It never took much to set off ol' Harry (the Hat) Walker.
Mention Enos Slaughter's famous dash from first base to home on
Walker's "single" in the 1946 World Series, or allude to the
antipathy that Walker's brother, Dixie, and other Southern-born
Brooklyn Dodgers had toward Jackie Robinson, and the Hat could
pretty much fill your afternoon. To one who visited him a few
months ago it seemed that the Hat would go on talking forever,
so strong was his voice, so persistent his chatter, so seemingly
formidable his constitution.
But he died on Aug. 8, at age 80, of complications from a stroke
he had suffered in mid-July. The end came in a Birmingham
hospital, 30 miles from the beloved 35-acre suburban home in
Leeds, Ala., to which he returned after each of his 11 major
league seasons. The Hat said that a mere hour or two after his
eighth-inning hit gave the St. Louis Cardinals a Game 7
Series-winning 4-3 victory over the Boston Red Sox at
Sportsman's Park in '46, he was on the road to Alabama. "I had
my car outside the stadium, loaded with luggage, and jumped in
it right after the game," said the Hat. "I drove straight
through and was home that night."
That decisive hit, the Hat wanted everyone to know, was a
double. "That scoring-from-first-on-a-single business was just a
lot of Slaughter b.s. that he made up later," said Walker. "He
was running on the pitch, and it was a clean double in the gap."
To prove his point Walker pointed to a frame hanging on his
wall. It was an account of the game from a St. Louis newspaper,
which reported that Slaughter scored on a Walker double and
never mentioned that Slaughter did anything out of the ordinary.
Walker, whose father, Ewart, was a major league pitcher who
roomed with Walter Johnson, was just as adamant that his brother
was not a race-baiter. He felt that that reputation had kept
Dixie, a lifetime .306 hitter who died in 1982, out of the Hall
of Fame. He might be right about Dixie and the Hall, but most
accounts indicate that Dixie was indeed anti-Robinson.
The Hat's reputation was built on his skill at the plate and his
colorful nickname, which was hung on him by a Philadelphia
sportswriter who noticed that Walker often took off his cap
between pitches to smooth back his hair. He was a lifetime .296
hitter who usually made contact; he struck out only 24 times in
564 at bats in 1943. His best season was '47, when he hit .363
and became the only National Leaguer ever to win the batting
title after being traded within the league (from the Cardinals
to the Philadelphia Phillies) in the same season. The Hat
managed in the bigs for nine years, and from 1979 to '86 he
coached the team at Alabama-Birmingham. Fans around Birmingham
still remember the colorful dialogue that passed from dugout to
dugout when Alabama-Birmingham went against South Alabama, which
was coached by Eddie Stanky, another salty former big leaguer.
"The Hat was a baseball man through and through," says Art
Clarkson, the former owner of the minor league Birmingham Barons,
who knew Walker well. "I think he'd like that as his epitaph."
B/W PHOTO: AP Hot bat After helping win the '46 Series, Walker won a batting title the next year.