Wednesday, June 8, 2011


The Chicago Cubs are not having a good season. Their record, as of today, is third-worst in baseball; the injury bug has not been kind; bad multiyear contracts abound; the players in the bad contracts aren't good trade bait; they're owed too much money to release; you can't very well send them to the minors and bring up someone else, so all you can do is watch bad players lose again and again. Manager Mike Quade and general manager Jim Hendry are both on the hot seat. I have contemplated wearing a paper bag over my head.

But I'm a Cubs fan. It could be worse.

MLB Network likes to do what they call a Prime 9 list- a top-ten list, but with nine items. "Why nine? That's baseball. Nine players, nine innings, Prime 9." With apologies to them, here's my Prime 9- or Subprime 9, more to the point- of the darkest hours in Chicago Cubs history...

9. Sammy Sosa's role in the steroid era
8. The June Swoon, 1977-79
7. The College of Coaches
6. Ball goes through Leon Durham's legs in 1984 NLCS
5. The black cat at Shea Stadium heralding the collapse of 1969
4. Trading Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio
3. Curse of the Billy Goat placed
2. Steve Bartman's foul ball in 2003 NLCS
1. Cap Anson

Cap Anson was one of baseball's first all-time greats. He was the first man to reach 3,000 hits (though the exact number has long been in dispute), played a still-record 27 consecutive seasons (and was the only player to do so at all until Nolan Ryan), and pioneered such things as the third-base coach, spring training, the hit-and-run, and the pitching rotation. His name is still, to this day, featured prominently in the Cubs' record book.

Because of his skill, he was also a very influential racist.

In the 1880's, Reconstruction was on the ropes, as ex-Confederates in the south took any means they deemed necessary to restore their pre-Civil War way of life. And, of course, the pre-Civil War way of life entailed treating blacks as subhuman, and treating people who gave blacks basic humanity as an enemy to be dealt with harshly. The period was rapidly approaching, 1890-1940, that historian Rayford Logan described first as "the nadir of American race relations", a period that might make one wonder if the Civil War had actually settled anything at all.

It is in this environment that the first black player in major league history took the field. It wasn't Jackie Robinson; he would not break through until 1947, after the nadir had passed. In order for Robinson to break through the color barrier, someone had to have put it up.

And so we return to the 1880's. In 1883, Moses Fleetwood Walker signed as a catcher with the Toledo Blue Stockings. It should be noted that catchers did not have any of the equipment back then that they do today. There was no catcher's mask, no pads, not even a glove. Nobody had a glove. You were catching everything the pitcher threw barehanded. Catchers as a result proved a perpetually-endangered species by default. (Here is an 1889 photo of the hands of catcher Doug Allison. Either that year or the year after, Allison would become the first known catcher to don a glove.) Despite several prior years of strong play, Walker was subjected several times to opponents who refused to play if he was permitted on the field. Sometimes he was allowed to play. Sometimes he wasn't.

On August 10, 1883, the then-Chicago White Stockings, led by Anson, arrived in Toledo for an exhibition game. Anson, like the others before him, refused to play with Walker on the field.

Or, as Anson put it that day, "Get that n****r off the field!"

Anson relented only when told that the White Stockings would forfeit unless Walker was allowed to play-- "We'll play this game here, but we won't play never no more with the n****r in." The irony here is that Walker was scheduled to take an off day anyway, but after Anson spoke up, Walker was inserted. Not to make a statement, but rather to see if Anson would forfeit, and therefore, give up his share of the gate receipts.

Walker, who was suffering injury, played in right field. Chicago won 7-6; (PDF) Walker was the only Toledo player without a hit. He did, however, reach base on an error, scored a run, and was serviceable in right due to having a much better glove (so to speak) than bat.

The following year, Toledo had joined the professional ranks of the American Association, and would see the White Stockings again on July 25, but this time, Anson had procured an agreement in writing that Walker would not play. (Chicago won that game 10-8. Anson had a home run in the 4th.)

Walker was not in much of a position to perform in any case. His batterymate, pitcher Tony Mullane, also harbored racist tendencies. According to Mullane, "[Walker] was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro and whenever I had to pitch to him I used anything I wanted without looking at his signals." As a result, Walker- the unpadded, ungloved catcher- was bombarded all season long with pitches he was not ready for, suffering a series of injuries, and ultimately being limited to 42 games. He batted .263 with 23 runs, two doubles and three triples. RBI's were not recorded. Despite the game limitation, Mullane's deliberate failures in communication caused Walker to lead the league in passed balls.

Walker would not get another chance for Toledo. While he could, with great difficulty, handle the prejudice of other players, Anson's influence was simply too strong. Even for the era, Anson's racism was, for lack of a better word, pioneering. People followed his example. There is dispute as to whether Walker's release at the end of the season was due to his injuries or due to the color barrier being put into place by the American Association.

Walker had not seen the last of Anson, though. He continued his career in the minor leagues, and in 1887, he turned up with the International League's Newark Little Giants, and drew a much friendlier arm: George Stovey, a fellow black player. They formed the first black battery in baseball history.

Stovey had had his own run-in with Anson during the offseason. The New York Giants made an attempt to sign Stovey for 1887. However, after Anson, who shared a league with the Giants, protested vehemently, the Giants relented. Newark claimed Stovey instead.

A few months of harsh treatment from fans later, the White Stockings arrived on July 11. Walker was off that day, but Stovey was set to pitch. Once again, upon seeing a black in uniform, Anson screamed "Get that n****r off the field!" But unlike in 1883, this time he would not back down for anything. Stovey, not wishing to embarrass Newark's management, faked an injury and was forced to the bench.

Cap Anson is not the only racist element in the formation of baseball's color barrier. That has already been shown, and ultimately, the owners could have signed whoever they wanted whether Anson liked it or not. But he was the opinion-driving straw that broke the camel's back. On the same day as Anson's forcing Stovey from the diamond, the International League voted 6-4 to institute what was in the day called the "gentleman's agreement" to not sign any new black players from their rosters. Over the next decade, all other professional leagues would do likewise. Despite winning 33 games, Stovey was released from Newark at the end of the season. (So was everyone else; Newark went bust in 1888.)

Anson was still not done with Walker. In 1888 and 1889, Walker, not a new black player, had found himself with the International League's Syracuse Stars. Anson's White Stockings turned up again in September 1888, and again Walker was forced to the bench.

Walker, for his part, was a shattered man after being so forcibly separated from baseball. He had been born on the Underground Railroad, and now he had been driven back from whence he came. He would try to find other pursuits- he obtained US Patent 458026 (PDF) in 1891 for an exploding artillery shell, applied for other patents on motion-picture equipment, even published a weekly newspaper- but ultimately, he could not escape the nadir of race relations. In April 1891, Walker was confronted and attacked by a group of whites in Syracuse. In self-defense, Walker pulled a knife and stabbed one of his assailants, Patrick Murray. The knife wound, entering Murray's groin, proved fatal. Now the whites wanted to kill Walker. He escaped, but was later arrested and charged with second-degree murder. In the nadir of race relations, especially in the South, a black could expect to be convicted, but in Syracuse, Walker was acquitted. Amazingly, the jury that acquitted him was all-white.

Walker, however, over the years would turn to the bottle, and as race relations deteriorated further, he abandoned all hope of integration. In 1908, Walker, fully embittered by a nation that had repeatedly wronged him, published a pamphlet (47 pages was considered a pamphlet back then) titled Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present, and Future of the Negro Race in America. In the pamphlet, Walker advocated that blacks return to Africa, feeling that "separation of the races is the only true solution."

Meanwhile, in 1907, Anson created a semipro team called Anson's Colts. One theory goes that Anson, being the best player in his day, was concerned about black talent potentially overshadowing him, and that part of his campaign against integration was a desire to shrink the talent pool so that he might maintain his status at the top. This may explain why, after his prime had passed and he was relegated to the semipro ranks, Anson was willing to take the field against black players. In fact, in 1908, the same year Walker released Our Home Colony, Anson's Colts played against an all-black team, Leland's Giants. Anson would even consent to a photo with black manager Rube Foster.

But it no longer mattered what Anson thought of black baseball players. The damage he had contributed to, caused and inspired had been done. Foster had no alternative but to found the Negro Leagues, and all other black players had no alternative but to bide their time until 1947.

Were Walker to gaze upon Wrigley Field today, the home of the Cubs, he would see something that would please him, and something that would not. The names of six players fly from the foul poles at Wrigley, their names honored and their numbers retired. Two commentators, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray, are also honored, albeit not with flags. The bad news for Walker is that Jackie Robinson, the man whose number 42 was retired across Major League Baseball in 1997, is not among those names.

The good news for Walker is that Anson, a future Hall of Famer, is not honored at Wrigley either.

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