August 18th, 2014
When Jackie Robinson opened the 1947 season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, most baseball fans and writers believed that he was the first black to play in the major leagues. (Robinson himself believed that at the time.) He was the fourth. William Edward White was the first, in 1879; the author died before this discovery. Who were the other two? Read on. For a few years in the 1880s, with slavery dead and Jim Crow not yet ascendant, a spirit of racial tolerance prevailed in America that permitted black and white to rub shoulders without strife. Many black players performed at all levels of Organized Baseball into the 1890s, but the color bar that Jackie Robinson broke was erected in the International League in 1887. How and why it happened makes compelling reading; from The National Pastime of 1983, which I had created in the previous year for the Society for American Baseball Research. Jerry Malloy (1946-2000) was a pioneer researcher who was honored in 1997 by the creation of an annual Negro League Conference named for him. He was also my friend. This is his monumentally important study of how baseball drew the color line.
Out at Home
Baseball is the very symbol, the outward and visible expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming nineteenth century.–MARK TWAIN
. . . social inequality … means that in all the relations that exist between man and man he is to be measured and taken not according to his natural fitness and qualification, but that blind and relentless rule which accords certain pursuits and certain privileges to origin or birth.–MOSES F. WALKER
It was a dramatic and prophetic and prophetic performance by Jackie Robinson. The twenty-seven-year-old black second baseman opened the 1946 International League season by leading the Montreal Royals to a 14-1 victory over Jersey City. In five trips to the plate, he had four hits (including a home run) and four RBIs; he scored four runs, stole two bases, and rattled a pitcher into balking him home with a taunting danse macabre off third. Branch Rickey’s protégé had punched a hole through Organized Baseball’s color barrier with the flair and talent that would eventually take him into the Hall of Fame. The color line that Jackie Robinson shattered, though unwritten, was very real indeed. Baseball’s exclusion of the black man was so unremittingly thorough for such a long time that most of the press and public then, as now, thought that Robinson was making the first appearance of a man of his race in the history of Organized Baseball.
Actually, he represented a return of the Negro ballplayer, not merely to Organized Baseball, but to the International League as well. At least eight elderly citizens would have been aware of this. Frederick Ely, Jud Smith, James Fields, Tom Lynch, Frank Olin, “Chief” Zimmer, Pat Gillman, and George Bausewine may have noted with interest Robinson’s initiation, for all of these men had been active players on teams that opened another International League season, that of 1887. And in that year they played with or against eight black players on six different teams.
The 1887 season was not the first in which Negroes played in the International League, nor would it be the last. But until Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate on April 18,1946, it was the most significant. For 1887 was a watershed year for both the International League and Organized Baseball, as it marked the origin of the color line. As the season opened, the black player had plenty of reasons to hope that he would be able to ply his trade in an atmosphere of relative tolerance; by the middle of the season, however, he would watch helplessly as the IL drew up a written color ban designed to deprive him of his livelihood; and by the time the league held its offseason meetings, it became obvious that Jim Crow was closing in on a total victory.
Yet before baseball became the victim of its own prejudice, there was a period of uncertainty and fluidity, however brief, during which it seemed by no means inevitable that men would be denied access to Organized Baseball due solely to skin pigmentation. It was not an interlude of total racial harmony, but a degree of toleration obtained that would become unimaginable in just a few short years. This is the story of a handful of black baseball players who, in the span of a single season, playing in a prestigious league, witnessed the abrupt conversion of hope and optimism into defeat and despair. These men, in the most direct and personal manner, would realize that the black American baseball player soon would be ruled “out at home.”
The International League (IL) is the oldest minor league in Organized Baseball. Founded in 1884 as the “Eastern” League, it would be realigned and renamed frequently during its early period. The IL was not immune to the shifting sands of financial support that plagued both minor and major leagues (not to mention individual franchises) during the nineteenth century. In 1887 the league took the risk of adding Newark and Jersey City to a circuit that was otherwise clustered in upstate New York and southern Ontario. This arrangement proved to be financially unworkable. Transportation costs alone would doom the experiment after one season. The New Jersey franchises were simply too far away from Binghamton, Buffalo, Oswego, Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica in New York, and Hamilton and Toronto in Ontario.
But, of course, no one knew this when the 1887 season opened. Fans in Newark were particularly excited, because their “Little Giants” were a new team and an instant contender. A large measure of their eager anticipation was due to the unprecedented “colored battery” signed by the team. The pitcher was George Stovey and the catcher was Moses Fleetwood Walker.
“Fleet” Walker was born in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio, on the route of the Underground Railroad, on October 7, 1857. The son of a physician, he was raised in nearby Steubenville. At the age of twenty he entered the college preparatory program of Oberlin College, the first school in the United States to adopt an official admissions policy of nondiscrimination by sex, race, or creed. He was enrolled as a freshman in 1878, and attended Oberlin for the next three years. He was a good but not outstanding student in a rigorous liberal arts program. Walker also attended the University of Michigan for two years, although probably more for his athletic than his scholastic attainments. He did not obtain a degree from either institution, but his educational background was extremely sophisticated for a nineteenth century professional baseball player of whatever ethnic origin.
While at Oberlin, Walker attracted the attention of William Voltz, former sportswriter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who had been enlisted to form a professional baseball team to be based in Toledo. Walker was the second player signed by the team, which entered the Northwestern League in 1883. Toledo captured the league championship in its first year.
The following year Toledo was invited to join the American Association, a major league rival of the more established National League. Walker was one of the few players to be retained as Toledo made the jump to the big league. Thus did Moses Fleetwood Walker become the first black to play major league baseball, sixty-four years before Jackie Robinson. Walker played in 42 games that season, batting .263 in 152 at-bats. His brother, Welday Wilberforce Walker, who was two years younger than Fleet, also played outfield in five games, filling in for injured players. Welday was 4-for-18 at the plate.
While at Toledo, Fleet Walker was the batterymate of Hank O’Day, who later became a famous umpire, and Tony Mullane, who could pitch with either hand and became the winningest pitcher, with 285 victories, outside the Hall of Fame. G. L. Mercereau, the team’s batboy, many years later recalled the sight of Walker catching barehanded, as was common in those days, with his fingers split open and bleeding. Catchers would welcome swelling in their hands to provide a cushion against the pain.
The color of Walker’s skin occasionally provoked another, more lasting, kind of pain. The Toledo Blade, on May 5, 1884, reported that Walker was “hissed . . . and insulted . . . because he was colored,” causing him to commit five errors in a game in Louisville. Late in the season the team travelled to Richmond, Virginia, where manager Charley Morton received a letter threatening bloodshed, according to Lee Allen, by “75 determined men [who] have sworn to mob Walker if he comes on the ground in a suit.” The letter, which Morton released to the press, was signed by four men who were “determined” not to sign their real names. Confrontation was avoided, for Walker had been released by the team due to his injuries before the trip to Richmond.
Such incidents, however, stand out because they were so exceptional. Robert Peterson, in Only the Ball Was White, points out that Walker was favorably received in cities such as Baltimore and Washington. As was the case throughout the catcher’s career, the press was supportive of him and consistently reported his popularity among fans. Upon his release, the Blade described him as “a conscientious player [who] was very popular with Toledo audiences,” and Sporting Life’s Toledo correspondent stated that “by his fine, gentlemanly deportment, he made hosts of friends who will regret to learn that he is no longer a member of the club.”
Walker started the 1885 season with Cleveland in the Western League, but the league folded in June. He played the remainder of 1885 and all of 1886 for the Waterbury, Connecticut, team in the Eastern League. While at Waterbury, he was referred to as “the people’s choice,” and was briefly managed by Charley Hackett, who later moved on to Newark. When Newark was accepted into the International League in 1887, Hackett signed Walker to play for him.
So in 1887 Walker was beginning his fifth season in integrated professional baseball. Tall, lean, and handsome, the thirty-year-old catcher was an established veteran noted for his steady, dependable play and admired, literally, as a gentleman and a scholar. Later in the season, when the Hamilton Spectator printed a disparaging item about “the coon catcher of the Newarks,” The Sporting Nevus ran a typical response in defense of Walker: “It is a pretty small paper that will publish a paragraph of that kind about a member of a visiting club, and the man who wrote it is without doubt Walker’s inferior in education, refinement, and manliness.”
One of the reasons that Charley Hackett was so pleased to have signed Walker was that his catcher would assist in the development of one of his new pitchers, a Negro named George Washington Stovey. A 165-pound southpaw, Stovey had pitched for Jersey City in the Eastern League in 1886. Sol White, in his History of Colored Base Ball, stated that Stovey “struck out twenty-two of the Bridgeport [Connecticut] Eastern League team in 1886 and lost his game.” The Sporting News that year called Stovey “a good one, and if the team would support him they would make a far better showing. His manner of covering first from the box is wonderful.”
A dispute arose between the Jersey City and Newark clubs prior to the 1887 season concerning the rights to sign Stovey. One of the directors of the Jersey City team tried to use his leverage as the owner of Newark’s Wright Street grounds to force Newark into surrendering Stovey. But, as the Sporting Life Newark correspondent wrote, “. . . on sober second thought I presume he came to the conclusion that it was far better that the [Jersey City] club should lose Stovey than that he should lose the rent of the grounds.”
A new rule for 1887, which would exist only that one season, provided that walks were to be counted as hits. One of the criticisms of the rule was that, in an era in which one of the pitching statistics kept was the opposition’s batting average, a pitcher might be tempted to hit a batter rather than be charged with a “hit” by walking him. George Stovey, with his blazing fastball, his volatile temper, and his inability to keep either under strict control, was the type of pitcher these skeptics had in mind. He brought to the mound a wicked glare that intimidated hitters.
During the preseason contract dispute, Jersey City’s manager, Pat Powers, acknowledged Stovey’s talents, yet added:
Personally, I do not care for Stovey. I consider him one of the greatest pitchers in the country, but in many respects I think I have more desirable men. He is head-strong and obstinate, and, consequently, hard to manage. Were I alone concerned I would probably let Newark have him, but the directors of the Jersey City Club are not so peaceably disposed.
Newark planned to mute Stovey’s “head-strong obstinance” with the easy-going stability of Fleet Walker. That the strategy did not always work is indicated by an account in the Newark Daily Journal of a July game against Hamilton:
That Newark won the game [14-10] is a wonder, for Stovey was very wild at times, [and] Walker had several passed balls. . . . Whether it was that he did not think he was being properly supported, or did not like the umpire’s decisions on balls and strikes, the deponent saith not, but Stovey several times displayed his temper in the box and fired the ball at the plate regardless of what was to become of everything that stood before him. Walker got tired of the business after awhile, and showed it plainly by his manner. Stovey should remember that the spectators do not like to see such exhibitions of temper, and it is hoped that he will not offend again.
Either despite or because of his surly disposition, George Stovey had a great season in 1887. His 35 wins is a single season record that still stands in the International League. George Stovey was well on his way to establishing his reputation as the greatest Negro pitcher of the nineteenth century.
The promotional value of having the only all-Negro battery in Organized Baseball was not lost upon the press. Newspapers employed various euphemisms of the day for “Negro” to refer to Newark’s “colored,” “Cuban,” “Spanish,” “mulatto,” “African,” and even “Arabian” battery. Sporting Life wrote:
There is not a club in the country who tries so hard to cater to all nationalities as does the Newark Club. There is the great African battery, Stovey and Walker; the Irish battery, Hughes and Derby; and the German battery, Miller and Cantz.
The Newark correspondent for Sporting Life asked, “By the way, what do you think of our ‘storm battery,’ Stovey and Walker? Verily they are dark horses, and ought to be a drawing card. No rainchecks given when they play.” Later he wrote that “Our ‘Spanish beauties,’ Stovey and Walker, will make the biggest kind of drawing card.” Drawing card they may have been, but Stovey and Walker were signed by Newark not for promotional gimmickry, but because they were talented athletes who could help their team win.
Nor were other teams reluctant to improve themselves by hiring black players. In Oswego, manager Wesley Cuny made a widely publicized, though unsuccessful, attempt to sign second baseman George Williams, captain of the Cuban Giants. Had Curry succeeded, Williams would not have been the first, nor the best, black second baseman in the league. For Buffalo had retained the services of Frank Grant, the greatest black baseball player of the nineteenth century.
Frank Grant was beginning the second of a record three consecutive years on the same integrated baseball team. Born in 1867, he began his career in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, then moved on to Plattsburg, New York. In 1886 he entered Organized Baseball, playing for Meriden, Connecticut, in the Eastern League until the team folded in July. Thereupon he and two white teammates signed with the Buffalo Bisons, where he led the team in hitting. By the age of twenty Grant was already known as “the Black Dunlap,” a singularly flattering sobriquet referring to Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, the first player to sign for $10,000 a season, and acknowledged as the greatest second baseman of his era. Sol White called Frank Grant simply “the greatest ball player of his age,” without reference to race.
In 1887, Grant would lead the International League in hitting with a .366 average. Press accounts abound with comments about his fielding skill, especially his extraordinary range. After a series of preseason exhibition games against Pittsburgh’s National League team, “Hustling Horace” Phillips, the Pittsburgh manager, complained about Buffalo’s use of Grant as a “star.” The Rochester Union quoted Phillips as saying that “This accounts for the amount of ground [Grant] is allowed to cover . . . and no attention is paid to such a thing as running all over another man’s territory.” Criticizing an infielder for his excessive range smacks of praising with faint damns. Grant’s talent and flamboyance made him popular not only in Buffalo, but also throughout the IL.
In 1890 Grant would play his last season on an integrated team for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, of the Eastern Interstate League. His arrival was delayed by several weeks due to a court battle with another team over the rights to his services. The Harrisburg Patriot described Grant’s long awaited appearance:
Long before it was time for the game to begin, it was whispered around the crowd that Grant would arrive on the 3:20 train and play third base. Everybody was anxious to see him come and there was a general stretch of necks toward the new bridge, all being eager to get a sight at the most famous colored ball player in the business. At 3:45 o’clock an open carriage was seen coming over the bridge with two men in it. Jim Russ’ famous trotter was drawing it at a 2:20 speed and as it approached nearer, the face of Grant was recognized as being one of the men. “There he comes,” went through the crowd like magnetism and three cheers went up. Grant was soon in the players’ dressing room and in five minutes he appeared on the diamond in a Harrisburg uniform. A great shout went up from the immense crowd to receive him, in recognition of which he politely raised his cap.
Fred Dunlap should have been proud had he ever been called “the White Grant.” Yet Grant in his later years passed into such obscurity that no one knew where or when he died (last year an obituary in the New York Age was located, revealing that Grant had died in New York on June 5, 1937).
Meanwhile, in Binghamton, Bud Fowler, who had spent the winter working in a local barbershop, was preparing for the 1887 season. At age 33, Fowler was the elder statesman of Negro ballplayers. In 1872, only one year after the founding of the first professional baseball league, Bud Fowler was [said to be; no proof has yet emerged–jt] playing professionally for a white team in New Castle, Pennsylvania. Lee Allen, while historian of baseball’s Hall of Fame, discovered that Fowler, whose real name was John Jackson, was born in Cooperstown, New York, in about 1854, the son of itinerant hops-pickers. Thus, Fowler was the greatest baseball player to be born at the future site of the Hall of Fame.
As was the case with many minor league players of his time, Fowler’s career took him hopscotching across the country. In 1884 and 1885 he played for teams in Stillwater, Minnesota; Keokuk, Iowa; and Pueblo, Colorado. He played the entire 1886 season in Topeka, Kansas, in the Western League, where he hit .309. A Negro newspaper in Chicago, the Observer, proudly described Fowler as “the best second baseman in the Western League.”
Binghamton signed Fowler for 1887. The Sportsman’s Referee wrote that Fowler “. . . has two joints where an ordinary person has one. Fowler is a great ball player.” According to Sporting Life’s Binghamton correspondent:
Fowler is a dandy in every respect. Some say that Fowler is a colored man, but we account for his dark complexion by the fact that … in chasing after balls [he] has become tanned from constant and careless exposure to the sun. This theory has the essential features of a chestnut, as it bears resemblance to Buffalo’s claim that Grant is of Spanish descent.
Fowler’s career in the International League would be brief. The financially troubled Bings would release him in July to cut their payroll. But during this half-season, a friendly rivalry existed between Fowler and Grant. Not so friendly were some of the tactics used by opposing base-runners and pitchers. In 1889, an unidentified International League player told The Sporting News:
While I myself am prejudiced against playing in a team with a colored player, still I could not help pitying some of the poor black fellows that played in the International League. Fowler used to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him and would, if possible, throw the spikes into him. He was a good player, but left the base every time there was a close play in order to get away from the spikes.
I have seen him muff balls intentionally, so that he would not have to try to touch runners, fearing that they might injure him. Grant was the same way. Why, the runners chased him off second base. They went down so often trying to break his legs or injure them that he gave up his infield position the latter part of last season [i.e., 1888] and played right field. This is not all.
About half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they are] at the bat. . . One of the International League pitchers pitched for Grant’s head all the time. He never put a ball over the plate but sent them in straight and true right at Grant. Do what he would he could not hit the Buffalo man, and he [Grant] trotted down to first on called balls all the time.
Fowler’s ambitions in baseball extended beyond his career as a player. As early as 1885, while in between teams, he considered playing for and managing the Orions, a Negro team in Philadelphia. Early in July 1887, just prior to his being released by Binghamton, the sporting press reported that Fowler planned to organize a team of blacks who would tour the South and Far West during the winter between 1887 and 1888. “The strongest colored team that has ever appeared in the field,” according to Sporting Life, would consist of Stovey and Walker of Newark; Grant of Buffalo; five members of the Cuban Giants; and Fowler, who would play and manage. This tour, however, never materialized.
But this was not the only capitalistic venture for Fowler in 1887. The entrepreneurial drive that would lead White to describe him as “the celebrated promoter of colored ball clubs, and the sage of base ball” led him to investigate another ill-fated venture: The National Colored Base Ball League.