Everyone knows the legendary story of MLBbro and hero Jackie Robinson. He is known for being a pioneer for all MLBbros who have played in Major League baseball. A staple in African American and baseball history, Robinson was the first Black player to gain prominence in a white baseball league. Jackie Robinson officially broke the color barrier set by major league baseball in 1947, but it was Bud Fowler who, nearly 70 years prior, became the first Black man to play in an all-white professional baseball league.
Born John W. Jackson, he obtained the name “Bud” from his teammates due to the fact he routinely greeted others with “Hey, Bud”. Eventually he would don the name Bud Fowler. Fowler grew up learning and playing baseball in Cooperstown, New York, close to his hometown Fort Plain. In 1878 Fowler became the first Negro player to play in a professional baseball league, pitching in the International League.
As a teenager Bud played on several different professional teams, most notably being listed as a pitcher and catcher initially and as a second baseman in the latter part of his career due to arm troubles. Although his playing time was scarce at many of his destinations, he was renowned for his skill. His reputation as a skilled and multi-talented player provided him with numerous opportunities to play.
Supporting himself financially as a barber, he was able to make money while traveling which allowed him the fiscal responsibility to move wherever he needed to play the game he loved. Since there was no established rule against players of color being allowed to play, Bud was able to consistently get on rosters but finding suitable playing time was another issue. Due to racial tension, white teammates threatening to quit, and some blatant attempts to injure Fowler on the field he was forced to be a career journeyman.
It is estimated that Fowler played in over a dozen different leagues spanning two decades. Due to the landscape of professional baseball at the time, this caused him to play in roughly 20 different states across the United States.
Playing in the era of “barehanded” fielding, Fowler was known for great fielding. He played for several minor league teams due to an understood and unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” which did not allow black players in the sport.
After over twenty years of playing across the country he, and Grant “Home Run” Johnson, a Negro league player, helped create the Page Fence Giants. This was one of the first prominent all-Black professional baseball teams and was founded over twenty years before any official Negro League was even created.
The impact and story of Bud Fowler is not as well-known as that of Jackie Robinson, but he was every bit the pioneer that Jackie was. It was only natural that he would finally be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24, 2022. Ironically, the Hall is located in Cooperstown, the same city where Fowler learned to play the game.
Major League Baseball has been intentional about incorporating notable Black players and Negro Leaguers into the Hall of Fame. Hopefully, with more rightful inductions like Fowler’s, the Black presence can be represented much more favorably in Baseball and get more appreciation than it currently does.