The man many people consider to be the first Black professional baseball player in the U.S. played one season in Stillwater, and now the local historical society wants to have a plaque installed on the field where he played.
John W. "Bud" Fowler pitched and played 66 games in 1884 with the Stillwater baseball team, a short-lived team in the Northwestern League, which didn't last much longer. He was the league's only Black player, managing to win a spot in organized baseball even as the sport moved toward open discrimination against Black athletes.
"He's actually one of the guys in Black baseball who at that early time — in the late 19th century — was considered one of the best players," said Frank M. White, author of "They Played For The Love of The Game: Untold Stories of Black Baseball in Minnesota." Fowler's excellence was "evidenced by the number of teams he ended up playing with," he said.
Fowler's considerable legacy in baseball already includes a street named for him in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Hall of Fame. A plaque in Stillwater would mark his time in the city when it was a booming lumber town, flush with cash and rapidly growing, said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.
Peterson said he recently asked the Stillwater school district about installing the plaque on a field that today sits on school-owned property near Stillwater Middle School. It's still early in that conversation, but City Council Member and history teacher Ryan Collins said he's excited about the prospect of marking the city's connection to Fowler.
"I'd be surprised if it didn't get supported by the school board," he said.
What little is known about Fowler's time in Stillwater comes from historical records and accounts published in local newspapers.
The year that Fowler lived in Stillwater was a momentous one for the city: It was in the midst of its lumber boom, with millions of board feet of white pine logs floating down the St. Croix River to be marked and sorted north of town. Several mills were up and running, fortunes were being made, and it wasn't too hard to find enough investors to start a baseball team.
"Money was flowing like crazy into Stillwater and baseball was going nationwide," Peterson said.
Fowler grew up in Cooperstown, the son of a man who had escaped slavery. He learned baseball there and first played for an all-white team in Pennsylvania at age 14. He played for teams in New England, Canada and Ohio before landing in Minnesota at age 26.
Fowler lived in the "Live and Let Live" boardinghouse on Chestnut Street. The boardinghouse is gone, and soon the bank building that stands in that location will be taken down, too, for a new residential building.
Fowler's record with the Stillwater team showed he was the ultimate utility player, pitching in some games while fielding or catching in others. The team played on a field near the corner of Orleans and Sixth Avenue S., which today sits between the Stillwater Middle School and Fairview Cemetery.
Despite write-ups in the local press and some games drawing 500 or more fans, the league foundered. Finding enough people to attend games proved difficult, and the Stillwater team folded partway through the 1884 season, having played 66 games of 110 that season. The team ended $7,500 in debt, according to Peterson. The Northwestern League lasted a few more years, folding in 1887.
Fowler eventually moved on to play for a team in Keokuk, Iowa. A photograph of him with his teammates will be among the items in the Fowler exhibit that Peterson plans to display at the Washington County Historical Society's Heritage Center, opening this fall in Stillwater.
Fowler played for other teams after his stay in Stillwater in a career that lasted 10 seasons of organized baseball.
In his book, baseball historian White documented how discrimination against Black players kept them out of the major leagues and eventually led to the creation in 1920 of the Negro National League and its governing body, the National Association of Colored Professional Baseball Clubs.
Fowler was long gone by then, having died in Frankfort, N.Y., in poverty in 1913. Although his death got national news coverage, his grave was unmarked. The Society for American Baseball Research helped install a grave marker in 1987. Last year, the same organization named Fowler their Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend of 2020.
White, who built a website at minnesotablackbaseball.com to share his research into the history of Black baseball players, said his interest began at a young age, traveling with his baseball-playing father in the 1950s. It wasn't until later that he learned that his father played with and against Negro League teams that barnstormed through the Twin Cities.
The history is important, he said, because it tells the stories of "guys like my father who were very good players but you would never know that because they were never written about."
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329