Cap Anson And The Color Line

By Howard W. Rosenberg
Updated: June 15, 2008

VIRGINIA — Still unsettled about Cap Anson’s behavior is whether to pin blame for the line entirely or mostly on him, as some modern-day writers do. For example, in 1997, Negro Leagues historian John Holway wrote:

Segregated baseball lasted sixty years, from 1887 when Adrian ‘Cap’ Anson, the Babe Ruth of his day, tried to order a black opponent off the field, until 1947 when Jackie Robinson took his place in the infield at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

Claims of his having had influence on a policy that was never written down, the so-called “gentleman’s agreement,” are open to being debated. The claims apparently first appeared in the Cleveland Gazette in 1892 and perhaps not again until the twentieth century.

In the form of a full-blown argument, the subject, in relation to Anson, apparently next appeared in a 1907 book by a black player-turned-writer, Sol White.

White’s claims have enjoyed some blind acceptance among modern-day historians even though, in his 1970 Only the Ball Was White, Robert Peterson said White’s singling out of Anson “is to credit him with more influence than he had, or for that matter, than he needed.

For it seems clear that a majority of professional baseball players in 1887, both Northerners and Southerners, opposed integration in the game.”

A fair way to proceed is to chronologically review Anson’s allegedly prejudiced acts against blacks, or influence on other white players, teams or owners.

The chronology will cover nine such incidents or claims.

1. At Toledo in 1883, on the field, Anson stated his refusal to play an exhibition game because the opposing minor league team had a black in the lineup, Fleet Walker. The game was played. In its recap, the Toledo Blade told what happened after Anson issued his “break [refusal].”

Toledo’s management gave an order “then and there, to play Walker, and the beefy bluffer was informed that he could play his team or go, just as he blank [sic] pleased. Anson hauled in his horns somewhat and ‘consented’ to play [with his team], remarking, ‘We’ll play this here game, but won’t play never no more with the nigger in.”’

2. In 1884, Chicago again played an exhibition game at Toledo, which was now in the American Association, a major league. Walker sat it out, and unclear is whether he did so to placate Chicago or because he was injured.

Among Anson’s incidents, this one is unique in that private correspondence provides insight. Three months before the game, Chicago Treasurer-Secretary John A. Brown wrote Toledo manager Charlie Morton that “the management of the Chicago Ball Club have no personal feeling about the matter,” while “the players do most decisively object and to preserve harmony in the club it is necessary that I have your assurance in writing that [Walker] will not play any position in your nine July 25th.

I have no doubt such is your meaning[;] only your letter does not express in full [sic]. I have no desire to replay the occurrence of last season and must have your guarantee to that effort.”

Brown also wrote Chicago President Spalding of Anson’s intention not to play. Then, days before the game, Spalding wrote Anson that, as you are known more “than any other on personal reputation, I strongly urge that you play in one game.”

Also, you should “understand full well how difficult it is to get a game without your presence.” Plus, without you, the team will “go to pieces.” Finally, there is “complaint enough now against many of our men, and your leaving the club at Toledo will only add another argument for the ‘croakers.”’

Walker sat out the game, and Jimmy McGuire instead did the catching. Both had sore hands, the Toledo Blade had said a few days earlier. Of the two catchers, Walker was seemingly the more injured, as he did not play in Toledo’s second-most recent game.

In newspaper coverage about the incident, I did not find Anson explaining himself or being asked to. That Spalding wrote to Anson and possibly no other Chicago player could mean that Anson was the only notable holdout on the team days before the game.

A possible influence on Anson was Fred Pfeffer, who had joined Chicago in 1883. In 1881, he had been in an incident with Walker while playing for a Louisville independent team. Upon arriving in Louisville for a series, a team from Cleveland was told that Walker, its regular catcher, could not play.

During the first game, when Cleveland’s substitute catcher was playing poorly, the crowd shouted for Walker, and Louisville’s vice president also called for him. Then, when he started warming up, Pfeffer and a teammate walked into the clubhouse, while others who did not walk off also objected. Walker ended up not playing and the game resumed. He also did not play in the second game of the series. Then Cleveland called off the third game because it was at a great disadvantage.

“Louisville is the first city whose base ball club has refused to allow him to play,” the Louisville Commercial said.

Pfeffer also may have influenced Anson in the twentieth century to umpire and play in games with black players, as were noted in the main text. In both cases, he preceded Anson in doing so at the amateur or semi-pro level.

For example, as of 1899 Pfeffer was the official umpire of the “Chicago Mindus, the crack colored club of Cook county [sic],” the Louisville Times said.

Issues 3 and 4 relate to a claim that in 1886 or 1887, because of Anson, the New York Giants did not sign a black minor league pitcher, George Stovey. Issue 3 concerns an 1892 report in a black weekly newspaper that refers to 1886. Issue 4 is derived from Sol White’s 1907 book, which refers to 1887.

3. In 1892, the Cleveland Gazette printed the following story. It features comments from Pat Powers, who managed Stovey in Jersey City in the Eastern League in 1886, a year in which Stovey won 30 games. Powers, the Gazette wrote as a lead-in, “submitted to an interview recently, of which the following is a part.” Powers had recently been in Cincinnati, Chicago and Indianapolis, to recruit players for the New York Giants.

In 1886, Chicago won the National League pennant by 2½ games over Detroit. New York came in third, 12½ games back. Powers, in his reported 1892 comment, said 1886 New York director Walter Appleton “was very much in favor of having Stovey sent to Chicago [actually to New York] to pitch the last four decisive games [for New York, in a home series against Chicago].

In fact, a deal was fixed between Appleton, the Jersey club, and Stovey to this end. Stovey had his grip [hand luggage] packed and awaited the word, but he was not called owing to the fact that Anson had refused to play in a game with colored Catcher Walker at Toledo and the same result was fear.[”] [sic]

A valid aspect of the story is that in 1886, Appleton was trying to sign players for New York. That August 31, the New York Sun said, “Director Appleton of the New York Club said yesterday that the New Yorks would like to get Stovey, the colored pitcher of the Jersey City Club. The team [New York] has promised to give him the best of support if he can be got.”

In his supposed comment in 1892, Powers said Appleton wanted Stovey on his team for “the last four decisive games,” whereas, according to the Sun, Appleton expressed interest with at least five weeks left in the season. New York’s interest had possibly been piqued days earlier in August after Appleton and New York President John B. Day had seen a teammate of Stovey play at Jersey City. For the teammate, New York offered Jersey City $1,500, and Powers rejected the offer, the Sun said.

However, Powers’s story may be mixed up with a contemporaneously reported controversy, late in the 1886 season, involving the signing of a white pitcher playing for Newark, John “Phenomenal” Smith. At the time, Detroit and Chicago of the National League were in a pennant race.

Days before the Smith controversy broke, the Newark Journal said, “A revelation concerning some anomalous transactions between a Newark player and a certain National League manager [actually club president] will be made public before many moons have waxed and waned. Keep your eye open for it.”

A week later, the Chicago Inter Ocean ran the following, which closely tracks the Newark Advertiser of the same day: Smith, now with Detroit, was to pitch at New York the day before, “but just before the game he was served with papers in an injunction obtained by John B. Day, President [sic] of the New York club.”

So, someone else pitched. Also, Day and club directors, “in order to evade the [National] league rules, have been making personal contracts with a number of players. These players would be eventually turned over to the New York club after they had played the reserve rule period.”

In his recollection, Powers may have garbled New York’s interest in 1886 in Stovey and Detroit’s and New York’s interest in Smith. On one hand, regarding New York director Appleton’s pursuit of Stovey, an unnamed writer in Sporting Life said, “The question is[,] would the [National] League permit his appearance in League championship [regular season] games.”

On the other hand, two weeks after that, Sporting Life ran a report that New York manager Jim Mutrie “spent all of [a] Thursday and Friday in Newark trying to buy Phenomenal Smith’s release. He made big offers, but all were declined.”

4. In 1907, Sol White alluded to a supposed effort in 1887 by New York to sign Stovey, and not to the 1886 effort noted as issue 3, immediately above. White, writing in a baseball book bearing his name, said “arrangements were about completed for his transfer from the Newark club, when a brawl was heard from Chicago to New York.

The same Anson, with all the venom of hate which would be worthy of a [Benjamin] Tillman or a [James] Vardaman[, white supremacist governors of South Carolina and Mississippi] of the present day, made strenuous and fruitful opposition to any proposition looking to the admittance of a colored man in the National League.” In prefacing his story, White said, “Were it not for this same man Anson, there would have been a colored player in the National League in 1887.”

It is possible that White muffed the 1886 issue, as Powers arguably had done. But, in any case, there is interesting 1887 reporting involving Stovey.

On April 9, 1887, the Newark Journal said New York manager Mutrie offered to buy Stovey and Walker, who were now both with Newark of the International League, “but [Newark] Manager [Charley] Hackett informed him they were not on [sic] sale.”

The day before that report, Newark and New York had met at the Polo Grounds, and Stovey and Walker had played. Presumably, Mutrie made his offer after the seeing the game.

If so, since a single day elapsed between the game and the offer’s rejection by Newark manager Hackett, it is highly unlikely that Anson, who was in St. Louis, would have weighed in.

In addition, Stovey was part of a far more acute controversy leading up to the 1887 season. It involved Newark and Jersey City, and reveals that Newark had no interest in selling him during the period in which White blamed Anson.

In October 1886, the Jersey City Argus said Newark manager Hackett was rumored to be imitating agents of the New York Giants by similarly trying to sign Stovey. A month later, in November, the Newark Journal said Hackett had reportedly signed him.

Three months after that, in February 1887, Newark’s directors held their annual meeting and the Newark Journal said, “It was reported that the grounds had been leased for another year, and that the trouble that was anticipated from Jersey City[, Stovey’s team in 1886,] owing to Stovey’s signing here, was settled.”

A week after that meeting, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat apparently parroted the report and said Newark “has adjusted her differences with Jersey City over taking away that team’s colored pitcher, Stovey.” Two weeks later, the Globe-Democrat said, “The Newark and Jersey City Clubs are still squabbling over colored pitcher Sto[v]ey.”

Based on the following contemporaneous reporting, it seems that Newark’s directors were gung-ho about having Stovey pitch for their team in 1887 and have Walker as his catcher.

In December 1886 and then, with these similar words in February 1887, an unnamed writer provided the following squib to Sporting Life: “Both these players are colored, and if they are paired as a battery will form a novelty.” A week after that comment, alluding to any Jersey City claim on Stovey, Sporting Life’s Newark writer said Stovey “plays here or nowhere.”

Summing up to this point, contemporaneous reports do not show Newark’s directors as having had an interest in selling Stovey by April 1887. On top of that, Powers, in his 1892 recollection, did not allude to having lost Stovey to Newark in the offseason in which Anson is blamed: 1886-87.

As of that offseason, Powers was managing Jersey City, which, along with Newark, had recently joined the International League. In November 1886, the Globe-Democrat said Powers was interested in acquiring Stovey for 1887, as follows: “Manager Powers, of the Jersey Citys, was so sure of having Stovey, the colored pitcher, next season that he laughed at the idea of losing him, but the wily Cuban [black] has not as yet placed his autograph to a Jersey contract.”

As of January 1887, Stovey had signed with Newark and the Newark Sunday Call said Powers “remarked with great confidence that Stovey would not pitch for Newark this season.”

In March 1887, referring back to January, the Sunday Call said that when Stovey signed with Newark, Powers “declared that his contract was illegal and that he would compel him to play in Jersey City again. Powers was soon convinced, however, that Stovey had a perfect right to play in Newark, and has now relinquished all claims to him.”

So, while there was no contemporaneous report of controversy between Anson and Newark, controversy definitely existed between Powers and Newark.

5. On July 14, 1887, in a home exhibition game against Chicago, Newark’s Stovey and Walker sat out because of Anson’s objection.

Both Stovey and Walker had played on July 11. The day of the Chicago game, the Newark News listed Stovey as the scheduled pitcher. Then, in its recap, it said, “Stovey was to have pitched for Newark, but he complained of sickness, and so [Micky] [sic] Hughes was substituted.” Stovey did not play again until July 17, and Walker not until July 26.

Possibly coincidentally, the July 14 game occurred on the same day as a meeting of International League directors. At the meeting, held in Buffalo from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the directors decided to approve no more contracts with black players. The game took place in the afternoon.

A few days after the game with Chicago, the Newark Sunday Call said, “Stovey was expected to pitch in the Chicago game. It was announced on the ground [sic] that he was sulking, but it has since been given out that Anson objected to a colored man playing. If this be true, and the crowd had known it, Mr. Anson would have received hisses instead of the applause that was given him when he first stepped to the bat.”

A day later, the New York Telegram said, “The color line has been drawn in base-ball. The International League [which Newark was in] officially has taken action against the employment of negroes by white clubs, and Anson, of the Chicagos, on Thursday notified the Newarks that they must not play Stovey and Walker in the exhibition game against the Chicagos.”

In early August, Sporting Life printed the following squib: “Anson wouldn’t let Newark put in the colored battery against Chicago in their recent exhibition game.” That said, perhaps Stovey did want to rest around the time of the Chicago game. For example, on June 22, Newark’s Sporting Life writer said Stovey and Walker were not traveling with the team. They were at home “nursing sore legs, and Stovey in addition has a sore arm.”

After Chicago, Rochester, N.Y., was the next team to play at Newark. In a report about the Rochester-Newark series, the Rochester Post-Express said Walker “was injured in a game last week so that he cannot throw. He was struck by a foul ball on the collar bone [sic].”

It seems highly likely that Anson’s objections kept Stovey from pitching. As far as Walker, it is a toss-up whether he was in such bad condition that he would not have played anyway.

6. A separate issue is whether Anson had any influence on the International League’s decision the same day to approve no more contracts with black players.

It is possible that a Chicago club official had sent one or more letters to Newark’s management in advance of the game, and that such letters precipitated the league’s decision.

However, in contemporaneous reporting, including the Newark Sunday Call and the Newark Journal, there is no indication that Chicago or Anson had anything to do with the decision.

7. In September 1887, St. Louis of the American Association canceled an exhibition game against the all-black Trenton, N.J., Cuban Giants. Eight St. Louis players had written to St. Louis President Chris Von der Ahe, “We, the undersigned members of the St. Louis Baseball Club, do not agree to play against negroes to-morrow. We will cheerfully play against white people at any time, and think, by refusing to play, we are only doing what is right, taking everything into consideration and the shape the team is in at present.”

A week later, the Chicago Herald printed a letter from the best black team in Chicago, the Chicago Unions. It was challenging Anson and his National League teammates to an exhibition game. No game was played.

Anson biographer David Fleitz states that Anson’s alleged July 1887 demand to Newark “may have emboldened other players in their refusal to play against African-Americans.”

He cites the fact that one of the signatories of the St. Louis letter was Curt Welch, who had been a teammate of Walker in 1884, and that the St. Louis team had previously played against the Cuban Giants. Apparently St. Louis did play a single game against the Cuban Giants, in May 1886.

At the time of their protest in 1887, the St. Louis players were in Philadelphia and their team was in first place. When asked about the letter by the Philadelphia Press, St. Louis captain-manager Charley Comiskey said, “The reason the men didn’t want to play was because there were only eight men, and nine at the outside. I got hurt yesterday [he had broken his thumb] so that I will be laid up for three weeks, and the men didn’t want to run any risk.”

The Press also spoke with an unnamed member of the team who said this about the motive for the letter: It “was a mixture of both causes. The club didn’t want to play in their crippled condition, and they would not play against negroes.”

By the way, although books have readily noted that St. Louis canceled the game with the Cuban Giants, apparently none that criticizes Anson also notes that big league teams played the Cuban Giants in 1887, 1888 or 1889, after his reported demand at Newark.

Those teams included Indianapolis of the National League, which played them three times. For two of them, Indianapolis’s management reportedly went “to considerable expense” to bring the Cuban Giants to Indianapolis. Also, the following American Association teams played the Cuban Giants once: Philadelphia, Baltimore and Cincinnati.

In 1888 and 1889, three National League teams played against them. Playing them once apiece were Detroit and Boston, and Washington played them four times. In addition, another opponent was scrub “reserve” players of the New York Giants.

8. In 1888, when Walker was playing for the Syracuse Stars of the International Association, Anson refused to start an exhibition game at Syracuse when he saw Walker’s name on the scorecard as catcher. “Big Anson at once refused to play the game with Walker behind the bat on account of the Star catcher’s color,” the Syracuse Herald said. Syracuse relented and someone else did the catching.

Those reports are no doubt accurate. By the way, as a sign that racial prejudice by Anson was weakly covered, by today’s standards, two of Syracuse’s four dailies mentioned the incident with Walker and only one, the Syracuse Herald, did any follow-up.

9. In its 1924 obituary of Fleet Walker, the Cleveland Gazette said George W. Howe, when Howe was Cleveland’s treasurer, “told the writer that he would send [have sent] to Toledo for Fleet to catch for the local team, which sorely needed a good backstop at the time, but for the objections raised by Anson of the Chicago club.”

Assuming Howe said that, the year he is referring to is unclear, and there was apparently no contemporaneous reporting along those lines.