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Baseball's Black Days

The seventh edition of The Baseball Encyclopedia (The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball) weighs six pounds and is stuffed with 2,875 pages of facts a lunatic can love.

For instance. If you need to confirm (and who doesn't?) that in May 1902, Cleveland traded Dummy Leitner to Chicago for cash, you can find that on page 2,490.

Interested in the pitching career of Xavier Rescigno? Turn to page 2,094 and you'll learn that the guy teammates called "Mr. X" spent three seasons (1943-45) with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning 19 games and losing 22.

Got yourself in a shouting match over the lifetime numbers of hurler Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson? Don't sweat it. Happens all the time in some of America's best saloons. In a 26-inning career divided between 1877 and 1883, Ferguson won one game and lost one game. It's right there on page 1,798.

Now, then. Dixie Walker and Fleet Walker.
As irony and the alphabet would have it, these two players are cozied up on page 1,560 of the seventh edition. You can be sure that Dixie, dead since 1982, would wish it otherwise. It's also a good bet that the baseball gods were meting out justice by putting night and day within ten lines of each other in a 3,000-page book most shortstops can't lift.

In case you haven't been paying attention this April, Dixie Walker was the Brooklyn Dodger who most vehemently opposed Jackie Robinson's debut as a Brooklyn Dodger--fifty years ago last week. Born in Villa Rica, Georgia, Walker was a 36-year-old unreconstructed bigot when Branch Rickey brought Robinson up to Brooklyn. Walker openly insulted him in the foulest language and encouraged other Dodgers to do the same. He tried to foment a National League players' strike to protest the presence of a black man in a big-league uniform. He refused to touch Robinson or even speak a civil word to him. He sided with racists on opposing clubs rather than stand with his own teammate. In the 1947 Dodgers team picture, Walker is the guy in the back row who's not looking at the camera. In the 1948 team picture, Walker isn't there at all. Neither are eight other Dodgers who demanded trades after Robinson joined the team. Branch Rickey happily got the garbage out of Brooklyn.

And Fleet Walker? Dixie's pagemate? Largely forgotten in the fog of history, he was likely the last black major-league player before Jackie Robinson, before baseball instituted its "color line" 110 years ago.

The son of an Ohio doctor, Moses Fleetwood Walker was an exceptional athlete while a student at Oberlin College, and in 1883, Toledo, of the Northwestern League, signed him as a catcher. The next season Toledo joined the American Association, then a "major" league, and Fleet was one of the few players the team kept on. His one-line entry on page 1,560 tells us that he caught 41 games for Toledo in 1884, played one in the outfield and hit .263 in 152 at-bats.

But when the Chicago White Stockings came to Toledo for a mid-season exhibition game, Chicago player-manager Cap Anson--one of the great players of the nineteenth century (and the Dixie Walker of his time)--told Toledo manager Charley Morton he would pull his team off the field if Fleet Walker played. As it happened, Walker was injured that day and wasn't scheduled to play, which muted the whole racial issue. But by 1887, Anson's segregationist views had infected all of baseball. On July 14 of that year, the International League barred black players. The same day, Anson prevailed upon the Newark Little Giants to scratch their all-black battery of pitcher George Stovey and--there's that man again--catcher Fleet Walker. Later in 1887, seven of nine starting St. Louis Browns refused to take the field against the Cuban Giants, a predominantly Negro team, in New York.

The die was cast. For the next six decades, blacks were banned from the major leagues, and it took the peerless courage of a Jackie Robinson to turn the tide. Today, Moses Fleetwood Walker's lonely line in the Baseball Encyclopedia--just inches below Dixie Walker's stats--reveals a pair of wonderfully spooky coincidences, the kind of things baseball fans relish: 1. Walker came to the majors late, at age 28, just as Jackie Robinson did. 2. The games he played for Toledo totaled 42. That's the same number Robinson wore so famously as a Brooklyn Dodger, the same uniform number acting commissioner Bud Selig officially retired from all of baseball, in perpetuity, last week in New York.

Were the gods at work here, too? And did they have anything to do with Tiger Woods's win at the Masters--two days before the fiftieth anniversary of Robinson's first game? Maybe so. In any event, someone had to offer an antidote to the hatred and shame that afflicted the national pastime for sixty years. How direct was it? Witness this, an excerpt from the letter the St. Louis Browns players wrote to their club's owner, Chris Von der Ahe, the day before that 1887 game with the Cuban Giants:

"Dear Sir:
We the undersigned members of the St. Louis Base Ball Club do not agree to play against Negroes tomorrow. We will cheerfully play against white people at any time and think by refusing to play we are only doing what is right."

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