Thursday, November 8, 2012

135. Rap Dixon: The Negro Leagues' Best Left Fielder

Every so often I get requests for ballplayers to feature on the site. This week's player was suggested by a reader over a year ago and not only did he ask me to feature this particular player, but he also took the time to write out a nice outline of his career to get me started. It took me quite a long time to assemble everything, research, drawing and actually writing it all down, but finally, here it is...

Now the first thing you think about when you here that a ballplayer's nickname is "Rap" is a massive slugger, right? Rap has got to be derived from the sound the ball makes when it "raps" into the outfield wall. Well, in Herbert Albert Dixon's case, "Rap" was short for the Rappahannock River. Why was he named after a river in Virginia? I have no idea. He was born in Kingston, Georgia and grew up in Steelton, Pennsylvania. I'll make an educated guess and throw it out there that perhaps Dixon's family, after leaving Georgia, briefly settled in Virginia, somewhere along the banks of that river. Moving to urban Pennsylvania it was probably just natural his nickname reflected the place he'd come from. But, like I said, it's all just a guess. What is known for sure is that by his teens Dixon was living in Steelton where his Pop was a steelworker.

Colonel Strothers, the owner and manager of the semi-pro Harrisburg Giants, spied the 20 year-old "Rap" Dixon playing sandlot ball in Steelton, Pennsylvania and snatched him up for his own ball club. Strothers was in the process of turning his semi-pro Giants into a big league quality team and the was Dixon played the outfield Strothers knew this kid would be an integral part of what he envisioned for his club. 

By 1924 the Harrisburg Giants had become that pro club the Colonel envisioned. To compliment his young left fielder, Struthers signed Oscar Charleston to play center and brought in Fats Jenkins to anchor right field. The Dixon-Charleston-Jenkins combo became what may have been the greatest outfield of all-time. 

The Giants joined the Eastern Colored League in 1924 and Dixon began what should be a hall of fame career. In 47 games he hit a .265 but did slug 4 homers and demonstrated solid skills on the base paths. His fielding out in left field was so impressive that there was no question he would be in that same place the next season. Playing full time in 1925 Dixon responded by knocking the ball around for a  .344 average. After the regular season, Dixon was invited to go to the West Coast and play in the winter league around Los Angeles. Off-season baseball work was scarce and only the best ballplayers were offered slots in the winter league so it speaks highly of Dixon's talent at the age of 23 that he was granted a berth on one of those all-star teams. 

Back east with Harrisburg again in 1926 he's credited with a .310 average and many Negro teams tried to get Dixon to jump the Giants and join their clubs, to no avail. The left fielder was tall and bony, just over 6 feet tall. His legs were stripped down and built for speed and his arms were the only thing on him that could be called muscular, which was the source of his cannon arm and the reason he could scatter booming line drives all over a ball field. By 1927 no one remembered that "Rap" had anything to do with a river. To blackball fans, "Rap" was what he did to a baseball, and that was that.

Instead of heading out west in the winter of 1927 and stopping at Los Angeles, Dixon was recruited by famed catcher Biz Mackey to join his team which was headed to the Orient to play ball. The team, dubbed the Philadelphia Royal Giants, stopped off in many exotic locations including the Philippines and Japan, spreading the brand of ball playing they played in the Negro leagues. Japan particularly embraced the American visitors and Dixon in particular. The fans were captivated by his "shadowball" pantomime routine before games and one of his home runs was so impressive that a plaque was erected to commemorate it. His batting performance in Japan was so impressive that it earned him a special trophy from the Emperor Hirohito. 

When the tour ended Dixon took his brand of ball playing to the Baltimore Black Sox. Baltimore had consistently fielded a competitive team but always seemed to fall short at the end of the season. The addition of Rap Dixon to the lineup was that missing part of the machine. After batting .382 in 1928, the Black Sox finally put it all together the next season and they won the league championship, Dixon's .369 tally adding considerably to a well-balanced ball club. Unfortunately the league disbanded after that and while the 1930 Black Sox were considered even better than the previous edition, they were an independent club and it's not easy to gauge in retrospect how good they were. 

One thing is for certain however, and that is that Rap Dixon was a superstar. In July of 1930 Yankee Stadium was officially opened up to black teams and the Black Sox were there to play the hometown Lincoln Giants in the House that Ruth Built. By the time the game ended that afternoon Dixon had gone down in the history books as not only the first black ball player to hit a home run in Yankee Stadium, but he hit three of them that day. It was a monstrous demonstration of power in front of a huge crowd in the largest city in the nation. If anyone didn't know about Rap Dixon by the morning before that game, they sure did afterwards. 

Unfortunately along with fame comes a whole cart full of unwanted baggage and Dixon fell victim to two of the most common ones - booze and ego. That drinking went along with the transient lifestyle of a ballplayer is not sup prizing. Black or white, many great careers were damaged by the sauce and Dixon was no different. Alcohol combined with a swollen head made for an unpleasant teammate. But, just like his white counterparts, as long as you performed on the field such unpleasantness's were overlooked.

Like many stars of blackball, Dixon now began the life of ball player for hire, frequently switching teams and showing up bat in hand to whichever team offered him the most money. One thing everyone who followed Negro baseball was that when Rap Dixon came to join your team, he was bringing speed, power and the the best fielding skills around. Dixon's appearance in the lineup was like money in the bank. In 1931 he was roaming left field in a Hilldale uniform. 1932 found him on the Pittsburgh Crawfords, one of the best ball clubs ever assembled, black, white, brown or any other color. The next season he was recruited by the Philadelphia Stars and creamed the ball for a .370 average. When the voting for the very first All-Star Game was tallied in July of that year, Rap Dixon was the East's starting left fielder of course. He promptly stole the first base in All-Star history.

When he went south to Puerto Rico in the winter of 1933-34, Dixon was at the top of his game. Then it all ended. Sliding into second base, Dixon severely injured his spine. The all-star spent almost half a season in the hospital and when he finally returned to the game he wasn't even half the player he was before. Philadelphia cut Dixon loose but Baltimore took a chance on their old star and hired him as manager of the Black Sox. While he was one of the best ballplayers to ever step on a ball field, he wasn't a skilled enough manager to make a difference with the lack-luster club Baltimore saddled him with and the club folded. The Brooklyn Eagles picked up his contract the next season bu he didn't stick and he bumped around a series of teams in quick succession before hanging up his spikes after the 1937 season. He stayed in the game as a manager of a few low-level teams including a reconstituted Harrisburg Giants in the 1940's. Though Harrisburg's level of play wasn't one the same level as a Negro National League team, it was notable for another reason - it was an integrated ball club - a rarity back then and perhaps one of the many reasons which proved why Jackie Robinson should be given a shot at professional ball in 1946.

After a good 15 years of heavy drinking, Rap Dixon succumbed to tuberculosis in July of 1944. His heath had been declining steadily since his hospitalization ten years earlier and his death wasn't much of a surprise to those who knew him. When Oscar Charleston was creating his all-time dream lineup of Negro league players in 1949 he chose his old Harrisburg teammate to be the starting left fielder. Quite a compliment considering the source and the vast pool of talent he had to choose from. The Hall of Fame had Dixon on their ballot in 2006 but he failed to garner enough votes. Perhaps one day when guys like Gil Hodges and Sammy T. Hughes get their just rewards, the name Herbert Albert "Rap" Dixon will be right along with them.

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