The only player to have been a teammate of both Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson, Dixie Walker played in two World Series and was named to four All-Star Games. He led the NL in hitting in 1944, triples in 1937, and RBI in 1945. He received MVP votes in eight separate seasons, finishing as high as second in 1946. Yet if he is remembered at all by today's fans, it's for the charge that he was the player most responsible for trying to keep Jackie Robinson from joining the Brooklyn Dodgers--a charge dramatized on the big screen in the 2013 film "42." Walker has been characterized as a bigot for decades--but is it a fair assessment of the man? Noted baseball author and historian Lyle Spatz offers his point of view.
Had Dixie Walker played for any of the other 15 Major League teams in 1947; or had some other owner chosen to be the first to racially integrate his team—hardly likely given the owners’ 15–1 vote in opposition to Jackie Robinson—Walker would be remembered much differently today. But Walker played for the Dodgers in 1947, and it was his team’s president—Branch Rickey—who had opened the door to black players, disgracefully closed for so long.
Walker’s initial resistance to Robinson in the Spring of 1947 haunted him the rest of his life. He called it the dumbest thing he ever did and said on numerous occasions he wished he had handled it differently. Once the season began, however, he never did anything to oppose or interfere with Robinson’s progress. He not only gave Jackie batting tips, but according to Buzzie Bavasi, he even advised the game’s best base runner in the fine art of sliding.
There is no evidence of a harsh word ever exchanged between Robinson and Walker. Seeing Jackie play in 1947 convinced Dixie that the stereotypes of Negro inferiority he had grown up with were ludicrous. Seeing Jackie play over the next nine years led Dixie to call him as outstanding an athlete as he ever saw. He told his son Steve that Robinson had more courage than any man he had ever known. As for skill, he would put him up alongside anybody and wished he could go back and change a few things.
Over the years, Walker’s pariah status has diminished, yet for far too many people the only image they have of Dixie Walker is that of a bigoted racist who tried to keep Jackie Robinson out of baseball. “Dixie Walker has paid an unfair price for what later day politically correct baseball historians decry as racism,” wrote baseball historian Jack Kavanagh. “If there were amends to be made, Dixie made them.” Yet he continued to be condemned for what Kavanagh calls “his reluctance to participate in Branch Rickey’s Great Social Experiment.” Kavanagh says that what “Dixie did by initiating his own departure was exactly what much of the borough’s white population was also doing.”
I agree. I contend that Dixie, while undeniably wrong in what he did, is a victim of “presentism,” and should be more fairly judged in the context of the times. Historians define presentism as the practice of viewing the past, and judging the people of the past, in terms of today's standards and orthodoxies. It is the applying of current ideals and moral standards to interpret historical figures and their actions. Presentists are guilty of a lack of regard for context, for the meanings or senses that a given practice had for its historical contemporaries as opposed to how it may now read to us.
“It's when a historian sees events in the past through the prism of present-day standards,” lawyer-historian Annette Gordon-Reed told William Safire of The New York Times. “For example, Thomas Jefferson is often judged harshly as a sexist even though the notion of complete equality between the sexes was almost unthinkable in his era.” Gordon-Reed called it the “why wasn't Jefferson like Alan Alda question."
Baseball historian Norman Macht wrote, “A historian who judges a man in the context of today’s time and standards and not the standards and conditions of the time in which the subject lived commits a scholarly sin.” Macht was not writing about Dixie Walker; he was writing about what he thought were unfair charges against Judge Landis’s role in the integration of baseball. “There is a vast, unbridgeable distance between what we like to believe we always were as a society and what we really were.”
So one has to remember “what we really were” in 1947, a time when the general perception among whites that blacks did not have what it takes to succeed was not limited to baseball. In 2009 Raymond Arsenault wrote a book about another black pioneer, Marian Anderson, specifically about Miss Anderson’s groundbreaking concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. Arsenault wrote: “After a lifetime of being told they were intellectually and culturally inferior, even many blacks questioned their race’s capacity to excel in the ‘higher’ forms of art, theater, science, literature, sports, entertainment, and music.”
That a black woman could sing opera came as a surprise to many whites. “Blacks were born to dance and sing and shout,” most whites believed, but classical music was another matter, wrote Arsenault. “Mastery of classical technique required superior intelligence, discipline, and years of training. Most white Americans had never encountered a major black composer, opera singer or virtuoso violinist. Indeed, one suspects that few whites could even imagine such a thing.”
America was an overwhelmingly segregated society in the 1940s. There was hardly a neighborhood in the country that was integrated and very few workplaces where blacks and whites worked as equals. The vast majority of schools were also racially segregated: in the South by law, and in the North by custom and neighborhood design.
Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, was almost completely segregated. Written in the code of ethics of the District of Columbia’s real-estate board was the proviso that “No propery in a white section should ever be sold, rented, or advertised, or offered to colored people.” That code was still in place officially in 1947, and unofficially for many years after.
The schools in Washington remained segregated by law until the Supreme Court decision in Brown V. Board of Education outlawed the practice on May 17, 1954, and continued to mostly be so even after the ruling. The Washington Redskins, the city’s beloved football team, would not have a black player on its roster until 1962.
On July 27, 1947, Jackie Robinson and Pete Reiser connected for back-to-back home runs in Pittsburgh helping the Dodgers extend their lead in the National League pennant race to seven games. The next day, the Supreme Court of New York ruled that Stuyvesant Town, a 35-building apartment complex that would contain 8,755 apartments, being built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in lower Manhattan, could exclude black families. The courts said private developers can “restrict such accommodations on grounds of race, color, creed, or religion.” The suit to prevent Stuyvesant Town from practicing what the Times called alleged discrimination was brought by “three Negro war veterans.” After reviewing a number of cases, the court said, “It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal and State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed, or religion.”
Remember, this ruling was not made by the Supreme Court of Alabama, or Georgia, or Mississippi. It was made by the Supreme Court of New York, the most liberal-minded state in the nation.
As late as December 1955, at about the same time Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat and move to the back of a Montgomery, Alabama bus, Marvin Griffin, the Governor of Georgia, demanded that Georgia Tech not play in the Sugar Bowl against the University of Pittsburgh because the Panthers team included Bobby Grier, a black running back. "The South stands at Armageddon," Griffin said in a telegram to Georgia's Board of Regents, detailing his request that teams in the state's university system not participate in events in which races were mixed on the field or in the stands. "The battle is joined. We cannot make the slightest concession to the enemy in this dark and lamentable hour of struggle."
As outrageous as this sounds to the modern-day reader, an anachronism we smugly attribute to the benighted backward ways of the American South, this overt racism was not strictly a Southern disease. That same year, homebuilder Bill Levitt was building a new development in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Levitt was one of the nation’s leading home builders, having built towns, named Levittown, in New York and New Jersey. They were huge tracts of relatively cheap houses, which in most cases were an entry into home-ownership for thousands.
When a Bucks County newspaper brought up the exclusion of blacks in his latest town, Levitt replied “The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change. I hope it will. But as matters now stand, it is unfair to charge an individual for creating this attitude or saddle him with the sole responsibility for correcting it. The responsibility is society's. So far society has not been willing to cope with it. Until it does, it is not reasonable to expect that any one builder should or could undertake to absorb the entire risk and burden of conducting such a vast social experiment."
Levitt’s claim that “most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities,” was true for much of the North, where “public officials claimed that the separation of races was just a fact of life, not mandated by law or controlled by the state. Whites could deny responsibility for racial segregation, for their choices about where to live and where to send their children to school were individualized and ostensibly race-neutral. The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning was that it was the natural order of things that the vast majority of whites lived in all-white communities and that blacks were confined to segregated neighborhoods and mostly minority schools. Like lived with like, Birds of a feather flocked together. No one was at fault."
The vote of the owners in 1947 had been 15–1 against against the Dodgers bringing Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn. How much had changed over the years? Not as much as we would like to think. At a luncheon in Minneapolis in the early 1970s, Minnesota Twins owner Calvin Griffith gave his reason for relocating his franchise from Washington. “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota in 1961. It was when I found out you had only 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ball games, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. . . . We came here because you’ve got good hard-working white people here.”
These are only a few, a very few, examples of the state of race relations in America in 1947. Nevertheless, does the climate of the time, a time in which very few white Americans lived among, worked with, or went to school with black Americans justify Dixie Walker’s taking a morally indefensible position? It does not, but I hope I have added some historical perspective to his decision to do so.