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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 218

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This is the grave of Cap Anson.

Born in 1852 in Marshalltown, Iowa, Adrian “Cap” Anson was a great early baseball player. He started his professional career in 1871 with the mighty Rockford Forest Citys as a third basemen. He was traded to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1872 and played there through 1875, having particularly great seasons in 1872 and 1873. When Chicago White Stockings owner William Hulbert broke National Association rules by negotiating with Anson to bring him onto his team, Hulbert started the National League to avoid punishment. He continued playing for the White Stockings, which later became the Chicago Colts (and after that, the Cubs), until 1897, when he was 45 years old. He was a great hitter, while mostly playing first base. His best year was probably 1881, when he hit .399/.422/.510 with 137 hits and 84 RBIs in an era when the year was only 80-90 games. He led the league in all of those categories that year except for slugging percentage, while also leading in OPS, OPS+, and total bases. He remained a pretty good hitter all the way until the end, with the only year he was below 100 in OPS+ being his last. He was named captain and manager of the team in 1879 and innovated in a lot of ways. He was the first manager to use a third base coach, the first to realize that players should back up others on defense, and the first to go south for spring training. His teams won 5 pennants between 1880 and 1886. While there was some debate over what should count as Anson’s final hit total, today it rests at 3,435 making him 7th all time, though the Hall of Fame only counts 3,081, discounting his early years. He still holds many all-time Cubs records, which count the franchise’s earlier iterations.

Cap Anson was also a terrible human being. He was an unreconstructed racist of the worst kind. He was notorious for refusing to play even an exhibition game if a black player was on the field. No single person did more to make sure that baseball would be segregated than Anson. He also routinely bet on baseball, including his own team. Like Pete Rose, he exclusively bet on his own team to win. But the racism, that was the real strike against him. From this Kevin Blackistone op-ed about baseball’s unwillingness to discuss the people who created its segregation:

“Regrettably, Anson used his stature to drive minority players from the game,” wrote Society for American Baseball Research historian David Fleitz. “An 1883 exhibition game in Toledo, Ohio, between the local team and the White Stockings nearly ended before it began when Anson angrily refused to take the field against Toledo’s African-American catcher, Moses Fleetwood Walker. Faced with the loss of gate receipts, Anson relented after a loud protest, but his bellicose attitude made Anson, wittingly or not, the acknowledged leader of the segregation forces already at work in the game. Other players and managers followed Anson’s lead, and similar incidents occurred with regularity for the rest of the decade. In 1887, Anson made headlines again when he refused to play an exhibition in Newark unless the local club removed its African-American battery, catcher Walker and pitcher George Stovey, from the field. Teams and leagues began to bar minorities from participation, and by the early 1890s, no black players remained in the professional ranks.”

Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first black major leaguer. Anson’s protest made him the last until Jackie Robinson, whom baseball in the past 20 years turned into a cause for celebration with little castigation of its role in Robinson getting an opportunity to play baseball only as a racial guinea pig.

Blackistone goes on to say that Anson is the reverse Jackie Robinson and that his HOF plaque should be changed to recognize this. I agree.

Anson was a big and popular star but struggled in retirement, with a lot of business ventures going belly up. He owned various sports teams, both baseball and football. He did vaudeville for awhile in the 1910s and Ring Lardner even wrote up an act for him and his daughters. But thanks to his bad business choices, he never had much money. He ended his life managing a golf course in Chicago.

Anson died in 1922. He was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939.

Cap Anson is buried in Oak Woods Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit more of the horrible racists of baseball history, you can donate here. I think we would all enjoy a visit to Ty Cobb. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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