Posts Tagged ‘Toledo Blue Stockings’

The Grand Experiment

February 1, 2013
Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third ffrom left top row)

Fleet Walker (far left of middle row) and Welday Walker (third from left top row)

It’s now black history month in the USA, so it’s time for my annual journey into black baseball. For this blog it’s a very successful month. I’ve noted a major uptick in hits during February. Most of the hits are on articles involving black baseball. I ascribe this to a bunch of school kids trying to find something to write about or present for black history month. So, I think I’ll oblige all those students who need the help. Don’t take it too badly, kids, you’ll survive even this.

When Moses Fleetwood Walker died in 1924, the Brooklyn Eagle commented that his one year in the Major Leagues in 1884 was a “Grand Experiment.” Walker was black and played a single year in the Majors. The 19th Century was a tough century for black ball players. They were allowed to play, they were excluded, they were cheered, they were vilified. It was, in other words, a fairly standard period of black Americans.

The close of the Civil War may have changed the nature of freedom in the US, but it didn’t do much for the acceptance of Black Americans in baseball. Many universities were open to integrating teams, some not so much. The newly emerging professional teams and leagues tended to follow current trends. Some teams were integrated, others segregated. Some leagues were integrated, others segregated. The first truly professional league (and quasi-major league), the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, had no black players in its 1871-75 existence. I can find no evidence it was official policy to segregate the league, but when players the quality of Bud Fowler aren’t playing in the league you have to wonder.

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

Bud Fowler (middle of back row)

The National League replaced the National Association in 1876 and things improved (sorta). As early as 1879 a black player may have been on a Major League team. On 21 June 1879, the Providence Grays first baseman, Joe Start, was unable to go. The team added a one-day replacement named Bill White to the team. White went one for four and scored a run. In 2003 SABR research noted that the Brown University baseball team had a player named William Edward White on its roster. White was of mixed race (which in 1879 American made him “black” regardless of his skin tone). They concluded that the two White’s were probably the same person, thus making White the first Black American (and only American born a slave) to play in the Majors. There is much speculation about this so don’t take it to the bank just yet.

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

Frank Grant while playing at Buffalo

By the mid-1880s black players like Frank Grant, a middle infielder who is in the Hall of Fame and pitcher George Stovey were excelling in minor leagues. Neither ever got a chance to play in the Majors. Fleet Walker did. He was a catcher for the minor league Toledo Blue Stockings when Toledo made the move from the Northwestern League (a minor league) to the American Association (a Major League) in 1884. Toledo finished eighth, Walker caused a great deal of controversy for not only the opposition but also within his own team. As a catcher he was supposed to be superior. If you line up his hitting stats with the other first string catchers in the 1884 American Association he ends up firmly in the middle of the pack. In 1885 Toledo, and Walker, along with his brother who played a handful of games with Toledo in 1884, were back in the minors. As a short aside, Hank O’Day, who was just elected to Cooperstown as an umpire, was a teammate of Walker’s.

After 1884 the National League (followed by the American League after its founding in 1901) became a segregated league. There was never an official written policy excluding Black Americans, but none ever showed up on either an NL or AL field during a game. Cap Anson of the Colts (now the Cubs) gets much of the blame for this. He was apparently an ardent racist and led a move to exclude blacks from the game. But it’s a little unfair to blame Anson for the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” (considering what was being agreed to the word “gentleman” certainly seems out-of-place here, doesn’t it?). It’s not like Anson was a bastion of reaction in a sea of tolerance. The mass of players, executives, owners, and fans had to acquiesce to Anson’s views or they could not have prevailed.

By 1890, segregation in both baseball and the United States in general was firmly in place. There were still a few places where a black ball player could join an integrated team, but the number of such places was dwindling. The black response was to form all black teams that would play either independently or in leagues of their own. Some of them did well, others poorly. This system was to remain in place in to the 1940s when it would be broken down gradually and a modern integrated Major Leagues would emerge.

1884

March 30, 2010

Most baseball seasons go along pretty much the same. Very few of them end up being particularly memorable except for a few diehard fans, bloggers like me, and antiquarians whose job it is to study them. Case in point: who won the World Series in 1933? OK, if you looked it up you know the Giants beat the Senators in five games. If you went further, you found the MVPs, the stat leaders, and maybe a bit of info like it was the first All Star Game. But almost everybody had to look it up. But 1884 is different and memorable. It is arguably the most interesting year of  19th Century baseball for five reasons.

1. There are three leagues. It’s the first time the country tried to deal with three major leagues. As with the other two attempts (1890 and 1914-15) it was a failure. Henry Lucas was a son of wealth in St. Louis. A fan, he decided to form a new league to compete with the existing leagues (National League and American Association). There’s some dispute about his motivation. Some works cite his anger with the reserve rule (which bound a player to a team) and others favor something akin to an ego trip. Whichever you pick (and I tend to agree with ego trip) Lucas founded the Union Association in 1884. It lasted one season, was a disaster, and floundered almost immediately. The team in St. Louis ran away with the pennant going 94-19. If you add that up, it equals 113 games. The original schedule called for 112 games (got me, coach). Other teams managed records of 69-36, 58-47, but still others were 8-4, 2-6, 6-19, and 2-16. The team in St. Paul was the 2-6 team. It was in such bad shape it folded before ever playing a home game, the only major league team to never play before a home crowd. The competition was utterly uneven, and some teams never played each other (Winner St. Louis never played Milwaukee, the 8-4 team).  St. Paul obviously played almost no one. There were teams in Wilmington, NC and Altoona, PA., both nice enough towns, but not big enough in 1884 to support a big league franchise. Atloona managed to survive 25 games and Wilmington only 18. At the end of the season, the league was gone. You could argue it gave the major leagues one very good player (Tommy McCarthy) and that’s all. Bill James in his Historical Abstract  argues that the Union Association is not really a major league. I tend to agree with him. Major League Baseball doesn’t.

2. Charles Radbourn had the greatest season ever by any pitcher in the majors. Radbourn pitched for the Providence Grays. Early in the season the team’s other pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, bolted to the Union Association. Radbourn at that point agreed, for contractual and monetary considerations, to pitch every inning of every game for the remainder of the season. Well, it didn’t work out that way, but it came close. Read the following numbers closely. For the year Radbourn was 59 (or 60)-12 with 73 complete games, 441 strikeouts, 98 walks, 11 shutouts, and an ERA of 1.38 in 679 innings (not a record. The record is 680 by Will White in 1879). In fairness to modern pitchers, Radbourn wasn’t on a mound, and wasn’t 60’6″ away. His delivery was sidearm, and he could take a short run before releasing the pitch. Still, it’s a heck of a year. About the 59 (60) business. There are differences in the way wins were determined in 1884 and the modern method. Under the old way Radboun gets 60 wins, under our contemporary method he gets 59. So the modern Major Leagues recognize 59 wins, while his colleagues saw 60. I leave it to you to determine which you prefer. Me? Well, 60 is a nice round number.   

3. The first postseason playoffs were held in 1884. Radbourn led his Grays to the NL pennant by 10.5 games. Meanwhile, the New York Metropolitans (not the modern Mets) won the American Association title by 6.5. They challenged the Grays to a three game set, all to be played in New York, to determine a champion for the year. The Grays accepted and Radbourn continued to pitch as he’d done in the regular season and Providence won all three games with Radbourn pitching complete game (what else?) victories giving up no earned runs. The first “World Series” ended with a National League victory.

4. There was a home run explosion at Chicago. The park in Chicago was a little odd. The fences were short, less than 200 feet to right field. Previous seasons balls going over the fences were ruled doubles. In 1884, the team changed the rule to make them home runs. The White Stockings put up astronomical numbers by 19th Century standards, coming up with 149 homers in 112 games. That’s a team record that lasts until 1927 and the Murder’s Row Yankees. The big winner was Ned Williamson, the third baseman, who set a 19th Century record with 27 home runs, all but two at home. Three of his teammates, second baseman Fred Pfeffer, first baseman Cap Anson, and outfielder Abner Dalrymple also posted 20 or more home runs. Dan Brouthers of Buffalo hit 14 for the most of any player outside Chicago. The next year the White Stockings moved to a new park and Dalrmyple’s league leading 11 homers were the most by any of the Chicago four. It took until Babe Ruth in 1919 to best Williamson’s record.

5. Integration first occurred in 1884. The American Association Toledo Blue Stockings hired Moses Fleetwood Walker to be their catcher. Fleet Walker was a black American and the first to play in the Major Leagues. I’ve done a previous post on him, so will simply say here that he wasn’t well received (maybe the understatement of this blog ever) and was gone after the season ended. His brother Welday also got into five games (all in the outfield) and was gone at the end of the season. It took until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to reintegrate the big leagues.

So there’s 1884, it’s not so famous today. It is, after all, a long time ago. But it’s still one of the most important and interesting seasons in Major League history.

BTW there’s a new book out on the season that is supposed to center around Radbourn and his accomplishments. I haven’t read it, but if anyone has, I’d appreciate a quick review if possible.