Bud Fowler was far more than a curiosity.
A professional player in the late 19th century, Fowler is considered by many to have been the first Black player to compete in organized baseball against white players. But many news media reports on his travels around various professional teams and leagues in those days made it clear that the two-way star, who pitched and played catcher in addition to his exploits as a fleet second baseman, was a player to be reckoned with regardless of his race.
In 1882, The Times-Picayune in New Orleans noted that Fowler would be playing a game for a local team, the Pickwicks, and referred to him as “the celebrated colored curve pitcher of Lynn, Mass.”
When the Lawrence Eagles were playing the Kansas City Novels in 1886, The Evening Tribune in Lawrence, Kan., mentioned that Fowler, “the phenomenal colored player of Topeka,” would be playing for the Eagles. And when Fowler was reportedly considering playing for a team out of Plattsmouth, Neb., in 1891, The Omaha Daily Bee endorsed the move, saying Fowler was “one of the best men in his position that can be found and would be a good acquisition to the team.”
Words like “pioneer” and “trailblazer” are often used to describe Fowler, and on Sunday he added a new title: Hall of Famer. Fowler is part of a six-person class that was elected by a pair of committees asked to review players from baseball’s past. Of the six players, he has the least name recognition, but his exclusion has long been viewed as a mistake by baseball historians.
While Buck O’Neil, a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs, and Minnie Miñoso, who played for the New York Cubans at the start of his career, were the first players from the Negro leagues to be elected to the Hall of Fame since 2006 — and the first to be elected since several Negro leagues were recognized by Major League Baseball last year as having been major leagues — Fowler’s career predated most of those organized Negro leagues. Much of it came before the white major and minor leagues effectively barred Black players in the late 1880s.
Fowler helped organize teams and leagues of Black players, including the famed Page Fence Giants in Adrian, Mich., and was known to give scouting reports on Black players to teams looking for new talent. Official statistics are so sparse from his career that it is hard to paint a picture of him as a player, but reports from the time made it clear that he was among the game’s most talented players.
Despite starring in several leagues that were predominantly white, Fowler encountered racism throughout his career from teammates, club leaders, local communities, hotels and restaurants.
In 1887 he was playing in the International League, a top minor league that considered itself a rival of the National League, when multiple instances of players refusing to play with or against Black players — one of which was spearheaded by the Hall of Famer Cap Anson — resulted in that league formally barring Black players. That vote is seen by many as having established baseball’s racist “color line,” which held until Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers and then assigned to the Montreal Royals in 1946.
The move to bar Black players in 1887 had nothing to do with ability. In the book “Only the Ball Was White,” the historian Robert Peterson discussed the barred International League players, saying, “Frank Grant, Bud Fowler and George Stovey were unquestionably of major league star caliber.”
Fowler continued to play organized baseball until at least 1895, and he died in 1913. Most of his later life remains a mystery because he did not keep a diary or other papers to study. His grave in Frankfort, N.Y., went unmarked until the Society for American Baseball Research placed a memorial there in 1987.
Fowler, who grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., was honored by his home city in 2013 when it renamed a street “Bud Fowler Way.” And now, more than 100 years after his death, Fowler will receive baseball’s highest honor in a field just miles from where he grew up.