I’ve long been puzzled by two facts of Walter Ball’s biography: he’s commonly listed in reference books as “George Walter Ball,” and given the nickname “The Georgia Rabbit.” Both are problematic:
1) I have never seen a contemporary reference to Walter Ball as anything but Walter Ball, and the few official documents I’ve been able to find (passenger lists, census records, draft cards, death certificate) give his name as…Walter Ball. His World War I draft card gives him a middle name, Thomas. So, as far as I can tell, his name was Walter Thomas Ball—no George involved.
2) And all sources agree that he was born in Detroit, Michigan, had moved to Minnesota by the time he was 14, and played his entire professional career for Northern teams—so why would he have been called “The Georgia Rabbit”?
After looking into it a little, I found a single reference that I believe explains both of these problems. It’s a passage from Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball, originally published in 1907, toward the very end of the original text (p. 118 in the Jerry Malloy edition):
Here White appears to be calling Ball “George Washington Ball” and giving him the nickname “Georgia Rabbit.” Okay, fair enough—Sol White, after all, was there, and has to be considered the leading authority on this era, plus the book was published right in the middle of Ball’s career.
Except for one curious fact: White calls him George Washington Ball, but historians have apparently chosen to interpret “Washington” as a mistake for “Walter.”
Many years later, in 1931, White wrote a piece for the New York Age about the Philadelphia Giants in which he discussed roster changes forced in 1907 by the defection of the team’s biggest star, Rube Foster:
So White is saying here that he signed “the Georgia Rabbit” for the Philadelphia Giants. There’s only one problem with this: Walter Ball never pitched for the Philadelphia Giants. He did suit up for the 1906 Philadelphia Quaker Giants, a team organized by the McMahon brothers to try to cut in on the Philly Giants’ market, but he never did play for Sol White & Walter Schlichter’s club. As for 1907, Ball split the year between two Midwestern teams, the new St. Paul Gophers and the Chicago Leland Giants, and spent 1908 with the Lelands and the Minneapolis Keystones.
Also reprinted in Malloy’s edition of the History of Colored Base Ball is an interview of Sol White by Floyd Calvin, which was originally published in the Pittsburgh Courier, March 12, 1927. Much of it consists of a chronological account of White’s career. Here’s the entry for 1907 (from the original version in the Courier), again about new players on the Philadelphia Giants that year:
Taken literally, this seems to imply that White signed a pitcher named George Washington (not “George Washington Ball”) along with someone else called “G. A. Rabbit.”
No one named “Rabbit” ever appeared in a Philadelphia Giants’ box score, to my knowledge. There was, on the other hand, a pitcher named George Washington on Sol White’s team in 1907 and 1908. He didn’t pitch against any black professional teams in 1907, so he doesn’t appear in the Seamheads DB for that year, but he was with the Giants—for example:
It’s my opinion that “George Walter Ball, the Georgia Rabbit” was born as a result of a lost comma in Sol White’s book.
White was listing pitchers by last name until he got to George Washington, not as well-known as the others. What he meant to write was “McClellan, Bowman, Foster, Holland, Merritt, George Washington (Georgia Rabbit), Ball, Wilson, Davis and Buckner,” but by some mishap the comma after “(Georgia Rabbit)” was omitted, making it look like he was talking about somebody named George Washington Ball, nicknamed Georgia Rabbit. This was, by pure coincidence, compounded by another punctuation mishap 20 years later, the next time (as far as I know) White talked publicly about Washington. Floyd Calvin misread White’s or his own notes, and where White meant to say “George Washington (pitcher, Georgia Rabbit),” Calvin misunderstood it as a separate player named “G. A. Rabbit.”
I don’t know very much about George Washington, but what little I do know includes two facts that seem very relevant here. 1) Unlike Walter Ball, George Washington was from Georgia—he was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1874. And 2), Washington may also have played for the baseball team organized by the Rabbit’s Foot Company, a famous minstrel troupe.
So in the end there’s no reason to think that Walter Ball’s first name was George or that he was ever called “the Georgia Rabbit,” and several good reasons to think that another player’s first name and nickname have been accidentally attached to Ball.
UPDATE See also this 1926 interview with Rube Foster where he confirms the separate existence of a Philadelphia Giants player named “Georgia Rabbit Washington.”