A HOF Rap
Ted Knorr can’t wait to deliver the good news to a great baseball player, even though this man, Negro League star Rap Dixon, died in 1944.
The 71-year old Knorr has made it his life’s mission to see Dixon inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. And on the day he is enshrined, Knorr will make a trip to Swatara Township, PA, “where, in Midland Cemetery, Rap lies waiting for the good news,” said Knorr, who lives in the same municipality as the cemetery.
There are many individuals, working solo or as a group, trying to have players inducted into the Hall of Fame. So why does Knorr spend his golden years writing, traveling, and speaking on behalf of a man he never saw play baseball?“I think the biggest reason just might be because no one else was doing so – his career requires it,” said Knorr. “Negro Leagues in general are underrepresented (in the Hall of Fame), and Negro League outfielders are criminally underrepresented.”
According to Knorr, there are 48 outfielders in the Hall of Fame who debuted during segregation, pre 1947; and of those 48, only seven are Negro Leaguers. He added there are 27 outfielders in the Hall who debuted after Jackie Robinson crossed the color line. Of those 27, 21 are players of color.
“The numbers cry out for themselves,” said Knorr. “It would take over 100 newly inducted Negro League outfielders to make the percentage of Negro League outfielders match the earned recognition of outfielders of color under integration. Now, I’m not endorsing 100 Negro League outfielders for the Hall, although I can name 100 better” than some inductees. The most deserving among them, he said, is Dixon.
In December 2018, the Negro League Baseball Museum announced the Negro League Centennial Team. It had 32 members, of which 28 were in the Hall of Fame. Since then, a 29th – Manager Buck O’Neil – has been inducted leaving two pitchers (John Donaldson, Dick Redding) and one position player – Rap Dixon – yet to be inducted.
Hall of Fame inductees Monte Irvin, Cool Papa Bell, and Oscar Charleston – the first three Negro League outfielders inducted – all believed Dixon should have a place in Cooperstown.
According to the Hall of Fame, Negro Leagues candidates now are considered with the Classic Baseball Era candidates, players whose primary contributions to the game were prior to 1980. The Classic Baseball Era Committee meets every three years, with the next meeting scheduled for December, 2024, to consider the Class of 2025. Dixon was one of the 39 finalists in the special Negro Leagues election in 2006, but was not selected.
He played 14 seasons in several leagues, including a few in independent ball: from 1924-1928 he played in the Eastern Colored League; in 1929 with the American Negro League; 1930 with Chicago in the National Negro League; 1932 with Washington in the East-West League; 1934-1937 he was in the second National Negro League. According to Baseball Reference, his lifetime batting average is .336. He led the National Negro League in homeruns in 1928, and in RBIs and stolen bases in both 1928 and 1929.
In 1927, Dixon participated in a series of games in Japan. One account reported he played so well the Emperor of Japan gave him a trophy.
In 1931, Dixon played with both the Hilldale club based in Darby, PA, and the Baltimore Black Sox, both independent teams. He found himself in independent baseball again in 1932 with the Pittsburgh Crawfords and in 1933 with the Philadelphia Stars.
“This is one of the yet-to-be determined points that MLB is trying to come to grips with — what to do with Negro League teams existing from 1920 to 1948 that were not affiliated with Negro League baseball,” said Knorr.
In school, Knorr played youth football on a field in Lancaster, where Dixon played Negro League games. “I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t part of my motivation,” he said.
Another motivation comes from meeting Paul Dixon, Rap’s brother; India Garnet, Rap’s great niece; and Tom Goodwin, Rap’s cousin – “a 14-year major league outfielder,” Knorr said.
His efforts on behalf of Dixon took him to the player’s hometown of Kingston, GA, where Knorr gave a lecture at a local history museum on Dixon’s life and career. He recently did another talk about the ballplayer at a Georgia college via a Zoom conference.
Born in Pittsburgh, Knorr said he’s been a baseball fan “since age five, when my Brooklyn grandma gave me a Jackie Robinson t-shirt for Christmas. I still have my 1959 Duke Snider Louisville Slugger, and my late 50s Cadaco Ellis Ethan Allen All Star Baseball (board) Game. In 1962, I was cut by the only baseball team – the Quaker Hills Dodgers – I ever tried out for. Also that year, I was introduced to the APBA Major League Baseball Game, which I still play 60 years later.”
His interest in Negro League baseball was fostered by his father, regaling him with tales of the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords.
“As with most of us (Negro League researchers), Bob Peterson’s Only the Ball was White took me to the next level, and joining the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1979 exposed me to more scholarship on the topic,” said Knorr. In 1984, he met John Holway, former director of SABR’s Negro Leagues committee (NLC).
“It was then I began working in Harrisburg and found the Harrisburg Giants,” he said. “After that, I began clipping box scores from microfiche and sent them to Dick Clark of SABR NLC, and I celebrated when they became part of The Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia in 1990.”
“The Harrisburg Giants, from roughly 1890 until 1932, were owned by Colonel “W. C.” Strothers, who’s a marvelous story in his own right. And they were a very good semi-pro, high-amateur team. During that period, I wouldn’t call (the Giants) minor league. This is before Branch Rickey created the affiliated minor league system,” said Knorr.
The Harrisburg Giants were not in a league, but an independent team for many years, until 1924 to 1927, he said. During those years they are now considered part of the “major leagues,” after MLB recognized the Negro Leagues as being a part of its structure in December, 2020.
One player from the Giants reached the traditional major leagues, an outfielder named Bill Rodgers, who was white and a native of Harrisburg. In 1944 and 1945 he appeared in three games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, collecting two hits in five at-bats.
The Harrisburg Giants disbanded, but were reincarnated in 1953. By the next year, the Giants were one of the first teams of the new Eastern Negro League, and won its northern division title with a 16-6 season. They continued to play on City Island through 1957.
In 1997-98, Knorr founded the Negro League Research Conference. He has hosted it in Harrisburg in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2017. Now known as the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference, it met in Birmingham, AL this year.
The “Malloy” conference also conducts the Dick Clark Significa trivia contest, named after the member of the NLC. “Dick Clark never missed a Malloy Conference before passing in 2014,” said Knorr, noting Clark “won the Significa contest nine times (Knorr has won it three times and has been its emcee nine times. This past August, he was a member of the SABR Team Trivia Championship team).
The SABR biography of Dixon was co-authored by Knorr. It began:
“On December 12, 2018, at the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, Museum President Bob Kendrick, with historian Jay Caldwell, announced the Negro League Centennial Team. The team was a key part of the Museum’s celebration in 2020 of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues. The team of 30 players, a manager, and an owner, was created to honor the greatest Negro League players of all-time. Of the 19 position players on the team, only one was not already enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York — Herbert Alphonso “Rap” Dixon.”
“Dixon was born on September 15, 1902, in Kingston, about 56 miles northwest of Atlanta. He was the first of John and Rosa Goodwin Dixon’s five children. Herbert and his younger brother Paul (also a future Negro League outfielder) developed their rudimentary baseball talents in Georgia’s rural farm country.”
“Dixon completed only two years of high school. Purportedly, Dixon’s schooling ended and his career in baseball started one day when his high school science teacher announced that the class was going to dissect a cat. Dixon, feeling squeamish, exited quickly and went straight to a sporting goods store; and with money he had earned working weekends at the Bethlehem Steel Company, he purchased a glove and bat, took a train to Atlantic City, and joined the Bacharach Giants. Neither Seamheads.com nor Baseball-Reference.com list him playing any games with the Giants that year,” wrote the authors.
By 1919, Dixon became a regular with a semi-pro team in Steelton, PA, the Keystone Giants. On May 31, the Harrisburg Telegraph reported, “Dixon, the Giants new shortstop, played fast ball and made two healthy swats” in an 8-3 victory over the Middletown White Sox. Dixon usually batted leadoff and clearly was one of the team’s stars, even at age 16.”
Perhaps the biggest game for Dixon while with Steelton, said Knorr, was July 16, 1921, at Harrisburg’s Island Park, when they took on the Giants, considered the best of the local semi-pro clubs. Steelton held a 9-4 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning before the more polished Harrisburg team rallied and eventually won the game in the 10th. Dixon played shortstop, batted third, and had two hits.
More than four years later, the February 26, 1926 Harrisburg Telegraph reported that Strothers listened to offers from Rube Foster, founder and manager of the Chicago American Giants, that might have sent Dixon west, said Knorr, noting this was significant “because Rube Foster was one of the premier judges of talent in the game, and to the degree that he coveted Dixon, it speaks volumes.”
By early 1923, Dixon’s nickname began to appear in print. There are two suggestions as to its origin. One, according to author Jim Riley in his 1994 Autobiographical Encyclopedia, suggests it was derived from the Rappahannock River, which flows through Virginia.
“How this relates to him is unclear – I assume the family may have crossed the Rappahannock on their migration from Georgia to Pennsylvania,” said Knorr. “Sportswriter Chester L. Washington of the Pittsburgh Courier, in 1935, offered a more plausible suggestion: it grew out of Dixon’s hitting ability, rapping the ball while still in high school. Washington wrote, ‘Rap hits the old apple with the same degree of which made William Tell famous.’ I lean towards the period offering of Washington.”
Dixon’s fine 1925 season with the Giants (he batted .352 with eight homeruns and 58 RBIs) made him a star in black baseball. New York Giants manager John McGraw told The Harrisburg Telegraph, “If Dixon was not so black, I could make a Cuban out of him and the National League would have another star to talk about. He is without question one of the greatest outfielders in the United States.”
Citing poor attendance, Colonel Strothers disbanded his Harrisburg team in March,1928. Dixon signed with the Baltimore Black Sox of the American Negro League, and turned in two outstanding seasons. In 1928, he batted .398, with 13 homeruns and 58 RBIs. He almost won the Triple Crown, but teammate Jud Wilson hit .399. Dixon also led the circuit with 34 walks. Using modern statistical methods, Knorr said he posted an OPS of 1.180 and an OPS+ of 190.
After retiring, Dixon managed the Giants for one season in 1942. By then, Knorr said the club was semi-pro at best, but it did make an interesting contribution to history. Dixon had the team play another black team in Darby, PA, which at one time had been a power team in Negro League baseball. On Dixon’s team were four white players. “Most, if not all, were Steelton lads,” said Knorr. At the time, there were newspaper accounts of Dixon talking about the need to integrate the game.
In 1943, Dixon made an unsuccessful run as a Republican nominee for constable. After the election defeat and a burglary at his pool hall, he left Steelton for Detroit, supposedly for a job managing a baseball team, said Knorr. A heart attack hospitalized him on July 18, followed by his death on July 20. His body was returned to Harrisburg for funeral services. On June 8, 2007, a citizen’s group dedicated a marker for Dixon’s grave in Midland Cemetery. Knorr raised $1,500 for the memorial. Paul Blair and Curt Motton of the Baltimore Orioles were there to honor the former Baltimore Black Sox outfielder.
Knorr had been speaking about the Negro Leagues for several years when, in 1994, he met then 64-year old Calobe Jackson, who saw Harrisburg Giants games in the 1930s and 1940s with his grandfather. 28 years after first meeting, Knorr and Jackson still stay in touch and work together.
In 1997, Jackson and Knorr founded – along with the mayor and the Harrisburg Senators – Harrisburg Senators Negro League Night. In 2005. Knorr established similar events with the Lancaster Barnstormers, and in 2007 with the York Revolution.
Knorr said the Senators have not missed a year (excepting rainouts) since 1997, the Barnstormers (the same) since 2005, and the York team since 2007. “Most of the time the Negro League Night consists of me with an exhibit table,” said Knorr. “The Harrisburg event is the only one focused on the Harrisburg Giants, although given the Lancaster historical experience – 1924-1927 – I do include a good deal on the Giants there also.”
In 2007, Knorr and Jackson helped the Senators erect a Historic Marker on City Island. Knorr wrote the marker’s text:
“Harrisburg-based Negro League baseball team founded around 1900 and operated by Colonel William Strothers until his death in 1933. One of 27 major Negro League teams across the nation, the Giants finished in second place in the Eastern Colored League in 1925. Among well-known players were Hall-of-Famer Oscar Charleston, Spottswood Poles, Ben Taylor, John Beckwith, Fats Jenkins & Rap Dixon. They played here at Island Park through 1957.”
That was not the only financial effort Knorr has made on behalf of Dixon. (Traveling to) SABR National meetings, Malloy conferences, APBA events, and several dozen regional SABR events, “are on me,” he said, which includes virtually all the driving for as many as five companions, sharing room costs.
“It really has never felt like a fiscal burden and, given how you spent your last week, a good baseball conference is a trip of a lifetime, and I’ve done over 60 of them. This year, though, was kind of a special thing – being named to the APBA Hall of Fame, winning SABR’s team trivia event, and speaking in Rap Dixon’s hometown certainly presents a challenge to moving forward,” he said.
Recently, two subjects of my column passed away. John Rooney, 99, died October 24, and Harry Dunlop, 89, died on November 16.
Rooney grew up across the street from Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. From the front bedroom window and rooftop, there was a good view into the stadium. Rooney’s father and their neighbors erected bleachers on their roofs and charged admission. The families did very well from 1929-31, when the Philadelphia A’s made the World Series. Rooney was a retired psychology professor, but never lost his love of baseball, even writing a memoir, Bleachers from the Bedroom. He was always willing to share his stories and even offered ideas for my column.
Dunlop, a native of Sacramento, CA, never played in the majors, but after a career as a player, coach and manager in the minors he reached the big leagues as a coach for the first-year Kansas City Royals in 1969. A friendly and outgoing man, Dunlop’s claim to fame occurred on May 12, 1952. He was the catcher for the Bristol, TN team in which starting pitcher Ron Necciai struck out 27 batters. Dunlop had great recall from that game, and engagingly shared his myriad experiences in minor and major league baseball.
I will miss both of them.