Curt Walker (TRADING CARD DB)

Curt Walker

This article was written by Alan Stowell

Curt Walker (TRADING CARD DB)Who was Curt Walker? With a career .304 batting average, he might be the best hitter you have never heard of. A consistent, productive outfielder throughout the 1920s, he might be one of the most overlooked players of his generation. And playing at a time when Babe Ruth dominated the baseball world, Walker also had a unique, though tenuous, connection to the Babe.

William Curtis Walker was born July 3, 1896, in Beeville, Texas, which lies between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. His parents were Nelson B. Walker, an Ohio native, and Emma Stovall Walker of Texas. The Walkers had six children, though two did not survive infancy. Curt’s two sisters and one brother who did survive were Gladys (b. 1894), Edith (b. 1898), and Jesse (b. 1907). Nelson Walker, a mortician, ran the only funeral home in Beeville.

The passage of time and the paucity of records means that a lot about young Walker, known as Curt beginning in his childhood, may never be known. He graduated from Beeville High School in the class of 1914. He was athletic and enjoyed most sports. In what had to be a huge moment among his high school achievements, Walker and classmate Everett Rittenour, both lefthanders, won the Texas state tennis doubles championship in his senior year.1

From 1915 until 1917, Walker was a student at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. According to the Sou’wester college yearbook, Walker played flute and drums in the school orchestra, he was left guard on the “Scrubs” football team, and of course he played baseball. Curt batted left (just as he played tennis and later golf) and threw right, and at 5-feet-9 and 170 pounds, he could display his quickness in the field and on the bases.

The 1917 yearbook identifies Walker by his apparent college nickname of “Whopalotie” – perhaps because of his hitting proficiency. Not surprisingly, college sources had great praise for Walker’s baseball ability. “Whopalotie is another man that looks good for big league material. We see no reason why he should not go to the top in baseball.” In prophetic words given his .304 big-league batting average, the Sou’wester stated that “Walker has showed a disposition to get into the .300 class and stay there.”2

On March 24, 1916, the Chicago White Sox were wrapping up spring training and scheduled an exhibition game with the Southwestern Pirates. Young Curt Walker went 4-for-4, including a home run, against the big-leaguers and pitcher Dave Danforth. Walker also scored both Southwestern runs against the White Sox while his teammates were collecting only two additional hits. Notable names in the Chicago lineup that day included Eddie Collins, Joe Jackson, Happy Felsch, and Buck Weaver.3

Walker served in the U.S. Army during World War I. He was just a little too young to be drafted at first (being about a month short of 21 years old when the first registration took place) but left Southwestern in 1917 to enlist. He served for 16 months and played a lot of baseball. He said, “the Army had many good players, and some of the games were ‘thrillers.’ Walker thought hs Army experience invaluable because it gave him a chance to play frequently.”4

After the Armistice he returned to college to graduate and then began his baseball career in earnest. In 1919 Walker broke into organized baseball with the Houston Buffaloes of the Class-B Texas League. He appeared in 41 games, collecting 29 hits, good for a .215 average. Midway through the 1919 season, Walker moved to Augusta, Georgia of the Class-C South Atlantic (Sally) League. He played 53 games for the Dollies that season and improved his offensive numbers to 54 hits, including three triples, good for a .278 average.

In September 1919, the New York Yankees purchased Walker’s contract and called him up to the big leagues. One wonders how a player with such limited pro experience at lower levels made it to the top. Even SABR member Bill McCurdy, who met Walker through his father and devoted much effort to getting Walker’s career recognized, noted that details were lacking about how “the really big move in the rookie’s first season occurred at all.”5

His major-league career began rather inauspiciously when, on September 17, manager Miller Huggins sent Walker in to pinch-hit for pitcher Ernie Shore. It was the bottom of the ninth inning, the second game of a doubleheader, and the last inning of a blowout loss by the Yankees to the White Sox. Walker hit a line drive that was hauled in by Nemo Leibold in left field. That was his only appearance in 1919 as well as his first and last game with the Yankees.6

Prior to the 1920 season, Walker was considered a good enough prospect to be invited to spring training with the Yankees – perhaps even a candidate to play right field. There had been no full-time regular at the position in 1919, and the man who played most there, Sammy Vick, had posted so-so numbers.

Any such speculation changed dramatically on January 3, 1920, when the Yankees obtained Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. The well-known story of Ruth’s acquisition does not need to be recounted except for its impact on Curt Walker’s career. Years later Walker jokingly reflected on the Yankees’ dilemma since he had been invited to camp. “They couldn’t keep us both on the same club and they had a heck of a time deciding whether to keep me or the Babe,” Walker recounted in a newspaper interview. “Hug (Miller Huggins) flipped a coin. I lost and went back to Augusta.”7

But losing out to the Babe did not stall Walker’s career for long. On July 27, 1920, the New York Giants bought Walker’s contract from Augusta for $7,000. As Walker also recalled many years later, Giants manager John McGraw was “looking around for some good, experienced outfielders. He bought me,” said Walker, “so he could trade me to the Phillies for Irish Meusel.”8 Accurate though it was, it didn’t happen quite that quickly. Walker had an abbreviated but significant tenure with McGraw’s Giants in 1920 and 1921. After the end of Augusta’s season, Walker was called up to the Giants. He got into eight games in September and October, mainly as a pinch hitter, and collected his first major-league hit, a single on October 2.

Walker stuck with the Giants for the start of the 1921 season, and he established himself as a big leaguer. He was in the lineup regularly in the first half of the season and slugged his first three home runs. His first homer, on May 1 at the Polo Grounds, came against eventual losing pitcher Hugh McQuillan and helped the Giants to a 7-2 win over the Boston Braves. Despite hitting two more home runs, driving in 33 runs, and carrying a respectable .286 BA into mid-July 1921, Walker’s days in New York were coming to an end.

In their book 1921, Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg quote McGraw from an April 1921 newspaper article comparing Walker favorably to George Burns. “Curtis Walker,” McGraw said, “is a day-in-day-out player. Like Burns, Walker seldom has what you might call an off day. Walker is as steady as a clock and as dependable as Burns.”9 High praise from one of the greatest baseball minds of all time. No doubt Walker had talent and McGraw recognized it. But subsequent events could lead one to wonder if McGraw was engaging in some gamesmanship and inflating the credentials of his part-time right fielder. If Walker was really as good as George Burns, would McGraw trade him? Regardless, on July 25 Walker (along with minor-league catcher Butch Henline and $30,000) was sent to Philadelphia in exchange for Irish Meusel. McGraw had made no secret of his interest in Meusel and was likely aware of the worsening relationship between Meusel and Phillies’ owner William Baker.10

Further, according to Spatz and Steinberg, Walker had been dangled as trade bait in an effort by the Giants to obtain Heinie Groh from Cincinnati. That proposal had been nixed by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis largely because Groh was a disgruntled holdout who was trying to “dictate his transfer to a strong contender.”11 The Giants later got Groh in an offseason deal.

As a result of the trade, Curt Walker was denied a chance to be a part of the great Giants teams of the early 1920s. Still, he was working to establish himself as a big-leaguer in 1921. In 64 games with the Giants before the trade, Walker had 55 hits including five triples. One can understand his disappointment at winding up with the Phillies for the remainder of the 1921 season. The Giants finished in first place and then won the World Series, while the Phillies finished in the National League basement, 43½ games off the pace.

To Walker the trade provided motivation – he said later one of his main goals was to outhit Meusel.12 After his death, Walker’s “hard luck” was explored in a newspaper article about his career. Wanting to show McGraw he had made a mistake in the trade, Walker developed a “burning desire to outhit Meusel.”13 After the trade, Walker hit .338 for Philadelphia during the balance of his season, which ended prematurely on August 16 (after 21 games) when he was hospitalized. After the trade, Meusel hit .329 in 62 games for the Giants. Walker carried over his desire to the 1922 season and outhit Meusel .337 to .331. Career-wise, Walker more than held his own against Meusel statistically.14

The 1922 Phillies were never going to be a threat to McGraw’s powerful Giants. They did manage to improve by six wins over the prior season, though, and to climb out of the cellar (albeit 18½ games behind sixth-place Brooklyn). As a regular, Walker appeared in 148 games and his 196 hits were tops among National League right fielders. All three of the 1922 Phillies starting outfielders hit better than .300: Walker’s .337 mark went with Cliff Lee’s .322 and Cy Williams’ 308. Walker’s slugging percentage of .499 was respectable and included 12 homers, 11 triples, and 36 doubles. He carved out a 16-game hitting streak from late May into June; often a timely hitter, he collected 19 go-ahead hits over the course of the season. He also scored 102 runs, his peak for any season.

Walker was an asset on defense as well. His fielding percentage of .955 was tops among league right fielders. His eight double plays from the outfield also led the league, and 24 outfield assists overall demonstrated his strong arm.

Despite the team’s disappointing season, Walker had several notable accomplishments in 1922 to go with his impressive statistics. On July 13 Cardinal pitcher Bill Doak took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Phillies. But on a Walker grounder to first baseman Jack Fournier, Doak neglected to cover first base. Walker was safe and credited with Philadelphia’s only hit of the game.

But a truly historic game followed in August when the Phillies traveled to Chicago to take on the Cubs. On the afternoon of August 25, the two teams combined for a total of 49 runs – a record for most runs tallied in a game in major-league history and a record which still stands nearly a century later. The Cubs prevailed by a score of 26-23, and newspapers of the day touted the “biggest score of all time.”15 The clubs also combined for 51 hits, a record which still stands for post-1900 games. Walker had four hits, including a double and a triple, in six official at-bats. He scored twice and was among 13 Phillies to score at least once – still a record number as well.

Heading into the 1923 season, the Phillies probably had little reason to expect improving fortunes. The team made few roster moves for 1923 and Cy Williams would be the team’s only true star. Indeed, they finished in the cellar again, as they had in 1921, with only 50 victories and 45½ games behind the Giants. Walker hit only .281, his career low as a regular, with 66 runs knocked in and only five triples.

After the 1923 season, Walker, just as he did most offseasons, headed back to his hometown of Beeville to help his father with the family funeral business. In addition to his father Nelson, he and brother Jesse were both licensed morticians. His hometown and his offseason occupation clearly inspired the two nicknames he received during his career – “Honey” and “The Undertaker,” though “Honey” was used much more often.

Going into 1924, Walker was no doubt looking to improve. The Phillies were once again destined to battle the Braves for eighth place in an eight-team league. But on May 30, Walker received what must have been encouraging news: he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds for George Harper. Like Walker, Harper was a lefty-hitting outfielder. They had similar stats but Harper was a few years older. Reds manager Pat Moran had wanted to make the deal in the offseason, but it was delayed by Moran’s untimely death in spring training.

The Reds of the mid-1920s were consistently above .500 and were regularly involved in pennant races. In Cincinnati, Walker joined an outfield that included Edd Roush and George Burns. Walker’s first game with his new team on May 30, 1924, was a preview of his consistent performance to come. At Wrigley Field, the Reds beat the Cubs 9-2 behind Eppa Rixey in the first game of a doubleheader, as Walker collected two hits and scored a run. In the nightcap, he had a double as the Reds completed the sweep, 4-2.16

On the final day of the season, Walker went 3-for-5 and raised his average with the Reds to .300. Thus, the Reds marked a rare accomplishment: having six players hitting .300 or higher.

Now an established big-leaguer and a key part of the Cincinnati outfield, Walker put together another fine season in 1925. His average improved to .318, which included 22 doubles, 16 triples, and six homers. Walker added 14 stolen bases and played outstanding defense. His fielding percentage of .983 led all National League outfielders. In May, the Reds and Walker hit a mild slump; Walker missed his first start of the season on May 15. By May 18, his average had slipped to .241. He then turned things around. On May 19, he had three hits as the Reds broke a five-game losing streak. The next day in Boston was more evidence that the slump was in the past. In a 15-8 comeback win over the Braves at Boston, Walker had four hits, including a triple, and scored three times. Two days later in Philadelphia Walker went 5-for-5 including a homer as the Reds routed the Phillies, 11-2. Over the course of five games in mid-May, he had 15 hits and raised his average from .241 to .324.17

Baseball was likely not the only thing on Walker’s mind in 1925. He and his first wife, Nellie Mae Walker, became parents with the birth of their first daughter, Nell, in October. In 1927 the couple had a second daughter, Carole. Little information is available on Walker’s family life, even from census records, though he was subsequently divorced and married for a second time in 1931.

The 1926 season provided Walker with perhaps his most historic and noteworthy accomplishment on the diamond. On the afternoon of July 22, the Boston Braves were in Cincinnati. With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the second inning, the Reds exploded for 11 runs. Left fielder Cuckoo Christensen tripled and Walker followed with a triple of his own. The rally continued and Walker came to the plate again. He slashed another triple and became the first player in the post-1901 era with two three-baggers in one inning. It has happened only 11 times in major-league history.18 Walker hit 20 triples that season, his career high (he wound up with 117 in the majors). He placed second in the league behind Paul Waner’s 22.

As the 1922 Phillies outfield had done, the hard-hitting Reds outfield ended the season with all three regulars hitting above .300 – Christensen at .350, Roush at .323, and Walker at .306. Walker enjoyed his career-long hitting streak of 19 games from June 11 to 30.

Even with the steady hitting, the 1926 season ended in disappointment for the Reds. Bidding for their first pennant since 1919, they led the National League for part of the summer but fell short and finished second, two games behind the Cardinals.

Following their relative success in 1926, the Reds fell back to earth in 1927 and remained a second division ball club for the rest of Walker’s major-league career. His fortunes reflected those of his team. His average fell to a still respectable .292 and he managed only 10 triples. Meanwhile, Paul Waner was becoming the premier right fielder in the NL while leading the Pirates to their second pennant in three years.

A season highlight for the Reds, and for Walker, had to be a July 14 doubleheader sweep of the powerful New York Giants at the Polo Grounds by scores of 8-6 and 8-3. Walker had five hits in the twin bill, including a double and homer in the second game. The Reds had also beaten the New Yorkers the day before by an 11-3 count as Walker had four singles in five trips to the plate.

Once he became a regular, the durable Walker took few days off. He appeared in 145 games in 1925, 155 in 1926, and 146 in 1927 season. But in 1928 Walker’s total fell to 123 games following a serious injury while running the bases that abruptly ended his season. It could even have finished his career or worse.

As of August 31, the Reds again were in pennant contention. Although Walker was hitting only in the .270s, the lowest average of his career as a regular, he was still a core team member. Thus, the team’s hope was badly shaken when Walker got hurt. The visiting Cubs, also in contention, led 5-3 in the bottom of the ninth. Billy Zitzmann led off for the Reds with a single, bringing up Walker. Walker singled to keep Cincinnati’s hopes alive. One out later, with runners at the corners, Ethan Allen hit a ground ball to second base. Walker raced toward second, trying to break up a potential game-ending double play. Cubs shortstop Woody English took the for the force out, but his throw to first struck Walker in the head.19 Walker suffered a fractured skull. He spent several weeks in a Cincinnati hospital.

In an interview years after his retirement, Walker recounted the incident. “Do you know where that ball ended up?” he asked. “After it hit me, it caromed out into left field, and finally bounced over the head of Kiki Cuyler. I was in the hospital for a month, and it didn’t look as if I would ever play again.”20 But he did return to the diamond the following season.

The Reds were only seven games back of St. Louis on September 1, the day after Walker’s injury, but after that they went 8-18 and ended up 16 games behind the champion Cardinals.

Following such a serious injury, there were questions about whether Walker had played his final game. But heading into 1929, he was fully recovered. In fact, he was well enough to be a short-term holdout at spring training before signing to play in late March. Walker makde a full recovery not only physically but also statistically. He raised his average to .313 in 141 games, and because his keen eyesight gave him great awareness of the strike zone, he struck out only 17 times while drawing 85 walks. Still the Reds were no match for the stiff competition of the National League and their 66-88 record left them in seventh place at season’s end, 33 games behind the Cubs.

During the 1930 season, Bob Meusel, brother of Irish, joined the Reds and played 112 games in the outfield. Future Hall of Famer Harry Heilmann left Detroit and played in 142 games for Cincinnati – primarily in right field when he was not pinch hitting. Walker, who turned 34 that summer, split his 134 games between left and right field. It would essentially be the final major-league season for all three players.

Walker put together a solid campaign. He hit .307 and had another headline-making game on July 15. He was hitting leadoff when the Reds went into the Polo Grounds and pounded the Giants, 14-8. Walker’s three hits included two doubles and a home run, and he crossed the plate five times.21

Despite the efforts of Walker and others, the Reds ended the 1930 season with only a 59-95 record and a seventh-place finish. Walker’s numbers showed that he was still a productive player, but Cincinnati released him that winter. Rather than try to catch on with another big-league team, he signed a $7,500 contract to play for the Double-A Indianapolis Indians.

Albeit at a lower level, Walker’s fine hitting continued in 1931: .322 in 143 games. In 1932, his career wound down, with 64 games for the Indians and the Toledo Mud Hens.

Walker then returned to Beeville for good. His father Nelson died on October 8, 1932, and Curt joined his brother Jesse in running the Walker Funeral Home. The brothers operated the business until 1946 when they sold it. Jesse ended up in Colorado and Curt stayed in Beeville.

Walker was active in local affairs and was eventually elected a justice of the peace. His athletic ability enabled him to become one of the top senior left-handed golfers in Texas. But his favorite outdoor activity was deer hunting – a pastime he enjoyed frequently and with good results.

Curt Walker was one of the rare veterans of both World War I and II. He was too old to be called to service but enlisted again in 1942. He received an honorable discharge in 1943.

Walker suffered a stroke in late 1953 that badly affected his ability to walk.22 After a long recovery, however, he was able to resume most of his active lifestyle, including hunting. On December 9, 1955, he was still serving as justice of the peace and was well enough to plan a hunting trip for the following day – but he died quietly that night in his sleep. The cause of death was listed as a cerebral hemorrhage. He was buried in the Glenwood Cemetery in Beeville. Survivors included his three adult siblings; two daughters from his first marriage, Nell Walker Hight and Carole Walker Steele; and his third wife, Nettie Ballard Walker.

Maybe Curt Walker’s career would have been better appreciated if more modern metrics had been used in the 1920s. He had a .378 on-base percentage for Cincinnati – higher than that of modern Reds such as Barry Larkin and Ken Griffey Sr., and one point better even than Pete Rose’s career OBP.23

Yet as Walker explained in an interview the year before he died, “I think I have one distinction that few players share. In the seven years I played for the Reds, I was never booed. … It’s nice to remember that, and also to remember that the years in Cincinnati were the happiest of my baseball life.”24

 

Acknowledgments

Special acknowledgment to longtime SABR contributor Bill McCurdy. As a young man, Bill met Curt Walker through his father and publicized information about the man and his career in his online reminiscences in the Pecan Park Eagle. Bill was an admirer who worked many hours to ensure Walker’s induction into the Texas State Baseball Hall of Fame. This mission was accomplished in 2001.

Longtime SABR member Joe Haardt reviewed this article prior to submission. It was subsequently reviewed by Bill Nowlin and Rory Costello and fact-checked by Russ Walsh.

 

Sources

In addition to sources mentioned in the notes, the author relied on:

Baseball-reference.com

Thorn, John, Phil Birnbaum and Bill Deane, eds., Total Baseball, 8th Edition (Toronto: SPORT Media Publishing, 2004).

Reichler, Joseph and Ken Samelson, The Great All-Time Baseball Record Book (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1993).

 

Notes

1 “Judge Curtis Walker Dies in Sleep Friday Night; Funeral Rites Held Sunday Afternoon,” Beeville Bee-Picayune, December 15, 1955: 1.

2 Southwestern University, Sou’wester (college yearbook), 1916 and 1917; https://archive.org/details/souwesteryearbook1916sout.

3 “The White Sox the Big Attraction Friday,” Megaphone, (Southwestern University college newspaper), Vol. 9, No. 23, March 28, 1916: 1.

4 Harold Seymour, Baseball – The People’s Game, New York: Oxford University Press (1990): 336.

5 Bill McCurdy, “Cool Hand Curt Walker,” Pecan Park Eagle, February 25, 2018 (https://bill37mccurdy.com/2018/02/25/cool-hand-curt-walker).

6 McCurdy, “Cool Hand Curt Walke.,”

7 Ed Pollock, “Curt Walker – Big Aim Was to Outhit Emil Meusel,” Philadelphia Bulletin, December 20, 1955.

8 Pollock.

9 Lyle Spatz and Steve Steinberg, 1921 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 102.

10 Spatz and Steinberg, 184.

11 Spatz and Steinberg, 165.

12 Pollock.

13 Pollock.

14 Walker had 1,475 hits and a .304 average compared to Meusel’s 1,521 hits and .310 average. Using a more modern metric, Walker and Meusel had identical career WAR of 22.1, with Meusel outpacing Walker in extra-base hits. Walker had 416 extra-base hits in 4,858 at-bats, and Meusel had 449 extra-base hits in 4,900 at-bats

15 “Phillies and Cubs Smash Two World’s Records in Struggle,” Tampa Tribune, August 26, 1922: 8.

16 Jack Ryder, “Redleg Hospital Brigade Clubs Cubs with Their Own Crutches,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 31, 1924: 9.

17 Jack Ryder, “Reds Regain Batting Eye and Wallop Boston, 15 to 8,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 21, 1925: 14, and Jack Ryder, “Cincinnati Team Goes on Batting Spree at Quakers’ Expense,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 23, 1925: 11.

18 Jack Ryder, “Reds Almost Fall from Exhaustion Scoring Runs,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 23, 1926: 11. The three other modern players to have two triples in one inning are Al Zarilla of the St. Louis

Browns on July 13, 1946, the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Athletics; Gil Coan of the Washington Senators on April 21, 1951, the sixth inning against the New York Yankees; and Cory Sullivan of the Colorado Rockies on April 9, 2006, the fifth inning against the San Diego Padres. See Lyle Spatz, ed., The SABR Baseball List & Record Book (New York; Scribner, 2007), 79.

19 “Red Hopes Fade Out with Walker Hurt,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 6, 1928, and Jack Ryder, “Punch Missing, So Redlegs Again Are Humbled by Chicago Cubs,” September 1, 1928: 13.

20 Lee Allen, “Curt Walker Living Quietly in Beeville,” Cincinnati Enquirer, March 7, 1954: 52.

21 “Reds Slug Out 14 to 8 Victory Over New York,” Lima (Ohio) Morning Star and Republican Gazette, July 16, 1930: 10.

22 Allen.

23 “The Greatest Red You Never Heard Of,” Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 6, 2011; https://news.cincinnati.com/article/20110904/STP04/309040051/-Greatest-Red-You-Never-Heard-Of.

24 Allen.

Full Name

William Curtis Walker

Born

July 3, 1896 at Beeville, TX (USA)

Died

December 9, 1955 at Beeville, TX (USA)

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