“Bud” Fowler was a key figure in advancing the cause of black baseball in the late 1800s.
The boxscores, the 465 of them that researchers have found in a career that spanned two decades, tell of one of the better baseball players of the late 19th century — sharp-hitting, fleet of foot and versatile, playing every position, even pitcher.
What the numbers don’t describe about John “Bud” Fowler is the overarching injustice of racism that so defined and limited his life. Nor do the statistics tally the overt cruelties and subtle indignities he endured on and off the baseball field, nor the endless what-might-have-been questions he must have asked himself.
Fowler, whose experience as a pioneering black baseball player would be echoed by Jackie Robinson nearly 70 years later, is at last earning the recognition he was denied in a colorful and well-traveled lifetime.
Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Fowler’s death converging against a backdrop of a budding baseball season and Black History Month, was declared “Bud Fowler Day” by the Washington County Board and the city of Stillwater — where he played brilliantly for one season in 1884.
Beyond that, the first-base entrance into Doubleday Field two blocks from the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. N.Y. — where Fowler grew up — is going to be renamed “Fowler Way” at ceremonies in April.
And Brent Peterson — who in dual roles as executive director of the Washington County Historical Society and manager/player for the St. Croix Base Ball Club that plays by 1860 baseball rules was behind the proclamations — is hoping to get the old athletic field near Stillwater Junior High School named for Fowler, as well.
It is a fitting tribute, Peterson said, to the man considered by historians to be the first professional black baseball player and whose many blazed trails included Stillwater.
By the time Fowler arrived in Stillwater in the spring of 1884, he was already a polished six-season baseball veteran. He had made his professional debut with the Lynn Live Oaks in Massachusetts in 1878, said Jim Overmyer, a baseball historian and co-author of “Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball.” Fowler, filling in for an ill pitcher, led the team to a 3-0 victory.
“He was a pretty fascinating guy — but pretty hard to get a handle on,” Overmyer said. “A lot of these 19th-century guys are, though.”
In the freewheeling days of post-Civil War professional baseball, leagues formed and disbanded and players typically bounced from team to team, and Fowler was no exception. In fact, Fowler’s far-flung travels were more than typical, even for the times. “There must have been some wanderlust in his DNA, on top of everything else,” Overmyer said.
Black players were not unusual in the days before Jim Crow laws would institutionalize segregation in American society — and its pastime — and they played wherever they were accepted.
And that was the case in Stillwater, Peterson said, when the short-lived Northwestern League expanded from six to 12 teams. “Stillwater petitioned and got in as one of those six expansion teams,” he said. “So that made that talent pool even thinner.”
He played several positions, but was primarily a catcher. As always, he supplemented his career as a barber, securing a job cutting hair and giving shaves at Hadley’s Barber Shop, and resided at the Live and Let Live Boarding House, Peterson said. “Kind of fitting, don’t you think?” Stillwater had a sizable black population in the 1880s.
The team got off to a rough start. The field was not up to league standards and, while it was being refurbished, the team played its first 26 games on the road. They lost the first 16 games.
“The team was really hot and cold, but through it all, Fowler was pretty steady,” Peterson said. Fowler’s first try at pitching led to the team’s first victory — in appreciation, the fans awarded Fowler $10 and a new suit. It was the first season pitchers were allowed to throw overhand, and he would win seven games on the mound, leading the last-place team in pitching and leading the league in hits.
Stillwater disbanded the team after one 21-46 season. Six players went on to the major leagues, Peterson said. And Fowler would do as he had always done: take his bats and gloves and move on to the next team, the next town and uncertain welcome. The Stillwater manager helped him land a spot in Keokuk, Iowa.
Conditions for black players were becoming more difficult as the color line began to solidify toward the end of the century, Overmyer said. In 1887, even though he was leading his team in Binghamton, N.Y., in hitting with a .350 average in mid-July and, again, was a star player, Fowler was forced out by a white players’ revolt in one of the most overt instances of racism in his career.
“There were some excellent, excellent black ballplayers at that time,” Overmyer said. “But the tide just turned against them.”
Fowler would go on to form his own Negro League team, the Page Fence Giants, that barnstormed the nation traveling in its own railroad car. He is also credited with inventing what would become modern-day shin guards — by strapping wooden slats to his legs — to protect himself at second base from being spiked by white players.
Robinson would face a similar peril playing second base with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the year he broke that color line — and was named baseball’s Rookie of the Year.
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