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Bud Fowler as a member of the 1885 Keokuk, Iowa, baseball team. Photo courtesy the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY
Bud Fowler as a member of the 1885 Keokuk, Iowa, baseball team. Photo courtesy the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, NY

A century later, African-American baseball hero gets his due

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Jackie Robinson is getting the big time Hollywood treatment with the new blockbuster "42". Meanwhile, a much lesser known African American baseball hero is getting his due in the cradle of baseball history.

In 1878, John Jackson - aka Bud Fowler - became the first African-American to play professional baseball with white men. His career spanned more than 30 years as a player, manager and entrepreneur.

Fowler grew up in Cooperstown, NY, the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Last weekend, the town recognized his story of perseverance in the face of bigotry.

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The Baseball Hall of Fame's exhibit about African-Americans in the national pastime is called "Pride and Passion." A giant photo of Jackie Robinson at the plate is splashed across one wall. Old-time jazz plays quietly.

If you stand in front of Jackie Robinson's uniform - #42 – and if you walk across the exhibit, you will see in a timeline… "1878. First African-American Professional Player, Bud Fowler, plays for pay in Lynn, Massachusetts on a team in the minor league International Association." And that's the only mention of him.

Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz (left) poses with Marc Appleman, director of the Society for American Baseball Research. The plaque will greet the legions of people who come to Doubleday Field, the mythical birthplace of baseball. Photo: David Sommerstein
Cooperstown mayor Jeff Katz (left) poses with Marc Appleman, director of the Society for American Baseball Research. The plaque will greet the legions of people who come to Doubleday Field, the mythical birthplace of baseball. Photo: David Sommerstein
There's a picture, too – one of only two known to exist. But Fowler's a footnote in this presentation of barnstorming and Negro Leagues and the march to Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947.

Yet among baseball scholars like official Major League Baseball Historian John Thorn, Bud Fowler is considered a giant of the game.

"Bud Fowler is of extraordinary importance on a national scale. Many would argue he should be in the Hall of Fame or should have been long ago."

Thorn says while three black men played major league games before the so-called "gentleman's agreement" erected the color barrier in 1887, none had a longer-lasting career than Fowler.

"He's a .300 batter. He's a fine fielder at second base. The press accolades for his play for Binghamton in the International League in 1887 match those of any player in the league. He and Frank Grant and pitcher George Stovey in 1886 with Newark, these were first-rate stars and the only thing stopping them from ascent to the major leagues was prejudice."

Bud Fowler's story

Fowler was born John W. Jackson. His family moved to Cooperstown when he was two. His father was a barber, one of the few African-American professions respected by whites.

Village historian Hugh MacDougall says just 28 black people lived in Cooperstown at the time. Jackson was one of only six black children in the local school.

"So he was going to school with white schoolkids. He learned how to play baseball with white kids. I think he felt he ought to be able to live in the white community, as a human being, and he kept trying at it all his life."

The new sign making Fowler Way official in Cooperstown. Photo: David Sommerstein
The new sign making Fowler Way official in Cooperstown. Photo: David Sommerstein
It's a mystery why Jackson changed his name to Fowler. But he might have done it to protect his family.

Hope, prejudice and isolation

It was the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. There was still of glimmer of hope for a more integrated America. Gretchen Sorin of the Cooperstown Graduate Program says Fowler was likely influenced by the abolitionist speeches of Frederick Douglass, who lived in nearby Rochester.

"Every African-American would probably have been doing things to support other African-Americans."

For Bud Fowler, that was creating a space for black players in the national game.

After his professional baseball debut with the Lynn Live Oaks, Fowler played in Ontario, in New Orleans, in Virginia, and in other places. In all, Fowler played for or managed more than two dozen teams in 17 states from Maine to Texas. To make a living in between gigs, he barbered like his dad. At each stop, says MLB historian John Thorn, prejudice forced him to pack his bags.

"He felt that he needed to become an itinerant ballplayer. He would join a club, find that some white players objected to his presence, and six weeks later, he was gone."

He endured jeers and threats from the crowd. He wore wooden slats under his pant legs because white players would try to spike him as they slid into second base.

Ryan Leichenauer helped design a new exhibit about Fowler's life that's on display in the village of Cooperstown. There's a photo in it of Fowler with the Keokuk, Iowa team in 1885. Leichenauer says it shows Fowler's determination, and his isolation.

"You see Bud Fowler in the middle, looking strong, prominent, and surrounding him is a team of white faces, sort of to the side, and just knowing his story, you can look at that picture and sort of infer that experience. He's a lone pioneer in this game."

Cooperstown honors Bud Fowler

Last Saturday, about a hundred years after Bud Fowler's death, the village of Cooperstown finally honored that pioneering legacy.

Village mayor Jeff Katz stood with about 50 people on a little side street that leads directly to Doubleday Field, the mythical birthplace of baseball.

The high school baseball team captains wore uniforms with "Fowler" emblazoned across the back at the ceremony recognizing Bud Fowler at Doubleday Field. The team will wear "Fowler" jerseys for the first few games of the season. Photo: David Sommerstein
The high school baseball team captains wore uniforms with "Fowler" emblazoned across the back at the ceremony recognizing Bud Fowler at Doubleday Field. The team will wear "Fowler" jerseys for the first few games of the season. Photo: David Sommerstein
Three captains of the high school baseball team wear uniforms with the name "Fowler" printed across their backs. To applause, they snip a ribbon and unveil a new street sign. It reads "Fowler Way."

Mayor Katz says it's about time Cooperstown recognized its most storied local player.

"A 19th-century son of a black barber is not quite someone, let's say, the village perceives as one of their own. And yet he is one of our own. He is a fellow resident, a fellow citizen of this village, who did an amazing thing."

The whole idea for Bud Fowler Day was Tom Shieber's. He's the Baseball Hall of Fame's senior curator.

"It's not so much a story of baseball. It's a story of continuing to do what you love and not letting someone say no because of the color of your skin, or whatever reason. I think that's something to honor."

In the years before he died, Bud Fowler formed his own barnstorming clubs as a manager and entrepreneur. One - the Page Fence Giants in Michigan - became the prototype for all black baseball teams to come.

When John Thorn gave his speech at the ceremony, he invoked the giant figure of Jackie Robinson, who walked across a bridge built by so many African-American ballplayers who came before him. Thorn said he was certain Robinson had traveled down Fowler Way.

 

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