cards in our February auction, this one is for the Sporting Life Publishing Co. Listed in the ACC as H804-8, these are among the more colorful, beautiful, and desirable of all the 19th Century baseball trade card sets.
Featuring colorful Victorian illustrations on the front, along with an ad for Sporting Life magazine, most cards from this series include advertising for Sporting Life on the reverse as well. What makes this particular card interesting is that the reverse contains a schedule, for the Akron Base Ball club. Based on the schedule, this club is likely the 1887 Akron Acorns of the Ohio State league, a team that included a number of future major leaguers including infielders Belden Hill and Frank Motz and pitchers Bill Irwin and John Fitzgerald.
The best-known members of the Akron Acorns, however, were Charlie Morton and Weldy Walker. Morton was an outfielder and league executive who was best known as the manager of the 1884 Toledo Blue Stockings, an team that included two African-American players: Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, and his brother, Weldy. Prior to a scheduled exhibition game against the Chicago White Stockings in 1883, Cap Anson advised Morton that he would not play on the same field as the Walker brothers. The ensuing controversy, which continued over the 1884 season, was largely credited for creating the “color barrier” in baseball that lasted until Jackie Robinson hoisted the world onto his shoulders in 1947.
Weldy Walker, “Fleetwood”‘s brother, credited as being the second African-American to play major league baseball, played for that Toledo team, and as racial segregation began to take hold, Walker became one of the first players in the first all-African-American baseball league. In 1886, the Ohio State league was an integrated league, featuring four African-American players including Negro League pioneer Sol White (who hit .370 in 1887). However, as racial segregation began to take place in baseball, Walker learned that the Tri-State League planned to segregate, prompting Walker to pen an open letter to the league’s president, published in the March 14, 1888 issue of The Sporting Life. The letter read, in part:
“The law is a disgrace to the present age…There should be some broader cause – such as lack of ability, behavior and intelligence – for barring a player, rather than his color. It is for these reasons and because I think 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 me to sign repealed, etc.?'”
After his baseball career ended, Walker went on to be heavily involved in politics and business, along with his brother. He remained politically active until late in life.
This trade card, in VG condition with corner wear and corner creases, is wonderfully colorful and vibrant on the front…and is a remarkable historical artifact on the reverse. It is a trade card that features the schedule of the very team for which Walker played as baseball was segregating, one of the very players at the center of the controversy. An incredible document of the season that began one of the darkest periods in American sports – the racial segregation of baseball, right where it happened, with the members of the Akron Acorns.