I’d been meaning to stop by his gravesite during one of my numerous research forays to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but had never gotten ’round to it. Finally, a few weeks ago, I took a detour to the cemetery on the hill high above Frankfort, a tired Mohawk Valley town that’s seen better days. The granite tombstone was erected as part of a wonderful project started years ago by the Society for American Baseball Research to put headstones on the graves of forgotten African American players. It reads simply:
JOHN W. JACKSON
BLACK BASEBALL PIONEER
Someone had placed a weathered, splintered baseball bat and a block of wood noting Fowler’s impending Baseball Hall of Fame induction at the base of the grave. After paying my respects, I tapped the gravestone and said: “Congratulations, Bud. Long overdue.”
Baseball has always been about coming home, literally and figuratively, and on Sunday afternoon Fowler will be part of a special homecoming when this obscure but historically significant figure joins classmates David Ortiz, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Buck O’Neil, Tony Olivia and Minnie Minoso as the newest members of the Hall. In addition to being celebrated as the first Black person to play on a white professional team in 1878 — 69 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — Fowler will be fêted as the first person from the Cooperstown area to be immortalized in that hallowed museum.
“Imagine that,’’ Negro Leagues Museum President Bob Kendrick said recently by phone from Kansas City. “A guy who learned how to play the game in Cooperstown being immortalized in Cooperstown. You can’t make this stuff up. Only in baseball, do you get stories like these. I didn’t think this ever was going to happen for Bud, but, hey, better late than never.”
Long before Jackie’s history-changing moment in 1947 and long before the formation of the Negro Leagues in 1920, pioneers like Fowler were blazing trails with baseball bats. And without their courageous efforts and perseverance, the integration of the sport and America would have been delayed by years if not decades.
Fowler clearly was at the forefront of desegregation. A man of mystery — and many hats — his legacy includes not only his achievement as a pioneering player, but also as a flamboyant organizer, entrepreneur and marketer of African American teams. Born John. W. Jackson in Fort Plain, 25 miles northeast of Cooperstown, it is not known why he changed his name, though some historians surmise it was because he didn’t want his parents to stop him from pursuing a career in baseball at a time when there weren’t any Black professional teams. He would fall in love with the game after his family moved to Cooperstown in the 1860s.
A white amateur all-star team in Chelsea, Massachusetts, caught wind of his reputation and brought him on as a pitcher when he was 20 years old. On April 24, 1878, he tossed a three-hitter in a 2-1 exhibition victory against Boston, the reigning National League champs. Within weeks of that sterling performance, Fowler signed a professional contract with the Lynn, Massachusetts club in the International Association, one of the first two loosely defined minor leagues. That history-making, color-line breaking moment would mark the beginning of an odyssey that saw Fowler play for 18 teams in 13 seasons, including one calendar year when he suited up for four different teams.
The nomadic nature of his career had nothing to do with his talent — he was a slick-fielding second baseman who batted .308 in more than 2,000 organized baseball at-bats — and everything to do with the color of his skin. Like the handful of other African Americans on predominantly white teams in that era, Fowler was peppered with epithets and was frequently the target of pitches to the head and ribs, along with intent-to-wound slides. It got so bad that Fowler and his Black contemporaries reportedly designed and wore wooden shin guards to protect themselves from “leg-slashing” baserunners.
Despite the unrelenting bigotry, Fowler continued to play on integrated teams, even captaining one. But, by 1899, color bans were firmly established throughout organized baseball. “My skin color is against me,’’ he wrote four years earlier. “If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on (in the white majors) … The race prejudice is so strong that my Black skin barred me.” The Sporting Life, a 19th century baseball bible, concurred with his assessment that he was done in by racism, and praised his exceptional skills. One respected scribe wrote: “Those who know say there is no better second baseman in the country.”
Fowler’s historical impact would go beyond his color-breaking moment as a player. He wound up becoming a significant promoter of Black baseball, forming legendary barnstorming clubs such as the Page Fence Giants, as well as leagues that laid the foundation for the Negro Leagues.
“The history of the pre-Negro Leagues is much lesser known, but no less significant,’’ Kendrick said. “People like Bud Fowler played integral roles in opening the doors for the Negro Leagues and the integration of baseball that followed with Jackie. Cooperstown has done things in the past to honor Fowler, including a naming a street after him and putting up a plaque recognizing his achievements at Doubleday Field; but this enshrinement obviously is much bigger.”
Accepting and speaking on Fowler’s behalf on Sunday will be Dave Winfield, the former San Diego Padres and New York Yankees All-Star, who is grateful intrepid men like Fowler paved the way for him and other Black players. Now, nearly a century and a half after Fowler broke a barrier based on the color of his skin rather than his ability, his legacy finally is going to be immortalized. It will be a homecoming for one of Cooperstown’s own; a homecoming long overdue.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.