|This article does not cite any references or sources. (May 2012)|
September 24, 1910|
Villa Rica, Georgia
|Died: May 17, 1982
|Batted: Left||Threw: Right|
|April 28, 1931 for the New York Yankees|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 22, 1949 for the Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Runs batted in||1,023|
|Career highlights and awards|
Fred E. "Dixie" Walker (September 24, 1910 – May 17, 1982) was a right fielder in Major League Baseball who played for the New York Yankees (1931, 1933–36), Chicago White Sox (1936–37), Detroit Tigers (1938–39), Brooklyn Dodgers (1939–47) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1948–49). In an 18-season career, Walker posted a .306 batting average with 105 home runs and 1,023 RBIs in 1,905 games.
Walker's popularity with the Ebbets Field fans in the 1940s brought him the nickname "The People's Cherce" (so-called, and -spelled, because "Choice" in the "Brooklynese" of the mid-20th century frequently was pronounced that way). He was an All-Star in five consecutive years (1943–47) and the 1944 National League batting champion. Walker may be best known for his reluctance to play on the same team as Jackie Robinson in 1947.
Walker was the only Major League Baseball player to have been a teammate of both Babe Ruth and Robinson.
A native of Villa Rica, Georgia, Walker was the scion of a baseball family. His father, Ewart (the original "Dixie Walker"), was a pitcher for the Washington Senators (1909–12); an uncle, Ernie, was an outfielder for the St. Louis Browns (1913–15); and his younger brother, Harry "the Hat", also an outfielder, played for four National League teams between 1940 and 1955 and managed the St. Louis Cardinals (1955), Pittsburgh Pirates (1965–67) and Houston Astros (1968–72). All four Walkers batted left-handed and threw right-handed.
Walker first attracted attention when he batted .401 for Class B Greenville of the South Atlantic League in 1930. That year, at age 17, Walker was obtained by the Yankees for USD$25,000. Although he lacked smoothness, Walker was such an outstanding prospect that the organization envisioned him as Babe Ruth's successor after batting .350 in the International League. Basically a pull hitter with some power, he was also a fast runner and a competent outfielder with a fine throwing arm. Nevertheless, in his 1931 rookie season he crashed into a fence and suffered a shoulder injury that impaired his throwing. The injury was corrected with a surgery and he was out in 1932 but the injury recurred a year later after a slide into second base. His first full season came in 1933 when he hit 15 home runs in 328 at-bats, and batted .274. But the following season, injuries limited Walker to 17 games and 17 at-bats, and he batted only .118. In 1935, the Yankees sent Walker to the minor leagues. In May 1936, Walker's past injuries and the arrival of the Yankees' new star, Joe DiMaggio, prompted manager Joe McCarthy to trade Walker to the White Sox despite his .350 average. In total, Walker played only 131 games for the Yankees in a span of six years.
With the White Sox, Walker hit .302 and tied for the American League lead in triples in 1937, but re-injured the damaged shoulder so badly that he needed surgery again. That December, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers in a multi-player deal. He continued to hit more than .300 with the Tigers before ripping cartilage in a knee in 1939. Despite his consistently high batting average, it seemed injuries were going to prematurely end his career. Placed on waivers, Walker was obtained by the Dodgers on July 24, 1939 when they were in need of outfielders. Although Walker played regularly in the Brooklyn outfield for the rest of 1939, he batted only .280 with no power. Still, manager Leo Durocher, another Yankee discard, liked Walker's stroke and penciled him in as a regular in 1940.
In his first game for the 1940 Dodgers, he singled to right field in the 11th inning to beat the Boston Braves. In that campaign, he led his team in batting average (.308) and doubles. He also posted some of his best games against the New York Giants, batting .436 against the hated rivals, and as a result, endeared himself to the Brooklyn fans. Nevertheless, manager Leo Durocher opened the 1941 season with the newly acquired Paul Waner in Walker's right field spot. Brooklyn fans were outraged but the veteran Waner faded fast and was sent to the Boston Braves. Walker returned to become part of an all-.300-hitting outfield (along with center fielder Pete Reiser and left fielder Joe Medwick) that led the Dodgers to the 1941 National League pennant.
In the following years, Walker continued to produce. He hit .290 in 1942 and .302 in 1943. In 1944, he led the NL with a .357 batting average (ahead of Stan Musial's .347) but the NL MVP award went to fielding wizard shortstop Marty Marion. Walker hit .300 and won the 1945 RBI title with 124. In 1946 he was second in RBIs (116) and third in batting average (.319), finishing second in the MVP vote behind Musial.
When the Dodgers broke baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, Walker became a figure of controversy. In 1947, during spring training, the club announced that it was bringing up Robinson from the minors. Walker thereupon wrote a letter to Branch Rickey, the club president, asking to be traded. The letter did not mention Robinson by name, but Walker acknowledged later that he had been under pressure from Alabama people not to play with Robinson. Several other Dodgers from the U.S. South who had also grown up in conditions of strict racial segregation made similar requests of Rickey. According to many Dodger players, Walker was at the forefront of a move to block Robinson. Reportedly, Robinson would look the other way rather than try to shake Walker's hand on the field, to avoid mutual embarrassment. Eventually, Walker came to respect Robinson for the way he handled the abuse directed at him, and called him "as outstanding an athlete as I never saw." Walker finished the year at .306 and 94 RBIs.
Walker saluted Robinson the baseball player when the 1947 pennant was won: "He is everything Branch Rickey said he was when he came up from Montreal." As organized baseball welcomed more black and Latin players into its ranks, Walker's position about integration may have evolved as well. He managed integrated teams in the AAA International League in the late 1950s, coached for the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Braves and made clear to reporters that he was not the same Dixie Walker as he was in 1947. He claimed that his support of Jim Crow during Robinson's rookie season sprang partly from concerns for his home and businesses in his native Alabama – "I didn't know if people would spit on me or not [for playing with a black man]," he once said. His final years in baseball in the late 1960s through the 1970s were as the minor league batting instructor for one of the game's most diverse organizations, the Los Angeles Dodgers.
When writing his memoir of baseball in the New York 1950s, The Era, Roger Kahn included a footnote that quoted Walker directly about the Robinson issue and about the pressure against his off-season business, from a conversation the two men had after Walker finished giving batting tips to a pair of players, one white, the other black: "That's why I started that thing. It was the dumbest thing I ever did in my life. Would you tell everybody that I'm deeply sorry?"
Sent to the Pirates in 1948, Walker led his team with a .318 average (topping the .300 mark for the tenth time in 12 years) and ended his playing career the next season. Following his retirement as a player, he managed several minor league teams for most of the 1950s, including the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1957 to 1959, winning the International League pennant in his first season with the team. He served as a batting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals, and coached and scouted both for the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers.