2022 Early Baseball Era Committee Candidate: Bud Fowler

The following article is part of a series concerning the 2022 Early Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering managers and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon on December 5. For an introduction to the ballot, see here, and for an introduction to JAWS, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

Bud Fowler

“For the next twenty-five years [after his debut in 1878], Fowler barnstormed around the country, from Massachusetts to Colorado, playing wherever Negro players were permitted. He played in crossroads farm towns and in mining camps, in the pioneer settlements of the West and in the cities of the East. These were the years of growth for the minor leagues, the foundation stones for organized baseball, and Fowler performed in several of them. He was the first of more than sixty Negroes who were in white leagues before the turn of the century, when baseball’s leaders began to think of their structure as Organized Baseball in capital letters and when the long night of total exclusion lowered for the black man.”— Robert Peterson, Only the Ball Was White, 1970

Bud Fowler was Black baseball’s original pioneer, its first acknowledged professional, with a career that’s believed to have spanned from 1878 to 1904. An exceptional hitter, pitcher, and fielder who could play any position (sometimes catcher, but mainly second base), the 5-foot-7, 155-pound righty was believed to be of major league star quality, and is recorded as having hit .308 in over 2,000 at-bats in 10 seasons of organized baseball. Alas, the color of his skin and the prejudice that followed prevented him from ascending to the majors. Playing on integrated teams before the color line was fully entrenched — even captaining some — he traveled a hard road, unable to stay in one place for long before the objections of teammates or opponents forced him to move on, even given his considerable talents; by his own count, he played in 22 different states plus Canada. In the latter stages of his career he became one of the game’s first significant Black promoters, involved in forming leagues and teams.

It is a painful irony that Fowler was raised in Cooperstown but has yet to be recognized with election to the Hall of Fame. Not until 2013, the centennial of his death, was he even honored in his hometown. That year, MLB official historian John Thorn said, “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.” Last year, SABR’s Nineteenth Century Committee voted Fowler as its 2020 Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend.

Fowler was born John W. Jackson Jr. on March 16, 1858 in Fort Plain, New York. His father was “a fugitive hop-picker” according to James A Riley’s The Biographical Encyclopedia of Negro Leagues Baseball; Cooperstown was once an epicenter of U.S. hop production. The senior Jackson was also a barber, a middle-class profession available to Black men of the day; his son picked up the trade, eventually using it to supplement his baseball income. The Jacksons moved to Cooperstown, about 30 miles away from Fort Plain, in 1860, at a time when just 28 Black people lived in the village. The young Jackson learned to play baseball on the fields of the Cooperstown Seminary. His exact reasons for assuming the name “Bud Fowler” are unknown, but presumably owed to a desire to protect or distance himself from his family, a tactic not uncommon among 19th century players.

Fowler began his career as a pitcher in 1878, when he joined an amateur independent team from Chelsea, Massachusetts. On April 24 of that year, the team beat Tommy Bond and the reigning NL champion Boston Nationals 2-1 in an exhibition game, with Fowler yielding just three hits. In May, the Lynn (Mass.) Live Oaks of the International Association (a minor league that operated in cooperation with the NL) called upon Fowler to pitch three games, making him “[T]he first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history and thus the game’s first African-American pro and the first in what would become known as Organized Baseball,” wrote Brian McKenna in Fowler’s SABR biography.

On May 17, Fowler pitched a two-hit shutout against the the London (Ontario) Tecumsehs, though that team walked off the field in the eighth inning over a disputed play and perhaps Lynn’s use of a Black player. Fowler lost his other two starts. The team soon merged with one from Worcester, Massachusetts, and Fowler once filled in for Bobby Mathews, who pitched in the majors for 15 years.

Fowler bounced around the semipro ranks, playing for integrated teams (Malden in the Eastern Massachusetts League in 1879, the Ontario-based Guelph Maple Leafs and Petrolia Imperials, in ’81); and all-Black ones (the New Orleans Pickwicks and Richmond (Virginia) Black Swans in ’82). Plans for him to play for a team called the St. Louis Black Sox in a nationwide Black league in 1883 did not pan out, and so he moved on to Youngstown, Ohio, where he played for the Niles Grays.

In 1884, Foster returned to the ranks of organized baseball with Stillwater (Minnesota) of the Northwestern League, initially catching but taking over pitching duties when the team started 0-15. He pitched well to the point of gaining the appreciation of the fans who awarded him a $10 suit, but he developed a sore arm, probably related to the rule change to allow overhanded pitching. Fowler went 7-8 with a 2.08 ERA (but 6.51 RA9), and began transitioning out of pitching. While playing all around the diamond — every position except first base — he hit .302 in 48 games and collected a league-leading 57 hits. His time in Stillwater wasn’t without tumult; he broke a bone in his big toe via a spiking injury, was knocked unconscious by a pitch in the ribs, and was suspended for two weeks (soon reduced to two games) for his unwillingness to catch pitcher M.J. Bradley, possibly due to a racially-related conflict.

The Stillwater team was forced to disband due to financial reasons in early August, but Fowler drew positive reviews in local papers and the national Sporting Life, which in 1885 proclaimed him “one of the best general players in the country… and if he had a white face he would be playing with the best of them…. Those who know, say there is no better second baseman in the country.” More, as gathered for his SABR bio:

As the Sporting Life noted, he “made quite a reputation in the Northwestern League.” He received praise throughout the league. After one game in Terre Haute, the local Evening Gazette noticed, “The crowd showed their appreciation of his work by applauding him every time he went to bat.” After Stillwater’s final game, the Milwaukee Sentinel declared, “Fowler, the colored player, made one of the finest running fly-catches ever seen on the grounds, and was compelled to doff his cap several times in response to the enthusiastic plaudits of his many admirers.”

Fowler continued to play with white minor league teams, many of them on similarly shaky financial footing. Via Riley’s exhaustive list:

Keokuk in the Western League (1885), Pueblo in the Colorado League (1885), Topeka in the Western League (1886), Binghamton in the International League (1887), Montpelier in the New England League (1887), Crawfordsville in the Central Interstate League (1888), Terre Haute in the Central Interstate League (1888), Santa Fe in the New Mexico League (1888), Greenville in the Michigan League (1889), Galesburg of the Central Interstate League (1890), Sterling of the Illinois-Iowa League (1890), Burlington of the Illinois-Iowa League (1890), Lincoln-Kearney of the Nebraska State League (1892), and the independent Findlay, Ohio, team (1891, 1893-1894, 1896-1899).

Most of those stays were short-lived, while others that never got off the ground aren’t even listed; in at least one case, a team signed him without knowing his race, then backed out of the deal upon finding out the truth. Fowler did spend the whole season with Topeka, hitting .309 and leading the league with 12 triples but missing several games due to multiple injuries, including a dislocated right shoulder, a line drive to the right eye, and another drive that hit him in the mouth. By this time, Fowler was protecting himself against further injuries by wearing wooden slats to protect his shins from spike wounds — more than 20 years ahead of catcher Roger Bresnahan’s popularizing shin guards in the majors.

In Binghamton — part of a league that featured Black players on six of its 10 teams — Fowler hit .350 and stole 30 bases in 30 games before some of the white players refused to play with him and another Black player, William Renfro. The uprising led Fowler to ask for his release, which was granted on the condition that he didn’t sign with another International League team. Two weeks later, after Cap Anson refused to let his White Stockings, the defending NL champions, play an exhibition against Newark if the latter used its battery of pitcher George Stovey and catcher Fleet Walker (who in 1884 had become the first Black player in the majors, with Toledo of the American Association), the league formally banned additional signings of Black players. Walker and Stovey were able to hang on until the end of the season with Newark, but for the first time, a professional baseball league had officially drawn the color line.

Fowler continued to make a living with integrated teams and leagues that didn’t adhere to the ban. He made a strong impression with Montpelier, where he achieved another first by captaining an integrated team. Wrote the Vermont Watchman, “The ‘colored gentleman’ in question is the present phenomenal second baseman of the Montpeliers… Considering his superiority as a base-ballist, it is reasonable to suppose that jealousy and not prejudice against color influenced the weak fellows of the Binghamton club.”

Alas, Montpelier folded before season’s end. Fowler formed the New York Gorhams, credited by Peterson as the first successful Black barnstorming team, in 1887. He continued to play well when given the chance with integrated teams, hitting .343 in 22 games with Santa Fe in 1888; .302 in 92 games at Greenville in ’89; .322 in 27 games for Galesburg; .314 in 36 games for Sterling and Burlington in ’90; and .273 with 45 stolen bases in 35 games for Lincoln-Kearney, where he was again captain.

In 1894, while playing for the Findlay Sluggers, an integrated independent semipro team, Fowler crossed paths with 20-year-old power-hitting shortstop Grant “Home Run” Johnson, who’s also on this year’s Early Baseball ballot. Fowler convinced Johnson to join him on a barnstorming team backed by a white man named J. Wallace Page, who sought an advertising vehicle for Page Woven Wire Fence Company, the largest fence company in the country at the time. The Page Fence Giants were born, and became a successful barnstorming team when Fowler was able to lure other strong players. The Giant traveled the country in a custom-made railroad car, and rode bicycles from the Monarch Bicycle Company of Boston (a minority investor) through the streets of whatever town they were playing to attract attention. The team went 118-36-2, with two of their losses coming against the major league Cincinnati Reds, against whom Fowler went 1-for-8 in a pair of exhibitions.

For as strong and successful as they were, Fowler, who was managing the team at the time, left in midseason along with five other Giants to return to organized baseball with the Adrian Reformers of the Michigan State League (Honus Wagner played for them earlier in the season). After a few games he joined Lansing in the same league and hit .331 in 31 games.

That turned out to be the 37-year-old Fowler’s last stop in organized baseball, as color lines limited his options; still, his 10 years would stand as a record for a Black player until Jackie Robinson came along just over half a century later. “My skin is against me,” wrote Fowler. “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind. The race prejudice is so strong that my black skin barred me.”

Fowler returned to barnstorming and additionally organized the eight-team Lone Star Colored League in Texas in 1897. He played with the Cuban Giants in 1898, but that year was beaten unconscious while riding a freight train to Harlem to visit his sister. When his return to Findlay ran into problems because the team’s white players refused to play with Fowler, Johnson, and former Adrian ace George Wilson, Foster and Findlay backer W.H. Drake formed a team called the All-American Black Tourists, which after a false start got off the ground again in 1900. Wrote Peterson in his seminal 1970 book:

They traveled in their own railroad car, and every game was preceded by a street parade with the players outfitted in full-dress suits with black pants and white vests, swallow-tail coats, opera hats, and silk umbrellas. “By request of any club,” Fowler announced, “we will play the game in these suits.”

Fowler’s migrations and teams continued: the Pittsburgh-based Smoky City Giants and traveling Barnes American Giants (1901), Indianapolis-based Eastern Colored-Stars (1902, part of the Indianapolis Colored League he helped to found), All-American Black Tourists (1903, ’05, and on and off through at least ’09), Kansas City Stars (1904). Another attempt to organize a national Black professional league fell apart, with Fowler saying, “One of these days a few people with enough nerve to take the chance will form a colored league of about eight cities and pull off a barrel of money.”

By 1909, Fowler was dealing with health problems that forced his retirement to Frankfort, New York. Though rumored to be suffering from consumption, he was actually suffering from pernicious anemia, a rare red blood cell disorder that may have been related to a sliding injury suffered while at Indianapolis in 1902, when a broken rib pierced his left kidney. He had the rib surgically removed, but his health woes continued. He died in 1913, at the age of 54 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Frankfort. In 1987, the Society for American Baseball raised the money for a headstone that was dedicated during the Hall of Fame’s Induction Weekend, with Hall of Famer Monte Irvin on hand. In 2013, Cooperstown renamed the street leading to Doubleday Field as Fowler Way.

Despite such tributes, and research to map out his lengthy and important career battling bigotry and the long odds of sustained success, Fowler has never even been on a Hall of Fame ballot. He was among the 94 candidates given preliminary consideration for the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues ballot, but he didn’t even make the list of 39 finalists, let alone become one of the 17 honorees. Recently, Joe Williams, who formerly chaired the aforementioned SABR Overlooked Nineteenth Century Legends Committee that honored Fowler, said on a Building the Ballot podcast that a 2006 voter told him that the reason Fowler didn’t make the final 39 was because “he moved around too much,” which of course misses the entire nature of his career.

“I wasn’t happy with that answer,” said Williams, and quite frankly nobody should be. “I know why he moved around so much… It had to do with the color of his skin… And he didn’t just [move around], he was a great player.” To be fair, a whole lot of research over the past 15 years, particularly via SABR, has helped to flesh out what author Peter Morris in 2009 called “Bud Fowler’s Lost Years” following his exit from organized baseball.

We don’t have anything close to full statistics for Fowler’s career, but judging him solely on the merits of those numbers — which cast him as a high-average speedster and flashy fielder who must have been quite entertaining to watch — isn’t the point. By the wide consensus of experts, he was of major league star caliber, too skilled for the tastes of the less open-minded white players he encountered. He pioneered the use of shin guards, all the more necessary given the potential for opponents to attempt to injure him, and claimed numerous firsts starting with his status as the first Black professional player. His barnstorming model helped to lay the groundwork for the survival of Black baseball. Above all, he persevered throughout a three-decade quest to secure a place for Black baseball players and Black teams within the national pastime. Wrote Morris, “Despite the treatment he received, Bud Fowler never lost his passion for baseball and never gave up hope that the day would come when ballplayers would be judged on their merits rather than the color of their skin.”

As Steven R. Greenes wrote in Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame: The Case for Inducting 24 Overlooked Ballplayers, “Bud Fowler’s path to self-determination in creating the first African American-owned touring teams and the 1895 Page Fence Giants set the foundation for the Negro Leagues to come. His overall contribution to American baseball as a player, organizer, pioneer, and symbol of dignified resistance to the racism of his day more than warrants a Hall of Fame plaque.”

Finally, Fowler is getting his chance. The Early Baseball ballot is full of men whose candidacies have gone neglected for decades, and any evaluation of their merits rests on some amount of subjectivity, because one can’t just fire up a Baseball-Reference page and take every candidates measure by WAR, JAWS, OPS+ and ERA+. No candidate has waited longer for his due than Fowler, and the other Negro Leagues and Black baseball candidates on this ballot — and in the Hall — are there at least in part because of his pioneering work. If I had a ballot, I’d include him as one of my four choices.

It’s worth noting that the Hall of Fame announced the actual makeup of both the Early Baseball and Golden Days Era Committees on Monday. The former includes the following: Hall of Fame members Bert Blyleven, Fergie Jenkins, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith, and Joe Torre; major league executives Bill DeWitt, Ken Kendrick, and Tony Reagins; and veteran media members/historians Gary Ashwill, Adrian Burgos Jr., Leslie Heaphy, Jim Henneman, Justice Hill, Steve Hirdt, Rick Hummel, and John Thorn.

Without succumbing to the temptation to game out the connections of voters to candidates at this juncture (far more of an issue among the Golden Days group, which shares several members with this one), I’ll note that Ashwill (the founder and lead researcher of the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database), Burgos (a professor of history at the University of Illinois and leading authority on Latin American baseball and member of the 2006 Special Committee), and Heaphy (an associate professor at Kent State University at Start, an author and editor of multiple books about Black baseball, and another 2006 committee member) were also part of the Special Early Baseball Overview Committee that assembled this ballot, and that Thorn, who has written numerous times about Fowler, is as well. Maybe this will finally be Bud Fowler’s year.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

If MLB is going to do things like declare Negro Leagues as major leagues then they need to do a better job honoring players like Fowler, Miñoso and Buck O’Neil who were pioneers whose historical significance has been ignored by many white people in charge over the years.