First African-American to play in Organized Baseball died a century ago today
John W. Jackson, more popularly known in 19th century baseball circles as Bud Fowler, showed a remarkable ability to bounce back from adversity.
That's not surprising, considering how much adversity he had to deal with. As the first African-American to break into Organized Baseball as early as 1878, Fowler faced harsh discrimination just about everywhere he landed as a ballplayer, frequently being forced out of town by bigoted teammates and residents who resented his presence on the local amateur, semi-pro or professional ball team's roster.
But Fowler, who died in poverty a century ago on Feb. 26, 1913, always displayed an incredible adaptability and spirit that spurred him to move on from each rejection to new opportunities elsewhere.
Records from the 19th century are understandably spotty, but Fowler is first known to have played in the International Association in 1878, for Lynn/Worcester in Massachusetts. He went on to play all over the country, spending a lot of time in the Midwest but also venturing as far west as Colorado and New Mexico.
He probably gained the most notoriety as a player in 1887, when he landed a spot on the Binghamton, N.Y., club in the International League, earning a reputation as a dependable infielder and star hitter. When Binghamton came to New Jersey to face the famed Cuban Giants, an advertisement in the Trenton Times trumpeted: "Fowler, the greatest colored player in America, is with them."
Grumblings by teammates eventually spurred league officials to institute a formal ban on "colored" players, forcing Fowler and other minorities out of the IL in what became one of the first official drawings of the color line in Organized Baseball.
By August 1887, Fowler had moved on from his ejection from Binghamton and landed on otherwise all-white teams in Vermont, where he was welcomed by locals in Montpelier. At the same time, the Binghamton team folded due to poor attendance and sparse revenue.
The curtain had completely fallen on interracial play by 1890, so Fowler formed or co-founded a variety of all-black barnstorming squads across the country, even attempting to drum up enthusiasm for all-black leagues in various locales. Fowler displayed stellar play wherever he took the field, from Massachusetts to Nebraska, New Hampshire to Ohio, Michigan to New Mexico.
The Indianapolis Freeman declared that Fowler was "probably one of the best all around base ball players that ever stepped in a diamond"; the Omaha Daily Bee called him "the crack colored second baseman" who "is one of the bets men in his position that can be found"; and in the twilight of his career, the Mansfield, Ohio, News dubbed Fowler "the veteran colored player, known in base ball circles ever since the national game attained any prominence." African-American baseball historian and Hall of Famer Sol White, in his seminal 1907 study, "History of Colored Base Ball," coined Fowler "the sage of base ball."
Modern historians of African-American baseball believe Fowler has been overlooked since then, however, because of a paucity of statistics from the late 1800s and early 20th century, and because despite his prodigious talent, he never played in the early "major leagues."
Jeffrey Michael Laing, author of the upcoming book "Bud Fowler: Baseball's First Black Professional," argues that Fowler more than earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
"Fowler deserves to be given a plaque in Cooperstown on a number of grounds," Laing said. "He played for parts of 10 years (which is more than double any other African-American player of the era), often in high-level leagues, and often as one of the best players in the league. His playing career on integrated, pre-color line clubs resulted in his being praised as one of the most talented and wily players in the circuit."
Laing is a native of the upstate New York city of Troy, which is not far from the cities where Fowler was born (Fort Plain) and died (Frankfort). He now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., where Fowler played for several months in 1888 as a star on the Santa Fe Ancients, the only pro team in the city's 400-year history. He said the geographical connections and his ensuing curiosity led him to apply for a SABR grant to study Fowler's career in New Mexico. He received the grant, and the venture ultimately resulted in the new book.
Fowler's tenure in Santa Fe is symbolic of the success he brought to the various teams for which he played. The Ancients, thanks largely to Fowler's contribution, won the only pennant in the history of the New Mexico Baseball League.
But even then, locals in Santa Fe almost immediately objected to Fowler's residence in their city, a fact that Fowler lamented as unfair and even irrational in the Santa Fe Herald.
"We are as a color, represented in all the national sports . . . and why should we be objected to in baseball?" he said. "Do we not respect the National game? . . . We are drawing cards and add to the receipts of the game wherever we play.
"If those who control our clubs would have first-class players at once . . . (c)olored players would be retained and there would be no chance for prejudice. We would have better games, better attendance and the game would be properly supported and made a success."
Fowler's resilience in the face of discrimination should win him admirers in history, but it made for a difficult life. In all his baseball travels, which were frequently supplemented with work as a barber and other trades, he always struggled to make ends meet. After his baseball career ended, he declined into poor health and indigence.
In 1909, the Indianapolis Freeman published "An Appeal for J.F. Fowler," in which P.D. Ellis reported that Fowler "is in destitute circumstances, and I appeal for a popular subscription benefit for his aid. Any sum of money, no matter how small, will be gratefully received by him."
It is not known how successful those efforts were, but Fowler died while living with his sister in Frankfort in 1913, his baseball exploits all but forgotten. That, Laing says, is the true tragedy.
"Bud Fowler was an all-star-caliber player who integrated Organized Baseball, and when the color line was inviolate became a black baseball manager, organizer, owner and promoter of African-American baseball and touring black clubs," he said. "He lived by his wits and his love of the game."
Ryan Whirty is a freelance writer based in New Orleans.