Jackie Robinson and Dixie Walker: Myths of the Southern Baseball Player. (Essay)

By Powell, Larry | Southern Cultures, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Jackie Robinson and Dixie Walker: Myths of the Southern Baseball Player. (Essay)


Powell, Larry, Southern Cultures


The year of 1947 was arguably the most pivotal in the history of major league baseball. Baseball historian William Marshall referred to it as the "season of fury," while Red Barber called it the "year all hell broke loose in baseball." What made that year so important was one player--Jackie Robinson. Prior to his ground breaking season, black baseball players were barred from the major leagues, limited to playing only against other blacks in front of primarily black fans. That started to change once Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey added Robinson to the major league roster. Although Rickey's "great experiment" sparked protests from other players, it also paved the way for the integration of baseball and other sports. (1)

By the time the controversy had settled, however, several myths about white southern baseball players had become part of baseball lore. Like all myths, they had elements of truth and fiction and were a powerful means of understanding the world. Unfortunately, these myths continued to affect player relationships for years. In fact, their impact was obvious during the 1950s and still noticeable in major league dugouts during the seventies. For at least one former player--"Dixie" Walker--those myths have continued to influence his destiny, perhaps keeping him from being honored by baseball's Hall of Fame.

Fred "Dixie" Walker was born on September 24, 1910, in Villa Rica, Georgia. In 1931, at the age of twenty, he made it to the majors long enough to play in two games with the New York Yankees. By 1933 he was a full-time member of the team and a teammate of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Sewell, and fellow southerner Ben Chapman. He had also picked up the nickname "Dixie," partly because of his southern heritage and partly because his father, who also played in the major leagues, had carried the same nickname.

In 1936 the Chicago White Sox claimed him from the Yankees for the waiver fee. The next season Walker established himself as a bona fide starter for the Sox, hitting .302 and tying for the league lead in triples with 16. Following the 1937 season, the White Sox traded their budding star to the Detroit Tigers. Walker responded with another outstanding season at the plate (.308) before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers mid-season in 1939.

With the Dodgers, Dixie Walker became a star. From 1940 to 1948, he hit above .300 every year except one and was named to the All-Star team four times. In 1944 he tied for the league batting title with a .357 mark; the next season, he led the league in RBIs (runs batted in) (124), runs produced (280), and doubles (42). In 1941 he led all National League outfielders in assists (19) and double plays (8). The Dodgers' famous Ebbets Field once had a sign sponsored by a men's clothing store that promised a free suit to any batter who could hit the right-field advertisement with a fly ball; a decade after Dixie patrolled that outfield, a young Dodger pitcher and future hall of famer named Don Drysdale pondered the offer and mused that with Dixie Walker out there, "how was any guy on the other team ever going to hit that sign?" (2)

Walker's career statistics were impressive--a .306 batting average on 2,064 hits, 105 home runs, 1,023 RBIs, and 1,037 runs. His achievements and his hustle made him the most popular player on the team and earned him a second nickname: "The People's Choice." A record and reputation like Walker's have often made ballplayers candidates for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but Walker has been consistently overlooked by both groups of voters who make the Hall's selections-sports writers and the veterans committee.

Dixie's brother Harry Walker attributed Dixie's omission to what he called a "bad rap" regarding his opposition to Jackie Robinson joining the Dodgers. Dixie Walker was an early and vocal opponent of Robinson's entry into the league, and the publicity that surrounded Dixie's opposition resulted in his being labeled the "most extreme of Dodger racists. …

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