Bud Fowler was an early breaker of barriers

By: Bill Ladson | @ladsonbill24

A lot of Negro Leaguers who played before the 20th century are often overlooked because of the talent the leagues displayed from 1920 until the mid-1950s. Players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell get all the glory for what they accomplished during the 20th century.

But Bud Fowler should never be forgotten. Not only did he play and manage in the Negro Leagues during the turn of the century, he was also one of the first African Americans to play professional baseball (in the Minor Leagues) with white players during the 19th century.

That was long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Not only could he pitch, but Fowler was an above-average second baseman, according to historians -- and that was despite never using a baseball glove.

Unlike Robinson, however, Fowler didn’t play with one Minor League team. He was a journeyman. He couldn’t stay in one place because he was African American. One year, he would be playing for a team in Lynn, Mass., starting in 1878. Before long, he was playing for a team in Stillwater, Minn. By 1895, Fowler had played on 12 professional teams, none of which were in the South.

Unfortunately, stats were not kept when it came to Fowler’s on-field accomplishments, but historians seem to know the impact he had on the baseball field.

“He broke down racial barriers with excellent play,” historian Phil Dixon said. “He was doing it over and over again without much recognition, even from the people who are living this very day.

“He usually received his exits because he was one of the best players on the team. He played at such a high level. He continued to get a job. Usually, his teammates got mad at him because he was one of the better players on every team he played on.”

Historian Thom Loverro, who wrote "The Encyclopedia of Negro League Baseball," believes Fowler was a free thinker, not conforming to some of that period's conventional thought. Fowler never thought of himself as inferior, which irritated a lot of his white teammates.

“He took a lot of flak,” Loverro said. “He was under a lot of pressure to perform at his best because people were probably skeptical of his abilities. To play white baseball at the time that he did -- in so many different places in his career -- what was impressive was his courage and independence probably.”

Frustrated that he couldn’t stick with an organized team with white players, according to historian James A. Riley, in 1894 Fowler put together the Page Fence Giants, a team located in Michigan that began play in 1895. He was a player/manager that year and hit .316, per Riley. The team won 116 games, but lost a two-game exhibition series against the Cincinnati Reds.

Once his playing skills declined, Fowler was involved in barnstorming clubs, including the Smoky City Giants (1901), the All-American Black Tourists ('03), and the Kansas City Stars ('04).

Fowler didn’t live long enough to see Robinson permanently break MLB's color barrier. He passed away Feb. 26, 1913, at the age of 54 from pernicious anemia.

“I don’t think there is anybody who did more for Black players than Bud Fowler in that early period,” Dixon said. “He also represented himself very well.”