SABR

Frank Walker

This article was written by Nancy Snell Griffith.

Outfielder Charles Franklin “Frank” Walker appeared in 139 major-league games over parts of five seasons between 1917 and 1925. During his much longer minor-league career, he hit very well, posting a batting average of .331 in 16 seasons. His hitting prowess, unfortunately for him, did not stand up to major-league pitching. Walker’s major contribution to baseball probably came in his adopted hometown of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where he was associated with the town’s minor-league team as a player, manager, and then an owner for almost 50 years. 

Walker was also quite the entrepreneur. Not only did he found a successful laundry business and a printing company in Rocky Mount after he left the major leagues, but he carried his business skills over into baseball as well. According to several press accounts, he was well-known for selling his services to major-league teams at the beginning of the season, only to turn up back in Rocky Mount later in the year. A 1927 Associated Press story asserted that he sold himself to the Giants in 1924 for a reported price of $11,000, and made a “personal deal for his services with the Philadelphia Athletics several years ago [1920] and later bought his own release.”[1]

Frank Walker was born in Enoree, South Carolina, near Spartanburg, on September 22, 1894. His parents were Robert Lee and Mary Elizabeth Buchanan Walker, both natives of Georgia. By 1900 the family was living in Cross Anchor Township in Spartanburg County, South Carolina, not far from Enoree. Robert was working as a supervisor in a cotton mill. Sometime after 1900 they relocated to Martinsville, Virginia, where Robert was once again employed in a textile mill. Frank was the fourth of the Walkers’ six children, who also included Ellie, Robert, Lillie, Samuel, and Margaret. He attended Randolph-Macon College in Virginia from 1911 through 1913, and played left field on the baseball team in 1913. During the summer of 1912 he played for Enoree Mill in the South Carolina textile leagues.

By 1915 Walker was playing for the Newport News Shipbuilders in the Class C Virginia League. He remained with them in 1916, batting .319 in 69 games. In 1917 he played in 114 games for the Springfield Reapers of the Class B Central League, and had a hot bat, with an average of .370. On September 6 of that year, he made his major-league debut with the Detroit Tigers. He appeared in two games with the Tigers that year. Sometime during this period he married Georgia native Theresa Adrian.

In 1918 Walker played in 55 games for Detroit, the most games he would play in a major-league season. Manager Hughie Jennings was not entirely pleased with Walker’s play, however. In June he called up Ira Flagstead from the Southern Association to play right field because “Frank Walker has proved a ‘fish’ against southpaws and dizzy against right-handed ‘hooks.’ ”[2] His best appearance that year came in a game against the New York Yankees on July 18, in which he had three hits in five at-bats, two of them doubles, and drove in three runs. He also had the distinction of being Ty Cobb’s roommate when the Tigers were on the road, forging a lifelong friendship.

In March 1919 the Tigers released Walker to Portland of the Pacific Coast League. That year his father died in Martinsville. He was with Portland for one season, batting .300, before moving to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Although his plans were to quit baseball altogether, he played for the Rocky Mount Tar Heels in 1920. In July he was hitting .401 and the Chicago Eagle called him “a big bug in a little puddle as a player in the Virginia League.”[3] Census records for that year indicate that Walker was living in Rocky Mount with his wife, Theresa, and his daughter Elizabeth, who was 2 years old. Aside from playing baseball, he was working as a tobacconist in a market.

That July owner-manager Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics purchased Walker for “a big bundle of coin.” Mack commented at the time that Walker was “ready for the big leagues. … Three years ago he was given a tryout by Detroit, but didn’t make good. He went back to the minors and I learned he had improved wonderfully. I sent two different men down to Rocky Mount to look him over and their reports were so good that I purchased him.”[4] Philadelphia’s Evening Public Ledger was soon singing his praises, calling him a “finished ball player” who “hits the ball well, has a good throwing arm and is a sure fielder.”[5] He had 91 at-bats in 24 games for the A’s that year, with a batting average of .231 and a slugging percentage of .297. He did better on the road than at home, batting.291 with a slugging percentage of .395. Walker’s best game that season came when he went 3-for-4 against the Browns in St. Louis on August 4.

Walker played in 19 games with the A’s in 1921, but in June Philadelphia released him back to Rocky Mount. He appeared in 77 games for Rocky Mount that year, and sported a batting average of .355 and a slugging percentage of .562. He was a player-manager in 1922 and 1923. He remained with Rocky Mount through the end of the 1924 season.   During those years he was the team’s leading hitter, consistently batting well over .300, with a peak of .370 in 1924. In May 1923 Walker was arrested when he came in from center field to protest a call in a game against Richmond. The umpire held up five fingers to indicate a $5 fine, and Walker allegedly hit him.[6]

By February 1925 Walker had sold himself to the New York Giants. He was once again described in the press as a “finished ballplayer … meeting the ball squarely in batting practice and fielding like a [Tris] Speaker, whom he closely resembles in action.”[7] On April 16, 1925, he had the best performance of his major-league career, getting four hits in five at-bats. On June 1 he went 3-for-4. He played in 39 games for the Giants that season and batted .222.   His final game in the major leagues came on August 8, 1925. Two days later he was released on option to Indianapolis as part payment for pitcher Fred Fitzsimmons. He appeared in only one game for Indianapolis that season.

Over parts of five major-league seasons, Walker batted 407 times in 139 games. He had 87 hits, for a batting average of .214. His fielding average was .949, with 14 errors in 276 chances. His best position was center field.

In 1926 Walker took over as manager of the Greenville (South Carolina) Spinners of the South Atlantic (Sally) League. He was to remain there through the 1929 season, leading the team to the Sally League championship in 1927. Except for the 1928 season, when he batted .292, he consistently batted over .300 with Greenville.

In 1930 Walker played for two Southern Association teams, the Atlanta Crackers and the Chattanooga Lookouts. In 88 games he batted .286. In 1931 he was the first of three managers of the Anderson Electrics/Spartanburg Spartans in the Class D Palmetto League, and the first of two managers of the Florence Pee Deans of the same league. This was the end of his minor-league career. Over his 16 seasons, most of which were played on Class B clubs, he played in 1,381 games, had a batting average of .331 and a slugging percentage of .465. His career minor-league fielding percentage was about .968 (records for his Newport News seasons are missing).

Walker then returned to Rocky Mount, where he founded Quality Laundry and Cleaners. He didn’t leave baseball altogether. During the early and mid-1940s he was at different times the general manager and president of the Rocky Mount Rocks/Leafs of the Class D Bi-State and Coastal Plain leagues. By 1946 he was also president of the Coastal Plain League. In July 1949 he was serving as the vice-president of the league and head of the Leafs when he was suspended for the season and fined $200 for striking two umpires following a game with Greenville.[8]

In the mid-1940s Walker opened the Walker-Ross Printing Company with partner George Ross. By 1950 he must have taken a partner in his cleaning business, as the name had changed to Walker-Carter. He must have left baseball for a short time, but he once again took over control of the Rocky Mount Leafs just before the 1952 season. Complaining about the cost of running a team, he soon announced that Rocky Mount would leave the Coastal Plain League, and suggested that the league disband. “Everything in the league is just clean out of reason,” Walker told a sportswriter. “Salaries, transportation, park rentals – everything – have gone up until overhead just eats you up.” Walker also complained about “too many outsiders being involved in the league” – among other things, the Kinston team was being run by the Durham club of the Carolina League.[9] Goldsboro and Tarboro did pull out at the end of the season, and the league did fold. There would be no minor-league team in Rocky Mount for several years.

By August of 1957 Walker had put in a bid to form a new Rocky Mount team as part of the Class B Carolina League. This apparently didn’t materialize, and by April 1958 Walker and former Rocky Mount player Harry Soufas were trying to get the town ready to play in the Eastern Carolina Amateur League. Greenville (North Carolina) and Kinston had already joined the league, which was intended primarily for college players. That same year, he sold his laundry business to Earl T. Baysden.

Walker was back into minor-league baseball by early 1962, when he again became president of the Rocky Mount Leafs, who were then part of the Class B Carolina League. He had organized the team with Walter F. “Buck” Leonard, a resident of Rocky Mount who had starred in the Negro Leagues. In 1963 ownership of the team was transferred to the community of Rocky Mount, with Walker still serving as head of the board of directors. That same year the Leafs signed a working agreement with the Washington Senators, and were renamed the Rocky Mount Senators. From 1965 until 1972 the team was associated with the Detroit Tigers.

Aside from baseball, Walker was active in other parts of the Rocky Mount community. He served on the city council, and was a member of the First Methodist Church and the Elks. He and his wife, Theresa, eventually had a second child. In 1969 Frank Walker left his longtime home in Rocky Mount and moved to Bristol, Tennessee. He died there on September 16, 1974, and was buried in Glenwood Shelby Hills Cemetery.

September 8, 2011

Sources

Ancestry.com (census information, Rocky Mount city directories, Samuel S. Walker’s application for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution)

Baseball Almanac

Baseball-Reference.com

Thomas K. Perry. Textile League Baseball: South Carolina's Mill Teams, 1880-1955. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2004.

Leverett T. Smith. “Minor League Baseball in Rocky Mount.” SABR Research Journals Archive. http://research.sabr.org/journals/minor-league-baseball-in-rocky-mount

Retrosheet.org




[1] “Frank Walker Winner Again.” Youngstown Vindicator, February 9, 1927.

[2] “Calls on Flagstead.” Washington Times, June 17, 1918: 14.

[3] Chicago Eagle, July 31, 1920: 2

[4] “New Outfielder to Join Our A’s.” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), July 15, 1920: 15.

[5] “Frank Walker Making Good.” Evening Public Ledger, August 3, 1920: 14.

[6] “He’s in the Jail House Now.” Washington Post, May 25, 1923: 20.

[7] “Giants Work Out in Double Session.” New York Times, March 3, 1925: 19. 

[8] Robesonian (Lumberton), July 5, 1949, p. 5.

[9] John Williams. "Coastal Plain Loop Hopes take Dim Turn." Wilmington Morning Star, January 4, 1952: 11.

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