Born John W. Jackson, Bud Fowler was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Not only was black’s first pro ball player, but he was also the first to play in integrated teams. Fowler (top row, center) with the Keokuk, Iowa, Western League team in 1885.
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Editor
Almost 70 years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, African-American baseball player John “Bud” Fowler stepped onto the field one spring day in 1878. Taking his position alongside the white players on the diamond, it has secured its place in history.
Fowler, widely recognized as the first black professional baseball player, was recently elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, through the Early Baseball Era committee. As is often the case, fans and critics alike can discuss the player’s merits and wonder if he deserves this honor.
Statistics are launched, arguments put forward with pro and con lists, questions about his contributions are exchanged. Yet the only question that came to my mind when I learned that Fowler had finally been selected for such a sacred place among the immortals in the game was this: what took so long? ?
Born John W. Jackson, Fowler was a pioneer in every sense of the word. Not only was black’s first pro ball player, but he was also the first to play in integrated teams. All-Black teams of the late 1800s were rare, and Fowler preferred the higher level of competition over white teams. As a result, in stints with teams from across the country – including market towns like Stillwater, Omaha, Pueblo and Binghamton – he became the first notable African-American player.
Although 19th-century baseball records were notoriously patchy, by most accounts Fowler, who learned to play baseball growing up in his hometown of Cooperstown, was an exceptional talent. Playing for Stillwater in the Northwest League in 1884, he knocked out 57 league-leading hits – 10 for extra bases – in just 48 games, finishing with a .302 batting average.
In 1890, at the age of 32, he posted a muscular average of 0.322 with a pair of home runs. While two home runs don’t seem too impressive these days, Fowler accomplished this feat in the deadball era when a batted ball was carried to a brick and home runs were a rarity.
Agile and skillful on the court, he played mostly at second, but completed many innings as a pitcher and catcher. All this at a time when players were so tough that most didn’t even use gloves, grabbing everything with their bare hands. Sporting Life, then considered a baseball bible, praised him: “With his splendid abilities, he would have been in a good club a long time ago if his color had been white instead of black. Those in the know say there is no better second baseman in the country.
Not only a diamond follower, Fowler was also one of the first relevant black promoters. He organized the first successful black barnstorming clubs and co-formed the Page Fence Giants in 1894, a professional black baseball team based in Adrian, Michigan. The team only played four seasons but recorded an incredible 121-31 in their first year when Fowler played second base and managed.
According to the Negro League Baseball Players Association: “They traveled across the country in a bespoke railroad car that included dorms, a cook and a porter. The railroad car was part of the attraction as players exited dramatically dressed in full uniforms and firefighter hats. Then they cycled through each town trying to get assistance for the game later in the day.
Fowler traveled across the country like few other players in his time, but the fact that he was sent from team to team had nothing to do with his skills. The mere fact that an African American would enter the field with Whites enraged opposing players (and fanatical fans) so much that he was seen as more of a problem than he was worth and was forced to move on. Sometimes he got the boot because the players on his own team didn’t like sharing the pitch with a black.
Although Fowler’s love for the game pushed him to pursue his career, he must have realized the obstacles in his path. For one thing, there hadn’t been a black professional baseball player before him, so we can easily assume that his family weren’t too thrilled that a son was trying to become a black pioneer in the baseball world – then the exclusive domain of the Whites. (He had learned to be a barber from his dad and cut his hair on the road to supplement his baseball income.) Plus, once he found himself in a squad, the locals weren’t hardly ready to accept it with open arms.
In the newspapers, sports journalists called him – the only black man on his team – “colored”, “black” or “coon”. With the nasty epithets thrown at him from opposing stands and dugouts, vicious attacks on the pitch quickly became a very real part of Fowler’s playing career.
He started playing at second base with his lower legs encased in wooden guards to protect himself from players intentionally trying to nail him with their cleats while sliding. According to St. Paul Daily Globe, a white player damaged in 1884 game: “Fowler, the lightning-colored Stillwaters wide receiver, got his foot pricked by a base runner at home plate who broke his big toe bone . The surgeon says it will take several days before he can play again … “
Many pitchers purposely threw him at him while he was standing at the plate, trying to knock him down. In June 1884, Fowler received such a hard blow in the ribs that he lost consciousness and missed three games as a result. Still, he remained steadfast – at least once, even trading blows with a white player for his dirty playing tactics.
In 1895 he played for Lansing of the Michigan State League, and in 31 games he reached .331. While this could be considered a banner year for any hitter, Fowler instead started to find his options limited. As the turn of the century approached, the color line was becoming more and more bold in various professional baseball leagues due to the “white deal” to keep black players out.
He wrote in 1895: “My skin is against me. If I hadn’t been so black, I could have passed myself off as a Spaniard or something. The racial prejudice is so strong that my black skin has crossed me out.
In his later years, his promotional spirit was still strong. He organized the Muncie Londons, a black club based in Indiana in 1896; became the main promoter and organizer of the Lone Star Colored League of Texas in 1897, and formed a team called the All-American Black Tourists, which would operate under his leadership, intermittently, until at least 1909.
The most glaring thing missing from his career stats is a stint in the majors. His natural abilities and high minor league skills, which he demonstrated year after year with his bat or glove, should have been his ticket to compete at the highest level of the game. Racial fanaticism ensured that he would never go through the entrance.
His sheer determination to excel at what was then a white man’s game and, more importantly, to shine in a white man’s world eclipses even his accomplishments on the pitch. With his courage, courage and determination, he charted a course for other African Americans and more than deserved his place in the Hall of Fame.
Fowler should be remembered as a man of the baseball Renaissance – pioneer, player, manager, team founder, promoter, showman and even sage, providing advice to white scouts who willingly sought him out to ask questions about other black players in the making. He died in 1913 and was buried in an unmarked grave until 1987 when the Society for American Baseball Research purchased a gravestone that reads:
“John W. Jackson:“ Bud Fowler, ”Black Baseball Pioneer. “
It took over a century, but now, at least in spirit, he’s returned to his childhood home in Cooperstown.
To reach Frank Drouzas, send an email to [email protected]
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