Chapter 4: Cap's Great Shame - Racial Intolerance
“I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality.” -- Martin Luther King Jr.

It would be an injustice to the memories of the many thousands of talented black ballplayers that never played a game in the major leagues to exclude a conversation about Cap Anson’s role in helping draw the baseball color line that existed from 1887 until 1947. Anson was clearly a racist and one of the most vocal proponents of the exclusion of blacks from organized baseball. By both word and deed, Anson revealed himself as a bigot on and off the field. Yet it is unfair to make Anson the exclusive scapegoat for the color line when a number of contributors are to blame. Anson’s intolerances are well documented, but to be fully understood, they must be placed into historical context. Only then can we begin to understand the roots of his racism, and place thoughtful judgment on his legacy.

Racism in America has a long and troubling history. Slavery laid the foundation for it. With the first slaves brought over to America on a Dutch ship in 1619, the seeds of racism were planted in the fledgling country. For 250 years, the roots of racism dug deeper and deeper into American soil and its white citizens’ psyches. Racism was the societal norm in the mid-19th century, whereas abolitionists and sympathizers were a small but growing minority. Racism reached to the highest levels of government and society. In 1857, the infamous Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney wrote that blacks were “so far inferior [to whites] that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect." It was not until 1868, on the heels of the Civil War, that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted equal rights to all citizens. But as the following century would painfully demonstrate, changing a law is one thing - changing attitudes is another.

It is important to remember that Cap Anson was born in Iowa in the year 1852. Iowa at the time permitted slave ownership. Although the state sided with the Union forces in the Civil War, sentiment was deeply divided over the slavery issue. Anson grew up in a region where blacks were not held in high esteem. It has been said that racism is not instinctive, but learned, as Nature is not suicidal. It is highly likely that the seeds of Anson’s personal racism were planted by the words and deeds of the white adults of his immediate surroundings.

As baseball gained popularity in the years after the Civil War, free blacks in the Northern States organized teams and competed against white teams. One of the first recorded instances of racism in professional baseball occurred in 1867. The all-black Philadelphia Pythians baseball club petitioned the National Association of Base Ball Players for inclusion into its membership, but was rejected.

Baseball remained exclusively open to whites in the most important leagues of the day, including the National Association, American Association, and National League. Blacks often played on all-black teams and semi-pro regional teams. One black player, Moses Fleetwood Walker, of the semipro Toledo Mudhens, will forever be linked to Cap Anson.

The date was August 10, 1883. At the time, it was a common practice for Major League teams to schedule exhibition games against semipro teams as a way of earning more money. An exhibition had been scheduled between the Toledo team and Anson’s White Stockings. It would prove to be a fateful encounter.

Toledo’s roster included the young, black scholar-athlete Moses Fleetwood Walker, the team’s regular catcher. By all accounts, Walker was a gentlemanly, educated player. On this day, Walker was injured (a common occurrence among catchers in the days before catcher’s mitts were invented) and was told to take the day off by his manager Charlie Morton.

Unaware of the injury but full of his own prejudices, Anson announced to Morton that his team would not play with Walker on the field. This attitude infuriated Morton, who responded by putting Walker into his lineup at centerfield. The game was delayed for over an hour as the two managers argued. Finally, Morton declared that if Anson forfeited the game, he would also forfeit the gate receipts. It seems Anson’s racism ran only as deep as his wallet, as this argument convinced him to play the game. The game was played with Walker and further incidence was avoided.

As a side note, the Toledo Mudhens joined the American Association in 1884, and on May 1 of that year, Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday became the first African-Americans to play in the major leagues. The White Stockings did return to play Toledo in 1884, but this time Anson had an agreement in writing before signing the contract for the game that Walker or any other black would not play in the exhibition match.

From 1884-1887, a scattering of twenty or so blacks would play in the professional leagues of the day. Among these ranks was the talented Canadian hurler George Stovey, pitcher for the Newark Little Giants of the International League in 1887. Ironically, his battery mate was none other than Moses Fleetwood Walker. Stovey is remembered by historians as the preeminent black pitcher of the 19th century, having a long and distinguished career in the Negro Leagues. Stovey and Walker faced considerable racism in the International League, with fans and opponents hurling racial epitaphs and threatening violence. One International League umpire blatantly stated that he would always rule against a team that included blacks.

The influx of blacks into the professional ranks had not gone unnoticed. On July 11, 1887, the “Sporting News” prints its opinion of the situation, a decidedly racist one. In it, it says "A new trouble has just arisen in the affairs of certain baseball associations [which] has done more damage to the International League than to any other we know of. We refer to the importation of colored players into the ranks of that body.”

Three days after the Sporting News article appeared, an exhibition game was played between the Chicago White Stockings and the Newark Little Giants. It is this infamous game that many point to as the “line in the sand” that designates the beginning of baseball segregation. Before the game began, Anson is purported to have exclaimed “get that nigger off the field!” in reference to Stovey. Unlike the 1883 incident, this time Anson did not back down from his insistence. Ultimately, Stovey feigned injury and withdrew himself from the game. He and Walker watched the game from the bench.

On the same day as this exhibition game, the owners of the International League formally voted to not sign black players to their team rosters. Soon, the National League and American Association would follow suit, and blacks would be excluded from all minor and major leagues by the beginning of the 1897 season. Although nothing was formally put into the major league rule book, baseball’s color line had been drawn. It was known as a “gentlemens' agreement,” an ironic term by modern standards that reflects the prevailing racist attitudes of the time among the “gentlemanly” white athletes.

Historians and casual fans alike that point to Cap Anson as the “Father of Segregated Baseball” are overstating his powers. As the most popular player of his day, Anson’s vociferous opinions did carry some influence, but it was the team owners whom deserve to shoulder more of the blame than Anson. Together, they could have silenced Anson and other players with racist attitudes by threatening their expulsion. Instead, they knew it was in their best financial interest not to ban whites, but instead ban blacks. In doing so, they were catering to their fan base. Ultimately, if the fans had demanded blacks play by refusing to buy tickets, it can be certain the owners would have welcomed integrated baseball. It is also painfully obvious that racism in baseball did not retire with Anson in 1897, nor was it laid to rest with him at his passing in 1922. The color line lived on until Jackie Robinson integrated baseball in the summer of 1947 largely because Anson was not the only racist in major league baseball, but so to were many of the team owners, managers and players.

Anson carried his racist attitudes off the field as well, as evidenced by his description of Clarence Duval, Chicago’s black team mascot. In his autobiography, “A Ball Player’s Career,” Anson wrote “Clarence was a little darkey that I had met some time before while in Philadelphia, a singer and dancer of no mean ability, and a little coon whose skill in handling the baton would have put to the blush many a bandmaster of national reputation. ... Outside of his dancing and his power of mimicry he was, however, a 'no account nigger,' and more than once did I wish that he had been left behind."

Why did Anson hold such racist opinions? It may be that his upbringing in Marshalltown had an effect on shaping his attitudes. As the first white born child of the city, Anson enjoyed a place of prominence. His father commanded such respect as the city founder that the town’s citizens held the Anson family in the highest regard. Cap Anson grew up on the frontier where Native Americans were treated as animals, not people. It is not unreasonable to assume that Anson’s exposure to whites exploiting the Pottawattamie tribe Native Americans of the region and Anson’s privileged upbringing both instilled a sense of superiority and entitlement in him.

It may also be the case that Anson was adamant about excluding blacks from the game because as the acknowledged superstar of the day, he did not want any competition to his throne from the many talented black players of the day. It was obvious to all that there were many black players with major league talent. Anson may have cared more for his stature as the game’s greatest player than for the fortunes of legions of black players.

It is interesting to note that Anson’s racism may have mellowed with age. As coach of the semipro Ansons Colts, he took to the field against many black players. He was often seen talking baseball strategy with the great black manager Andrew "Rube" Foster, the “Father of the Negro Leagues” and later coach of the Chicago American Giants, an all-black team.

While some believe that Anson did more to destroy baseball than any other, noted historian Bill James makes an eye-opening observation that Anson deserves credit for saving the game in its formative years. "The continued existence of professional baseball, at the end of the 1878 season, was very much in doubt. Five of the original eight franchises had folded or been expelled from the league...If Chicago and Boston had dropped out of the league in the early 1880's, to be replaced by Des Moines and Springfield, major league baseball as we now know it would never have come into being. That didn't happen, in large part because of Anson.

"Cap Anson took over as player/manager of the Chicago franchise in 1879, and immediately did two things which 'saved' or created major league baseball. First, he trolled the other leagues which were operating at the same time, struggling for survival as the National was, and began stealing their best players. This wasn't totally unprecedented--players had switched teams frequently since before baseball became professional--but teams before Anson tended to focus on stealing the best players from their league competitors. Anson organized the process of identifying and acquiring the best players from other leagues. When Anson did this successfully, that forced the other National League teams to do the same, and it was this process – the organized theft of the best players from other leagues – which caused the National League to emerge as the 'major' league, the best professional league.

"And second, Anson made baseball immensely popular in Chicago, which was the league's largest and most important city. In the National League's first years, the schedule was getting shorter, the league was getting smaller, and the cities in the league were growing more remote. The game was dying. Cap Anson is the man who really changed that – not all by himself, but more than anyone else." [The New Bill James Historical Abstract, Free Press, 2001]

Some opinionated fans believe Anson should be banned from the Hall of Fame because of his racist legacy. This seems an extreme measure, but it does beg a larger question – is it okay to be a fan of Cap Anson in this more enlightened age? Each fan will have to make up his or her own mind. The facts show that Anson was not alone in segregating baseball; that with or without his influence baseball was destined to be segregated due to the prevailing attitudes of the time. Anson was no saint, but either were the majority of his peers. In the end, Anson should be remembered as a talented yet flawed individual, a relic of his times. His story has lessons for us all, and he is worthy of both our admiration and contempt to equal degrees.