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.’ “
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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