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 walk across the exhibit, you will see in a timeline, reading “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.
There’s a picture, too – one of only two known to exist. But Fowler’s a footnote here.
Yet among baseball scholars, he’s considered a giant of the game.
“Bud Fowler is of extraordinary importance on a national scale,” said John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball. “Many would argue he should be in the Hall of Fame or should have been long ago.”
Thorn said 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 career than Fowler.
“He’s a .300 batter,” Thorn said. “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.”
A Connection To Cooperstown
Fowler was born John W. Jackson. His family moved to Cooperstown, a village in Upstate New York that’s now home to the Hall of Fame, when he was two. His father was a barber, one of the few African-American professions respected by whites.
Village historian Hugh MacDougall said 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 school kids,” MacDougall said. “He learned how to play baseball with white kids. I think he felt he ought to be able to live in the white community.”
It’s a mystery why Jackson changed his name to Fowler, perhaps to protect his family.
Traveling To Play
After his professional baseball debut with the Lynn Live Oaks, Fowler played in Ontario, in New Orleans, in Virginia. 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, Thorn says, prejudice forced him to pack his bags.
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 of Fowler with the Keokuk, Iowa team in 1885. Leichenauer said it shows Fowler’s determination and 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 knowing his story, you can just look at that picture and sort of infer that experience,” Leichenauer said. “He’s a lone pioneer in this game.”
A Hometown Honor
On April 20, about 100 years after Bud Fowler’s death, the village of Cooperstown finally honored that pioneering legacy.
“Everybody, welcome to Bud Fowler Day. We’re gonna start here,” said Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz who stood with about 50 people on a little side street that leads directly to Doubleday Field, the mythical birthplace of baseball in this community of about 1800 people.
Three captains of the high school baseball team wore uniforms with the name “Fowler” printed across their backs. They snipped a ribbon and unveiled a new street sign. It reads “Fowler Way”.
Katz said it’s about time Cooperstown recognized its most storied local player.
“A 19th-century son of a black barber struggling to play baseball is not quite someone, let’s say, the village perceives as one of their own,” he said. “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, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s senior curator.
“It’s not so much a story of baseball,” he said. “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 clubs. One — the Page Fence Giants in Michigan — became the prototype for all black baseball teams to come.
When MLB historian 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.