Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dixie Walker called cheap-shot artist

Uncommon commons: In more than 30 years in sportscards publishing I have thrown hundreds of notes into files about the players – usually non-star players – who made up the majority of the baseball and football cards I collected as a kid. Today, I keep adding to those files as I peruse microfilms of The Sporting News from the 1880s through the 1960s. I found these tidbits brought some life to the player pictures on those cards. I figure that if I enjoyed them, you might too.

Dixie Walker had an 18-year major league career, most notably with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World War II era, 1939-49.

He was a four-time All-Star and led the majors in batting with a .357 average in 1944 and in RBIs with 124 in 1945.

He was nicknamed "The Peoples' Cherce" by Dodgers fans.

But somewhere along the way he acquired a reputation among some opposing ballplayers and at least one writer as a "slug and run" cheap-shot artist.

The writer, Cy Kritzer, detailed the charges in a column in the Sept. 11, 1957 issue of The Sporting News.

Kriyzer was detailing the Sept. 4 fight between Walker, then managing the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Phil Cavarretta, skipper of the Buffalo Bisons. The teams had met in Toronto in a double-header, both games of which were won by Toronto, wresting first place in the International League from Buffalo.

I'll let Kritzer detail the action . . .

The Leafs had won the first game, 4 to 3, and were leading the second, 9 to 1, when Walker started a stormy protest at third base, accusing Bison third baseman Pete Castiglione of pinning down Bob Roselli before the Toronto backstop scored on a wild throw.

'Lou Ortiz, our captain was turning away when Walker swung at him,' said Phil. 'That's when I let Dixie have it. No one is going to swing at one of my players and get away with it, never.'

Walker dashed away from the scrap and wound up at second base in a headlock applied by Glenn Cox, Bisons' pitcher.

'I couldn't hit an old fellow like Dixie [he was 46 at the time],' said Cox, 'so I just let him quiet down.'

According to Kritzer, the only casualty was Bill Serena, a Buffalo reserve infielder, who suffered a "deep fingernail scratch" on his face when he knocked down Cavarretta in his charge to get to Walker.

Walker, Ortiz and Castiglione were expelled from the game for fighting. Kritzer reported that Toronto players did not join in the fighting, but were blocking Bison players to preserve order.

Kritzer then noted that an observer of the fracas was Chicago Cubs scout Lennie Merullo. In 1947, Merullo, then playing shortstop for the Cubs, was fined $1,000 for a pre-game fight with Walker in Ebbetts Field.

"That was another sneak punch and run-away by Walker, too," Kritzer quoted Cavarretta. "I was there, saw it all."

Cavarretta continued "There had been a fight the day before and someone punched Merullo when he was down. No one would tell him, but he suspected Pee Wee Reese.

"When he [Reese] went into the batting cage," Cavarretta went on, "Merullo followed him and demanded to know it it was Reese who punched him. While Pee Wee was disclaiming any guilt, Merullo was slugged from the rear.

"By Walker, of course. He was running to the Brooklyn dugout when Paul Erickson, a Chicago pitcher, tackled him. No fans were in the park because the gates had not been opened. The park police tried to take charge but both teams  decided to form a ring and let Merullo and Dixie fight it out.

"Dixie lost two teeth and took a damn good licking before he cried 'That's enough.' This affair in Toronto reminded me of that one ten years ago. Dixie started this and deserved what he received."

Naturally, there was a rebuttal by Walker in the following week's paper.

"I never ran from a fight in my life and I don't intend to start now," Walker was quoted in an un-bylined artlcle, which included a different account of the 1947 Merullo-Walker fight.

The trouble began the previous night when Merullo had tangled with Dodgers second baseman Eddie Stanky.

The Sporting News issue of June 26, 1947, picked up the action, quoting Peanuts, then with the Cubs . . .

So the next day while Reese (Pee Wee) was in the cage taking his practice swings, Merullo sauntered by  and called Pee Wee and uncomplimentary name, adding "And that goes for your whole so-and-so ball club."

With that, Dixie Walker punched Merullo on the side of the head and the boys were in business. Cavarretta, Merullo's roommate went after Walker but the big Cub pitcher, Paul Erickson, got there first.

He dragged Dixie over to a clear patch of ground, directed that Merullo be brought there, too, and then took charge of forming an arena. Players from both clubs made a big circle around them

I couldn't say who won the fight but they were both going at it real good. A little park cop broke through the ring, but Clyde McCullough grabbed him and tossed him right out again.

Finally a whole bunch of cops broke through and that was it.

Walker's version of the 1947 battle was also presented in the Sept. 18,1957, article . . .

Cavarretta jumped on my back when I was fighting Merullo and he had hold of me around the neck. I finally shucked him off, but he tore my shirt off. Then Erickson drove into my stomach with his shoulder, and I went over backwards, with his shoulder right into me. My shoulder felt like it was paralyzed. That's when I lost a tooth.

Walker continued, "But the thing that really burns me is for Cavarretta to say that I hit Merullo from behind, and then to say I ran."

Walker then revealed that after the fight with Merullo, then-Brooklyn general manager Branch Rickey called Walker into his office and rewarded him with a check for $1,000 for his "conduct over and above his duties as a ball player.

In 1957, playing under Walker, the Maple Leafs won their third International League pennant in four years.

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