Black Baseball Player Finally Receives Accolades For Accomplishments
On eve of Hall induction, Binghamton honors baseball legend Bud Fowler
By CHRIS BREWSTER
After more than a century of having his accomplishments on and off the baseball field relegated to the back pages of history, Southern Tier native Bud Fowler will finally be recognized at the sport’s highest level this month.
Fowler, widely regarded as the first Black professional baseball player when signed in 1878, will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday, July 24, and will be honored in Binghamton the day before with his own bobblehead, taking place on Saturday, July 23 (free to the first 1,000 fans).
This will be the second honor bestowed to Fowler in Binghamton, after he was inducted into the Binghamton Baseball Shrine in 1999 and, according to Rumble Ponies owner and president David Sobotka, it’s in part a product of a recently-started program.
“Minor league has embarked on a program called The Nine, which involves engagement with the Black community,” said Sobotka, in his first year of ownership. “We were thinking about ways we can honor Black participation in Binghamton, and this was a perfect fit – a notable player who spent time in Binghamton and was very unceremoniously asked to leave the team on the grounds of race."
“It’s an important lesson about how extremely talented people were for so long denied opportunities because of the color of their skin. A lot of important circumstances came together and encouraged us to have a night in honor of Bud Fowler.”
As Sobotka mentioned, Fowler’s history in Binghamton wasn’t a flattering one for the team he starred for.
Binghamton was one of the many stops along a very bumpy path for Fowler, who played second base and sometimes pitched for nearly two dozen teams in 12 different professional leagues in the United States and Canada over his 10-year career. And while Fowler, born John W. Jackson, Jr. in Fort Plain, NY, but moved to Cooperstown – the birthplace of baseball – as an infant, excelled wherever he went, he had to fight through the rampant racism of the day.
Photos from National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Bud Fowler was a great ball player, but even more impressive was his entrepreneurial spirit and independence,” says William H. Brewster, a Waverly, NY, native and author of two books on Southern Tier baseball at the turn of the century, “The Workingman’s Game” and “That Lively Railroad Town.”
“Maybe he learned it growing up with a dad who provided for the family by running barbershops. Fowler was typically the best player on his team, white as well as black, and he traveled widely, making frequent efforts to start up new leagues and teams whenever racism interfered with his playing.”
Fowler himself was quoted as saying, “My skin is against me. If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard, or something of that kind. The race prejudice is so strong that my black skin barred me.”
Those sentiments cost him his spot on at least two teams, including the Binghamton Bingos in 1887. Despite being one of the top players on what was a weak team, and even after team ownership threatened to fine any player who refused to take the field with Fowler a not-paltry sum of $50, eventually nine players decided to boycott until Fowler and another Black teammate were removed.
Team management sided with the white players and pressured Fowler to quit after playing some of the best ball of his career up to that point, hitting .350 with 42 runs scored in just 34 games. Following Fowler’s release, the league he was playing in – the International League – banned Fowler from playing on any other team, and the American and National leagues followed suit upon their creation, leading to a ban that existed until Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947.
That didn’t stop Fowler from playing the game he loved, but it did shape his post-playing career. In 1894, Fowler helped to organize the Page Fence Giants, which became one of the first – and finest – Black barnstorming teams, which traveled the country and played whoever would take them on. The team played against the Cincinnati Reds in that first season, which was Fowler’s first chance to play against a major league team, and he hit .316 for the year.
Later, Fowler helped establish other Black barnstorming teams and was an early proponent for the formation of Black baseball leagues.
“Some of these days, a few people with nerve enough to take the chance will form a [Black baseball] league of about eight cities and pull off a barrel of money. I know the field is there,” Fowler, who was described in the article as the “patriarch among the Black sons of swat,” told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1905.
Among Fowler’s other talents was writing music. The baseball collection donated to the Hall of Fame by the estate of the late Penny Marshall, who directed the classic “A League of Their Own,” was a piece of sheet music entitled “The Royal Giants: The Base Ball Hit of the Season,” which Fowler composed.
Recording of song written by Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee Bud Fowler. This recording was performed by vocalist Bianca Barragan and pianist Douglas Kostner.
Fowler fell ill in 1908 and finally passed five years later at the age of 54. His grave in Frankfort, N.Y., went unmarked until the Society for American Baseball Research placed a memorial there in 1987.
While he never got to see the establishment of the Negro Leagues, his place on the ballfield, and his efforts to organize traveling teams, have led him to the ultimate destination, ironically, in the town where he grew up. Cooperstown named the street leading to Doubleday Field “Bud Fowler Way” in 2013.
“Bud Fowler is a key figure, not only in black baseball,” said Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum upon Fowler’s election into the Baseball Hall, “but also baseball history all over.”
Sobotka added that the team will be wearing jerseys in the style of the Binghamton Bingos, the team Fowler starred for before he was no longer welcome.
What to Know Before You go:
When: Saturday, July 23, starting at 6:35 p.m.
Where: Mirabito Stadium, Binghamton
Tickets: Visit www.milb.com/binghamton/tickets/single-game-tickets