by Thomas U. Tuttle
I’ve recently returned from the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, held this year in Harrisburg, PA – the capital of Pennsylvania and just 35 miles down the road from the historic battlefield at Gettysburg, while in the other direction lies State College and Penn State University.
Everyone is familiar with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as the “major league” cities in the Keystone State (extra points if you knew that state nickname), but it is indeed Harrisburg that is the seat of government.
Harrisburg, with its spectacular architecture and utterly magnificent capitol building located in the center of the downtown area (called upon completion “the most beautiful building in America” by no less than Theodore Roosevelt) is a gem, with a vibrant community supporting it.
Most everyone is also familiar with the fact that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, forever changing the landscape of Major League baseball. Branch Rickey and Robinson, along with others, defied the “gentleman’s agreement” that had kept baseball white for decades.
Harrisburg and its neighbor, Steelton PA (home of a massive and once thriving Bethlehem Steel factory), contributed mightily to black baseball by simply being the home of the Harrisburg Giants – and for a good chunk of the 1920’s, the host of HOF’er Oscar Charleston, critically underrated superstar Rap Dixon and the exceptional Fats Jenkins, among others.
During the first half of the 20th century, despite the ignominy of baseball’s separate but unequal state, tremendous baseball was played by black ballplayers throughout the country, with organized ball in numerous major cities well underway in the early 1900’s.
Think in terms of the Baltimore Black Sox, Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants, Newark Eagles, Birmingham Black Barons and the powerful (also legendary) Kansas City Monarchs – among others.
The Harrisburg Giants team of the mid-1920’s was outstanding, with one of the great outfields of all time, led by Oscar Charleston and Rap Dixon. Oscar has long been recognized as one of the games all-time greats (as exemplified by his HOF status) but it is Dixon who was the focus of much research and study at the conference.
Rap hit the first home run by a black player ever at Yankee Stadium in 1930, was known to be one of the best defensive players in NL history, and had a record 14 consecutive plate appearances with a base hit – still the record as recognized by “major league equivalency.” What makes the mark all the more impressive is that it came in a series against the powerful Homestead Grays.
(It should be noted that Ted Williams reached base 16 consecutive times with a number of walks and hit-by-pitch appearances a part of that impressive total.)
Dixon is credited with a lifetime batting average of .315 with roughly 18 home runs, 27 steals and 125 runs scored for every 150 games played. Teams in the Negro Leagues did not have the 154 game schedule of white teams, partly for the simple reason that they were not allowed to play in numerous parks, and only on certain days in the yards that were open to them.
Despite adversity, the black game flourished for many years and created many legends of the game. Almost all of us are familiar with the legacy of HOF pitcher Satchel Paige, and many of us the superb baseball exploits of Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell. But there are many more names that resonate in the cities that gave rise to the greatness of blackball.
Rap Dixon is just one of them, but what a player he must have been. They say he was a fine gentleman as well, who was sorely missed when he died, too young, at age 42 years.