June 21, 2022
I really should have posted this yesterday to coincide with Juneteenth, but it’s still pertinent.
Bud Fowler was born in Cooperstown, New York, which is fitting, since he will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame next month. Perhaps you have never heard of Bud Fowler.
His father was an escaped slave who became a barber and wanted his son to make a living in a reputable trade, but Fowler was drawn to baseball and, by many accounts, was one of the greatest ballplayers of the 19trh century. He was also the first Black ballplayer to play professionally. In July of 1887, however, organized baseball inaugurated its infamous “color line,” which would remain in place until Jackie Robinson’s arrival on the scene 60 years later.
Fowler looked for somewhere to play and ended up — and this is why the whole episode is worth a mention in my blog — in Montpelier, Vermont, which had a team in the independent Northeastern League. His impact was immediate. Reporting on his first game, the Aug. 6 contest against St. Albans, the Argus and Patriot of Montpelier wrote: “(B)ase ball enthusiasts of the town were treated to as pretty a game as they could wish for.” The paper singled out Fowler for praise: “(T)he man who covered himself with glory was the recent acquisition of the Montpelier team, John Fowler, colored, of New York city. He played a great game at second base. … A brilliant double play in the eighth inning won him a storm of applause.”
It does not appear, however, that he was universally welcomed outside of Montpelier. After white players on the team from Binghamton threatened a boycott, the Vermont Watchman and State Journal of Montpelier commented on the players’ motivation: “Considering (Fowler’s) superiority as a base-ballist, it is reasonable to suppose that jealousy and not prejudice against color influenced the weak fellows of the Binghamton club.”
The Argus and Patriot also took the opportunity to mock the New York team: “If Binghamton or any other club has any more Fowlers, Montpelier can find a place for them, for he can ‘play ball.’ ”
Unfortunately, the Montpelier club folded just weeks after Fowler arrived. He finished the 1887 season playing for a team in Laconia, New Hampshire, and played another eight seasons before moving into baseball management with Black leagues and individual teams. He died at the age of 54.
As the late Paul Harvey was wont to say, and now you know the rest of the story.