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.
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 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.
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.