Category Archives: jackie robinson

Going ‘way back in (black) baseball history from Cubs’ Fowler

(Dexter Fowler)

(Dexter Fowler)

Baseball coincidence is a fascinating thing. Consider just one in the many notable tidbits related to the end of the woebegone Chicago Cubs’ 71-year World Series drought—a fellow named Fowler becoming the team’s first black man to play in the Fall Classic.

That’s Dexter Fowler, a 30-year-old outfielder who, rather symbolically, was the lead-off batter in Game 1 against the Cleveland Indians. The significance of Fowler’s presence, though, isn’t related to some new civil rights breakthrough. Rather, it is another reminder of how long ago the Cubbies last appeared on the sport’s biggest stage. So long ago, in 1945, that the Big Leagues still were two years from getting around to the initial step of desegregation, in the person of Jackie Robinson.

(Jackie Robinson)

(Jackie Robinson)

But here is the really curious statistic that does connect Fowler to racial inclusion in our national pastime. According to Baseball Hall of Fame records, the first black man on a white professional baseball team—roughly 70 years before Robinson and twice that long before Dexter Fowler—was a gent known as Bud Fowler.

(Bud Fowler)

(Bud Fowler)

Bud Fowler lived from 1854 to 1913 and, beginning in 1878, claimed to have played for predominantly white teams in 22 states and Canada. He was primarily a second baseman. Yellowed newspaper clippings in the Hall of Fame archives describe him as a “versatile, fast, slick fielder.” A Cincinnati Inquirer article published in the early 1900s reported that “Bud has played games for trappers’ furs. He has been rung in to help out a team for the championship of a mining camp and bags of gold dust. He has played with cowboys and Indians. He has cross-roaded it from one town to another all over the Far West, playing for what he could get and taking a hand to help out a team.”

It turns out that Bud Fowler was born John W. Jackson, son of a barber in Cooperstown, N.Y., home to the baseball Hall. There is no information on why or how he changed his name from Jackson, though he was said to be called “Bud” because of his inclination to address most people by that name. He never married, died broke and is buried in a pauper’s field just outside Cooperstown’s city limits, where a tombstone was placed on his grave in 1987 to note his place in baseball history.

He was 5-7, 155 pounds (compared to Dexter Fowler’s 21st-Century dimensions of 6-5, 195.) Bud batted and threw righthanded. (Dexter is a switch-hitter who throws righthanded.) Like Bud, Dexter has had a number of baseball homes, playing for 10 teams at various minor-league levels—the Modesto Nuts, Waikiki Beach Boys and Tulsa Drillers among them—on his way to a nine-year Major League career with Colorado, Houston and now Chicago. And, while Dexter already has earned more than $32 million playing the game, he has a long way to go to equal Bud’s longevity.

According to that century-old Inquirer story, Bud Fowler “has been playing baseball for the past 26 years and he is yet as spry and as fast in his actions as any man on his team. He has no Charley horses or stiff joints, but can bend over and get up a grounder like a young blood….he is 48 years old, but to look at him, you would set him down to be not more than 25.” The Inquirer piece ended with the invitation to “go out and see him play second base this afternoon.”

In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Majors, an Eastern Michigan University history professor, Sidney Gendin, published a paper calling Fowler “first of at least 40 blacks who played on teams in organized white baseball leagues before the turn of the century. But in the mid-1880s, with deteriorating social mores pushing blacks out of the minors, Fowler spent more time barnstorming, during which he would help support himself by working as a barber. He started his own all-black team based in Adrian, Mich., sponsored by a wire fence company, the Page Fence Giants, who toured the Midwest in the team’s own railroad car.”

Also in ’97, the Hall of Fame opened an exhibit, “Pride and Passion: The African-American Baseball Experience,” which prominently featured Bud Fowler’s role as grand marshal in the parade of long-ago baseball integration. That was before segregationists established the infamous “color line” that lasted until Robinson.

Larry Doby, first black in the American League, poses proudly in his Cleveland Indians uniform in the dugout in Comiskey Park in Chicago, Ill., on July 5, 1947. (AP Photo)

(Larry Doby)

At the opening of that exhibit, by the way, among the invited participants was Larry Doby—the first black player in the American League, who debuted months after Robinson had done so with the National League Brooklyn Dodgers. Doby’s team was the Cleveland Indians, Dexter Fowler’s current World Series opponents. And Doby, along with teammate Satchel Paige, became the first black men to win a World Series title, in 1948—the Indians’ last championship season.

Hmmm.

Jackie Robinson, the only real No. 42

42

To have every Major League player wearing No. 42 for games on April 15 these past eight years, as they did again Wednesday, is poignantly contrary to Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Gene Hermanski’s dark humor on a 1947 evening in Atlanta.

The Dodgers were about to play an exhibition game that night with Jackie Robinson in uniform No. 42. As the first black man on a big-league roster, in the days of Jim Crow, Robinson couldn’t be missed among his all-white teammates, no matter his raiment, and there had been a telephone call promising that if Robinson stepped onto the field, he would be shot. In the pre-game clubhouse, Hermanski offered, “Why don’t we all wear No. 42? They won’t know who to hit.”

42e

So we have continuity with an encouraging twist. From Robinson’s solitary mission to personally integrate baseball, which was legitimately the “national pastime” when the populace was barely aware of the NFL or the brand-new NBA, we now have solidarity. Everyone, for one night, dresses up like Jackie Robinson on the anniversary of his first big-league game.

Jackie Robinson Day Baseball

It is a nice gesture to an historic figure.  Although, by and large, it doesn’t go much beyond a passing reference to a man—and a time—that current players and citizens born after 1947 can barely fathom. “Babe Ruth changed baseball,” Long Island University history professor Joe Dorinson said. “Jackie Robinson changed America, which in the long run is more important.”

When we spoke briefly by phone on Thursday, Dorinson was on his way to teaching his “History of Sports: A search for heroes” class. “I am wearing,” he said, “my Brooklyn Dodgers No. 42 uniform shirt.” Dorinson happens to be among the prominent Jackie Robinson scholars and in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball’s color line, Dorinson was co-coordinator of a massive Jackie Robinson symposium at LIU.

Dorinson preaches that sports “is not only a mirror on society but also a catalyst to produce social change,” and that three-day 1997 LIU academic conference demonstrated by gathering historians, baseball experts, old ballplayers, psychologists and just plain fans to sort out Robinson and his consequential legacy.

Recent events beyond athletic fields continue to confirm that a post-racial America hardly is a settled issue. But Dorinson has quoted the late historian Jules Tygiel (who had participated in the Robinson symposium) that “Jackie Robinson’s story, like the story of Passover, has to be retold each year. As the Jews were once slaves in Egypt, blacks were slaves in America, and the Jackie Robinson story brings renewal and hope.”

So, while there is consternation in some circles that the percentage of American blacks in Major League baseball actually has fallen in recent years—from a high of 17 percent in 1997 to 8.2 percent now—the Robinson inheritance lives on as one of diversity, of increased opportunity in American sports for Latinos, women, Asians. From being 100-percent white in 1946, the Majors’ current rosters are roughly 60 percent white. A real meritocracy.

George Vecsey, a giant in sports journalism, recently shared a poem on his Web site from Charles Barasch’s 2008 book, “Dreams of the Presidents,” in which Barasch imagined William Taft’s reverie of pitching in relief of Taft-era Hall of Famer Walter Johnson. Taft, the first President to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a major league game (in 1910), fancies himself—in the Barasch verse—being beckoned from the stands, removing his tie and cuff links, rolling up his sleeves and striking out Ty Cobb.

And then retiring both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. Black men. In the big leagues.

In reality, in those decades before Jackie Robinson, what seems normal now—to have a prominent sports league’s workforce mostly reflecting the population in general—didn’t exist. Only with the appearance of Robinson, essayist Roger Rosenblatt told the 1997 LIU symposium attendees, was there “a victory over absurdity. Victory over the ludicrous….When Robinson played, he turned an upside-down nation right-side up. Life created by white America for black America is nuts. Enter Jackie Robinson, to show us the nonsense in his bright, aristocratic way.”

Robinson, of course, was a baseball superstar. A .311 hitter over 10 seasons, the leader or six league championship teams, Rookie of the Year in 1947 and league MVP two seasons later, holder of the ungodly statistic of stealing home 20 times, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

Much more than all that, he was a poke in the eye of an unjust world, an elbow in the ribs on an unfair society not living up to its ideal of all men being created equal. Yet a fellow who tempered his on-field aggressiveness with years of turning the other cheek to outrageous insults. Yeshiva University English professor Manfred Weidhorn called Robinson “a rare case of applied Christianity.”

Another April 15 is a reminder: Even if we all don No. 42, there’s no mistaking which of us is Jackie Robinson.

(Illustration by Bob Newman)

(Illustration by Bob Newman)