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Fleet and Cap — a baseball parable

10/6/2021

A nearly obsessive interest in the intermingled legacies of Marshalltown native Cap Anson and Ohio native Fleetwood Walker.

The 19th century realized the highwater mark for the grand theory of “intermingled destinies.” The Civil War inspired the idea. Abraham Lincoln spoke about it often. From the trenches of Shiloh and Petersburg, foot soldiers wrote eloquently about it in last letters to loved ones.

Legendary Drake professor Frank Wilhoit convinced this writer that destinies were, at their best, shared with unlikely people. Wilhoit was a bigger-than-life North Carolinian who captivated a classroom with his voice and intellect. He felt a personal responsibility for southern civil rights. He also spoke poignantly about the fate of boxer Jack Johnson and his legacy to the nation and particularly to the South. 

Wilhoit inspired this Iowan with a nearly obsessive interest in the intermingled legacies of Marshalltown native Cap Anson and Ohio native Fleetwood Walker, two of the most influential and controversial American athletes before Jack Johnson. Since the 1960s, I have been taking trips to libraries in places like Wilberforce, Steubenville, Oberlin, Cadiz, Mount Pleasant and Toledo in Ohio plus Syracuse and Ann Arbor to trace the historical and personal influences that Fleet and Cap had on each other. This is partly that story and partly a story about what their intermingled destinies did to America 150 years ago and ever since. 

Marshalltown native Cap Anson spent most of his 27-year pro baseball career playing for the Chicago franchise, then known as the White Stockings and later the “Colts,” now known as the Cubs.

Marshalltown’s pride and shame

Adrian Constantine “Cap” Anson begins his autobiography with a declaration that he was “the first white child in Marshall County, Iowa.” Born in 1852, he would maintain a wary awareness of race his entire life. Cap’s father, Henry, founded Marshalltown. He was a dentist, wagon master, realtor and promoter of the young town. He built the county’s first lumber mill, personally sawing all the wood himself. 

Prep Iowa

Cap would also write “I was as wild as a mustang and as tough as a pine knot and the scrapes I got into were too numerous to mention. The State University (Iowa) was too small to hold me and Notre Dame, then recognized to be the strictest of schools, was selected as being the proper place for ‘breaking me into the harness’ if said breaking in could be accomplished anywhere.” 

He also quoted a Mark Twain metaphor: “Baseball is…the very symbol, the outward expression of the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming of American life in the nineteenth century.”

Today Marshalltown honors the Anson name with plaques, statues and the naming of streets, parks and schools. A few years ago, there was a protest demanding that Henry’s statue be removed because of the racist beliefs of Cap. 

Cap would become one of the most famous baseball players of the 19th century. He played for the Chicago Baseball team, also called the Whitestockings, for more than 20 years, as captain and manager for the last 17 years. He sported a dandy’s handlebar mustache and was inducted into both the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Sports Hall of Fame. 

Moses Fleetwood Walker, catcher, is commonly
credited as being the first black man to play
Major League Baseball.

Mercurial child of Ohio 

Moses Fleetwood Walker was born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio, in 1857. He was the fifth of what would become six children of Moses and Caroline Walker. There are two stories about the parents’ arrival in Ohio. One, probably inspired by their last name, is that they were escaped slaves. Mount Pleasant had been established by Quakers, and its newspaper was one of the first in Ohio to advocate for the abolition of slavery. Many Underground Railroad escapees found sanctuary in Mount Pleasant. Ironically, the black population there today is 0.4%. 

The family also appears in an 1860 census in Wilberforce, nearly 200 miles west of Mount Pleasant. In that report, Moses, Sr. is listed as a doctor. Wilberforce, named for a British abolitionist, then had a black university that was the first choice of many slaveholders to educate slaves in preparation for transition to freedom. The Walkers took in slaves escaping the South and adopted two slave children.

Either way, the Walker children were educated well enough that all had a shot at college. Fleet took his and attended Oberlin, another Ohio college and town with a long reputation for tolerance and liberalness. His first year there, the school began playing baseball. Fleet took to the game, hitting a home run over the Cabinet Hall, far from the ballfield. He was an instant campus celebrity. He also met George Herbert Mead, Mary Church Terrell, Ida Gibbs and Henry Churchill King at Oberlin and would share a passion for Civil Rights with them the rest of his life. 

His sophomore year, Oberlin played the University of Michigan, and Fleet, a barehanded catcher with a rifle arm, impressed the Michigan coach so much that he recruited Walker to transfer. Fleet studied law in Ann Arbor. He took his younger brother, Weldy, also a baseballer, and his girlfriend, Bella Taylor, with him. Bella was pregnant, and Ann Arbor was a rare place where unmarried parents were tolerated. 

In 1881, between his last year at Oberlin and his first at Michigan, Fleet began playing pro ball for Cleveland’s White Sewing Machine. An incident in Louisville began when some Louisville players objected to playing against a black man. Fleet was substituted. His sub, however, retired from the game in the second inning complaining his hands hurt too much from catching fast balls. 

The crowd of 3,000, many of whom came to see Fleet, began chanting for him to play and ultimately prevailed. But only until two more Louisville players walked off. The crowd jeered their hometown players. Fleet continued to play both for Michigan and professionally for two more years, continuing to study law. Then in 1883, the owner of the Toledo Blue Stockings offered him $2,000 to play for his team. That was too much money to turn down, so Fleet left Ann Arbor and New Castle, Pennsylvania, where he was also playing pro ball, to join Toledo. 

In 1883, Toledo was to play Cap Anson’s Chicago club in an exhibition. Anson, described by one writer as “a hard lined racist, even by the standards of his era,” demanded that Toledo “get the n—– off the field.” The Toledo Blade wrote a scathing editorial, pretty much labeling all of Chicago “swollen” and “too delicate with pride and prejudice to tolerate what other teams found no fault with.” 

Fleet would become the first Black to play major league baseball the next season. Ironically, his first game was in Louisville. By 1886, Anson would succeed in leading a movement to get all Blacks removed from both the American Association and the National Association — the majors. Fleet would then play mostly in the minor leagues until 1889. 

In 1887, Fleet’s Newark team beat the New York Giants in an exhibition. The Giants’ popular manager-player John Ward was so impressed he tried to hire Walker. Anson intervened to prevent that. By that time, Fleet had developed a reputation as a “sport,” a popular word in the 19th century for a dandy who liked expensive clothes, gambling, women and alcohol.  

Walker had saved enough money to buy a hotel, an opera house and a theater. But, after his baseball career ended, his disappointed life was out of control. The father of three was drinking too much. One night he was attacked by an Irish gang in Syracuse, and Fleet killed one of them in defense. His murder trial was a national, O.J.-Simpson-level sensation. The Irish gang of five insisted Fleet was unprovoked. Fleet was defended by his Michigan law professor. An all-white jury found him innocent after just three hours, and the courtroom crowd erupted in cheers. The judge broke his gavel pounding for order. 

Fleet was then arrested for mail tampering but was again found innocent. He became interested in inventions and won several patents. One was for a new kind of bullet that, unlike Civil War ammunition, did not sometimes explode in the rifle rather than on the target. As his luck would have it, another invention a short time later made Fleet’s obsolete. 

He would move to Cadiz, Ohio, and buy another opera house. He also promoted vaudeville and a billiards room. Fleet became one of the first people in Ohio to show motion pictures. The years Fleet spent in Cadiz coincided with the years Clark Gable was living there, between ages 12 and 14. Two Gable movies have scenes with a lot in common with Fleet and his trials. In “Manhattan Melodrama,” Gable’s Blackie Galagher is a notorious sporting man who is found guilty in his murder trial. Gable’s star-making role was as gangster Ace Wilfong in “A Free Soul.” That also has a courtroom acquittal not unlike Fleet’s. 

Movie projectors were notorious for starting theater fires at the time. To show a film without interruptions, it was necessary to use two projectors. Fleet patented a projector with an audible warning when one reel was ending so a second could begin. That eliminated the need to open super-hot magazines to see when a reel was about to end. His invention was state of the art for years. 

Boxing legend Jack Johnson was the first Black American world heavyweight champion, holding the belt 1908-1915. Johnson was arrested and later convicted and imprisoned for violating the Mann Act — a federal law passed in 1910 outlawing the transportation of “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” The charge is widely considered to have been racially motivated, and President Donald Trump granted Johnson a full pardon in 2018, more than 70 years after Johnson’s death.

Context

Because Frank Wilhoit was involved with this story, context is needed to understand how 150-year-old events evolved. We asked Drake professor Susan Garneau to provide some, since she specializes in 19th century social history. What was going on between 1865, when the Civil War ended, and 1883, when things fell apart for Fleet, while Cap’s hatred triumphed? 

“The key year was 1876. Sam Tilden and Rutherford Hayes were in such a tight election for president (Tilden won the popular vote but Hayes won the electoral college) that the Compromise of 1877 was necessary. The Democrats agreed not to contest Hayes’ election if Hayes would agree to withdraw all remaining military enforcement of Reconstruction in the South,” Garneau said. 

Southern states were livid about Reconstruction. What did they resent most? “Black legislators like Hiram Rebel were elected. He was a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. In Louisiana, where the most gains were made for blacks, one third of the state legislature was black. South Carolina was close to that. Southerners did not believe that the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments would have passed without federal military enforcement of Reconstruction and the stronger position of Northern Republicans, which made those amendments possible.

“The second big thing was the Freedman’s Bureau, an 1868 vehicle to promote education of blacks and similarly the rise of the Colored Alliance, which like the Farmers’ Alliance (later the Populist Movement), aimed for independence of black and poor white farmers from banks, merchants and planters. White tenant farmers and black sharecroppers needed seed and had to pay for it with liens on their property. They could never get ahead. Populism’s goal was to break that cycle,” Garneau explained.

What was the demise of that form of populism? 

“The Omaha Platform of 1892 called for a federal loans system so that farmers could get the money they needed. The platform also called for the elimination of private banks. The platform proposed a system of federal storage facilities for the farmers’ crops. But it also meant that the People’s Party (Populists) was going to give way to a two-party system. It’s hard to be there and keep your ideals. Black farmers’ needs became secondary to those of whites. By 1896, this entry into the two-party system was complete with the allying with the Democratic Party. But even with the Populist platforms, and later the New Deal programs aimed at helping farmers during the Great Depression, it did not help black sharecroppers as much as poor whites,” she said. 

In 1990, Scotty Cooper, a member of Oberlin’s Heisman Club — named for the Oberlin coach whose name is on the famous trophy — donated a 350-pound granite tombstone to mark the previously unmarked grave of Moses Fleetwood Walker. In 2017, the Ohio Legislature declared an annual Moses Fleetwood Walker Day.

Bottom of the ninth

Toward the end of his life, Fleetwood became quite involved in African American civil rights. He wrote about Liberia and a mass return of Blacks to Africa decades before W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey made the idea mainstream. He communicated with rich and powerful men, including Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. He died in Cleveland in 1924 and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1990, Oberlin’s Heisman Club (named for the Oberlin coach whose name is on the famous trophy) member Scotty Cooper donated a 350-pound granite tombstone. In 2017, the Ohio Legislature declared an annual Moses Fleetwood Walker Day. 

Of all men who played major league baseball for more than 20 years, Cap played a higher percentage of games than anyone except Pete Rose and Cal Ripken. He was every bit as famous for baiting umpires and opponents as for hitting home runs (he had hit more than anyone when he retired). His anti-integration fervor never abated, though he did play weekend park games with Rube Foster, who later founded the Negro League. 

Always a loud mouth, Cap tried his hand at vaudeville. Ring Lardner wrote one show for him. Ironically, it debuted in Harlem. Cap was nowhere as good at billiards as he was at baseball. He lost everything he ever made playing the former game, and his house was foreclosed upon to pay his debts. Upon his death, the National League erected a large monument over his grave in Oakwood Cemetery in Chicago. 

His death inspired eulogies and editorials all over the eastern U.S. In one, the Chicago Inter Ocean wrote, “Yesterday was a cold day for baseball. That grand old man Cap Adrianopolis Chicago Anson was umpired out by Father Time.” 

Susan Garneau, a professor at Drake University, specializes in nineteenth-century American social history and the history of crime and punishment. Photo by Jim Duncan

Final box score 

Even before Fleet and Cap passed, sports and racism were moving to new levels of intermingled hatred. Before the turn of the 20th century, America had only three national sports — baseball, boxing and horse racing. By the time Fleet was run out of baseball, Black jockeys, who had totally dominated horse racing, were chased from the track. An indomitable Black man from Galveston, Jack Johnson, had shamed white boxing champions into fighting him, and he destroyed all of them, till old age refereed him out on a 100-degree day in Cuba. 

Johnson’s victories inspired the greatest race riots in American history, at least till the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blacks would celebrate Johnson wins, and whites would attack them. Close to 90% of all riot deaths were Blacks. Louis Armstrong wrote about running and hiding as a New Orleans paperboy when he heard that Johnson had won another fight. The federal government created the Mann Act expressly to chase Johnson, who traveled with several women, out of the country. 

One hundred years later, steroids became a sports scandal and a cause for banishment and imprisonment. But not until 30 years after their first widespread abuses. They only became an issue when Barry Bonds, a Black man with Jack-Johnson-sized pride, finally used them to topple records by white, steroid-infused behemoths like Mark McGuire.

Barry, Jack and Fleet remain intermingled in a nation little changed, ever since. ♦

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