Fred E. "Dixie" Walker (September 24, 1910 - May 17, 1982) was a right fielder who played for the New York Yankees (1931, 1933-36), Chicago White Sox (1936-37), Detroit Tigers (1938-39), Brooklyn Dodgers (1939-47) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1948-49). In an 18-season career, Walker posted a .306 batting average with 105 home runs and 1,023 RBI in 1,905 games.
A native of Villa Rica, Georgia, Walker was the scion of a baseball family. His father, Ewart (the original "Dixie Walker"), was a pitcher for the Washington Senators (1909-12); an uncle, Ernie, was an outfielder for the St. Louis Browns (1913-15); and his younger brother, Harry "the Hat", also an outfielder, played for four National League teams between 1940 and 1955 and managed the St. Louis Cardinals (1955), Pittsburgh Pirates (1965-67) and Houston Astros (1968-72). All four Walkers batted left-handed and threw right-handed.
Walker first attracted attention when he batted .401 for Class B Greenville of the South Atlantic League in 1930. That year, at age 17, Walker was signed by the Yankees for a then-record $25,000. Although he lacked smoothness, Walker was such an outstanding prospect that the organization envisioned him as Babe Ruth's successor after batting .350 in the International League. A pull hitter with some power, he was a fast runner and a competent outfielder with a strong throwing arm. In his 1931 rookie season he crashed into a fence and suffered a shoulder injury that impaired his throwing. The injury was corrected surgically and he missed the 1932 season but the injury recurred a year later after a slide into second base.
His first full season came in 1933 when he hit 15 home runs in 328 at-bats and batted .274. But the following season, injuries limited Walker to 17 games
with 17 at-bats and a .118 average. In 1935, the Yankees sent Walker to the minor leagues and in May 1936, Walker's past injuries and the arrival of the Yankees' new star, Joe DiMaggio, may have conspired to convince the Yankees Walker wouldn't be the player they envisioned. Despite a .350 average to that point in the season, the Yankees put him on waivers where he was picked up by the White Sox. In total, Walker played only 131 games for the Yankees in a span of six years.
With the White Sox, Walker hit .302 and tied for the American League lead in triples in 1937, but re-injured his damaged shoulder so badly that he needed surgery again. That December, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers in a multi-player deal. He continued to hit more than .300 with the Tigers before tearing cartilage in a knee in 1939. Despite his consistently high batting average, it seemed injuries were going to prematurely end his career. Placed on waivers once again, Walker was obtained by the Dodgers on July 24, 1939 when they were in need of outfielders. Although Walker played regularly in the Brooklyn outfield for the rest of 1939, he batted only .280 with no power. Still, manager Leo Durocher liked Walker's stroke and penciled him in as a regular in 1940.
Walker Blossoms in Brooklyn
From the beginning, Walker became a celebrity in Brooklyn and his popularity with the Ebbets Field fans in the 1940s brought him the nickname "Da Peeple's Cheerce." In his first game for the 1940 Dodgers, he singled to right field in the 11th inning to beat the Boston Braves. In that campaign, he led his team in batting average (.308) and doubles. He also posted some of his best games against the New York Giants, batting .436 against the hated rivals, and as a result, endeared himself to the Brooklyn fans. Nevertheless, manager Leo Durocher opened the 1941 season with the newly acquired Paul Waner in Walker's right field spot. In consequence, Brooklyn fans were outraged but the veteran Waner faded fast and was sent to the Boston Braves. Walker returned becoming part of an all-.300-hitting outfield (along with center fielder Pete Reiser and left fielder Joe Medwick) that led the Dodgers to the 1941 National League pennant.
In the following years, Walker continued to produce. He hit .290 in 1942 and .302 in 1943. In 1944, he led the NL with a .357 batting average (ahead of Stan Musial's .347) and finished 3rd in NL MVP balloting behind winner, slick fielding Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion, and Cubs outfielder Bill Nicholson. Walker hit .300 and won the 1945 RBI title with 124. In 1946 he was second in RBI (116) and third in batting average (.319), finishing a distant second in the MVP vote behind Musial.
All told, his Brooklyn career included five consecutive all-star selections (1943-47), the 1944 National League batting champion, and four top ten finsishes in the MVP balloting.
Controversy over Integration
When the Dodgers broke baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, Walker became a figure of some controversy. In 1947, during spring training, the club announced that it was bringing up Robinson from the minors. Walker thereupon wrote a letter to Branch Rickey, the club president, asking to be traded. The letter did not mention Robinson by name, but Walker acknowledged later that he had been under pressure from Alabama people not to play with Robinson. Several other Dodgers from the U.S. South who had also grown up in conditions of strict racial segregation made similar requests of Rickey. Walker denied, nevertheless, that he had been in the forefront of a move to block Robinson. Reportedly, Robinson would look the other way rather than try to shake Walker's hand on the field, to avoid mutual embarrassment. Walker was soon defending Robinson and giving him pointers, and added that he came to respect Robinson for the way he handled the abuse hurled at him, and called him "as outstanding an athlete as I never saw." Walker finished the year at .306 and 94 RBI.
Whatever his opinion might have been at the time about integration, Walker saluted Robinson the baseball player when the 1947 pennant was won: "He is everything Branch Rickey said he was when he came up from Montreal." And with time, and as baseball welcomed more black and Latin players into its ranks, Walker's position about integration surely evolved as well. After his career, Walker made clear to reporters that he was not the same person as he was in 1947. His support of Jim Crow during Robinson's rookie season sprang partly from concerns for his home and businesses in his native Alabama.
"I didn't know if people would spit on me or not [for playing with a black man]," he once said.
Finishing Up and Post Playing Career
Sent to the Pirates in 1948, Walker led his team with a .318 average (topping the .300 mark for the tenth time in 12 years) and ended his playing career the next season. Following his retirement as a player, he managed several minor league teams for most of the 1950s, including the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1957 to 1959, winning the International League pennant in his first season with the team. He served as a batting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals, and coached and scouted both for the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Dixie Walker died in Birmingham, Alabama, at the age of 71. He is buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.