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Pioneering 1800s Black baseball star to be inducted into Hall of Fame

Juneteenth is Sunday, June 19. The holiday celebrates the liberation of African Americans enslaved in Texas. To remember it, all this week WSKG is looking at the legacies of Black Americans in the Southern Tier.

Bud Fowler WEB

In 1947, Jackie Robinson donned a Brooklyn Dodgers uniform, officially breaking major league baseball’s color line. Decades earlier, however, Black ballplayers sat on integrated teams. 

One such pioneer of that period, Bud Fowler, will be honored this summer in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

John W. Jackson grew up the son of a barber in Cooperstown during the 1860s, six decades before Jackie Robinson was even born. It’s not exactly clear why he adopted the name “Bud Fowler,” but he carried it with him, playing baseball in over 20 states on both all-Black and integrated teams.

"I would put John Jackson right up there with Jackie Robinson, and I don't think Jackie would mind that at all,” said Tom Heitz, baseball historian and former librarian for the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Because they're both groundbreakers and Robinson had the abilities—the same level of ability—and the same determination, and the same spunk, to stand up to taunts."

Fowler primarily pitched and played second base. He was solid offensively as well, regularly posting batting averages in the 0.300 range, according to an essay on Fowler by Brian McKenna.

Still, Fowler encountered racism throughout his career. Spectators would often yell epithets at him, according to newspaper clippings from the time. Players would jab Fowler with their spikes while sliding into second base.

“He went to the folks that manufactured these barrels and he took some of the slats and he created these shin guards,” baseball researcher and author James A. Brunson III said. “And allegedly from that, according to the apocrypha, that's how we came up with shin guards for catchers.”

Erecting the color line

By 1886, Fowler had been playing for teams in the south, midwest, northeast and Canada. The barbering skills he’d inherited from his father allowed him to make a living wherever he moved. Fowler, as well as a number of other Black players at the time, had developed reputations as seasoned veterans.

Fowler decided to move back to New York to play the 1887 season for the Binghamton Bingos. He dominated in Binghamton, hitting over .500 during the month of May.

“There was this anxiety, that if this guy's doing this good, there must be other guys like him,” Brunson said. “And we need to get rid of the guy immediately.”

Two white players on the Bingos boycotted the team until Fowler and another Black player were removed. The owners of the team had initially fined the white players for their refusal to play, but ultimately caved and Fowler was forced out. The team went defunct later that year.

Brunson said he believes there were at least nine Black players on integrated teams in the International League at the time. Following the Bingos' lead, in 1887, other owners in the league started erecting the color line, banning Black players from their teams.

A renewed interest in Fowler's legacy

After leaving Binghamton, Fowler would continue playing and managing teams for much of the next decade. In 1895, he was instrumental in forming the Page Fence Giants, a notable all-black barnstorming team. The team also included Hall of Famer Sol White.

As his health began to decline after a nearly 20-year career, Fowler retired to Frankfort, New York in Herkimer County. He lived there, largely in poverty, until his death in 1913.

Fowler was buried in an unmarked section of Frankfort's Oakville Cemetery. He didn’t have a headstone until the Society of American Baseball Researchers erected one for him in the 1980s.

Over the years, writers and researchers have started to rekindle Fowler’s legacy. The increased expansion of digitized newspaper clippings from the period have made it easier for them to piece together the lives of Fowler and other under-recognized players from the period. In 2013, Jeffrey Michael Laing published a book on Fowler’s life.

That same year, the Village of Cooperstown formally named a street adjoining its downtown Doubleday Stadium “Fowler Way” after its former resident.

"For all his struggles and prejudices and attempts to try to carve out a living in a time where it was impossible, where it was made impossible for him, that we have now, decades later, elevated him to a status where he has a street in Cooperstown, he has a display in Cooperstown, he has a plaque in the Hall of Fame. It's really amazing," Jeff Katz, then mayor of Cooperstown said.

Fowler will be formally inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this summer, immortalizing his story alongside the rest of baseball’s greats.

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.