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."

Owner Von der Ahe announced to the crowd of 7,000 that his team was too "crippled" to play the Giants. Absolutely right, wasn't he?

Once upon a time, the Colorado Rockies played in the National Hockey League and Denver's baseball team was a Montreal farm club.

Now, with a little luck, the former Colorado Rockies (located in beautiful East Rutherford, New Jersey, for the past fifteen years) will take Montreal out in the first round of the NHL playoffs, survive subsequent hockey wars and return to McNichols Sports Arena to face Colorado II in the Stanley Cup Final.

Following along so far, cross-checkers?
On paper, the most appealing feature of a New Jersey Devils-Colorado Avalanche matchup in late spring would be a battle between the league's two best goaltenders. The Devils' Martin Brodeur, now 24, led his team to a Stanley Cup win in 1995; the masterful Patrick Roy, of course, was in the nets for the Avs' Cup win last season. This year, Brodeur posted ten shutouts and had a 1.88 goals-against average in 67 games as his team compiled a 45/23/14 record.

Against Montreal last week, Brodeur even scored, flipping the puck over charging attackers in the last seconds of his team's playoff win and finding the empty Canadien net six or seven agonizing seconds later.

Brodeur's rare goal was the thrill of a lifetime--at least until he gets a chance to match skills against his idol--Patrick Roy--in a Cup final. By all accounts, young Martin is every bit as tough and confident as Roy, and it is largely because of his prowess that some hockey pundits are picking New Jersey to win the whole thing this year.

Of course, no one would dare sell Roy short. He already has the most playoff appearances (139) of any NHL netminder, and going into Tuesday night's game in Chicago his 88 playoff victories equaled the record of former New York Islanders goalie Billy Smith.

Brodeur Vs. Roy? Wonderful stuff. Colorado I Vs. Colorado II? Even better.
In case you've forgotten, the only team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in this decade is the Pittsburgh Penguins. If any club can do it again, it's the deep, fast, powerful 'Lanche. That little spell of sleepwalking (sleepskating?) they suffered through at the end of the regular season was nothing more than an aberration on the part of a front-runner eager to move on to the Real Thing. And that tough double-overtime loss to the Black Hawks Sunday afternoon doesn't tell much of a story either: If the less-talented, badly-injured Hawks rise up to beat Colorado in the first round, I'll go Harry Caray one better and give away all the Budweiser you can drink in the parking lot at Big Mac.

As for those upstart Dallas Stars, the club that nearly caught the Avalanche for top dog in the Western Conference, the club that became Hockeydom's late-season darling this season, they've already gotten a pretty good faceful of Edmonton Oiler in the first three games of their first-round series. Going into Tuesday night's road game, the Stars were already down 1-2 to the Oilers, perhaps signaling the first big upset of this year's playoffs.

Hey, the very idea of playing hockey in Texas makes no sense. The only ice Dallasites ever see is the stuff floating in their Jim Beam, and it's not a bad idea to keep it that way. What's next? Beach volleyball in Anchorage?

Meanwhile, are we getting ahead of ourselves in predicting a Devils-Avalanche final? Absolutely. Life holds no thrill but in risk, and as long as the Avs keep skating hard (and some local restaurateur is willing to poison the Black Hawks' pommes de terres again this year), everything will be fine. Well, won't it, Monsieur Roy?

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo