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Here’s the question: Could it have been different? If you see the name “Cap Anson,” your mind probably goes right to his outsized role in segregating baseball. Why did he get to play that role? Anson was baseball’s biggest star of the 19th century. In 1878, when the National League — and professional baseball — was very much on the ropes, it was Anson who — as Bill James has written — “saved or created major league baseball.” He did this with his outstanding play, but there were really two other keys:
- He systematically stole some of the best players in the other league, thus giving the National League a fair claim as the true major league.
- He popularized baseball in Chicago, this at a time when the game was having difficulty making headway in America’s biggest cities. Within a few years, there were National League teams in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Washington (in addition to teams already in Boston and Chicago), and baseball as the National Pastime began to take off as an idea.
Anson was an unapologetic racist. His views — as Anson defenders will say — were hardly unique in those years after the Civil War. But as we will see, Anson was willing — no, more than willing, he was proud — to play the public role of white supremacy. He did all he could to keep the game lily-white. And, as we know, the game was lily-white for a half century.
Could it have been different? If Cap Anson had been a very different man, if he had fought for the rights of black players rather than against them, if he had insisted on inclusion on the basis that the best players should be on the field regardless of color (a theme not unknown even in his time), would he have fundamentally changed baseball history? Or was shameful baseball segregation as inevitable and inescapable as the changing of American seasons?
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Looking back, there’s little appealing about Adrian Anson. He’s like a movie that doesn’t age well. I have read his book, A Ball Player’s Career — the first baseball autobiography ever written — and I have read David L. Fleitz’s exhaustively researched and generally positive Cap Anson: The Grand Old Man of Baseball, and throughout both readings I found myself scribbling words like “jerk,” and “racist jerk” and “egotistical jerk,” in the margins.*
*In the digital margins — I read them both on an e-reader.
Anson grew up in the first log cabin built in Marshalltown, Iowa. Henry Anson, Adrian’s father, built that home and founded the town; for a time there was talk of naming Marshalltown “Anson” or “Ansontown” or, Cap’s particular choice, “Ansonia.” It’s always important to place Anson in his time because he was a man of his time. Adrian Anson was born in 1852, just six years after Iowa became a state. He was, as he proudly recalled, “the first white child that was born” in Marshalltown.
“[Marshalltown] boasted no inhabitants,” he wrote, “save Indians of the Pottawatomie tribe, whose wigwams, or tepees, were scattered here and there upon the prairie.”
Anson was a troublemaker; he loved taunting people of the Pottawatomie tribe. He was convinced all his life that two of the younger members of the Pottawatomie tried to kill him. When Adrian was 13, his father sent him off to Notre Dame to smooth out some of his rough edges and to further his education. Henry Anson was a big believer in education. Adrian instead learned about baseball.
“Baseball” has a different meaning when talking about Cap Anson — it was spelled “base ball” then. The pitchers threw underhand from 50 feet away. The batters could ask for pitches to be high or low (Anson liked them high). Nobody wore gloves. The game was closer to kickball than baseball, but whatever you want to call it, Anson had a knack for the game and a hunger to get better. He was a giant in his time — at least 6 feet tall and weighing more than 220 pounds — and a ferocious competitor. He showed so much promise at such a young age that his first nickname was the “Marshalltown Infant.”
“‘Anything to win’ became his motto,” Fleitz writes, “and he did not mind committing a few ‘small meannesses’ to gain the desired result.”
There’s no real way to compare Cap Anson to, say, Mike Trout. They played/play entirely different games. But I want to give you a sense of Anson the player before we get into the matter at hand. He was, in style and substance, Pete Rose. He smashed line drives, and he leaned on intimidation, and he played every position (not well, but with fervor) and he had a huge ego and cared deeply about his own numbers. You probably know that Anson was the first player to get 3,000 hits; the magical aura that has built around 3,000 hits exists largely because of Anson.
But, in truth, he probably did not have 3,000 hits, even though his official total is 3,435. It all depends on how you calculate things, but once you take away the hundreds of hits he tallied before the National League existed, when he played in the ragtag National Association, and take away the 60 walks that were counted as hits because of a one-year rule change in 1887, he drops very close to the line.
And even if he has just over 3,000 hits, you still have to accept:
— That the hits he had in the early years of the National League, when the game’s rules bear scant resemblance to the baseball we know, count.
— That Anson intentionally had the league’s most absurdly biased scorekeeper. David Nemec, a scholar of early baseball history, once wrote, “The scorekeeper for the Chicago team either failed first-grade math or got a lot of his dinner checks picked up by a certain first baseman.”
Still, there’s a saying: The best way to make people believe that you’re great is to keep telling them that you’re great. Anson WAS great, and he was a master at promoting himself, and he became the player of his time. People, particularly in Chicago, were drawn to Anson in the same way that people were drawn to Rose. They loved him. They hated him. They couldn’t ignore him. There’s something appealing about a win-at-all-costs player, particularly for hometown fans. Anson also appeared to be scrupulously honest, this at a time when gamblers had their hooks into the game. He once got into a fist fight with a fan who questioned the integrity of baseball players.
Anson’s honesty plays a role in baseball’s segregation story. Many people of the time — probably most people of the time — did not see Anson’s stand against African-American players as selfish or bigoted or mean-spirited or any of the things we might see now. They mostly saw it as honorable; here was a man standing up for his race.
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Blatant racism has been a part of baseball from the very start; it would be ingenuous to think that it began with Cap Anson. There are records of Northern African-Americans and Southern slaves playing baseball before the Civil War. But the game found its shape and rhythm during that war. Soldiers — particularly Union soldiers — played various versions of baseball while traveling from town to town. For years, people promoted the absurd idea that the game was invented by Abner Doubleday, who probably knew nothing at all about baseball. But in a way, Doubleday did start baseball’s rise in America; he fired the first Union shot on Fort Sumter.
In 1867, just after the war ended, the National Association of Amateur Base Ball Players met in Philadelphia, and they excluded black players to prevent “some division of feeling, whereas, by excluding them no injury could result to anybody.”
Despite this, there were quite a few African-Americans who played in organized baseball during and after Reconstruction. This was a tumultuous and dizzying time in American history, as summarized by C. Vann Woodward in The Strange Career of Jim Crow: “The old heritage of slavery and the new and insecure heritage of legal equality were wholly incompatible as ideas … It was a time of experiment, testing and uncertainty — quite different from the time of repression and rigid uniformity that was to come at the end of the century. Alternatives were still open and real choices had to be made.
In other words: Nobody quite knew the rules. Nobody quite had a grasp on the future.
“Before baseball became a victim of its own prejudice,” Jerry Malloy wrote in his classic piece “Out at Home,” “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.”
You probably have read that one African-American in the 19th century played what we would consider major league baseball: That was Moses Fleetwood Walker. But there were more. William Edward White — who played in one game for Providence in 1879 (he got a hit and scored a run) — predated Fleet Walker. Researchers now believe that Charles “Bumpus” Jones — who threw a no-hitter in his one game for the Cincinnati Reds in 1892, and the next year, pitching for the Reds and Giants — was black. Fleet Walker’s brother Welday was a teammate who got a few major league at-bats.
But all of this is fuzzy because the line between major and minor league baseball in the 1800s is fuzzy. Frank Grant was probably the best black player of the 19th century; he starred for three years with Buffalo of the International League The Buffalo Bisons were considered minor league when he played for them. But one year before he got to Buffalo, the Bisons were considered major league. Anyway, major and minor-league teams played exhibition games against each other all the time.
It was an exhibition game, in fact, that set up the dramatic and haunting showdown between Cap Anson and Moses Fleetwood Walker.
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Moses Fleetwood Walker grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, later the home of Hall of Fame reliever Rollie Fingers. He was the third son of Moses W. Walker, one of the first black physicians in the state. People called the younger Moses “Fleet.”
Fleet hit a grand slam in the first baseball game ever played at Oberlin College. That was in 1880, an exhibition game, and the next year he was the catcher on the first official Oberlin baseball team. Stories about Fleet say that he was a committed and excellent student before baseball stole his heart and mind. He had a knack for the game. He was fast. He threw well. He had a great instinct for the game. After a season, Fleet went to play at the University of Michigan.
His first public encounter with racism happened two years before he met Cap Anson. In 1881, Walker’s team — ironically called the “White Sewing-machine Company of Cleveland” — traveled to Louisville. Here was the headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal:
A quadroon, you probably know, is a person who is one-quarter black by descent — both of Fleet’s parents were mixed race. It’s stunning to go back to 1881 and see a newspaper — a slave state newspaper, no less — admonish its local team for exhibiting racism. But as Malloy and Woodward wrote, these were confusing times when the nation seemed to be wrestling with its conscience. The paper’s writer was clearly offended and enraged that Moses Walker, a fine baseball player and decent fellow, was treated like less than a human being.
Walker was denied accommodations at the St. Cloud Hotel. Then, when the Cleveland team got to the field, the Louisville Eclipse Club team manager and several players objected to Walker playing.
“The prejudice of the Eclipse,” the Louisville paper wrote, “was either too strong, or they feared Walker, who has earned the reputation of being the best amateur catcher in the Union.”
In time, the Cleveland team gave in and started its other catcher, someone named West, but after an inning, West complained that he couldn’t continue because of his hands hurting. This was a common thing; catchers didn’t wear gloves back then. Their hands were a mess. The Cleveland team really had no choice but to play Walker, and the crowd wanted him to play. The crowd was very much behind Walker.
Of course, even with the crowd being behind Walker, it was still 1881. Check this out from the Louisville newspaper story.
What a time; imagine a hugely sympathetic crowd chanting the N-word good-naturedly. It’s hard to imagine. Walked did take the field. He made some warmup throws that were impressive enough that the reporter made mention of them.
And then, in what would be an eerie precursor to the Anson affair, two Louisville natives — Johnnie Reccius (who played in the majors for eight years) and Fred Pfeiffer (who played for 16 years) — walked off the field. They would not play with a black man on the field. The crowd booed the local team mercilessly, but the Louisville players refused to give in. Fleet Walker, wanting the game to go on, went back to the bench, a Cleveland third baseman named White agreed to catch. The crowd booed the home team for the rest of the game.
“The Clevelands acted foolishly in playing,” the Louisville reporter wrote. “They should have declined to play unless Walker was admitted and entered suit for gate money and damages. They could have made their point because it was understood that Walker was catcher, and no rules provide for the rejection of players on account of ‘race, color or previous condition of servitude.’ The crowd was anxious to see Walker play, and there was no social question concerned. Walker shook the dust of Louisville from his feet last night and went home. The succeeding games will be totally uninteresting because without him the Clevelands are not able to play the Eclipse a good game.”
In 1883, Walker signed to play with the brand new Toledo Blue Stockings, a minor league team in the Northwestern League. The fact that Toledo was in something called “The Northwestern League” will tell you a little bit about the geography of America at the time. His signing was not without incident; the Peoria team, among others, tried to block him. But Walker’s reputation as a gentleman and fine player won the day.
That was the year that Cap Anson came to town.
The date was Aug. 10, 1883, and the exhibition game between Anson’s White Stockings and Toledo drew a sizable crowd. You probably know the story; Anson refused to play. There’s only one account of the game — from the Toledo Blade — but the story seems clear enough. Anson refused to play if Walker did, and the Toledo team agreed to that before the game. Walker’s hands hurt anyway.
But then apparently Anson — being the jerk that he was — wanted to be sure that everyone knew exactly how he felt about African-Americans. He ranted and griped until he so pissed everyone off that Toledo manager Charlie Morton finally said, in so many words, “Hey, Anson, f— you, we’re going to play Moses Walker.”
Anson lost his mind with that announcement, but he soon realized that it would cost him a lot of money to take this white supremacist ploy to its end. He would get no percentage of the gate. He would probably be sued if the game wasn’t played. So he finally agreed to play. “We’ll play this here game,” he famously said, “but won’t play never no more with a n—— in it.”
And he never did.
Toledo was invited to join the American Association in 1884, and that AA was briefly considered a “major league.” This is why Moses Fleetwood Walker is considered the first African-American to play in the major leagues, some 63 years before Jackie Robinson.
He endured brutal racism in his brief time in the majors. Walker went back to Louisville for his first game, and the taunting and threats were so intense — the once-supportive fans were now nasty and cruel — that he committed a series of errors and was entirely rattled by the incident. Later, in Richmond, there was a death threat.
It’s another less violent story — one involving Fleet Walker’s Toledo teammate Tony Mullane — that sticks with me. Mullane “won” 284 games and occasionally gets mentioned as a Hall of Fame candidate. He could pitch right-handed or left-handed, and he threw hard, but he was exceptionally wild — his 343 wild pitches is the all-time record by a long shot. Mullane was always a tough man to catch.
And Mullane unapologetically hated African-Americans.
“I had it in for [Walker],” Mullane told the sportswriter Hugh Fullerton*. “He was the best catcher I ever worked with, but I disliked a Negro, and whenever I had to pitch to him, I used to pitch anything I wanted without looking at his signals.”
*Best known for the role he played in exposing the Black Sox; Studs Terkel played him in the movie Eight Men Out.
“One day,” Mullane continued, “he signalled me for a curve, and I shot a fastball at him. He caught it and walked down to me. ‘Mr. Mullane,’ he said, ‘I’ll catch you without signals, but I won’t catch you if you are going to cross me when I give you a signal.’
“And all the rest of that season, he caught me and caught anything I pitched without knowing what was coming.”
In 1887, while playing for Newark, Moses Fleetwood Walker encountered Cap Anson one more time. It was the same setup — Anson refused to play in the game — but even the passing of only a few years changed the entire story. This time, Walker did not play. There was no chance that he would play. Anson’s racism had carried the day. On that very same day, the International League held a secret meeting and announced that because “many of the best players in the league are anxious to leave on account of the colored element,” they would sign no more black ballplayers.
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There’s one more Cap Anson story to share. I mentioned the Newark Giants of 1887. Walker was their catcher. But there was another African-American on that team, a brilliant and mercurial pitcher named George Stovey. He grew up around Williamsport, Pa., and was an extraordinary athlete. He was, by all accounts, the fastest player on the field and a sensational outfielder. But he was an even better pitcher; he threw hard and featured a variety of curves. He struck out a lot of hitters at a time when nobody struck out.
He was also a temperamental man, fiery, and it’s believed that this is why the Giants brought in Walker. They wanted Fleet to, as the manager in Bull Durham said, “educate the lad.”
Stovey’s talent was so overwhelming that, according to Sol White — a player, manager and the most influential African-American baseball historian of the time — “John W. Ward of the New York club was anxious to secure Geo. Stovey, and arrangements were about to be completed for his transfer from the Newark Club, when …”
When what? You guessed it. White wrote that Stovey was about to become the first African-American player in the National League when Cap Anson got involved. Anson, White wrote, “made a strenuous and fruitful opposition to any proposition looking to the admittance of a colored man in the National League.”
There are those who think that White might have exaggerated this; it isn’t known how close Ward really came to signing Stovey. And it is true that Sol White, with good reason, hated Cap Anson and blamed the man at every opportunity.
“Just why Adrian C. Anson, manager and captain of the Chicago National League Club, was so strongly opposed to colored players on white teams cannot be explained,” White wrote. “His repugnant feeling, shown at every opportunity, toward colored ball players was a source of comment through every league in the country, and his opposition, with his great popularity and power in baseball circles, hastened the exclusion of the black man from the white leagues.”
And that takes us back to the beginning: Could it have been different? If Cap Anson were a different man, could baseball’s color line have been crossed much earlier?
Here’s what we know.
Point 1: Cap Anson was a hugely popular and influential player.
Point 2: He was an inviolate racist. The argument for Anson simply being a man of his time, a run-of-the-mill 19th century racist, simply doesn’t hold up. Yes, it was a bigoted America, but there were those at the time who lobbied for a more equal America. And even among the racist hoi polloi, Anson stood out for his nastiness, his stubbornness and his enthusiasm for segregation.
Point 3: As the postwar years went on, America became more outwardly and defiantly racist. Jim Crow. Lynchings. The KKK. This was not the doing of Cap Anson.
Let’s leave this argument with two more points. One comes from Robert Peterson, author of the essential book Only the Ball Was White. He wrote, “Anson’s animus toward Negroes was strong and obvious. But that he had the power and popularity to force Negroes out of organized baseball almost singlehandedly, as White suggests, is to credit him with more influence than he had, or for that matter, than he needed.”
I think that those last words — or for that matter than he needed — sum up the times. Cap Anson represented the ugliness of his era. If he had been a different kind of man, there would have been a different public face for that ugliness. But could Anson alone have changed the future? I like to believe in the power of the individual. But I doubt it. I suspect that it’s much more likely that Anson would have been destroyed than he could have fundamentally changed America.
And, finally, there are the words of Moses Fleetwood Walker. He lived a trying life after baseball. He killed a man during a racial dispute (though was found not guilty by an all-white jury) and he was jailed for mail robbery. In 1908, he wrote a book, Our Home Colony: A Treatise on the Past, Present and Future of the Negro. There, he made the case for “entire separation by Emigration of the Negro for America.”
In the end, Walker did not think it was Cap Anson who kept him from being free and equal. His life experiences told him that there was a gap between black and white, a gap that could not be closed.
“No one could entertain higher regard for the American white man and his magnificent civilization than the writer,” he wrote. “And it is the appreciation of this fact, along with the infancy of Negro freedom, that forces the conclusion upon our mind that it is contrary to everything in the nature of man, and almost criminal to attempt to harmonize these two diverse peoples while living under the same government.”
Cap Anson — penniless and all but forgotten — died in 1922. The National League paid for his burial in Chicago. Two years later, Moses Fleetwood Walker — sad and all but forgotten — died. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Steubenville. They were both ballplayers.