September 24 – Happy Birthday Dixie Walker
What I love about writing this Blog are the things I learn about Yankee history that I didn’t know. Today’s post offers an excellent example of that. If not for a collision at home plate and some bad knees, Joe DiMaggio might never have been a Yankee and today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant, Dixie “The People’s Cherce” Walker would probably have been the guy who replaced him.
The collision at home plate took place between Dixie and a Chicago White Sox catcher named Charley Berry during Walker’s 1933 rookie season with the Yankees. Earlier that year, Walker had been knocked down twice in the same game by a Chicago pitcher. After he got up from the ground after the second brushback, Walker told Berry he’d be coming in hard at home the next chance he got. Sure enough, later that same year Dusty found himself rounding third and bearing down on Berry. There were three problems for Dusty with this scenario. Berry outweighed Dusty by ten pounds, he was wearing protective catcher’s gear, and he knew Walker was coming to get him. With the element of surprise gone, Berry braced himself for what was a violent collision at the plate. Not only did Berry hold onto the ball but it was Dusty who ended up getting injured on the play, suffering a separated shoulder that would keep getting dislocated for the rest of the outfielder’s years in the Yankee organization.
Fred Walker was born in Villa Rica, Georgia on September 24, 1910. His Dad had been a pitcher with the Senators who went 25-31 during his four years in the big leagues. His Father, who’s real first name had been Ewart, had thankfully been given the nickname Dixie and the son inherited it. The Walker family had baseball in its blood. Dusty Sr.’s brother Ernie had been an outfielder with the Browns and Dusty’s own kid brother, Harry, would one day win an NL Batting title and later become one of the great hitting instructors in the history of the game.
The Yankees had purchased Dusty Walker’s contract from a minor league team in 1930. For the next three years, he tore up minor league pitching at every level and the Yankees front office took notice. With Babe Ruth growing older and ornery, New York needed to groom his replacement and by 1933, the prime candidate for that role had become Walker. He was given his first real chance to show what he could do at the big league level in 1933. Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy played his rookie in center field and often batted him lead-off. Walker was just 22-years-old at the time and responded with a strong season. In 98 games of action, he hit .274 and proved his left-handed swing was well-suited for Yankee Stadium by drilling 15 home runs and driving in 51. But he also tore up that shoulder and McCarthy had little respect or use for players who would not play hurt. Knowing that, Walker tried to play through his injury, which only exasperated his condition. He could no longer throw the ball and if you played center field for a big league club you had to be able to throw the ball.
As Walker tried to play through his shoulder problems in the Minors, the Yankee front office began taking notice of this DiMaggio kid playing out in San Francisco. He had put together a 61-game hitting streak in the Pacific Coast League but most big league teams were leery of him because he had suffered some knee injuries and the rumor was, he could not stay healthy. The Yankee’s minor league development guy was the tight-fisted genius, George Weiss. With few other suitors to compete against, Weiss was able to purchase the future Yankee Clipper’s contract for just $25,000 and as soon as he did, Walker was no longer the chosen one to replace Ruth as the next Yankee franchise outfielder.
The Yankees then traded Dixie to the White Sox where he once again dislocated that bum shoulder. That’s when it was determined that surgery was Walker’s only option and in what was a pretty experimental procedure back then, a bone graft was done to rebuild a chip in his shoulder and from that point on in his career, it never dislocated again. He hit .302 for the White Sox in 1937. He got traded to Detroit the following season and hit .308 in MoTown. But he hurt his knee while playing for the Tigers and when Detroit’s front office told him he needed another operation, Walker refused and was sold to the Dodgers.
Dixie would spend the next nine seasons becoming the star outfielder for “Dem Bums.” He would average .311 during that time and win the 1944 NL Batting title in the process. Dodger fans adored him until he threatened to not play if Jackie Robinson was made his Brooklyn teammate. His prejudice got him banished to Pittsburgh, where he played out his career and retired after the 1949 season.