Cap Anson and the erection of the color barrier in baseball

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following article contains offensive language. I have also removed the “Northside Nostalgia” title from this entry in the series covering Cubs franchise history since the optics associated with that particular word are inappropriate for such a topic. I will resume the use of that framing title with the next entry in the series, but I as much as I enjoy the sound of the label, it does paint an image of pre-integration baseball that I find disturbing and I may change my mind about its use moving forward, particularly when similar topics arise.

Adrian “Cap” Anson was the first true superstar of baseball. The giant of his era, as both a hitter and field general, Anson is recognized as the first member of the 3,000 hit club, the second manager to earn 1,000 victories, and still the only man to accomplish both. Known for his strength, hustle and bluster in equal measure, he was unafraid to speak his mind, to anyone, at any time. He berated opposing players and intimidated umpires. So it should not come as a surprise that in an era of outspoken racism that Anson, as the most recognizable face and loudest voice in the game, became the leader of the segregation movement sweeping through baseball.

While he would become the focal point, and ultimately one of the main drivers of the the establishment of the color barrier in baseball, the trend was well under way by the time Anson took the stage. The game had been segregated for most of its short history. It was not uncommon for white and black teams to play each other throughout the 1860s but players of color were rarely integrated on teams with white ballplayers. An official line was first drawn in 1867 when an all African American team, the Philadelphia Pythians, pursued membership in the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP).

The Pythians were well established on the negro team circuit of that era and had staged profitable exhibitions against white teams in Philadelphia, and originally garnered an offer from the Athletics to support their application to the NABBP, but that support soon dried up once they gauged the reaction from member teams in other cities. Undeterred, the Pythians sought membership anyway, prompting a unanimous decision by the NABBP in December of 1867 to come out “against the admission of any club which may be composed of one or more persons of color.”

The stated reason? To avoid any subject with political bearing during the NABBP convention.

“won’t play never no more with the nigger in.”

Those are the words of Cap Anson as quoted by the Toledo Daily Blade regarding a game on August 10th, 1883 between Chicago and the hometown Toledo ball club that employed a young mulatto catcher Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker. According to the paper’s account, Walker was not even scheduled to play in the game due to an injured hand, but after a declaration from Anson that he wouldn’t play “with no d—-d nigger“, the order was given by the Toledo manager to insert Walker into the lineup as an outfielder and “…the beefy bluffer was informed that he could play or go, just as he blank pleased. Anson hauled in his horns somewhat and “consented” to play, remarking, ‘We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the nigger in.’ “

Anson fielding a throw at 1B

Anson fielding a throw at 1B

Toledo had called Anson on his bluff, as unwilling to walk away from the day’s gate, he and the team eventually relented and the game proceeded, but Anson also proved true to his word and Chicago never did take the field again against a team with Walker in the lineup.

The game would not be the final dust up between the two clubs, nor between Anson and Walker. The next year, Toledo gained admission to the new rival American Association and thus Walker became a Major League player, but when Toledo and Chicago met again in an exhibition match during July of 1884, Anson and the White Stockings apparently requested in writing before agreeing to the game that no blacks be allowed to participate in the game. Toledo’s response is unknown, but Walker had not played the previous three games due to injury, and would not catch again until mid-August, so the point may have been moot.

Moses Fleetwood Walker

Moses Fleetwood Walker

Anson and Chicago were far from the first trying to keep Walker out of the action. Before the 1883 season even began an effort was made by the Peoria ball club to have Walker expelled from the Northwest League in which Toledo presided that year. The battle was hard fought and in the end not enough support was garnered to pass the motion and Walker was allowed into the league. Once Toledo, with Walker, were accepted into the American Association in 1884, the struggles did not end with the Anson incident. Later that season his manager received the following letter before a scheduled trip to Richmond, Virginia:

“Manager Toledo Base Ball Club:

Dear Sir: We the undersigned, do hereby warn you not to put up Walker, the Negro catcher, the evenings that you play in Richmond, as we could mention the names of 75 determined men who have sworn to mob Walker if he comes to the ground in a suit. We hope you will listen to our words of warning, so that there will be no trouble: but if you do not, there certainly will be. We only write this to prevent much blood shed, as you alone can prevent.”

The threats, discrimination, abuse and slurs Walker endured were constant. His inability to stay on the field, though likely through no fault of his own, was becoming an issue for the club. But it is likely the mounting pressure from segregationists inside and outside of the game played a big part in Toledo’s decision to release him in September of 1884, before the Richmond trip took place. At the time Walker was the third leading hitter on the team and his defensive skills, when his health allowed it, were universally lauded (even by whites).

The Toledo newspaper article referenced earlier appears to paint a fairly rosy picture of the support that Walker received from his team and the city, but evidence to the contrary exists regarding his stint with the club. For instance, that hand injury in 1883, as well as the unknown injury holding him out again in 1884? They may well have been due to on-field interactions with opponents, but just as likely were caused by his own teammate. Playing catcher was a dangerous task in the days when a mask was the only protective equipment worn on a regular basis, made more so in Walker’s case because his own pitcher deliberately threw balls in the dirt in order to force Walker to block them. He also intentionally crossed him up by throwing fastballs when Walker called for curves, or ignoring Walker’s signals entirely.

The Color Line

By 1887 Walker had moved on to the Newark Little Giants of the International League, which also employed a black pitcher named George Stovey. On July 11th, an article in The Sporting News appeared stating: “A new trouble has just arisen in the affairs of certain baseball associations [which] has done more damage to the International League than to any other we know of. We refer to the importation of colored players into the ranks of that body.”

Three days later, The Newark Little Giants were set face off in an exhibition game against none other than Cap Anson and his Chicago Colts. Coincidence?

Once again, Anson refused to take the field unless Walker and Stovey were removed from the lineup. This time Anson’s demands were met, Stovey feigned injury, and the pair were held out. On the same day, the International League voted to ban the signing of any additional black players, though those already under contract could remain.

Of historical note, Walker was not in fact the first African American to play a Major League game, as was believed for many decades. In 2004, it was discovered that William Edward White, a student-athlete at Brown University in Providence, stepped in for a single game on June 21st, 1879 when the Providence Grays regular 1st baseman was unable to play due to injury. White collected a hit and scored a run but was replaced in the lineup the next game by future Hall of Famer Jim O’Rourke.

William Edward White (1879)

William Edward White (1879)

Believed to be the son of a Milner, Georgia slave holder and his servant, it is possible that William White was also the only former slave to don a Major League uniform. It seems the event escaped significance for the next 125 years due to the fact that William White passed for caucasian throughout his adult life, while Fleet Walker and his brother Weldy, who also spent a short time with Toledo during the 1884 season, were open about their heritage and faced intense racial discrimination.

What does hold true regarding Fleet Walker’s place in MLB history is that he would be the last African American player to participate in a Major League game (9/4/1884) until Jackie Robinson in 1947. Walker would continue his baseball career playing for various white Minor League teams until 1889, joining a group of 50+ black players that participated on integrated Minor League squads until 1898.

Within a dozen years of the International League’s declaration to stop signing black players in 1887, all leagues with white players would eventually agree, in writing or in practice, to the “Gentleman’s Agreement” to keep black players out of professional baseball.

Anson and Rube Foster

Cap Anson and Rube Foster

It is possible that Anson’s stance on the matter changed after his professional playing career ended. After selling his share of the Cubs in 1905 due to financial hardship, he began a semi-pro baseball team named Anson’s Colts, but when that team also faced financial ruin in 1908, Anson took the field at 56 years old in an attempt to buck up the team’s fortunes.

The squad squared off frequently against black teams, and Anson apparently did so without complaint. He even went so far as to be seen regularly talking baseball strategy with the Andrew “Rube” Foster, the man that would later become known as the “Father of the Negro Leagues.” Maybe he had a change of heart, or maybe, just as with the Toledo game back in 1883, Anson’s pocketbook was more important to him than his convictions. 

The blurring and breaking of the Color Line

The color line was established as an unwritten rule in professional baseball beginning in 1887 thanks in large part to the high profile run ins between Anson, Toledo and Fleet Walker. The line occasionally blurred concerning players of mixed race, assuming they were light skinned enough, but when it came to players of predominately African descent the line never budged between 1897-1947.

Native Americans gained some entry into baseball in the late 19th and early 20th century. Eventually, it would be Cuban players that helped pave the way for racial integration. Latino players, particularly Cubans, began trickling into the game in the 1870s, but when American teams began looking to Cuba as a new revenue stream, and as a warm weather spring training locale after the turn of the century, the talented local players began gaining exposure to MLB teams.

Clark Griffith

Clark Griffith

Cincinnati officially signed two Cubans, Rafael Almeida and Armando Marsans, to contracts in 1911. The pair had not been the most talented they had scouted from the island over the years, but were light skinned enough that the club attempted to launch a “whiteness campaign” in an effort to convince fans that the players were “born of the best, and whitest families in Cuba” and therefore worth rooting for. Both debuted on July 4th in a game against the Cubs in Chicago. Unfortunately for the players, the campaign proved fruitless, and both were subjected to the prejudices of opposing and Cincinnati fans alike during their careers.

Over the next 40 years, another 40+ Cuban players, most if not all of whom had African ancestry in their backgrounds, would enter the Major Leagues. Many were signed by former Chicago Colts/Orphans player-manager Clark Griffith. Griffith was the Reds manager in 1908 when the club began making excursions into Cuba and coached Marsans and Almeida when they debuted in 1911. He moved on to manage as well as buy a partial ownership stake of the Washington Senators in 1912, continuing his practice of signing Cuban ballplayers until his death in 1955.

In addition to the impact of Cuban players, other Latinos such as Puerto Rico native Hiram Bithorn, who debuted in the majors five years before Jackie Robinson, played a role as well.

Buck O'Neil

Buck O’Neil

The Cubs would eventually become the ninth Major League team to integrate, when fewer than 3,000 fans witnessed Ernie Banks debut on September 17th of 1953. Interestingly, Banks was not intended to be the first black player for the club. Gene Baker had been the Kansas City Monarchs shortstop in the late 40s before the Cubs signed him to a contract in 1950. He spent the next four years with Minor League affiliates, before the club purchased his contract from the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League on September 2nd, 1953. Expected to debut with the team soon after, an injury held him back for two weeks.

In the meantime, Banks was purchased (along with pitcher Bill Dickey) from the Kansas City Monarchs for $20,000, and beat Baker’s debut by three days. To accommodate Banks, Baker was shifted to second base, and the duo would form the first African American middle infield in the Majors. The Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil had originally signed Banks in 1950 on the recommendation of Negro League legend James “Cool Papa” Bell to replace Baker in their lineup after the Cubs lured him to their organization, however a two-year stint in the army prevented Banks from playing from 1951-52.

The connection to O’Neil and the Monarchs would not end there. When the club was sold in 1955, O’Neil resigned as manager and became a scout for the Cubs. During his seven-year tenure in the position he signed among others, future Hall of Famer Lou Brock. O’Neil and the Cubs would then become pioneers in the integration movement the next decade, when in 1962 O’Neil was hired as the first African American coach in MLB history. Excluded from the Cubs “College of Coaches” experiment, O’Neil was never considered for the managerial role. Don Baylor would become the first African American manager in team history when he was hired in 2000.

Filed under: Cubs History


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  • Great work, Mr. Ernst. It's interesting to note that such blatant racism was occurring in US states that had so recently fought for the abolition of slavery in the civil war.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    I also seem to remember Gene Baker as a coach, as his playing days were before my time. I did not know that a quirk of fate kept him from being the first black player on the Cubs.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Men in control of much of the country at the time, had actively fought to maintain slavery, and later segregation. Even in the North, many people against slavery were not necessarily in favor of equal rights. The 14th and 15th Amendments were hard fought and were ratified while Anson was playing. When Anson was born in Iowa, slavery was legal there.

    Racism was not only a societal norm for many, but there was also financial stakes involved that were also a driving force behind segregation. Most of the white players knew they had a very limited window of time to make money and they did not want to lose wages or have their jobs threatened by black players. Most players of the era were done playing by 30. Their hands were mangled without proper equipment, injuries were very common.

    The pro leagues were not on solid footing at the time. All but the NL failed, and even the NL nearly collapsed multiple times. It has in fact been argued by Bill James that Anson was the single biggest factor in keeping the NL from going under. Chicago was the most stable team financially in the early going in large part because of Anson's stardom, and for all his other faults, Anson was very much against the gambling and drinking that threatened the sport. He helped keep some players in line. Later, Anson (as a part owner) was staunchly in favor of the reserve clause. When other players revolted and left the league, Anson stayed.

    If you are interested (and can stomach the racism), you can read Anson's autobiography online. There is a lot of fascinating stuff in there about early baseball, but also a bunch of casual racism and stereotyping of just about every race and culture. Anson had been part of a world tour of baseball that brought him to multiple countries and exposed him to many ways of life, and you can get a clear picture of his thinking and worldview from how he describes everything, and the people he encounters.

    Link to autobiography:

  • In reply to Michael Ernst:

    I'm not defending Anson's views an any way, but I am glad you have noted several times that we are talking about a different era with different societal standards. As abhorrent as Anson's views seem today, they were far more commonly shared in his time. We can't and shouldn't ignore history, and reading about such hatred and bigotry should make us all proud of how far we have come.

    On a personal note, I'm working right now at West Side Senior High School in Gary, IN right now. I'm building and painting a stage set for a play tomorrow. There are about 50 people present, I don't know any of them and I'm the only white person here, and everyone could not be more pleasant. Granted they are all part of the drama department and/or students involved in theater, but my point is that there are positive situations to take out of anything if you take the time to recognize them and dig deeper than the sensationalized headlines.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    As Anson's Gr. Gr. Grandson, I've been defending him for most of my life. That's not to say that I defend the racism of the 19th century, it's to say that I've been defending him from the armies of sports writers since the 1970's who choose to demonize him and continually fail to view him in the context (19th century) of the times he lived in, who somehow also come to the conclusion that Anson was the leading figure responsible for the segregation of baseball. If you were to ask me who was responsible for the segregation of professional baseball from its birth in the 19th century, my response would be, "Why would it be any other way?". The better question is, who is responsible for keeping it segregated well into the 20th century? Afterall, when Jackie Robinson broke the color-lines in 1947, it was was viewed as a heroic act, and the country still didn't have full integration until the Civil Rights act was passed in 1964. Although I enjoyed your story, and it was better than most, I wish you could have worked-in your above comment into the mix, it gives good context.

  • In reply to JeffRSmith:

    Thanks for your comment and feedback, Jeff.

    I had included that information in my original draft, but ended up cutting it, partly do to the length of the piece, but mostly because narratively this became more of a look at the creation of the color barrier and not a biographical look at Anson himself. I chose to focus more on the different factors influencing the result of the color line than the influences that lead to Anson's stance.

    I am not someone that believes Anson should be held out of the HoF or other drastic views that some hold. If you kick out Anson, you need to kick out every pre-integration ballplayer. Segregation in baseball was an institutional decision, not one implemented, and as you point out, kept in place because of one man's opinion or influence. His views were in line with many in society, but it also cannot be ignored that some did not share his view, and even some who did chose not to speak out as vehemently as Anson.

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    In reply to Michael Ernst:

    Hey Michael, thanks for your thoughtful reply, and no doubt, we should not ignore the fact that some did not share his view. But given that, I would guess that those who didn’t share those views were the exception and not the rule in the 19th century.

    I would also add, as one of your commenter’s pointed out, although we fought a Civil War and ended slavery in 1865, it should not be confused with the entirely separate issue of Black & White inequality in any meaningful way throughout America, and in many respects throughout the world at that time. It wasn’t until well into the mid 20th century that we started to see any real equality.

    We can agree that there are instances where Anson spoke out vehemently, but I would argue that what you’re really hearing, is the uttering of American public-opinion at that time, and the people that bought tickets to the game. In many ways, it’s my opinion that Anson has become a victim of his own celebrity, in that everything he said and did was “News”, and the American public and sportswriters ate it up. So If you’re hearing Anson’s voice echoing from the 19th century, drowning-out all others from that time, it’s because he was the biggest giant and greatest player/manager/founding father of professional baseball of his era.

    Anson was also one of early baseballs biggest cheerleaders and innovators, and as you rightly pointed out, he’s been attributed with saving early professional baseball, and saving the National League from ruin and disaster. We can also probably agree, that whatever was deemed good for the game of baseball, Anson enforced it with an iron-fist, which included as you pointed out, zero tolerance for gamblers, drunkenness, etc. and unfortunately integration, along with anything else that might damage the reputation of the game of baseball at that time.

    Lastly, I remember a time in the 1960’s and 70’s when I was a kid, and my Gr. Aunts, Dorothy & Adele and my Gr. Grandmother Virginia (Anson’s daughters) took me to see the Cub’s at Wrigley, it was a time when Anson was only remembered for his great contributions to the game of baseball, which were considerable. Anson’s daughters were always treated like rockstars at Wrigley, which included season passes to any NL game in any city in the country, all compliments of the National League, and every year until the day they died.

    In closing, It’s unfortunate that Anson’s great contributions to the game of baseball have been largely overshadowed by charges of racism. And why? All because he turned out to be a man of the times he lived in, in other words, just a 19th century ball player, versus being a great social visionary who took a stand against racism in America in the 19th century. Seems like an unrealistic expectation to me.

    Again, thanks for your reply Michael, and I appreciate your views.

  • In reply to Cliff1969:

    Hi everyone~

    Long time reader, 1st time posting. This was a great read. Great to read about the history of baseball and the often murky relationship with race, and race relations. As someone who studies race/ethnic relations for a living, this was a great read. thanks again~

  • Racism......when you can't see brilliance for color.

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    Thank You ! Very informative, if painful, article. BTW, I seem to recall Ernie Banks being the first African American to manage in an MLB game when (as bench coach) he took over when manager Whitey Lockman was ejected. If so, of course, that would also make him literally the first to take over for Whitey.

  • In reply to James McIntyre:

    That was a Caribou Coffee trivia discount question once, and I pointed out to them that Frank Robinson was in fact not first for that very reason. (Being able to verify the info on a smartphone was handy!)

  • Very enjoyable read, thanks. I talked to John a few times about covering the old Minor leagues, with each town having their own local heroes, before the MLB scrapped it. There were hundreds of local teams, each were famous only within the reach if the radio channels, back in the day.

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    I sure wouldn't mind some Hot Stove action right about now.

  • In reply to Ray:

    I agree... but that isn't my area of expertise

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    Michael, another great and very informative article. It's hard to look back and try and put our values on people who lived in different eras, although to be fair there are still a number of people who feel the same today. The wonderful advantage of integration is that we get to realize that people are just people and the more we get to know them the more we see that they are very similar to us.
    It's so important that we don't forget history--as much as I love a good game recap I enjoy these articles as much. thanks again Michael.

  • Well, I'm going to play devil's advocate. You can only take the whole "That's the way things were back then" so far. Obviously Anson was a bully and a bigot. There were plenty of people who were not so bigoted that they wouldn't go see an integrated game. Anson wasn't going to lose his job if the league opened up, so you can't blame it on economics. He was hateful and threatened violence against a man because of his skin color. That was above and beyond the norm for the day.

    Thank you, Michael for adding to our knowledge.

  • In reply to Oneear:

    Sadly - Anson's attitude (and similar language) was something I used to experience regularly from my great uncle John back when I was a kid. He was in his 70s at the time during the early 1980s and was a regularly drunken, very outspokenly racist, overbearing old fool.

    I'm guessing that many of us here are old enough and experienced enough to have met people who absolutely think that way. Some of them are still with us.

    But yeah - the economics of protecting their jobs was likely also a significant factor in keeping the color barrier in place once it had been generally settled upon.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    Nothing to do with the discussion, but as an aside, the "economics of protecting their jobs" was very strong, and extended to all rookies, who were looked upon as enemies by the veteran players, especially those who were towards the end of their careers. Rookies were generally not only not welcomed and mentored, but were routinely shunned, and even sabotaged in the beginning of their careers. Missing gloves and sawn-through bats were common events in the early 20th century, as well as occasional more blatant and obvious physical attacks.

    Anyone here old enough to have read any of the books by John Tunis, who wrote fiction about MLB players back in the 30s and 40s (I am sure they are long out of print). He was one of the first authors I read that could write fiction about professional baseball players and humanize them (occasionally to their detriment.)

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    Michael, great series of articles. The amount of effort you put into these really shines through. I very much appreciate your remarks in the comments section on this one, too. Thank you.

  • Thank you. It did take a lot of time, but it was fun.

  • I'm a bit of a history and documentary buff anyway - so let me echo the 'love it!' sentiment for these articles Michael.

    I am sure it was a lot of work digging this information up and putting it together - but the end result has been excellent.

  • In reply to drkazmd65:

    I'll add my thanks to Michael and soon Sean as well. These types of articles obviously take a lot of work and time, and they are very much appreciated.

    I'd also like to thank the commenting community here. These types of discussions can turn ugly quickly, but we've already seen some different opinions expressed respectfully. That is another testament to the legacy John left.

  • I'm a l little late to the party with a busy weekend, but I like to note how much I learn from these articles. It's not just baseball. As a 9yr old Banks and Baker were my favorites and still are.

  • What, no love for Clyde McCullough or Harry Chiti? C’mon.

  • In reply to captjack:

    On a more serious note, I vividly remember watching Ernie Banks’ debut on WGN, as a rabid 10 year old Cubs fan. I remember having no awareness of his racial significance to the franchise’s history; but I was really excited about the smoothness of the rookie’s play.
    And when Gene Baker joined him at the end of the ‘53 season, I was excited about the future of the new Cubs’ middle infield for the foreseeable future. Remember, there was no free agency.
    Some 65 years later, like everyone else, I await the free agent market to resolve.

  • In reply to captjack:

    I do remember them. Once Chiti was being given an intentional pass in front of the pitcher late in a close game with first base open. He reached accross the plate to hit a triple down the right field line as the pitch wasn't quite far enough off the plate. Brickhouse was beside himself.

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