Bud Fowler was the earliest known African-American player in organized professional baseball, as well as the first to play on integrated teams. Born John W. Jackson on March 16, 1858, Fowler was the son of a fugitive slave-turned-barber. His father had escaped from slavery and migrated to New York, eventually settling in Cooperstown. The young John Jackson learned to play baseball during his youth in Cooperstown, but it remains unknown why he went on to adopt the name “Bud Fowler.”
Fowler learned to be a barber like his father, working in the profession to supplement his income while he played ball. He played amateur ball for a few years, and his first year of prominence in the game came in 1878 at the age of twenty. By this time John W. Jackson was calling himself “Bud Fowler,” and would be known by this moniker throughout his baseball career. On April 24, 1878, he pitched a game for the Chelsea Picked Nine, who defeated the Boston Red Caps, champions of the National League in 1877. He pitched some more for the Chelsea team, then played a few games with the Lynn Live Oaks, and finally finished that season with the Worcester club.
The Lynn Live Oaks were a member of the International Association (IA), considered by some historians to be the first minor league, as they operated in cooperation with the National League. Thus, with his stint with the Live Oaks in 1878, Fowler became the first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history, and thus the game’s first African-American professional ballplayer.
Continuing to support himself as a barber, Fowler went on to play for baseball teams in New England and Canada for the next four years. He then moved to the Midwest, playing for teams in Niles, Ohio and Stillwater, Minnesota with the Northwestern League.
Fowler initially signed with the Stillwater team as a catcher. However, after the club lost its first fifteen games, Fowler was put on the mound. On May 25, 1884, he led the team to its first victory, a 13-7 win over Fort Wayne. The team relied heavily on his right arm from that point on, and Fowler delivered, winning five of Stillwater’s first seven victories. All his time on the mound took its toll on his arm, however, and that season marked his transition from the battery to the infield.
Fowler signed with the Keokuk (Iowa) club in February 1885 where he quickly became the most popular player on the team as a second baseman. Fans and newspapers alike admired not only his abilities as a ballplayer, but also his intelligence and his “gentlemanly” conduct. Unfortunately, the Western League folded in mid-June due to financial reasons, leaving Fowler without a team.
After short stints in St. Joseph, Missouri and in Portland, Maine, Fowler signed with the Pueblo Pastimes of the Colorado League to finish out the year. The impression he left in Colorado became evident when the Rocky Mountain News commented, “A league of colored baseball players has been organized in the South. It is safe to say there will be few of them as good as Fowler.” The following season, in 1886, Fowler joined a team in Topeka, Kansas where he led the league in triples, helping Topeka to the pennant.
Fowler continued to journey from team to team, however, racial tensions were starting to become more and more pronounced. One Sporting Life article commented, “Joe Ardner, in one game he played, shows himself to be … far superior to the ‘coon’ Fowler on second base.” Around this time, some exclusively black baseball leagues were forming, though Fowler continued to play on integrated teams, in spite of the racism he faced. In 1887, however, nine of Fowler’s white teammates with the Binghamton team signed a petition demanding that Fowler and black teammate William Renfro be released or they would quit. Finally fed up with the struggle, Fowler requested and was granted his release from the Binghamton team in late June.
Shortly after Fowler’s release, the International League formally banned any additional signings of African-American players.
Fowler continued to play for various integrated teams in other leagues over the next several years. However, racism was becoming more and more of an issue. In the fall of 1894, conditions led him to organize the Page Fence Giants, an all-black team sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan. From 1894 to 1904, Fowler played and/or managed the Page Fence Giants, the Cuban Giants, the Smoky City Giants, the All-American Black Tourists, and the Kansas City Stars.
At the end of his career Bud Fowler insisted that he had played on teams based in twenty-two different states and in Canada. No doubt the journeyman characteristic of his long baseball career was due in large part to the racism factor.
Bud Fowler died on February 26, 1913 of pernicious anemia after an extended illness, just shy of his 55th birthday.
I never rush myself. See, they can’t start the game without me.
Depending on how he gripped the ball and how hard he threw it, Satchel Paige had pitches that included the bat-dodger, the two-hump blooper, the four-day creeper, the dipsy-do, the Little Tom, the Long Tom, the bee ball, the wobbly ball, the hurry-up ball and the nothin’ ball.
This weekend I watched a short documentary produced by Major League Baseball, Pride and Perseverance: The Story of the Negro Leagues. While the time period covered in the documentary spans from Moses Fleetwood Walker playing major league ball in the 1880s on up to the induction of Negro League players into the Baseball Hall of Fame starting in 1971, the documentary focuses primarily on the story of the Negro Leagues.
Dave Winfield narrates the documentary, and it includes footage from Negro League games, as well as some Major League games. It also features interviews with Negro Leagues players, including Buck O’Neil, Bob Mitchell, Willie Mays, John “Mule” Miles, Cool Papa Bell, and Ted Radcliffe. The interviews highlight just how good many Negro Leagues players really were, especially compared to white Major Leaguers, and it’s a lot of fun to see how much these guys light up when they talk about the level of talent.
The documentary touches on the racial struggles faced by black players. For example, many players accepted the fact that they would have to go around to the backs of restaurants to get food, and it was not uncommon to sleep on the bus because the hotels in a given town would not give them rooms. Nevertheless, the players talk about how much fun they had traveling and playing ball. The eventual recruitment of Jackie Robinson by Branch Rickey to break the color barrier, of course, receives due attention.
Overall, Pride and Perseverance is a fantastic overview of the history of the Negro Leagues. For a documentary that runs less than an hour long, it manages to cram a lot of interesting information into the film. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Last year for Jackie Robinson Day, I took a closer look at Robinson’s career as a football player. This year, I decided it would be fun to take a look at his career as a basketball player. In addition to playing professional baseball and semi-professional football, I was impressed to learn that Robinson also played a season of professional basketball.
As many know, Jackie Robinson was, and remains to this day, the only four-sport varsity letterman in the history of UCLA, lettering in football, baseball, basketball, and track. He played forward with the school’s basketball team and was a tremendous leaper, having also set the collegiate broad jump record. In 1940 and 1941, Robinson led the Pacific Coast Conference Southern Division (now Pac-12) in scoring (12.4 average in 12 league games in 1940; 11.1 average in 12 league games in 1941). In addition to his scoring, Robinson was known as a quick player with excellent ball handling skills.
After his basketball career at UCLA had ended in 1941, Robinson abandoned his senior year spring track season and left college to pursue outside athletic interests. After some time playing semi-professional football, Robinson found himself drafted into the Army as the United States entered World War II. Following the war, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, eventually being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946 to play for the club’s minor league franchise, the Montreal Royals.
After completing the season with Montreal, Robinson returned home to Pasadena, California. In October 1946, Robinson signed a professional basketball contract with the Los Angeles Red Devils, a racially integrated professional basketball team. The Red Devils only lasted two seasons, but with a lineup that included forwards Jackie Robinson, Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe, and Pasadena City College standout Irv Noren; guards Everett “Ziggy” Marcelle, a former Harlem Globetrotter, and USC All-American Eddie Oram; and Stanford star Art Stoefen at center, the team was a force to be reckoned with.
The Red Devils had been organized seeking to join the National Basketball League (NBL), which, in its merger talks with the NBA, wanted a West Coast franchise. The team played home games at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. During the 1946-47 season, with Robinson on their roster, they crushed the Sheboygan Redskins of the NBL, on two occasions. They also defeated the New York Renaissance, which had a lineup that included future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Clarence “Puggy” Bell and future NBA player Hank DeZonie. Like the Sheboygan team, the Red Devils defeated the Renaissance twice.
Jackie Robinson left the Red Devils abruptly in January 1947. At the time, few people understood why. In retrospect, the reason becomes clear: Robinson parted ways with the Red Devils just after a Branch Rickey visit to Los Angeles. A few months later, on April 15, 1947, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbetts Field and went on to be named the 1947 Rookie of the Year.
In spite of his success on the baseball diamond, basketball still reached out to Robinson from time to time. Abe Saperstein offered Robinson a pro contract worth $10,000 with bonuses to play for the Harlem Globetrotters. Though this amount was double what Robinson made with the Dodgers, he declined the offer. He also received a pro basketball offer from the Canton Cushites, an all-black team that featured future Football Hall of Fame member Marion Motley and future Baseball Hall of Fame member Larry Doby. Robinson declined that offer, also.
Though the Red Devils ultimately did not last, it does seem Robinson had some fond memories of his time with the team. “There were some exceptionally good basketball players with name value on the squad,” he reminisced. “We had, I think, a really fine team.”
Like Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra, pitcher Satchel Paige was known for his one-liners . The “Rules for Staying Young” are a set of these one-liners that were quoted so often while he was alive they were carved into his gravestone.
Avoid fried meats which angry up the blood.
If you stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society — the social ramble ain’t restful.
Avoid running at all times.
And don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.
Monte Irvin and Ford Smith became the first African-American players to sign with the New York Giants on January 28, 1949. Irvin would only play five full seasons in the major leagues, but he is considered by many to be the best of the players who made the jump from the Negro Leagues to the majors. In 1973, Irvin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, primarily for his play in the Negro Leagues.