Dixie Walker of the Dodgers: The People's Choice

Dixie Walker of the Dodgers: The People's Choice

by Maury Allen, Susan Walker

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Overview

Fred “Dixie” Walker was a gifted ballplayer from a family of gifted athletes. (His father, uncle, and brother all played major league baseball.) Dixie Walker played in the majors for 18 seasons and in 1,905 games, assembling a career batting average of .306 while playing for the Yankees, White Sox, Tigers, Dodgers, and Pirates. Walker won the 1944 National League batting title, was three times an All-Star, and was runner-up for Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1946. He was particularly beloved by Brooklyn Dodgers fans, to whom he was the “People’s Choice.”
 
But few remember any of those achievements today. Dixie Walker—born in Georgia, and a resident of Birmingham, Alabama, for most of his life—is now most often remembered as one of the southerners on the Dodgers team who resented and resisted Jackie Robinson when he joined the ball club in 1947, as the fi rst African American major leaguer in the modern game. Having grown up in conditions of strict racial segregation, Walker later admitted to being under pressure from Alabama business associates when, in protest, he demanded to be traded away from the Dodgers.
 
Written by a professional sportswriter knowledgeable of the era and of personalities surrounding that event, and Dixie Walker’s daughter, this collaborative work provides a fuller account of Walker and fleshes out our understanding of him as a player and as a man. Walker ultimately came to respect Robinson, referred to him as “a gentleman,” and gave him pointers, calling him “as outstanding an athlete as I ever saw.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817355999
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 06/01/2010
Series: Alabama Fire Ant Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Maury Allen, a seasoned sportswriter for the New York Post and Sports Illustrated, grew up in Brooklyn. His 22 books include biographies of Reggie Jackson, Joe DiMaggio, Bo Belinsky, Casey Stengel, Joe Namath, Jim Rice, and Jackie Robinson. He is well-known to the public as a frequent sports commentator on ESPN.
Susan Walker is the daughter of Dixie Walker and resides in New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

Dixie Walker of the Dodgers

The People's Choice
By Maury Allen Susan Walker

THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS

Copyright © 2010 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5599-9


Chapter One

How It All Started

Leo Durocher was wearing blue silk pajamas and a golden yellow bathrobe as he stood in the kitchen of the army barracks at fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. It was the middle of the night in late March 1947. Durocher, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a team on the threshold of making history with the promotion of a Negro, Jackie Robinson, from its Montreal farm club to Brooklyn, had called his players together to put down an insurrection.

Harold Parrott had gotten word from handsome right-handed pitcher Kirby Higbe that a petition was being circulated by several of the Brooklyn players. Dixie Walker, Eddie Stanky, Hugh Casey, and Bobby Bragan-southerners all-were said to be leading a protest against Robinson's promotion to the major league team.

Walker, the oldest player on the team at thirty-six, had been with the Dodgers since 1939 and was the most popular player on the team. Known for his special clutch hitting (he had a .340 average against the hated Giants), he was called the People's Choice, or Peepul's Cherce, as it was often written in Brooklyn. He was said to be the leader of the protest against Robinson.

"I was supposed to have organized a meeting of some of the players to boycott Robinson," he told the New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow in 1981, some six months before his death. "When it was announced that Robinson would be joining the Dodgers, the team was playing an exhibition game in Panama. I was in Miami, meeting my family. We then took a boat to Havana where the Dodger training camp was that year. I met the team plane when it flew in from Panama. I heard a good deal of talk about Robinson. But I didn't know a thing about any insurrection, as it was later called. But I got a message that Mr. [Branch] Rickey wanted to see me. I went to the Hotel Nacional in Havana the next day and I sat down with Mr. Rickey in that room."

From that meeting and from a letter Walker later sent Rickey asking to be traded, Walker was identified as the center of the storm that followed Robinson's arrival in Brooklyn. Seven years before the historic Brown versus Board of Education ruling banned school segregation; a dozen years before the last major league team (the Boston Red Sox) was integrated in 1959; seventeen years before passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act; and more than sixty years before an African Ameri can would be taken seriously as a presidential candidate, a young black man was added to a major league roster. And Dixie Walker would be labeled a racist. It kept him from being considered for baseball's Hall of fame. Like Cap Anson before him, it identified him as a bigot, the leader of baseball's anti black movement of the 1940s, and it damaged his family and friends.

When Durocher gathered his players together on that 1947 night, he had been the manager of the Dodgers since 1939. According to Durocher's 1975 autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, written with ed Linn, he called all the players, including Dixie Walker, together for a historic meeting. Jackie Robinson was coming to the Dodgers. Durocher was all for it. Anyone who wouldn't accept the Negro as a teammate would be traded. "I hear some of you players don't want to play with Robinson and you have a petition drawn up that you are going to sign," Durocher wrote. "Well, you know what you can do with that petition. You can wipe your ass with it. Mr. Rickey is on his way down here and all you have to do is tell him about it. I'm sure he'll be happy to make other arrangements for you."

Durocher's story continues in a spirited vein. "I hear Dixie Walker is going to send Mr. Rickey a letter asking to be traded. Just hand him the letter, Dixie, and you're gone. Gone. If this fellow is good enough to play on this ball club-and from what I've seen and heard he is-he is going to play on this ball club and he is going to play for me."

Durocher died in 1991 and was inducted into baseball's Hall of fame at Cooperstown in 1994, with his wife, Laraine Day, a former actress, on hand to accept the honor. He was suspended for a year by the baseball commissioner Albert (Happy) Chandler because of alleged immoral conduct on April 9, 1947. He was accused of a gambling involvement with actor George Raft and of violating church rules by marrying the actress. He was accused of associating with what were described as "shady characters," mostly based on complaints of the man who had once hired him, Larry MacPhail, who was running the Yankees in 1947. Robinson was officially promoted to the Dodgers on April 10, 1947.

Dixie Walker, born in Villa Rica, Georgia and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, was never seriously considered for the Hall of fame despite a lifetime .306 average over eighteen seasons. He was married to the same woman, the former Estelle Shea, for forty-six years. They raised six children together. He spent fifty-two years in baseball as a player, coach, manager, scout, and batting instructor.

In 1981 Walker told sportswriter Berkow about his heated meeting with Branch Rickey in Rickey's office at the Havana spring headquarters of the Brooklyn Dodgers. "He really reamed me out. I was so mad at him accusing me of being a ringleader that a few days later I wrote him this letter requesting to be traded. But I did not mention Jackie Robinson's name," Walker said.

The letter was written on a piece of plain yellow paper. It was handwritten by Walker and addressed to Rickey, the president of the Dodgers, at his Brooklyn office at 215 Montague Street. Walker made two copies of the letter. He delivered one copy to Harold Parrott, the traveling secretary, and asked him to deliver it personally to Rickey when he returned to Brooklyn. He kept the second copy.

Walker wrote the date on the right-hand top of the letter in a firm hand.

March the 26th, 1947 Dear Mr. Rickey.

Recently the thought has occurred to me that a change of ball clubs would benefit both the Brooklyn ball club and myself. Therefore I would like to be traded as soon as a deal could be arranged. My association with you, the people of Brooklyn (this was the People's Choice as author), the press and radio has been very pleasant, and one I can truthfully say I am sorry has to end.

For reasons I don't care to go into, I feel my decision is best for all concerned.

Very truly yours, Dixie Walker.

"When Mr. Rickey got back to Brooklyn and saw the letter he did his dead level best to say that my opposition to Robinson was the reason I wanted to be traded," Walker told Berkow in that 1981 interview. "Well, I had been with the club for nine years and I resented being the scapegoat."

Walker was traded to Pittsburgh on December 8, 1947, after Robinson had a Rookie of the Year season at age twenty-eight, after the Dodgers won the National League pennant, then lost a bitter seven game World Series to the Yankees, and after Walker passed his thirty-seventh birthday.

"He wasn't traded over the Robinson thing or the letter or any damn petition," says Ralph Branca, eighty-two, born and raised in Mount Vernon, New York, one of five surviving members of the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers. "He was traded for the same reasons Rickey traded anybody. He thought he could make the club better and he didn't want to pay a thirty-seven-year-old guy more money."

Branca was twenty-one years old that season of 1947, in his fourth year as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a twenty-one-game winner, the youngest pitcher to win more than twenty games since Hall of Famer Bob feller won twenty-four games in 1939 at the age of twenty for the Cleveland Indians.

Walker was traded to the Pirates along with pitchers Hal Gregg and Vic Lombardi for pitcher Preacher Roe, third baseman Billy Cox, and utility man Gene Mauch. Roe and Cox would go on to be vital players in the surge of the Dodgers over the next decade. Mauch would go on to a brilliant managerial career.

"I was there, I never heard of any petition," recalls Branca. "Sure there was a lot of talk about Jackie. Why not? This was a revolutionary move for baseball. The southerners on the team, Dixie, Stanky, Bragan, Casey, and some other guys, Furillo, maybe, Lavagetto, maybe, talked about it among themselves. Nobody talked to me about it. I was a young pitcher working to get better and make a living."

Branca's twenty-one wins at the age of twenty-one for the Brooklyn Dodgers that year and an opening game start in the World Series against the Yankees were the memorable parts of his season. "I remember that season more for the year I had than for Jackie. Jackie took care of himself. I'm not saying Dixie was a pal of Jackie's but he probably didn't treat him any differently than a lot of other guys on the team did," Branca says.

Bobby Bragan, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, and longtime Texas resident, runs a charity in fort Worth, Texas, for underprivileged children. He is ninety-one years old. He was the regular shortstop on the Philadelphia Phillies for three seasons before being traded to Brooklyn in 1943 where he played as a backup infielder and catcher into 1948.

"Sure I was against Jackie joining the club. I was from the South. That was my background. There was some talk of a petition but I never saw anything like that," he says.

After the Dodgers returned to Havana and after the Durocher meeting in the barracks, Bragan was called in to Rickey's room at the Nacional Hotel in Havana.

"Dixie was there in the room," Bragan says. "I remember that. Mr. Rickey was all over him. Heck, Dixie was the leader of the team, the senior man, he had a lot of influence on that club. Dixie's face just got red as Mr. Rickey went on and on about giving Jackie a chance. Maybe Dixie said a few words. I can't remember. But it wasn't many. This was Mr. Rickey's show. I don't think Furillo said a word. He just looked stunned. It was Dixie, me, Stanky, and Furillo in that room with Mr. Rickey. I don't know if he called any others in at any other time."

Bragan said, "When Mr. Rickey finished he asked all four of us, one at a time, if we would play any differently if Jackie was on the club. We all answered we would not. Then he asked us if we wanted to be traded. I said I did. That's just the way I felt. Dixie said he did. Stanky just put his head down. Furillo didn't say a word. He was just a kid then. I don't even know why he was there," Bragan says. Bragan died in January 2010.

Clyde King is eighty-three years old, still living in his hometown of Goldsboro, North Carolina; he has three daughters and eight grandchildren. He is a consultant with the New York Yankees, an instructor in the team's spring training headquarters at Tampa each March, and a longtime pal of Yankees boss George M. Steinbrenner. He has received a baseball check from his employers for sixty-five years, one of the longest salaried figures in the game's history.

"I was a kid pitcher still trying to make my way in the big leagues in 1947," King says. "I don't recall any petition in Havana where we trained. I looked up to Dixie Walker as a veteran player, a kind and gentle man and someone we all admired."

King said about a dozen years later he managed a minor league team playing an exhibition in Havana. The new leader of the country, Fidel Castro, was scheduled to throw out the first ball. "He came up to me and said, 'Do you know who I am?' I said, 'Of course, you are the leader of Cuba.' Then Castro looked at me and said, 'I pitched against you in 1947.' I didn't remember that. Maybe if he had pitched better I would have remembered him and he would have signed with the Dodgers. Then we wouldn't have had all that trouble with Cuba."

King says all he could remember about Robinson and Walker that spring was Rickey asking him if he would play the same, as a southerner, if Robinson was on the team. "I think Mr. Rickey asked everybody that. I told him I certainly would. I just wanted to be a big league pitcher. We went back for the season and after the second or third week, my wife, Norma, was inside the fence at Ebbets field with the other wives waiting for us all to come out of the clubhouse. Jackie's wife, Rachel, was outside the fence, with her baby, all by herself. Norma just told her to walk a few feet down the gate and come inside with the other wives to wait for Jackie. She did. There it was, just a little southern girl taking care of the new black girl."

He remembers how much of a financial struggle it was in 1947 as a big league ball player. He made thirty-five hundred dollars in that rookie season and never made over twelve thousand dollars in his seven-year major league pitching career. "Alex Rodriguez makes more in one at bat than I made in my entire professional career," says King.

The Yankees pay A-Rod $25.2 million a year in his ten-year contract signed before the 2008 season. In 2009 he was identified as one of 104 big leaguers who failed steroid drug testing in 2003. He was with the Texas Rangers then. He later admitted he used steroids from 2001 through 2003.

Gene Hermanski is eighty-eight years old, a ten-year resident of Homosassa, Florida, after a lifetime in his native New Jersey. He played with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943, joined the Coast Guard, then returned to Brooklyn in 1947. He was fighting for a job in 1947.

"I had played against a lot of black players when I was in the Coast Guard playing on a navy team and during the time I played on a semiprofessional team in Brooklyn called the Bushwicks. I had to use a different name, Gene Walsh, because I was already with Brooklyn and I was playing for a navy team out of Floyd Bennett field in Brooklyn. I played against Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck O'Neil, all of the Negro League stars." Hermanski says he knew making the ball club in 1947 would be a tough chore with all the World War II vets back now and the talented youngsters, including Robinson, knocking on the big league doors. "That's all I thought about that spring, making an impression, making the club. Dixie helped me with my batting and fielding. He was always kind and helpful to me," Hermanski remembers.

What about the petition?

"There was talk, you know clubhouse gossip, about what some guys would do if Jackie came to the team. I didn't take it very seriously. It was mostly the southern players, Dixie, of course, as a veteran and Bragan, Hugh Casey, Kirby Higbe. I didn't pay much attention to it. I paid more attention to hitting the ball in spring training so I could win a job."

After Robinson did join the Dodgers it would be Hermanski who came up with one of the funniest lines that helped break the building tension around the team concerning Robinson's arrival. "It was in Cincinnati, a few weeks into the season and the rumors were flying, this time about guys threatening to shoot Jackie if he walked on the field. We actually had cops in the clubhouse and everybody was told about it," says Hermanski.

As a police officer warned the Dodgers about the possible plot, Hermanski stood up and told his teammates, "Let's all go out there wearing number 42 [Robinson's Brooklyn uniform number] and then the guy won't be able to tell us apart. He won't know who to shoot."

As he looks back sixty years or more on that spring training in Havana, Hermanski now says, "If any petition existed I didn't know about it. Nobody ever came to ask me to sign anything. I'm sure if they did come to me, they knew I wouldn't sign something like that." Hermanski recently looked at the starting lineup for that historic April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson's name was first included in a big league game. "I'm the only one still alive," he says. "That must mean something."

Duke Snider, eighty-two, a 1947 rookie that April opening day in 1947 and inducted into the Hall of fame in 1980, never got off the bench on that significant day Robinson played at Ebbets field for the first time. "That's what I remember about the day, not Jackie playing, but me not playing. When you are a kid trying to make it that is the only thing you think about when a game lineup is posted. Am I in there? I wasn't so that made me mad," he says.

Snider does remember something about a petition late in spring training.

"I think it was Hugh Casey [the famed Brooklyn relief pitcher] who came up to me in the clubhouse one day late in the spring and told me to sign this little piece of paper he had in his hand," Snider says. "I don't even think he said it was a petition. It was just a sheet of yellow paper. I just got up and walked away. 'I'm not signing anything like that.' That was it," Snider says.

Snider grew up in Los Angeles near the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles. "everybody around my area knew who Jackie Robinson was. He had been a great star at Pasadena Junior (now City) College and then he went on to UCLA. I was out on the field there one day and here comes Jackie Robinson. A bunch of us kids recognized him and walked with him. He was playing in a UCLA baseball game and wearing baseball spikes and he was walking across the field to the track and field area. We walked with him, sat down along the edge of the track and watched him broad jump. He won the broad jump for UCLA and then he just got up and walked back to the baseball game. I think he won that for UCLA, too."

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Dixie Walker of the Dodgers by Maury Allen Susan Walker Copyright © 2010 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 How It All Started 1

2 The Lingering Legend 14

3 The Walkers of Birmingham 30

4 The Walker Family Baseball Dynasty 46

5 Watch Out, Babe, Dixie Is Coming 61

6 Estelle Shea Walker 87

7 Arrival in Brooklyn 100

8 The 1941 Pennant and the 1944 Batting Title 114

9 Jackie's Early Years 132

10 Jackie and Dixie in 1947 149

11 The Pennant, the World Series, and the Long Farewell 168

12 The Final Playing Years and a New Career 198

13 The Sweet Dodger Days 215

14 Dixie, a Baseball Lifer 235

15 Estelle Carries the Torch 245

16 History's Verdict 260

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