- Dixie Walker of the Dodgers: The People’s Choice
Dixie Walker was a popular outfielder, often described as “The People’s Choice,” for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1940s. Today, Walker is remembered primarily for the role played by the white Southerner in opposing Branch Rickey’s decision promoting Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn roster and integrating Major League Baseball in 1947. Veteran sportswriter Maury Allen, with the assistance of Dixie’s daughter Sharon Walker, argues that the depiction of Dixie Walker as a racist unjustly slanders his reputation and has denied the athlete entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The assistance of Susan Walker certainly helps to humanize her father, but Allen’s tendency to rely upon conflicting newspaper accounts and the fallibility of human memory rather than archival sources or the work of such scholars as the late Jules Tygiel fails to bolster the case for a reevaluation of Walker’s life and career.
Allen provides an overview of Walker’s life that may be familiar to both baseball scholars and fans. Born Fred E. Walker in Villa Rica, Georgia, Walker grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. His father, Ewart, who was also called “Dixie,” pitched for the Washington Senators, (1909–1912), but an arm problem shortened his career. The Walker family struggled economically with Ewart developing a drinking problem, and his son dropped out of school to support the family. He avoided the steel mills by signing with the New York Yankees. Walker was deemed as the next Babe Ruth, but a shoulder injury limited his playing time with the Yankees. Following the 1936 season, Walker was traded to the Chicago White Sox. After fairly productive seasons with the White Sox and Detroit Tigers, the outfielder was dealt to the National League and Brooklyn Dodgers.
Walker hit his stride with the Dodgers from 1939 to 1947. While navigating the difficult right field wall in Ebbets Field, Walker played a key role in the Brooklyn pennants of 1941 and 1947. Walker won the National League batting title in 1944 with a .357 average, and the following year he led the league in runs batted in with 124. After the 1947 season and the controversy surrounding Robinson coming to Brooklyn, Walker was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he played for two seasons. Following the conclusion of his playing career in 1949, Walker stayed active in baseball, managing in the minor leagues and serving as a batting instructor and coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The focal point of Allen’s biography is the response of Walker to Robinson’s integration of baseball. Allen writes, “Until 1947 Dixie Walker’s image was clearly that of the most popular player in the history of the Brooklyn Dodgers. After 1947, he was unfairly locked into the negative, racist image the press, the public, and maybe Branch Rickey portrayed in him, a negative portrait that has lasted to this day” (p. 137). Depending upon published memoirs and newspaper accounts, as well as conflicting perceptions from interviews with former players in their eighties and nineties, Allen questions whether there was actually a petition circulated by Walker and his Dodger teammates to bar Robinson [End Page 137] from the club. Instead, Allen suggests that Southern players discussed their reservations about playing with Robinson, and Rickey blatantly criticized Walker for his alleged part in opposing integration of the team. In response to this unfair treatment, Walker wrote a letter to Rickey requesting a trade for reasons upon which he failed to elaborate. The popular assumption was that Walker simply rejected his black teammate, but Allen argues that the primary justification for the trade demand was Walker’s humiliating treatment by Rickey. The Dodger executive did honor Walker’s request after the 1947 season in which the outfielder contributed to the team’s pennant drive, although Walker’s batting skills were beginning to deteriorate.
Allen concludes that Walker was no racist. He was a good teammate to Robinson, and...