Roy Walker

This article was written by Chris Rainey

Sadly, there are many stories like that of pitcher Roy “Dixie” Walker in the annals of baseball. He was a gifted athlete, said “to have as much speed as Walter Johnson.”1 His failing was that he lacked control. Not just of his fastball, but of his life. He had a temper, a proclivity to drink, saw no reason to stay in shape and had a delusional sense of his abilities. He carved out 15 seasons in professional baseball, winning as many as 26 games in a year but never reaching his full potential.

James Roy Walker was born on April 13, 1893, in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. He was the third of six children born to Tennessee natives Daniel and Ottie Walker. The family moved north from Lawrenceburg to the east side of Nashville shortly after his birth. Daniel worked as a furniture maker while Roy was growing up. When the children were adults, the parents moved to Detroit and Daniel went to work in an auto factory there. Roy attended elementary school, but probably not much beyond that. In the 1900 census his older brother, aged 12, had already left school and was working.

By the age of 17, Walker was pitching in the Nashville City League. In 1911 he played for the Geo. Moore and Sons team and set a new league strikeout record. Right-handed on the mound and at bat, he was considered the best hitting pitcher in the league. On June 10 he smashed two home runs.2 In his final city game he lasted only two innings and left down, 5-0. This did not stop the Nashville Vols from putting him on the hill versus Memphis on September 15.

Despite some nervousness, Walker’s debut was impressive. He walked three and hit two batters, but he also struck out eight. He allowed only seven hits in 10 innings but lost, 1-0. The winning run scored on a two-out grounder to third that the batter barely beat out.3 Walker’s performance led to a contract with Bristol in the Class D Appalachian League for 1912.

With Walker paired with future major leaguer Nick Cullop, the Bristol Boosters had fine pitching. Walker led the league champions in appearances, innings pitched, and wins. He authored a no-hitter on June 19, winning 4-0 over Asheville. At the plate he batted .213 with two homers. The Cleveland Naps purchased Walker’s contract and he made his debut on September 16, 1912.

Cleveland was hosting Philadelphia and after the Athletics plated seven runs in the seventh off Willie Mitchell, manager Joe Birmingham sent Walker in to close out the game. “He was rather wild … but showed himself to be the possessor of speed, a curve and a good change of pace.” He did not allow a hit and struck out Eddie Collins.4

Newspapers used the first name “Jim” in stories about Walker’s debut. Fans had to be on their toes: One writer might call him Jim and another Roy. This was the case his entire career. When he went to play in New Orleans, the nickname of Dixie came into use. The various names occasionally led to confusion; there was a Dixie Walker who pitched with the Senators until 1912. There was a collegiate pitcher in the South named Roy Walker. Over the course of Roy’s career, there would be five or six other Dixie Walkers.

After the season, Walker returned to Nashville knowing that he had an invitation to spring training for 1913. On November 3 a fight broke out between members of the “Eat ’Em Up Gang” and members of the “Chaw Gang.” The combatants used brass knuckles and knives during the fight and a fellow named Tom Northern was slashed across his stomach. Police arrested two at the scene, but their investigation continued. The authorities determined that Walker and another man were also involved in the fight. Warrants for attempted murder were issued.

Walker’s next action defies explanation. He bought a train ticket to Peoria, Illinois. He was arrested in Terre Haute, Indiana, and returned to Nashville. In an interview he claimed to never have been a gang member. He suggested that the fight had started “over a trivial matter.” After hearing the fight commotion, he went to the scene and was immediately punched in the back of the head. Being blindsided is what made him fight back. He claimed to have not cut Northern.5

Walker went on to say that he hung around Nashville for a few days after the fight until “I thought it best, however, to leave.”6 He had no explanation for why he felt the need to flee. He was returned to Nashville and jailed for 10 days before his $1,500 bond was posted by W.G. Hirsig, president of the Nashville Baseball Association.7

The trial began the second week of December and was over quickly. The jury returned guilty verdicts against Walker and two others. On Friday the 13th, the trio were sentenced to 10 years each in the penitentiary. The defense lawyers immediately filed for a new trial.8

Judge A.B. Neil took the motion for a new trial under consideration. After consulting with the attorney general and others, Judge Neil concluded that the sentences were totally out of reason for “only an assault.” He found no premeditation or gang affiliation. He declined to grant a new trial, but he reduced the sentence for the trio from 10 years to 91 days in the workhouse and a $100 fine plus costs.9

The men were transferred to the workhouse and immediately put to work. Walker was assigned duties as a blacksmith. He must have learned his craft well because in later years he threatened to quit baseball and take up a career as a smith.10 He was released from detention on March 13, 1913. He was to report to the Cleveland training camp in Pensacola, Florida. Walker was in the best shape of his career after a winter of hammering metals. He stood 6-feet-1-inch tall and weighed in at 180 pounds.

He told the local reporters, “From now on, I am going to devote my time to baseball and keep out of all kinds of rows.”11As far as we can tell, he did not get arrested during the baseball season. However, soon after he returned to Nashville for the winter, The Tennessean ran the following headline, “Leighman Says Roy Walker Used Knife.” Harry Leighman, described as “a man about town,” had gotten into an altercation and was cut on his arm by an assailant wielding a knife. Walker was identified as the assailant, but no charges were filed.12

Walker would eventually move from Nashville, and some of the rowdiness disappeared. He always enjoyed the night life, however. He had a highly inflated ego, which helped make him the pitcher he was. It also made him seem like a braggart or even out of touch with reality. One year he contemplated quitting baseball to go into prizefighting. He had fought a few club matches and felt he was ready to take on Jess Willard. “I don’t think Fulton can whip him, but I believe I could,” he said.13 Walker existed in his own little world. In the 1940 census, 15 years after his career ended, he still listed himself as a professional baseball player.

Spring training with the Naps in 1913 ended early for Walker. On April 2 he and Jimmy Dygert were traded to Toledo for Cy Falkenberg. The Mud Hens sent him to the hill against Montgomery of the Southern Association on April 5. Dygert started the game and was down 3-0 when Walker entered in relief. He tossed six no-hit innings, but Toledo lost, 3-1.

The Mud Hens were a second-division team in the American Association. Walker was the youngest member of the pitching staff and was used sporadically. He made 11 appearances. After posting a WHIP of 0.875 with Bristol, Walker struggled with control and the veteran batters in the league. His WHIP soared to 1.796 to go with his 1-1 record. In late June he was sold to the New Orleans Pelicans in the Southern Association. They were a last-place team, but Walker’s fastball gave the fans hope. Jim Bagby joined the team and the twosome of Bagby and Walker would pull the Pels out of the cellar in 1914.

The Pelicans hired Johnny Dobbs as manager in 1914. He kept outfielder Tim Hendryx and three pitchers from the previous cellar-dwellers. The new contingent added 35 wins over the year before and battled Birmingham and Mobile for the title. Bagby won 20, Walker 15. Walker was tested early when he had to go 11 innings each in his first two starts. He topped the league with 200 strikeouts and allowed under seven hits per nine innings.

Walker took a major step toward settling down on May 19, 1914. He slipped across the Mississippi to the town of Gretna and married Marguerite Lamazou. He had been courting her for over a year and her parents finally consented to the marriage. The couple held a dinner reception at their home in New Orleans after the ceremony.14 He wintered in New Orleans rather than Nashville and took the opportunity to play in the winter league. New Orleans players were prohibited from the league, but because Walker’s contract now belonged to Cleveland, he was able to play for Tortorich Sweets.15

Walker and former Pelicans infielder Walter Barbare joined Cleveland for spring training in San Antonio. When camp broke and Cleveland headed north, an exhibition was scheduled in New Orleans. Manager Joe Birmingham crushed the hopes of Pelicans fans by squelching rumors that one or both men might rejoin the Pels. Of Walker he said, “looks sure to be a great pitcher.”16

Walker opened the season in the bullpen. A third of the way into the schedule, he had made three starts in his 11 appearances. Birmingham gave him a start against New York on May 12, but Walker was wild. His seven walks and some poor fielding support led to a 4-2 loss.

Soon, Lee Fohl replaced Birmingham. Fohl had always been a supporter of Walker and increased his usage. On June 26 against the White Sox, Walker tossed a five-hitter to win, 3-2. That performance earned him a spot in the starting rotation. But he struggled to a 4-9 mark. His best game might have come against Washington and Walter Johnson on July 29. He scattered nine hits and walked only one before Johnson lashed a double to plate a run with two out in the 10th for a 2-1 win.

August 20 was an important day in Cleveland baseball history. Joe Jackson was sent to the White Sox that day for cash and players. The Plain Dealer coverage of the deal mentioned in passing that Walker had been released to the Pelicans. He proved to be just what the Pelicans needed. He posted a 7-2 record and helped New Orleans take the title.

Bagby went up to Cleveland and Lynn Brenton returned to New Orleans to give Dobbs a rotation of Pop-Boy Smith, Walker, and Brenton in 1916. They were augmented by a young lefty named Harley Dillinger. They made a formidable pitching staff but fell short of catching Nashville in the pennant race. Walker led the league in strikeouts. The following year Brenton gave way to Dick Robertson. The Pelicans again finished second, this time behind Atlanta. Walker went 19-11 and led the league with a 1.64 ERA and 231 strikeouts.17 His performance earned a late-season call-up to the Chicago Cubs, for whom he made two appearances, losing his only start.

The 1918 Cubs were managed by Fred Mitchell and featured a pitching staff of Hippo Vaughn, Lefty Tyler, Claude Hendrix, and Phil Douglas. They had also picked up Pete Alexander over the winter. Mitchell had a reputation for developing pitchers. He told reporters that he could make Walker into a star because he had as much “stuff as any pitcher in the business.” But he was concerned about Walker’s control and the fact that he had not “cut out all his horseplay and foolishness yet.”18

Walker and fellow lanky righty Paul Carter were pitted against each other for a spot on the staff. Phil Douglas came down with appendicitis in late February, then Alexander left for military service after just three appearances, and both Walker and Carter made the team. Called Jim and Roy previously in the majors, “Dixie” became the most prevalent moniker for him in the local press.

Mitchell gave Walker a couple of starts that produced no-decisions early in the season. Then on May 15 and 20, he got two more starts and lost them both. Mitchell relegated him to the bullpen and used him only in exhibitions until July 5, when he suddenly got a start in St. Louis. After the lengthy layoff, he struggled. In just over an inning he allowed two hits, including a three-run homer to opposing pitcher Jakie May, and walked three. The Cubs rallied to tie the game and save Walker from the loss. It would be over 50 days before he got another start. He played in 13 games and had a 1-3 mark. Still, the Cubs reserved him for the 1919 season.

Walker did not serve in the military. He listed his wife on his draft card and said that she was physically disabled and he was her sole support. In none of the articles about the marriage and subsequent divorce was there ever a mention of her physical condition. Many of the players worked in defense jobs after the 1918 season ended early. There is no indication that Walker held meaningful employment.

Before training camp opened in Pasadena, the Cubs sold Walker to Columbus in the American Association.19 Walker got off to an excellent start with the Senators. Then, while he pitched batting practice in late June, teammate Charlie Pechous lined a shot back at him that broke his arm. In early August Walker was released to the Pelicans.20 He won only two games for the Pels, both in a doubleheader against Birmingham on September 1. He won the nine-inning opener, 3-0, then took the seven-inning nightcap, 4-2.

Manager Johnny Dobbs assembled his Pelicans for the 1920 season. It would be a tough year for him because his brother died suddenly and then his wife took ill. Despite their leader being out of action periodically, the team was in the pennant hunt from June on. Walker, Red Torkelson, and Clyde Barfoot were prime reasons for the team’s success. Torkelson and Barfoot combined for 28 wins on the mound and they played in the outfield when not pitching. Walker turned in the best pitching season of his career. But as a.129 batter that year, he was not called upon for outfield duty.

The year started slowly for Dixie when he surrendered five runs in three innings in his first exhibition outing, versus Cleveland. He closed out the preseason with a 5-0 shutout of Shreveport. Dobbs gave him the start in the second game of the season against Mobile. Walker hung a curveball to Guy Tutwiler and watched him launch the game-winning home run. After the game, Walker claimed the stitching on the ball felt raised and that he asked the umpire for a new ball but was refused.21

Walker won his next three starts before getting an eight-inning 0-0 tie. It was the first of four tie games he pitched. He also tossed five shutouts. He posted career highs in wins (26), innings pitched (363), games (47), and strikeouts (237), which led the league. The Pelicans relinquished first place early in September to Little Rock and had to settle for second place. Walker had been at his best when the rest of the pitchers were struggling. To show their appreciation, the fans took up a collection and in the seventh inning on September 5 he was handed $500.22 The Pels and Walker lost that game to Whitey Glazner and Birmingham, 2-0.

Walker’s performance caught the attention of the St. Louis Cardinals, who purchased his contract on February 11, 1921. The Cardinals signed Walker despite his reputation for being tough to handle. The newspapers had some fun with his reputation as a “bad man” when he was roomed with fellow pitcher Lester Sells. Sells worked as a policeman in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the offseason.23

Branch Rickey had his big three of Bill Doak, Jesse Haines, and Ferdie Schupp. He was hoping to find fourth and fifth starters among Walker, Sells, Tink Riviere, and Bill Pertica. Rickey gave Walker the opening exhibition assignment. Walker had been working hard and was in better shape than in past seasons. He responded with a fine six-inning outing and allowed only one run. It never hurts to catch your bosses’ eye before any else can.

The Cardinals and Browns played a city series before the regular season opened and Walker was chosen to toss the third game for the Cardinals. Bill Pertica got the first start in the regular season from among the newcomers. Walker worked out of the bullpen until a May 13 start in New York. He lost, 5-1, but followed it up with a start on May 19 in Philadelphia. He went 11 innings and emerged with a 3-2 win.

In June, July, and August Walker was part of the rotation and made 18 starts and seven relief appearances. Three of those relief spots would have earned saves in today’s game. He closed out the season with an 11-12 record with three saves. The following year he returned to St. Louis. He lost his spot in the rotation and made only two starts. On the Fourth of July he made a strong five-inning relief appearance against Cincinnati. A few days later he was sent to New Orleans for infielder John Monroe and cash.24

Walker immediately tapped into the same magic potion he had in 1920. He and John Martina kept the Pelicans in the race while the other pitchers floundered. Walker posted a 12-1 record with a 1.58 ERA (the league leader was at 2.63). Martina and Walker were both named all-league at the close of the season.25

The following year Larry Gilbert took over as manager from Dobbs. Martina and Walker each won 21 games and the Pelicans finished on top of the league standings. Their championship earned the Pels the right to face the Fort Worth Panthers, champions of the Texas League. Walker was even cockier than normal. He announced that he could beat Fort Worth with just two infielders and two outfielders and his catcher.

Walker had to wait his chance while Gilbert played a hunch and used his left-handers, Hank Robinson and George Winn. With the Pels down three games to one, Walker started and won, 11-0, on October 1, then was bombed on October 4 in the finals. Fort Worth took the title. The series set a new record for gate receipts. In December Marguerite filed for divorce from Walker. She cited cruelty and habitual drunkenness.26

New Orleans sold Walker to the Milwaukee Brewers in the American Association in January for $5,000. The Pelicans concluded that the team would be better off with a man less capable than Walker, but more dependable.27 The divorce dragged on. During the hearings, it was revealed that Walker earned $700 a month playing in New Orleans.28 Because of the divorce proceedings, Walker moved out of the family home and the Brewers had trouble finding him at contract time. Still, he arrived for spring training in Palmetto, Florida, just a day or two late.

Walker started slowly in the spring. He was hit hard in two exhibitions with the Cardinals. When the season began, he still struggled, giving 12 runs to Indianapolis on May 4. His best performance came in September, when he beat the Philadelphia Athletics 4-0 in an exhibition. A week later he injured ligaments in his knee during an exhibition game.

Walker signed with Birmingham in 1925. He was now 32 and out of shape. After Birmingham released him, he pitched briefly for Shreveport and Knoxville before calling it a career. Walker’s life after baseball is mostly a mystery. He lived in New Orleans in boarding houses. His draft certificate for World War II and a city directory show him on Clairborne Street. He was listed as an employee of Royal Carpet Cleaners at that address. He listed a Mrs. Dixie Miller at that address as his contact on his draft registration.

Walker died in Charity Hospital on February 10, 1962. He had suffered through a lengthy illness. He was buried in the Garden of Memories in Metairie, Louisiana.

 

Acknowledgments

This biography was reviewed by Len Levin and fact-checked by Kevin Larkin.

 

Notes

1 “Pitcher Roy Walker Joins the Pels,” New Orleans Item, June 23, 1913: 7.

2 “City League This Year a Great Success,” The Tennessean (Nashville), June 19, 1911: 7.

3 Spick Hall, “Ten Round Fray Went to Turtles on Scratch Hit, “The Tennessean, September 16, 1911: 7.

4 Henry P. Edwards, “Weird Fielding Brings Naps to Grief in Final,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 17, 1912: 7.

5 “American League Pitcher in Jail,” The Tennessean, November 17, 1912: 13.

6 Ibid.

7 “Pitcher Released,” The Tennessean, November 19, 1912: 10.

8 “Staggering Blow to ‘Chaw ’Em Ups,’” The Tennessean, December 14, 1912: 3.

9 “Months and Not Years,” The Tennessean, December 22, 1912: 3.

10 The Tennessean, February 12, 1916: 10.

11 “Roy Walker Finishes ‘Time’ on County Road,” The Tennessean, March 14, 1913: 10.

12 “Leighman Says Roy Walker Used Knife,” The Tennessean, October 10, 1913: 14.

13 “Hurls Punches Too,” Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1918: 13.

14 “‘Dixie’ Walker Jumps to Hymen League,” New Orleans Item, May 20, 1914: 3.

15 “ ‘Dixie’ Walker to Join Local Club,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 19, 1914: 11.

16 “Birmingham Refuses to Give Pelican Rooters Any Hope,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 1,1915: 15.

17 Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball (Durham, North Carolina: Baseball America Inc.; 1993): 146.

18 “Ham’s Sport Chat,” New Orleans Item, June 8, 1918: 7.

19 “Cubs Sell ‘Dixie’ Walker,” Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia), March 8, 1919: 15.

20 Dixie Walker Back,” Chattanooga News, August 5, 1919: 4.

21 “Notes of the Players,” Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), April 18, 1920: 24.

22 “Nearly 9,000 Make Walker Day a Success and Hand Him $500 Present,” New Orleans Item, September 6, 1920: 10.

23 “Policeman to Room with Dixie Walker,” St. Louis Star and Times, February 24, 1921: 19.

24 “Monroe Is Traded to Cardinals,” New Orleans State, July 9, 1922: 35.

25 “Mobile Has 8 Men on All-star Team Picked by Scribes,” New Orleans Item, September 10, 1922: 24.

26 “Wife Files Suit Against Walker Seeks Divorce,” New Orleans State, December 5, 1923: 1.

27William Keefe, “Birds Expecting Gruelling Fight in Upcoming Series,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 18, 1924: 16.

28 “Asks Accounting of Wife for Pay,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, February 8, 1924: 7.