Note: “Bud” Fowler was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by its Early Baseball Era Committee on Sunday, December 3rd. He became the fifth member of the Binghamton Baseball Shrine to also be enshrined in Cooperstown (previous four being John Montgomery Ward, “Wee Willie” Keeler, Lefty Gomez, and Whitey Ford). In honor of his induction, this page is happy to publish this excerpt from the book Celebrating 100 Years of Baseball in Binghamton: Tales from the Binghamton Baseball Shrine,written by Michael J. McCann and Jim Maggiore.
John “Bud” Fowler’s election to the Binghamton Shrine stems from his playing for the Binghamton Bingos in 1887 and his efforts to integrate minor league baseball in the late nineteenth century. Through no fault of his own, his stay with the Bingos was a short one, but one that left an indelible and sad mark on Binghamton’s baseball history.
Fowler was the first African American in organized baseball, making his debut by playing for the Lynn/Worcester team in the International Association in 1878.
The International Alliance and the League Alliance were the first two defined minor leagues, as their mission was to work in cooperation with the National League, which was the only major league at the time. Before 1877 the non-major league baseball teams largely existed as independent semi-pro teams. By playing for Lynn/Worcester, Fowler held the distinction of being the first African American to integrate a team in minor league history, pre-dating Jackie Robinson’s 1946 stint with the Montreal Royals by 69 years.
The diminutive Fowler was skilled at multiple positions, playing catcher, second base, and pitcher in his minor league career. His primary position was second base, where he displayed a good arm, excellent defense and a sound bat. His career was a peripatetic
one, though not by choice. Throughout the 1880s his career followed the same cycle. Join a team, perform well, but move on once objections to his color started being bandied about; from 1878 to 1886 he played for eight teams. In November of 1886 he signed with the Binghamton and the color of his skin was addressed by Binghamton team officials before he even set foot on the diamond; in an article in The Sporting Life they stated:
“Fowler has not, and will not, be released for any consideration. Fowler is a dandy in every respect. Some say that Fowler is a colored man, but we account for his dark complexion by the fact that… in chasing after balls he has become tanned from constant and careless exposure to the sun.”
At first glance, the remarks are clearly a public vote of confidence for Fowler. But upon a second reading, apparently officials were leaving themselves an out by not openly advocating the signing of an African American. Only a few months later the resolve of the Binghamton officials was tested when on June 27th, nine Binghamton players signed a petition saying they would not play if Fowler were to remain on the team.
Fowler, feeling betrayed by his teammates, was unwilling to fight; rather he asked for his release on June 30; it was granted provided that he didn’t sign with another International League club. Later that season the Boston Herald printed, “The players of the Binghamton club have each been fined $50 by the directors for having refused to go upon the field six weeks ago unless Fowler, the colored second baseman, was removed.” The Binghamton club never recovered from the controversy, however, and by the middle of August, less than two months after the controversy started, the club disbanded for the 1887 season.
On July 14th, a scant two weeks after Fowler was granted his release, the International League formally banned any additional signings of African American players. On this same day, league officials were reacting to white players’ grumblings and derogatory comments by the press suggesting that the International League change its classification to “colored league.” On the same day, the 14th, a protest took place in the major leagues. Chicago White Stockings team captain Cap Anson refused to take the field in an exhibition game against Newark of the International League unless African American pitcher George Stovey did not play. Stovey backed out of the game feigning illness. In late July, John Montgomery Ward of the New York Giants and a member of the Binghamton Shrine class of 2003, tried to sign Stovey to a National League contract, but Anson allegedly protested again. Rather than formally exclude African American players, organized baseball executives colluded on the topic, ensuring no African Americans played in the minors or majors.
60 years later, several Brooklyn Dodgers circulated a petition about not playing alongside Jackie Robinson. But when news of the petition reached Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey and manager Leo Durocher, they quickly stomped it out, fully supporting Robinson. In 1887, there was no similar support for Fowler. Binghamton officials accepted Fowler’s resignation and the National League gave credibility to Anson. Organized baseball, by not standing up to its protesting players, would wait until Jackie Robinson played for the Montreal Royals in 1946.
An ironic postscript to this story is that in 1999, before the ceremony inducting Al Downing to the Binghamton Shrine, Downing was strolling the concourse and paused longer than expected at the plaque of Bud Fowler. With a bemused look on his face, he stated.
“That’s not Bud Fowler.”
In looking at the plaque for John W. “Bud” Fowler, Downing pointed out that the picture they had on the plaque was that of Moses “Fleetwood” Walker, who was actually the first African American to play in the major leagues when he briefly played for the Toledo Blue Stockings franchise in 1883. Jackie Robinson gets credit for integrating baseball because with his play, African Americans were officially welcomed to major league baseball, breaking the unwritten ban against African Americans that existed since Fowler’s day.
If you look closely at Fowler’s Shrine plaque today, you can see the picture portion of the plaque is thicker than the rest of the plaques adorning the concourse. This is because the Binghamton Mets laid the correct picture of Fowler over the Walker picture. This correction was made on the urging of local baseball historian and former Shrine committee member, Joe McCann.