Black Baseball Pioneers: Bud Fowler
In July 2022, John “Bud” Fowler received long-overdue recognition as he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of a historic seven-player class. While Fowler’s name has not been as historically well-known as some others, his role as the first Black player in professional baseball history makes
In July 2022, John “Bud” Fowler received long-overdue recognition as he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of a historic seven-player class. While Fowler’s name has not been as historically well-known as some others, his role as the first Black player in professional baseball history makes him one of the sport’s most important figures.
His life and career are incredible, with his playing career spanning four decades from the 1870s to the early 1900s. He spent most of his career suiting up for teams within white organized baseball, and according to a 2022 article by Benjamin Hill, recalled playing for teams in 22 states and in Canada – nearly unfathomable in the modern structure of professional baseball.
Fowler was born as John W. Jackson, Jr. on March 16, 1858 in Fort Plain, New York, just over a two-hour drive from Dutchess Stadium. Both of his parents, John Sr. and Mary Lansing Jackson were born in New York, although James A. Riley called his father a “fugitive hop-picker” in his entry in The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, published in 1994.
John Sr. was working as a barber, a middle class trade he passed down to his son. Bud ended up barbering throughout his professional baseball career to make extra money.
By the time Bud was two, the family moved to Cooperstown, where he began playing baseball on the fields of the Cooperstown Seminary. He grew to be around average sized for his era – 5-foot-7 and 155 pounds.
When he was only 14 years old in 1872, Fowler first played for an otherwise all-white professional team based in New Castle, Pennsylvania. He is documented playing for teams in the northeast in 1877, and even pitched for an amateur all-star team in an exhibition game against the defending National League champion Boston Red Caps in 1878 (his team won 2-1).
In May of 1878, Fowler signed with the Lynn (MA) Live Oaks, a member of the International Association, one of the first loosely affiliated minor leagues. When he appeared in three games with Lynn, Fowler became the first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history, and with it the first African-American professional ball player.
From that point on, Fowler’s career took a turn for the nomadic – by 1883, he had pitched for teams in Ontario, New Orleans, Richmond, Virginia, St. Louis, and Youngstown, Ohio. He pitched for a team in Stillwater, Minnesota in 1884, but began his transition to being a fielder that year. He hit .302 and led the league in hits.
He encountered racism and protests in many places that he played. Opposing players spiked him hard enough that he broke bones, intentionally hit him with pitches – once knocking him unconscious, and dealt with his own teammates not wanting to play with him because of the color of his skin.
In 1885, Fowler played for the Keokuk (IA) Hawkeyes, where the Keokuk Gate City and Constitution called him “a good ball player, a hard worker, a genius on the ball field, intelligent, gentlemanly in his conduct and deserving of the good opinion entertained for him by the base ball [sic] admirers here.”
Sadly, the Western League, where Keokuk played, folded after the season, and Fowler was left to roam as a free agent again.
In the next few years he played in Colorado, Binghamton, New York, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio. In 1894 he helped found the Page Fence Giants, one of the first elite black professional teams based out of Michigan. Over the next 10 years, he played or managed the Page Fence Giants, and several other black professional teams before retiring from baseball in 1904 at age 46, capping a 32-year career.
After baseball, Fowler returned home to New York and settled in Herkimer County, where he passed away on February 26, 1913 at the age of 54 due to pernicious anemia, “an autoimmune condition that prevents your body from absorbing vitamin B12,” according to the Cleveland Clinic. He was buried in Oakview Cemetery in Frankfort in an unmarked (until 1987) grave.
In recent years, there has been a big effort to remember Fowler. Cooperstown declared April 20, 2013 “Bud Fowler Day”, and dedicated a plaque in his honor at Doubleday Field, and the street leading to the field was re-named “Fowler Way”.
On July 24, 2022, Fowler was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, with Dave Winfield speaking on his behalf.
“Fowler made baseball history today,” Winfield said in his speech. “But he’s always been a part of American history.”
- Bud Fowler, SABR Biographical Project by Brian McKenna: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/bud-fowler/
- "Full Circle: Bud Fowler set for Hall enshrinement" by Benjamin Hill. https://www.milb.com/news/bud-fowler-baseball-pioneer-and-hall-of-famer
- Dave Winfield's Hall of Fame Induction Speech. https://www.mlb.com/video/winfield-inducts-fowler-to-hof