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Fowler: A 19th-century baseball pioneer

Fleet-footed black player made his Minor League debut in 1878
John "Bud" Fowler (top, center) was the first of at least 30 black players to crack the white pro leagues during the 19th century. (National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
February 9, 2006

On April 18, 1946, a year away from his epochal debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson made history for the first of what would be many times. On that day, the fleet-footed second baseman suited up for the International League's Montreal Royals, breaking baseball's long-standing color barrier at the

On April 18, 1946, a year away from his epochal debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson made history for the first of what would be many times. On that day, the fleet-footed second baseman suited up for the International League's Montreal Royals, breaking baseball's long-standing color barrier at the professional level. Contrary to popular belief, however, Robinson was not the first black player to compete in the Minor Leagues. That honor belongs to another fleet-footed second baseman -- John "Bud" Fowler, an underappreciated baseball pioneer who was a product of an entirely different era.

Born March 16, 1858, Fowler's real name was John Jackson. He was nicknamed "Bud" because of his tendency to call others by that name, but it is unclear why he chose to go by the last name of Fowler. He grew up in Cooperstown, New York, learning the sport of baseball in its mythological birthplace a full 70 years before the establishment of the Hall of Fame.

Some have even made the case that Fowler belongs in his hometown's renowned baseball shrine, although he did not make the final ballot in this month's upcoming Negro and pre-Negro Leagues Hall of Fame vote. While Minor League statistics of the 19th century are spotty, all evidence points to the fact that Fowler was a very gifted ballplayer.

Researchers have found the box scores for 465 games in which Fowler appeared, wherein he compiled a .309 batting average and swiped bases at a prolific clip (as many as 46 in a season). And while his primary defensive position was second base, he played at every position on the diamond at one time or another, including 33 starts on the mound. Yet despite his baseball acumen, Fowler was never able to gain solid footing in the world of white professional baseball, doomed to a peripatetic existence that makes modern-day baseball nomads such as Todd Zeile and Mike Morgan seem like homebodies in comparison.

In a sprawling career that spanned from 1878 to 1904 (including stints in semi-pro leagues and barnstorming Negro teams), Fowler -- by his own account -- played on teams in 22 states and Canada. He competed in at least 13 professional leagues, stopping in exotic locales such as Pueblo, Colorado, Keokuk, Iowa, and Guelph, Ontario, along the way. Some of Fowler's wanderlust can be attributed to the uncertain state of professional baseball at the time, as new teams and leagues -- many on unsound financial footing -- were popping up all over as the sport attempted to establish a grip on the country's imagination. But, of course, the primary reason Fowler had such a hard time gaining security in the world of baseball was his race. Historically, professional sports have rarely been kind to black athletes, and in the 19th century, circumstances were particularly rough.

Fowler was the first of at least 30 black players to crack the white professional leagues between 1878 and 1899 (including one, Moses Walker, who appeared in the Major Leagues a full 63 years before Jackie Robinson). It was a time in our country's history when it was still possible to dream of a fully integrated America, before Jim Crow laws and the Plessy vs. Ferguson "separate but equal" doctrine effectively mandated segregation and legitimized discrimination in the eyes of society at large. Professional black players in the 19th century faced the scorn and derision of fans, opposing players and often their own teammates, but they were not barred from competing altogether.

It was in this context that Fowler made his professional debut on May 17, 1878. He had been pitching for an amateur team in Chelsea, Massachusetts, when the nearby Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association lost their ace hurler to an illness. Fowler was brought in as a replacement, and he responded by pitching the Live Oaks to a 3-0 victory over the Tecumsehs of London, Ontario. He subsequently appeared in two more games with the Live Oaks and lost both of them. Nonetheless, with this modest beginning, Fowler had officially broken the color line in organized baseball.

In 1879, Fowler appeared with Malden of the Eastern Massachusetts League, but there is no documentation of him playing anywhere the following year. Then, in 1881, he materialized with the Maple Leafs of Guelph, Ontario. He didn't make it through the season, though, as several of his teammates protested his presence on the team and he was summarily dropped. This led the Guelph Herald to remark, "We regret that some members of the Maple Leafs are ill-natured enough to object to the colored pitcher Fowler. ... He has forgotten more about baseball than the present team ever knew."

Fowler, in a display of the indomitable spirit that defined his career, simply packed up and moved on. He finished the season with a team called the Petrolia Imperials, about which little is known.
In 1884, Fowler surfaced with Stillwater (Minnesota) of the Northwest League. The league was one of the country's most competitive, and represented a chance for Fowler to prove himself among some of the game's best players. The 1884 season was Stillwater's first, and the fledgling team had to compete with more established franchises in large cities such as Milwaukee and Minneapolis. Stillwater's board of directors was desperate for talented players, and situations like these enabled black players to make their way into leagues that might have otherwise turned a blind eye.

Stillwater would have given the 1988 Orioles a run for their money. The ballclub dropped its first 16 games before Fowler, who had been logging time as a catcher, infielder and outfielder, came through with a complete-game victory in his first pitching appearance of the year. As a reward for earning the first win in franchise history, he was presented with $10 and a new suit of clothes (he had to give the $10 back the next month, however, when he made a two-run throwing error that led to a Stillwater defeat). Stillwater won its next five games, with Fowler recording the victory in four of them. He continued to play other positions as well. As Sporting Life magazine noted, "The Stillwater club has a colored player named Fowler who pitches, catches and plays left field in good shape."

But despite Fowler's contributions, Stillwater continued to struggle, both on the field and financially. The team was losing money at a rapid clip and finally disbanded in August. All told, Fowler compiled a 7-8 record while batting .297.

The next year, Fowler spent time in five cities, starting in Keokuk, Iowa, and moving westward until he hit Denver. Sporting Life once again made note of Fowler, this time during his brief stint with Keokuk in the Western League, which collapsed on June 15. The magazine stated "those in the know say that there is no better second baseman in the country." Yet he still had trouble finding a team to take him. In Denver, he made his living not with baseball, but by giving running exhibitions, logging a 4:56 mile in the high altitude, at a time when the world record was still over four minutes.

Fowler was on top of his game in 1886 as he hit .309, led the league in triples and solidified himself as a second baseman while playing for Topeka of the Northwestern League. The following season he signed on with the Binghamton Bingoes of the International League, a circuit that was home to seven other black players at the time. In mid-July, Fowler was hitting .350 and had emerged as one of the club's star players. Nonetheless, he was forced out of the league by his teammates, nine of whom sent a telegram to the team's management threatening to quit if Fowler and pitcher William Renfro remained on the squad. Fowler relocated to Montpelier, Vermont, where the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported he was a "favorite of the spectators and was greeted with applause every time he stepped to the plate."

Regardless, Fowler's troubles in Binghamton underscored just how difficult it was for black players to compete in white leagues. On July 14, less than two weeks after Fowler was forced to leave the Bingoes, International League directors agreed to no longer issue contracts to Negro players, a direct result of white player revolts throughout the league. This was the first time that any professional league drew an official color line. It was a harbinger of things to come.

As if to underscore the changing racial climate in baseball, another significant event took place on July 14. On that day, it was announced that the Chicago White Stockings, a precursor to the Cubs and one of the National League's most popular clubs, would play an off-day exhibition against the International League's Newark Giants on July 19. Scheduled to pitch for the Little Giants was George Stovey, a black player whose 34 victories in 1887 still stand as an International League record. However, Hall of Famer Cap Anson, the White Stockings' player-manager, demanded no black players be allowed to take the field against his ballclub. The Little Giants, aware of the money they would lose if the game did not take place, caved in to Anson's demand. Neither Stovey nor his catcher, Moses Walker, appeared in the contest. Anson's aggressive racism set the tone for how professional baseball dealt with black players for the next 60 years.

For Fowler, the increasingly hostile environment toward blacks in professional baseball translated to an even greater level of job instability. Over the next five seasons, he appeared with 10 teams, pinballing from Indiana to New Mexico to Michigan to Nebraska to Ohio while supporting himself as a barber in the offseason. In only one of those years (1889) did he spend the entire season with a single team. In 1892, while playing in the Nebraska State League, he got into a scuffle at second base with a runner who collided with him on a close play. It is remarkable that this is the only recorded fight in Fowler's career, as he was subject to cheap shots on the playing field at every turn. In fact, Fowler is credited with the invention of shin guards, which he fashioned out of wood. The shin guards were his method of defending himself against particularly vicious takeout slides. An unidentified player told The Sporting News in 1889:

"He [Fowler] knew that about every player who came down to second base on a steal had it in for him and would, if possible, throw the spikes into him. He was a good player, but left the base every time there was a close play in order to get away from the spikes."

Fowler spent 1893 and 1894 with an independent team in Findlay, Ohio. It was there that he and Grant "Home Run" Johnson, a black teammate known for his prodigious power stroke, decided to put together a traveling team, the Findlay Colored Western Giants. When the duo was unable to find financial backing in Ohio, Fowler took their idea on the road and found a willing supporter in white businessman J. Wallace Page, president of the Page Woven Fence Company, a manufacturer of barbed wire. And so 1895 saw the debut of Fowler's brainchild: the Page Fence Giants.

The Page Fence Giants were athletes and showmen. Exclusively a traveling team, the Giants were equipped with their own private railroad car, which featured a sleeping area and a private chef. After arriving at their destination, team members would bicycle in uniform through the town to generate interest in the game. Most of the team's opponents were inferior local white clubs, so, in order to maintain interest in the often-lopsided contests, the Giants often resorted to clowning and comedy routines.

Not all of the Giants' opponents were inferior, however. On April 13 and 14, Page Fence played the Cincinnati Reds in a two-game exhibition set. The Reds won both contests, by scores of 11-7 and 16-2. Fowler played in both games and collected one hit in eight at-bats, the only time he ever competed against a Major League club. The Cincinnati Enquirer remarked that the 37-year-old Fowler was "as spry and fast as any man on the field."

The Page Fence Giants went 118-36-2 in 1895, turning a tidy profit in the process. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fowler did not last the entire season with the Giants. On July 15, he left the team he helped create to join the Adrian and Lansing clubs of the Michigan State League, where he hit .331 over 139 at-bats. This was to be Fowler's last gasp in white professional baseball. All told, 10 seasons of his career had been spent in official Minor Leagues, four more than any other black player. The Page Fence Giants lasted three more seasons, finally disbanding after their 1898 campaign.

Fowler returned to Findlay, Ohio's semi-pro club in 1896 and remained there until July 1899. That month, his teammates insisted he be removed from the squad. As The Sporting News reported: "The white members of the Findlay ball club have drawn the color line and have demanded of Dr. Drake, their backer, that Bud Fowler, colored, be ousted from the team. They will quit if their demand is not heeded."

In fact, by 1899, the color line had been drawn throughout all of professional baseball. Outfielder Bill Galloway appeared in 20 games for Woodstock of the Canadian League that year, becoming the last black player in white baseball until Jackie Robinson's debut with the Montreal Royals in 1946. Fowler continued to make his living within the sport until 1904, playing with semi-pro teams in Pennsylvania before finishing up his career as a player-manager for traveling Negro teams such as the All-American Black Tourists.

Not much is known on Fowler's life after baseball. In 1909 an article in The New York Age mentioned that he was ill and a benefit game was being arranged for him. Apparently, though, the game was never played.

Fowler died on Feb. 26, 1913, at his sister's home in Frankfort, New York, succumbing to pernicious anemia -- a rare disorder in which the body produces an inadequate amount of red blood cells. He was 54 years old.

Upon his death, Fowler was buried in an unmarked grave in the Frankfort cemetery. In 1987 his final resting place received an upgrade, when the Society for American Baseball Research unveiled an engraved headstone at a ceremony attended by 200 people. This small act of kindness was a step in the right direction, as Fowler deserves wide recognition as a true baseball pioneer. A gamer in the truest sense of the word, Fowler's career was one of the most improbable in baseball history, characterized by an absolute refusal to give up or settle down.

Perhaps one day, as more and more people become aware of his accomplishments within the sport, Fowler will achieve immortality in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooperstown's native son will have finally returned home.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for