Bud Fowler takes his place in Cooperstown

December 6th, 2021

He grew up in Cooperstown. And on Sunday night, some 161 years after he originally moved there with his family as a 2-year-old, the man considered the greatest pioneer in Black baseball history returned to that village in upstate New York, if only in spirit.

This time, he’ll stay there forever.

John “Bud” Fowler was posthumously elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame through the Early Baseball Era Committee, along with Buck O’Neil, as announced on MLB Network on Sunday. The moment brought Fowler’s amazing baseball journey full circle more than a century after his death in 1913.

The 2022 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will take place on July 24 in Cooperstown. This year’s ballot was released by the BBWAA on Nov. 22, and voters have until Dec. 31 to submit their ballots. Election results will be announced live on MLB Network on Jan. 25, 2022.

Fowler devoted his entire life to the game. He became the first African-American player in professional baseball in 1878 as part of an incredible 30-year career in which his name was the most prominent in Black baseball, both as a player and promoter. He started out as a pitcher and catcher, and wowed the crowd whenever he stepped on the field despite blatant racism in a variety of forms from opponents and teammates alike.

Opposing pitchers took every chance they could to throw at Fowler. Opposing baserunners would slide into home plate with spikes high to injure him. And over and over again, some teammates refused to play if he took the field, the reason Fowler never spent much time with any one team and played in virtually every state in the continental U.S. He worked as a barber in each place he stopped, a vocation he learned from his father, to supplement his baseball income.

At the end of the 19th century, baseball’s “gentlemen’s agreement” barring Black players was established. So Fowler played on numerous Minor League clubs throughout his career, eventually moving to second base because of arm troubles. He was considered so good that he could have played in the Major Leagues if not for the color of his skin. It was once written in Sporting Life that there was “no better second baseman in the country” than Fowler.

Fowler’s earliest pro years were during the “barehanded era,” before gloves were used in the field. During his three decades as a player, he played for more Minor League clubs and in more Minor League games than any Black player before Jackie Robinson broke the professional baseball color barrier by signing with the Dodgers in the mid-1940s. In all, it’s believed that Fowler took more than 2,000 professional at-bats and hit .308.

It was Fowler who laid the groundwork for the first successful Black professional leagues by establishing the first successful Black barnstorming teams. He tried numerous times to establish a national Black professional league, but finances and other hurdles derailed his efforts. His most prominent barnstorming effort was the creation of the Page Fence Giants, so named for the club’s sponsors. The team traveled around the country in a custom-made railcar, entertaining the fans both on the field and when arriving in each town or city.

In 1902, while playing in Indianapolis, Fowler broke two ribs sliding into second base, an injury that led to complications and ultimately his premature death at the age of 54 on Feb. 26, 1913.

Fowler learned the game on the fields of the Cooperstown Seminary, and little did he know as a boy how far he would travel around the United States over the next three decades to play the game he loved, nor how important he would be to its integration. Tens of thousands of miles and more than a century later, he will be immortalized with the greatest baseball honor bestowed upon any individual, just five miles north of there.

In July, the circle will finally be closed on the life of one of the most important figures in baseball history, right where it began. And generations to come will be able to learn about and appreciate Bud Fowler’s incomparable contributions to Black baseball and the game as a whole.

Though he did not live to see it, Fowler has returned home, where he belongs.