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October 6, 2013

Historical perspective: Fowler’s baseball legacy inflates 100 years after death

TERRE HAUTE — During formal ceremonies in April 2013, an access road to legendary Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y. — two blocks from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum — was named “Fowler Way.”

The ceremony honored John “Bud” Fowler, a member of Terre Haute’s 1888 Central Interstate League team and the man the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) unequivocally concludes was the first black to play organized white professional baseball.

It was a timely tribute. The memorial observance came about two months after the 100th anniversary of Fowler’s death, at age 54, on Feb. 26, 1913.

Fowler was a true baseball pioneer . He was the first African-American to play on an integrated team and was one of the first of his race to promote barnstorming teams.

He was versatile, capable of playing every position. He began his career as a teenager in the bare-handed era, pitching, catching and playing in the infield, and continued to compete for more than 30 years despite frequent intentional efforts to harm him.

He had extraordinary skills. Some experts advocate his induction into the Hall of Fame. Late in his career, a writer for Sporting Life, a 19th Century periodical, wrote:

“With his splendid abilities, he long ago would have been on some good club had his color been white instead of black. Those who know say there is no better second baseman in the country.”

Fowler spent most of his childhood in Cooperstown though recent research has revealed that he was born March 16, 1858 in Fort Plain, N,Y., about 30 miles away.

He was christened John W. Jackson, Jr., son of John W. and Emily Lansing Jackson. The family relocated to Cooperstown in 1860. His father was a barber and young Jackson learned the profession well, using it throughout his career to supplement his income.

According to census records, the Jacksons had at least three other children besides John: Frederick, who died as an infant; Willis, born in 1869; and Mary, an older daughter.

Young John apparently learned baseball on fields at the Cooperstown Seminary. Some have suggested he began playing organized amateur baseball with traveling teams as early as 1869. Since he was only 11 years old at the time, this seems unlikely.

By the time he gained prominence as a professional at age 20 in 1878, he had assumed the name, “Fowler.” Why he did so remains a mystery but he retained the name the rest of his career. The nickname, “Bud,” was attached to him, according to esteemed SABR biographer Bob David, because that is what Fowler called each of his teammates.

During the Spring of 1878, Fowler joined an amateur independent all-star team in Chelsea, Mass. On April 24, he tossed a three-hitter against Boston, the 1877 National League champion, in an exhibition game and won, 2 to 1.

In the following month, the Lynn (Mass.) Live Oaks of the professional International Association lost two players, including a pitcher, to injury and signed Fowler and George Wood, another Chelsea player, to short contracts. On May 17, Bud pitched a two-hit shutout against the London (Ontario) Tecumsehs in a game that ended in a forfeit following London’s protest.

In 1879, Fowler played in the Eastern Massachusetts League and then spent two years with various teams in Ontario. In 1882, he pitched for the independent New Orleans Pickwicks and was playing manager of the Richmond (Va.) Black Swans.

On Jan. 31, 1883, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat noted that “Fowler, the renowned colored pitcher of the east, reached St. Louis … and has signed to play with the Black Sox, the club that will represent St. Louis in the colored league this season.” The league failed and Fowler moved to Youngstown in May to play for the Niles Grays.

During his St. Louis residency, Bud met the woman who later became his wife.

In March 1884, Fowler joined Stillwater of the prestigious Northwestern League, a 12-team coalition that included Grand Rapids, Bay City, Saginaw and Muskegon, Mich.; Stillwater, Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.; Peoria and Quincy, Ill; Milwaukee, Fort Wayne and Terre Haute. Travel costs were astronomical.

Fowler was Stillwater’s star pitcher, catcher and top utilityman. He also had a team-leading .302 batting average. He made his Terre Haute debut May 29 with an 11 to 8 pitching victory and returned to the mound in two days to beat the locals again, 5 to 4.

After one performance, the Terre Haute Evening Gazette wrote: “The crowd showed appreciation for Fowler’s work by applauding him every time he went to bat.”

Stillwater folded Aug. 4 and Terre Haute, $2,300 in debt, abdicated on Aug. 6.

Feb. 26, 2013 was declared “Bud Fowler Day” by the City of Stillwater.

In 1885, Fowler spent time with Keokuk (Iowa) of the Western League and Pueblo of the Colorado League. Sporting Life proclaimed that “Fowler, the crack colored player . . . is one of the best general players in the country and, if he had a white face, would be playing with the best of them.”

The next season he was severely injured while playing for Topeka of the Western League but, in 1887, hit a robust .350 for Binghamton of the International Association. That year he organized the New York Gorhams, the first U.S. black barnstorming club.

Fowler was playing for Crawfordsville of the Central Interstate League on July 3, 1888 when the team was shifted to Terre Haute. The Terre Haute Express noted: “There is not a better second baseman in the league than Fowler and spectators who have seen him on the diamond are lavish in praise of his work.”

Terre Haute drew decent crowds but the league struggled. Alas, it collapsed on July 24. Fowler, who hit .294 and was operating a popular downtown barber shop, stayed in Terre Haute several extra days before joining Santa Fe of the New Mexico League.

Thereafter, he played for Greenville of the Michigan State League (1889), Galesburg of the Central Interstate League (1889), Sterling and Burlington of the Illinois-Iowa League (1890), Lincoln-Kearney of the Nebraska League (1892), Lansing of the Michigan State League (1894-95) and independent Findlay (Ohio) in 1891, 1894 and 1896-99. He also assembled a team for Page Woven Wire Fence Co., called the Page Fence Giants.

He also played for the Cuban Giants in the winter of 1898 and later organized the Smoky City Giants (1901), All-American Black Tourists (1903) and the Kansas City Stars (1904), all barnstorming teams.


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