Before Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, there was Moses Fleetwood Walker. A catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings, Walker became the first African-American player in the big leagues in 1884 when the team joined the American Association, the precursor to today's American League.
The college-educated Walker seemingly happened upon baseball history: He was already playing for Toledo when the American Association absorbed the team and others from what was then the minors-level Northwestern League. Walker had helped Toledo win the Northwestern League championship [source: Regan].
Walker's majors run was short-lived. He suffered an injury after appearing in 42 games and was still trying to work his way back through the minor leagues five years later when black players were effectively banned from the game's highest level. Up to this time, the American Association and National League had competed with a third major league, the Union Association, and Walker's presence in Toledo was permitted based on a lack of available talent. That all changed when the Union Association folded in 1889 and owners in the two other leagues tacitly agreed to keep black players out [sources: Regan, JockBio].
Although the color line remained in place, a number of non-white players were able to cross or at least step around it based on racial ambiguity. Albert "Chief" Bender, a half Chippewa pitcher from Minnesota, pitched his first game in the majors in 1903 for the Philadelphia Athletics. Bender went on to win three World Series titles over 14 big league seasons, including an impressive 23-win campaign in 1910, and is a member of baseball's Hall of Fame [source: Warrington].
In addition, some 50 lighter-skinned Latino players took the field for various Major League ball clubs before Robinson made his debut in 1947. Among them were a number of Cuban athletes, including Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, who suited up for the Cincinnati Reds in 1911, and flame-throwing pitcher Adolfo Luque, who won World Series championships with the Reds in 1919 and the New York Giants in 1933 [sources: University of Illinois, Inskeep, Bjarkman].
Nor was Robinson the only African-American player in the MLB ranks during his first season in Brooklyn. Larry Doby debuted with the American League's Cleveland Indians in the middle of 1947, but played second fiddle to Robinson, likely because he played in only 29 games and collected only five hits while Robinson was leading the Dodgers to a World Series [source: University of Illinois, Baseball-Reference].
Despite the efforts of non-white players who came before him, Robinson is rightly hailed as breaking baseball's color line. He was the first unambiguously black player to appear for a big league team in at least 60 years. Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn was the culmination of a wide-ranging struggle for integration in the baseball arena and an important step forward for the American civil rights movement. It also opened the door to an influx of non-white talent that included Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente and Juan Marichal [source: Inskeep].