The Detroit Tigers’ First No. 1: Harvey “Hubby” Walker

DETROIT - C.1940. The interior of Briggs Stadium in Detroit is the subject of this c.1950 color linen postcard. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images)
DETROIT - C.1940. The interior of Briggs Stadium in Detroit is the subject of this c.1950 color linen postcard. (Photo by Mark Rucker/Transcendental Graphics, Getty Images) /

Last December, the Detroit Tigers announced that Lou Whitaker’s famous No. 1 would be retired this August. The long overdue decision was welcomed by Tigers fans everywhere. Twenty-one players have worn a Tigers jersey with that number on the back. The first was Harvey “Hubby” Walker.

According to info, 1931 was the first season that the Tigers sported uniform numbers. Oddly enough, a Detroit Free Press article about changes the team would be making to its uniforms that season didn’t mention the addition of numerals.

Tigers fans in 1931 were introduced to Harvey Walker and his younger brother Gerald (nicknamed “Gee”), when the two rookie outfielders were spring training invitees. The Walker brothers had gotten familiar with the Detroit Tigers long before that, however. The Tigers trained in their hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi from 1913 through 1915. Both boys watched those players as often as they could, and their dreams of becoming big leaguers were born.

Harvey and Gerald, who played college ball together at the University of Mississippi, were teammates in the minors for the first time in 1930 with the Evansville Hubs of the Class B Illinois-Indiana-Iowa League. (The minor leagues were broken down into five levels back then: AA, A, B, C, and D.) Harvey hit .355 and led the “Three-I” League with 191 hits and 136 runs in 1930.

The Walkers each made a good impression on their first day in camp with the Tigers. Free Press writer Harry Bullion wrote,

"“Most of the interest in the inaugural drill centered on the Walker brothers, who possess a great deal of color. They attracted a great deal of attention by their actions in the field and the positions they took at the plate…However, much of the color of the duo was supplied by Harvey. He slides to bases head first, though he is more adept than Bob Fothergill, when the portly one used to create a great deal of mirth for the patrons of Navin Field.”"

Harvey preferred the head first slide to protect a knee that he’d once injured playing football.  Bullion noted that new Tigers manager Bucky Harris wanted to build the team around speed, and both Walkers were solid base stealers in the minors. They combined for 87 steals in Evansville.

Fothergill, who was primarily a left fielder in Detroit, had been let go the previous summer. Competition for spots in Harris’ outfield was reportedly wide open early on. Returning starters John Stone, Elias “Liz” Funk, and Roy Johnson weren’t guaranteed jobs, but Harvey and Gerald were among a small crop of other young Tigers hopefuls in camp (which also included Frank Doljack, Oscar Eckhardt, and Ivey Shiver). Bullion speculated,

"“Making the leap from Class B to the majors, as the Walker brothers must do, is quite a performance…Others have bridged a bigger gap in a single jump, though, and the Mississippi kids might be up to the task.”"

Spring training is always the perfect time to imagine bright futures for up-and-coming ballplayers, and tracking the Walkers’ progress certainly made for an interesting story that March. It seemed that the elder Harvey had the early edge among the two, although there was no need to worry about a sibling rivalry.  Bullion observed,

"“Gerald is not as polished as his brother, who coaches him without causing the slightest resentment…One is pulling for the other and they are pulling together to make good on the Tigers to avoid separation. The boys are always together. Where one is seen, the other is there or nearby.”"

Harvey was also seen as having an edge on the Tigers’ other young rookie outfield prospects. Besides being the quickest runner on the base paths, Bullion reported that he was the most polished in the field. Harvey had been getting reps in center field, and Bullion noted that he was a better thrower than Funk, the Tigers’ regular center fielder in 1930. Bullion wrote,

"“Walker’s throwing is marked more by the haste with which he returns the ball than the speed of the ball. Except in rare instances when he is pulled out of position for a throw, the older of the Walker brothers cocks his arm with the same motion that he makes the catch, and the leather is on its way back to the infield without a loss of time.”"

At the plate, left-handed hitting Harvey was demonstrating an ability to hit to all fields consistently and was also proving to be a skilled bunter. As a test, he’d been getting at-bats against the Tigers’ top four starting pitchers. Bullion raved,

"“Walker has looked at good pitching from (Waite) Hoyt, (Earl) Whitehill, (George) Uhle, and (Vic) Sorrell, who have yet to fool him too much…If Walker were merely hitting at mediocre pitching and performing up to the pace he set this spring, there wouldn’t be any good reason to get enthusiastic over his chances to win a regular berth on the club. But Hoyt, Sorrell, and Whitehill have been in exceptionally good condition for the past two weeks, and Harvey doesn’t seem to mind how much they put on the ball in the batting practices.”"

As spring training continued, Harvey was becoming a standout in camp. Bullion, who described Harvey as “a natural ballplayer”, also commented,

"“Even the fellows that Harvey Walker is endeavoring to elbow out of a regular berth are frank in declaring him to be one of the finest pieces of baseball talent they have ever seen.”"

Spots on the Tigers’ 28-man Opening Day roster were cleared for both Walker brothers when fellow outfielders Eckhardt and Funk were let go in the waning days of spring training. (Note: in those days the roster was pared from 28 to 25 in mid-June.)

When the 1931 Tigers began play in St. Louis on April 14, it was Gerald, not Harvey that was in the starting lineup, though. Harris chose to sit the left-handed hitting Harvey against the St. Louis Browns’ Lefty Stewart, starting the right-handed hitting Gerald instead.

Harvey made his major league debut as the Tigers’ center fielder in their second game on April 15. As the leadoff hitter, he reached base on an error by the second baseman in his first plate appearance. The speed that had been lauded in spring training paid off in the second, as Walker beat out a grounder to short for his first big league hit. He singled to right in the fourth, before the Browns finally retired him on a foul popup to the catcher in the seventh.

The Tigers trailed the Browns 6-3 in the top of the ninth. With one out, Harvey lofted a fly ball to right that dropped in for a hit, his third of the game. Roy Johnson singled him to second. After Charlie Gehringer struck out, Dale Alexander’s double drove Walker in. His first big league run would be the Tigers’ last of the day, however, as the threat fell short when Marty McManus flew out to center to end the game.

Harvey had an up and down game the next day. The second of his three hits, a seventh inning single, broke a 2-2 tie. Elation over his first RBI gave way to embarrassment in the bottom of the ninth, however. The Tigers led the Browns 4-3. With two out and a runner on first, the rookie center fielder dropped a flyball that would’ve been a victory-sealing third out. His error allowed the tying run to score from first. Luckily, the Tigers came back to win 6-5 in 12 innings.

His rookie campaign took a downturn in May. Harvey’s average had dipped to .235 at one point. He also missed a couple weeks of action after dislocating his right collarbone in an attempt to make a diving catch on May 12 in Boston. He returned at the end of the month, but found himself as the sole Walker on the Tigers after Gerald was optioned to the minors for playing time. Harvey had five hits in his first two games back, which led into his best month of the season.

He had a 13-game hitting streak from June 7 through June 23. Of Walker’s eight multi-hits games in the streak, four were three-hit games. The first of those happened in Yankee Stadium on June 14. His sixth inning RBI single tied the game 1-1. Walker made an excellent play to make sure that the game stayed tied in the bottom of the seventh when he tracked down a 429-foot fly ball off the bat of Lou Gehrig in what was called “one of the longest flies ever caught at the stadium”.

The Yankees took a 2-1 lead in the eighth, but Walker and the Tigers fought back in the ninth. Walker beat out a bunt for an infield hit, advanced to second on an error, and scored the tying run on Dale Alexander’s single. The Tigers took a 3-2 lead in the tenth on an RBI triple from Roy Johnson. Walker gave the Tigers an insurance run when he successfully squeezed Johnson in. The 4-2 margin held up as the final score.

Primarily a singles hitter, Walker hit .349 in June, but slumped to .209 in July. A series of injuries (a spiked hand, wrenched back, and sore shoulder) curtailed his productivity and his playing time. By mid-August, Harvey had lost his center field job to his younger brother Gerald, who had been recalled. The Tigers used Harvey mostly as a pinch hitter or pinch runner in the last two months of the season. In 26 games in August and September, Harvey had only 32 plate appearances.

A year that began with rave reviews in spring training had ended in disappointment for the first Tiger to wear No. 1 on his back. While Harvey was initially seen as the better of the two Walker brothers, a season in the big leagues had changed the team’s perspective. In January 1932, the Tigers optioned Harvey to their Toronto farm club in the Class AA International League. Team president Frank Navin told the Free Press,

"“We need a man in our outfield who can come through with an extra base hit once in a while. Gerald Walker does that a little better than Hubby, so we have decided to retain him. But we are by no means through with Hubby. He has only been sent away on option, and we expect him back.”"

Although he’d never wear No. 1 as a Tiger again, Harvey did come back twice. He appeared in nine games in June 1935. He also had sporadic playing time with the Tigers in 1945, but stuck around long enough to be a footnote in one of the biggest moments in franchise history. In the last game of the regular season on September 30, Walker’s leadoff pinch-hit single started a rally that culminated with Hank Greenberg’s pennant winning grand slam.

In his last at-bat as a Tiger, Walker doubled as a pinch-hitter in Game 6 of the World Series and scored in the Tigers four-run eighth inning rally.