The paths of three 19th century baseball players crossed in 1887 and their encounter would define race relations in organized baseball for the next 60 years. One was the first of a number of dominant black pitchers who never got a chance to apply their trade in the major leagues. One was a bare-handed catcher who is considered by many the first black major leaguer. And one is a Hall of Fame player and manager and virulent racist.
George Stovey was born in 1866 in Williamsport, Pa. His stepfather Henry Johnson supported the family as a laborer. Stovey began playing ball with local semi-pro clubs at the age of 19. One year later he joined the all-black Cuban Giants in Trenton, N.J. It only took one impressive outing against the Jersey City team in the Eastern League for that team to whisk him away. He pitched in 31 games for Jersey City that year compiling a record of 16-15 with an outlandish ERA of 1.13. The following year, 1887, he joined the Newark Little Giants of the International League (the highest level of minor league baseball). He won 35 games for the Little Giants that year, an International League record that still stands.
Moses Fleetwood Walker
“Fleet” Walker was born in 1856 in Mt. Pleasant, Ohio. His father was one of the first black physicians in the state of Ohio. Walker attended Oberlin College where he majored in philosophy and played baseball on an integrated team. He was soon recruited by the University of Michigan where he continued to impress. In 1883 he was signed by the Toledo Blue Stockings of the Northwestern League, a minor league. In 1884 the Toledo team moved up to the major league American Association. Walker batted .264 during an injury-plagued campaign, but made his mark as an outstanding defensive catcher. It was that season which is the basis for the claim that Walker was the first black major leaguer. Baseball historians have identified an earlier black player who passed as white and played one game, but Walker was the first to play a substantial number of games and to clearly identify as black. Financial troubles and Walker’s injuries led the Blue Stockings to release him at the end of the 1884 season. Walker kicked around a couple minor league teams then was signed by the Newark Little Giants in 1887.
Adrian Anson was born in 1852 in Marshalltown, Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa but only lasted one semester before being shown the door for bad behavior. By age 19 he was playing first base for the Rockford Forest Citys during their one and only year in the National Association, a predecessor of the National League. He was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics where he played two seasons and finished among the league’s top five hitters. He was then recruited somewhat underhandedly and joined the Chicago White Stockings. In 1879 he was named captain and manager of the White Stockings, thus the nickname “Cap.” Anson played 27 seasons in the National League, compiling a career batting average of .334, and is considered by some to be baseball’s first superstar. He led the Chicago team to six national league pennants.
Anson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1939. He might well have been inducted into the Hall of Shame. Anson was a racist who used his position in baseball to foster bigotry and segregation. He encountered Walker in 1883 while the latter was at Toledo. Chicago and Toledo was scheduled to play an exhibition game and Anson announced his team would not take the field if Walker was playing. Toledo’s manager Charlie Morton called his bluff and put Walker in the starting lineup. Anson, under threat of losing the gate, went ahead and played but not without hurling a racial epithet at Walker. Anson was even said to have directed racial slurs at the White Stockings mascot.
Newark Little Giants
At this point baseball was not exclusively segregated. All of the major league teams were white and there were both all-white and all-black teams in the minor leagues. But there were also teams who tried to sign the best players irrespective of race. The Newark Little Giants were one of those teams. They entered the 1887 season with Stovey and Walker, two of the eight black players who started the season with International League teams.
The Little Giants were in the Eastern League in 1886 where they compiled a 68-26 record and won the championship. They stepped up to the International League in 1887 and finished 59-39 in fourth place. They had the first all black battery in baseball, a fact that they proudly promoted. Their fireballing left-hander and bare-handed catcher were among the main attractions for Little Giants fans.
Newark Little Giants vs. Chicago White Stockings
On July 14, 1887, the Little Giants and the National League champion Chicago White Stockings were scheduled to play an exhibition in Newark. The White Stockings (the franchise that would later become the Cubs) had just finished a series in Washington and were scheduled to start another with the New York Giants the next day. As was typical of teams at the time they decided to use their day off to get a payday as a large crowd was expected in Newark.
Prior to the game Anson sent a telegram to Newark manager Charles Hackett threatening that the White Stockings wouldn’t play if “colored” men were “at the points.” Hackett backed down, not starting Stovey, who had been scheduled to pitch. The manager claimed he was feeling ill. He also left Walker on the bench with no explanation.
Meanwhile in Buffalo representatives of the International League were meeting. Newspaper reports the next day focused on the decision to grant a franchise to Wilkes-Barre and to censure the Newark and Jersey City teams for playing Sunday exhibitions. But the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported on a decision which would mean far more for the future of baseball: “Manager Humphries (Rochester Maroons) stated to a reporter last evening that a petition was presented at the meeting of the International League held in Buffalo yesterday asking that colored players be banned from the league. Secretary White was instructed to promulgate no more contracts of colored players.”
The background for this was Anson’s threat to not play in Newark. But there were other issues. Binghamton’s white players had petitioned the team to release their two black players (which they did). And other teams, like Jersey City, claimed black players would drive white players from the league. Surely there is a whiff of hypocrisy about this since Stovey had pitched for Jersey City the year before and they had desperately tried to keep him from jumping to the Little Giants.
The vote was 6-4. The Liittle Giants and the three other teams with black players, Buffalo, Oswego and Syracuse, voted against it. Binghamton, which had just released its two black players cast the swing vote. The ruling didn’t ban existing black players but prevented future signings (and that worked until Jackie Robinson played in the International League for the Montreal Royals in 1946). This was the first time that an organized baseball organization voted on and put in writing a policy of racial discrimination. The color barrier in the major league was always referred to as a “gentleman’s agreement,” though surely gentleman is the wrong word for it.
On the field that day the Little Giants beat the White Stockings 9-4 even without their star battery mates before a crowd of 3,000.
Stovey went on to finish the season with the Little Giants. It was rumored that the New York Giants of the National League were interested in signing him that year. The deal never went through, some say because of the objections of racists like Anson, and some claim it was simply because he was under contract to the Little Giants and Newark refused to sell him. After the 1887 season he played another 10 years with minor league and semi-professional all-black teams including the Cuban Giants, New York Gorhams and Worcester Grays. Following his playing career he umpired in his home town of Williamsport until 1913. During prohibition he tried his hand at bootlegging, but died in poverty in 1936.
Walker finished out the season in Newark then followed his manager Hackett to the Syracuse Stars for the 1888 and 89 seasons. He was a popular player among Syracuse fans, as he was in both Toledo and Newark. When he was released in 1889, he was the last black International League player until Robinson in 1946. Following his baseball career, Walker was successful both as a businessman and an inventor. At various times he ran a theater, an opera house and hotel. And he successfully had four inventions patented. In 1891 he was attacked by four white men outside a saloon. He killed one of them with a penknife and was charged with murder. He was acquitted by an all-white jury. Walker would become a black nationalist. He co-edited a newspaper The Equator with his brother and later wrote a book “Our Home Colony” about emigrating back to Africa.
After the 1887 season, Anson signed a 10-year contract as player manager for the White Stockings. His on field prowess as well as his managerial successes declined over that period. He never won another pennant. In 1897 he was fired. After retiring he ran a billiards and bowling hall and also went on vaudeville tours, singing and doing monologues. Unlike the man who he had refused to take the field with, most of Anson’s business ventures failed. He organized the American Baseball Association in 1900, a league that folded before playing a single game. And his bottled ginger beer was found to explode on store shelves. He spent one year as Chicago city clerk then ran for sheriff but was defeated in the primary. He later published a ghost written book titled: “A Ball Player’s Career: Being the Personal Reminiscences of Adrian C. Anson.”
As for the Little Giants they held onto their black stars until the end of 1887 when the team folded. They returned in 1889 for two seasons in the Atlantic Association before going under for good.