This article was written by Lyle Spatz
This article was published in the The National Pastime: Baseball in the Peach State (Atlanta, 2010)
Picked to finish in the second division of the Southern Association, the 1950 Atlanta Crackers — led by new manager Dixie Walker and a scared 18-year-old infielder named Eddie Mathews — surprised everyone by posting the best record in the league.
A 1950 preseason poll of Southern Association sportswriters picked the Atlanta Crackers to finish in the second division of that league.[fn]Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 July 1950.[/fn] The pick surprised almost no one. After three consecutive firstplace finishes—under manager Doc Prothro in 1944 and Kiki Cuyler in 1945 and 1946—the Crackers had slipped into the second division. They had finished fifth and sixth under Cuyler in 1947 and 1948 and fifth under 29-year-old player-manager Cliff Dapper in 1949. At the end of the season, Earl Mann, the team’s president since 1935, let Dapper go.
Mann, the leader of a group of businessmen who had purchased the club from the Coca-Cola Company in August 1949, had two tasks for the offseason. He wanted to establish a major-league affiliation for the Crackers, who were the only team in the Southern Association without one, and he had to find a new manager. He hoped for the Crackers to have a working agreement with the New York Giants, with whom he was negotiating, but the deal fell through. Mann was also unsuccessful in securing his first choice to manage the club. He wanted Mel Ott, but the former Giants skipper was not interested.[fn]New York World Telegram, 6 December 1949.[/fn] When Mann learned that the recently retired outfielder Dixie Walker was available, he offered him the job. On December 5, 1949, Walker signed to manage the Crackers for the 1950 season. “We are happy to have Dixie back in Dixie,” said Mann.[fn]Hartford Courant, 6 December 1949.[/fn]
Walker, a native of Villa Rica, Georgia, had ended his 18-year career after two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Before that, he had played for the Yankees, Tigers, White Sox, and, most famously, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Playing for the Dodgers from 1939 to 1947, he had earned a reputation as the most popular player ever to wear a Brooklyn uniform. During that time, he helped lead the Dodgers to two pennants (1941 and 1947) and had won the National League batting championship in 1944 and the runs-batted-in title in 1945. He finished his career with more than two thousand hits and an excellent lifetime batting average of .306.
The arrival in 1947 of Jackie Robinson had posed a dilemma for Walker. Like many Southern-born players, and quite a few from the North, Walker did not approve of Robinson’s joining the Dodgers. The primary reason for his opposition, he would later say, was the fear of how playing with a black man would affect his business interests back home in Birmingham, Alabama. He asked team president Branch Rickey to trade him, which Rickey agreed to do, but Walker was himself still a very valuable asset, and when Rickey could not get fair value for him, no trade was made.
So Walker remained in Brooklyn, and while he and Robinson had an uneasy relationship, there were no incidents and the two men were instrumental in the Dodgers winning the 1947 pennant. Dixie told Rickey he was sorry about having asked for the trade and that he wished to remain with Brooklyn in 1948. But the Dodgers had a stable of young outfielders, and Rickey saw no future for Walker as a player in Brooklyn. However, aware of Walker’s baseball acumen and wanting to keep him in the organization, Rickey offered Dixie a job managing the St. Paul Saints, Brooklyn’s affiliate in the American Association.
Walker had long expressed an interest in managing, and he had spent the previous few years of his career studying the game from a managerial viewpoint. Nevertheless, he felt that he still had some playing time left and turned down the offer. Rickey sent him to the Pirates in December 1947, where he had a good year in 1948 but struggled in 1949. The Pirates released him at the end of the season, and now at age 39, he was ready to become a manager.
“This is a great opportunity for me. It is what I have always wanted to do when my playing days were at an end,” said Walker.[fn]Ibid.[/fn] “I’m gonna see what I can do with this old cerebellum,” he said tapping his head. “Shucks, I’ve been squinting at fast balls in the twilight and chasing fly balls back to the screen long enough.”[fn]Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 January 1950.[/fn]
In his 18-year big-league career, Dixie had played under a variety of managers: Joe McCarthy with the Yankees, Mickey Cochrane and Del Baker with the Tigers, Jimmy Dykes with the White Sox, and Leo Durocher and Burt Shotton with the Dodgers. His greatest success had come under Durocher, but he said that he had no particular model in mind. “I hope I have learned something from each of them that will help me as a manager.”[fn]Guy Tiller, “Prospect for Majors: Dixie Walker,” Baseball Digest, October 1950, 86.[/fn]
One thing that Walker had learned was the importance of a strong pitching staff, and so not long after he got the job with Atlanta, he headed to Buchanan, Georgia, to ask his former teammate Whitlow Wyatt, now 42, to be his pitching coach. Wyatt and Walker had both come to Brooklyn in 1939 after stints with three different American League teams. The new president of the Dodgers, Larry MacPhail, was signing every player he thought had even an outside chance of bringing his team back to respectability. With Walker and Wyatt, he struck gold. The two would be Dodger teammates for six years and in 1941 played instrumental roles in bringing Brooklyn its first National League pennant in 21 years. Wyatt agreed to come out of retirement and work as Dixie’s pitching coach and chief assistant. “The Boston Braves,” said Mann, referring to Atlanta’s new major-league affiliation, “are tickled to get Whit into the system.”[fn]Hartford Courant, 1 March 1950.[/fn]
Two days after landing Wyatt, Walker drove to the Atlanta suburb of Buckhead, where he paid a visit to Hugh Casey, another former Brooklyn teammate. Casey too had joined the Dodgers in 1939 and pitched for them through 1948, with the exception of three wartime years in the U.S. Navy. Casey was moderately successful as a starting pitcher in his first three years with Brooklyn. In 1942, Dodgers manager Durocher shifted him to the bullpen full-time, where he emerged as the National League’s best relief pitcher. After a poor, injury-riddled season in 1948, the Dodgers decided that he was no longer big- league quality and let him go. He signed with Pittsburgh and had a combined 5–1 record for the Pirates and Yankees in 1949, although he did not pitch well for either team. The Yanks released him after the season. But Walker believed that Casey could still be an effective pitcher, at least at the Double A level, and signed him to pitch for the Crackers. For the Atlanta-born Casey, this would be his third stint with the Crackers. He had gone 0–3 for them as an 18-year-old in 1932 and 8–6 two years later.
Not much was expected of the Atlanta club at the start of spring training, but Walker was not discouraged. He spent most of his time at training camp teaching what he knew best—hitting—and while he turned his pitchers over to Wyatt, he was not without his own thoughts on the subject. “More pitchers get sore arms because their legs are not in condition than for any other reason,” Dixie said. Wyatt agreed. “A pitcher can never do too much running. I realized that early on in my career, and I guess that’s why I lasted as long as I did.”[fn]Chicago Daily Tribune, 24 March 1950.[/fn]
Many experts had labeled Casey a “has-been,” and his early spring performances seemed to prove them correct. The 36-year-old veteran was hit hard in his first couple of exhibition appearances against majorleague teams, including an embarrassing outing against the Dodgers. Casey’s problems continued early in the regular season. The fans booed him and urged Walker to let him go. But his old teammate still had faith in him. “I know he can win,” Walker said.[fn]Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 21 June 1950.[/fn]
Casey eventually did turn it around, and by midsummer Dixie had the Crackers in first place. Cardinals outfielder Harry Walker, at Ebbets Field for a series against Brooklyn, was happy for his brother’s success in Atlanta. “Nobody thought Dixie had a chance to win when he took the job of manager,” Harry said. “But he’s got his kid team right up there fighting for a pennant. I would like to see him make it. I sure would like it.”[fn]Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 July 1950.[/fn]
Well, he did make it. Dixie led the Crackers to a Southern Association best 92–59 record, finishing four games ahead of Birmingham. Atlanta then won four straight over Memphis in the first round of the playoffs but was ousted four games to one by Nashville in the finals.
The three former Dodgers played significant roles in Atlanta’s success. Wyatt cajoled 92 wins out of a rather nondescript pitching staff, led by Art Fowler with 19 wins and Dick Hoover with 16. Working mostly in relief, Casey led the club in appearances with 45 and compiled a 10–4 record.
Most of the credit, of course, went to Walker, who in addition to managing, served as the third-base coach. Dixie also played in 39 games, mostly as a pinch hitter, and batted a respectable .273. Walker may have done his best work in coaching Eddie Mathews, a scared young kid with only Class D experience. Under Walker’s tutelage, the 18-year-old third baseman and future Hall of Famer batted .286 with 32 home runs.
For finishing first with a team given little chance of even having a winning record, Walker won the league’s Manager of the Year award. The difference, according to Atlanta Constitution sportswriter Guy Tiller, was Walker’s “patient and intelligent handling of each player, and his detailed instructions on how to correct faults and avoid mistakes.”[fn]Guy Tiller, “Prospect for Majors: Dixie Walker,” Baseball Digest, October 1950, 85.[/fn]
Walker managed another two years in Atlanta before he and Mann agreed to part ways. Although thought to be in the running for the open managerial job in Pittsburgh, he lost out to Fred Haney. He took a job as the first-base coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, managed by his old Dodger teammate Eddie Stanky. Walker remained with St. Louis until July 30, when the Cardinals chose him to replace Al Hollingsworth as manager of the Houston Buffs, their affiliate in the Texas League.
Gene Mauch replaced Walker in Atlanta for a year, and in 1954, the Crackers named Wyatt as their manager. “I guess the best thing that ever happened to me was when Dixie talked me into returning to baseball,” said Wyatt, who had been out of the game until Walker brought him back as the Crackers pitching coach in 1950. “I haven’t regretted a minute of it.”[fn]Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 20 November 1953.[/fn] As Walker had done, Wyatt finished in first place, but unlike Walker, his Crackers also won the playoffs.
But for Hugh Casey, the third member of the Atlanta Crackers’ Brooklyn connection, 1950 was the end of the line. He tried to rejoin the Dodgers for the 1951 season but failed. No longer involved with baseball, drinking heavily, and plagued by tax problems and a paternity suit, the 37-year-old Casey took his life in an Atlanta hotel on July 3, 1951. The funeral was held the next day, July 4, with Walker and Wyatt serving as pallbearers. Casey was buried beside his parents in Atlanta’s Mount Paran Church of God cemetery. The minister referred to the pressure that the paternity suit had placed on Casey. “You never know what is in a man’s mind at such a time,” he said. “But I think Hugh believed that he had been knocked out of the box, unjustly perhaps, and he didn’t want to go back to the bench.”[fn]New York World-Telegram and Sun, 5 July 1951.[/fn]
After leaving the Crackers, Dixie Walker would spend the rest of his life in baseball, as a manager, coach, and scout. He was 71 when he died in 1982. Whit Wyatt stayed in baseball until 1967, serving as a coach for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Braves, and finished his career, appropriately, with the 1966–67 Atlanta Braves. He died in 1999 at the age of 91.
LYLE SPATZ is the editor of two baseball-record books and author of five books on baseball history, including, with coauthor Steve Steinberg, “1921: The Yankees, the Giants, and the Battle for Baseball Supremacy in New York” (Nebraska, 2010). He has written baseball widely for books and national periodicals, including “The Washington Post” and “The Baseball Research Journal”.