March 19th, 2013

Thinking About Jackie Robinson, Part 2

William Edward White 1879

William White, 1879

This continues a story commenced yesterday at http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2013/03/18/thinking-robinson/. During the early professional period that, in the 1870s, produced the first leagues, dozens of black ballplayers sought to earn a living. Several pioneers come in for special note: William Edward White, born of a Georgia slave and her white master, enrolled at Brown University and played on its celebrated baseball club. On June 21, 1879, the Providence Grays, a National League club at that time, needed a replacement for the injured first baseman Joe Start. In those less formal days, before the advent of farm clubs, they invited White to play. He got a hit, scored a run, and played flawlessly in the field as Providence defeated Cleveland, 5–3. White returned to the ball field for Brown in 1880 but never played for Providence again.

Until 2004, when a study revealed White’s historic role as the first African-American major leaguer, nearly all fans believed that the man who had earned that distinction was Jackie Robinson, in 1947. Only a handful of scholarly types knew that two brothers from Oberlin College, the Walkers, had preceded Jackie by playing with the Toledo Blues in 1884. William White was the first, but the Walker story resonates more strongly with us today.

After starring in baseball with Oberlin College’s inaugural nine in 1881, Moses Fleetwood Walker was invited to play for the strong semiprofessional White Sewing Machine club, based in Cleveland. The visiting Whites ran into a problem before a scheduled game with the Eclipse club in Louisville (the Eclipse would enter the major-league American Association as a charter member the following spring). As the Louisville Courier-Journal reported on August 22, 1881, “players of the Eclipse Club objected to Walker playing on account of his color. In vain the Clevelands protested that he was their regular catcher, and that his withdrawal would weaken the nine.” The White Sewing Machine manager held Walker out, but when his replacement catcher bruised his hand and refused to come out for the second inning, the crowd began to call for Walker to go behind the bat. He … was disinclined to do so, after the general ill-treatment he had received; but as the game seemed to be in danger of coming to an end, he consented, and started in the catcher’s stand. Louisville’s players walked off the field.”

Oberlin College 1881, Fleet Walker left, Weldy top

Oberlin College 1881, Fleet Walker left, Weldy top

In 1883, Walker helped the Toldeo Blue Stockings win the Northwestern League championship but again had a run-in regarding his race. After arriving in Toledo for an exhibition contest, Cap Anson announced that his Chicago White Stockings would not take the field with Walker in the lineup. Toledo manager Billy Voltz, who had planned to give Walker the day off anyway, decided to start him in right field, daring Anson to walk away from his share of the gate after having traveled some distance. Anson gave in, grumbling that he would never again bring his club to Toledo, while also beginning to nurture a personal grudge against Walker.

When Toledo moved up to the big-leagues in 1884, with the American Association, Walker played in forty-two games, batting a respectable .263, and was joined briefly by his brother Weldy, but he was released near the end of the season after suffering a broken shoulder. He would be the last black player in the major leagues until 1947, but Fleet Walker played in integrated leagues each year from 1883 through 1889, seven consecutive seasons. Although the public liked him, he continued to suffer many indignities at the hands of opponents and teammates alike.

In a later, more celebrated incident, when Chicago’s National Leaguers faced the Newark club of the International League in an exhibition game in mid-1887, Anson ran into Walker again, this time with a black battery mate in left-handed pitcher George Stovey. He insisted upon their removal, and this time he prevailed. It is easy to overstate Anson’s role in establishing the color bar of the 1880s. He was not alone—racism was not only prevalent among the virulent lower classes with pale skin, but also casually assumed and expressed by the upper classes. Unless you were white, wealthy, and male, the good old days, they were terrible.

Frank Grant, Buffalo 1887

Frank Grant, Buffalo 1887

It was in 1887 that race relations in the International League came to a boil. Buffalo’s black second baseman Frank Grant starred in the league, one notch below the majors. Another black second baseman, Sol White, played on integrated clubs in Wheeling, West Virginia and Fort Wayne, Indiana. After years of electioneering on their behalf by members of the Society for American Baseball Research, of which I have been a happy member for 33 years—both received their Baseball Hall of Fame plaques in 2006. (For more about Sol White, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2012/12/28/sol-white-recalls-baseballs-greatest-days/.)

After 1887 it became clear, yet again, that for blacks to find their place in baseball, it would have to be on the barnstorming circuit, with such legendary clubs as the Cuban Giants, or in a league of their own: a short-lived National Colored League of 1887 (it lasted two weeks) presaged the successful organization of the Negro National League in 1920. The Cuban Giants were an aggregation born in 1885 from the merger of four earlier black professional clubs: the Keystones, the Orions, the Manhattans, and the Argyles of Babylon, Long Island.

Not one of the players was Cuban but, given America’s friendliness toward its island neighbor (and historic lust for its annexation), African-American ballplayers had been led to believe they would have an easier time playing before white audiences if they pretended to be Cubans or Spaniards . . . exotics of color rather than colored Americans. James Weldon Johnson, who was raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and learned to speak Spanish from a Cuban boyhood friend, observed that while traveling by rail in the 1890s, he was treated much better by railroad employees and fellow passengers after they heard him speak Spanish and surmised that he was not African-American but Cuban. “In such situations,” he concluded, “any kind of Negro will do; provided he is not one who is an American citizen.”

The light-skinned Frank Grant, described as a “Spaniard” in the Buffalo Express in 1887, had been a star in the league one year before joining Buffalo. His reward was to come in for unceasing attack. (For a fuller treatment of Frank Grant, see: http://ourgame.mlblogs.com/2011/06/18/safe-at-home/.) Ned Williamson, second baseman of the Chicago White Stockings, told Sporting Life:

The Buffalos … had a Negro for second base. He was a few lines blacker than a raven, but he was one of the best players…. The haughty Caucasians of the association were willing to permit darkies to carry water to them or guard the bat bag, but it made them sore to have the name of one in the batting list. They made a cabal against this man and incidentally introduced a new feature into the game. The players of the opposing teams made it their special business in life to “spike” this brunette Buffalo. They would tarry at second when they might have easily made third, just to toy with the sensitive shins of this second baseman. The poor man played in two games out of five perhaps; the rest of the time he was on crutches. To give the frequent spiking of the darkey an appearance of accident the “feet first” slide was practiced. The negro got wooden armor for his legs and went into the field with the appearance of a man wearing nail kegs for stockings.

After leaving the Buffalo club in 1889, Frank Grant played for many teams, though mostly for the Cuban Giants. On September 1, 1892, Frederick Douglass, Sr. came to Washington’s National Park to watch Grant and his Cuban Giants play against the “colored” All-Washingtons. Grant also appeared with top black teams like the Cuban X-Giants (1898-99), the Genuine Cuban Giants (1900-01), and the Philadelphia Giants (1902-03), and barnstormed in towns along the Hudson and Housatonic rivers. After 1905 the trail of his playing record goes cold, though he was invited to play in a 1909 benefit game for the ailing Bud Fowler, an African-American baseball pioneer who had written, “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind…. My skin is against me.” Grant died on May 27, 1937, with no one in baseball knowing that he was still alive.

Jackie Robinson, Montreal at Jersey City, Opening Day 1946

Jackie Robinson, Montreal at Jersey City, Opening Day 1946

And yet … when Jackie Robinson made his spectacular International League debut on April 19, 1946, getting four hits in Montreal’s 14-1 rout of Jersey City, the New York Times story concluded thus: “There have been other Negro players in the International League. Ernie Lanigan supplied the information that a Frank Grant played at second base for Buffalo and a Moses Walker caught for Newark in a game between those two teams on April 30, 1887.”Bud Fowler with Keokuk Westerns 1885

That other, aforementioned second baseman in the International League of 1887, Bud Fowler, is, with Buck O’Neil, the most significant baseball player NOT in the Hall of Fame. Born John Jackson in upstate New York in 1858 and raised, ironically, in Cooperstown, Fowler first achieved recognition as a 20-year-old pitcher for a club in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In April 1878, Fowler defeated the National League’s Boston club, which included future Hall of Famers George Wright and Jim O’Rourke, 2-1, in an exhibition game, besting 40-game winner Tommy Bond. For the next five years, he toiled for a variety of independent and semi-professional teams in the United States and Canada. Despite a reputation as “one of the best pitchers on the continent,” he failed to catch on with any major or minor league squads. In 1884, now appearing regularly as a second baseman, and only occasionally as a pitcher, Fowler joined Stillwater, Minnesota, in the Northwestern League. In 1885 he played with another integrated club, in Keokuk, Iowa. “He is one of the best general players in the country,” reported Sporting Life in 1885, “and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.”

In late June of 1887, Fowler’s Binghamton teammates in the International League refused to take the field unless the management removed him from the lineup. Soon after, on July 7, the club submitted to these demands.

Page Fence Giants

Page Fence Giants

As opportunities for Negro players were limited after 1890, Fowler played independent ball for the next four years. In 1895 he went to Adrian, Michigan, where he organized a black team for the Page Woven Wire Fence Company. And so was born the Page Fence Giants, one of the crack Negro teams of that period. Fowler and a handful of other blacks continued to play on integrated teams until the mid-1890s. All-black teams were imported intact into some lower minor leagues, but by 1899 Bill “Hippo” Galloway was the last African American in Organized Baseball at any level, appearing in five games with Woodstock of the Canadian League. Fowler, who began playing ball in Cooperstown, will be honored on April 20–five days after Jackie Robinson Day–with the naming of the entrance to Doubleday Field as Fowler Way and the installation of a permanent plaque in the brick wall of the first-base bleachers. I will be there that day, one of those speaking on his behalf.

Jimmy Claxton Zee-Nut 1916

Jimmy Claxton, Zee-Nut 1916

Jimmy Claxton “passed” as white to pitch in a few games for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. Once his race was suspected he was shuffled off the roster, but a few days before, he had happened to be present when the Zee-Nut Candy photographers came to the park to secure images for their trading card series. Claxton’s card in the 1916 set is a highly desirable item. One of these rare cards, rated by condition as a 3 out of 10, was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $7,200 in June 2005.

Understand that while Jackie Robinson was not the first, he was and will always be the most important  African American baseball pioneer—every day of the year, not only on his April 15 anniversary. Robinson and Rickey forced America to confront the falsehood that baseball could truly be a national pastime while excluding peoples of color, any color. While the baseball playing population of African Americans in the major leagues has diminished from a high of purportedly 28 percent in the late 1960s—actually it peaked near 20 percent in 1975—to perhaps 8 percent today, more people of color play the game in the major leagues than have  ever done so before. If you count all dark-skinned people, whatever their nation of origin–the number is over 40 percent today, and the upward trend is inexorable.

America is a nation of nations, and its emblematic game is enriched by reflecting that truth. Today Asians and Hispanics as well as African Americans—and I hope one day soon, women—have to answer only one question from baseball: how well can they play?

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