From Cooperstown to Lynn and back

This article was published 7 months ago.

Bud Fowler, who became the first Black professional baseball player when he joined the Lynn Live Oaks in 1878, was inducted into the hall of fame Sunday. (Spenser Hasak)

John W. Jackson, otherwise known as Bud Fowler, trod the same path as the man who achieved much more notoriety 34 years after his death in 1913 — Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

This takes nothing away from Jackie Robinson. He is rightfully lionized as the man who broke the color barrier in modern-day baseball when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. 

Fowler’s pro debut came in 1878 when he played a game with the Lynn Live Oaks for money, thus making him the first African American to do so. And this being only 13 years after the Civil War ended, you can imagine how welcoming white baseball players, even in the North, were toward him.

Fowler’s father was an escaped slave who ended up settling in Cooperstown, N.Y., back when it was a sleepy little town where, supposedly, Civil War General Abner Doubleday invented baseball in 1839. 

The Fowler family moved around, and eventually landed in Chelsea. Bud learned how to play baseball as a small child, and took his interest and growing proficiency with him. He began to pop up on more and more local amateur teams until finally the Lynn Live Oaks, members of the International Association, found themselves short of players and asked him to join them. 

Fowler did very well. So well, in fact, that some of the opposing players walked off the field rather than be defeated by a Black man. Other players, in other venues, refused to even take the field. As you can imagine, he was vilified, humiliated, and called every racist name in the book. 

Such were the times that the site of this game isn’t known. Sen. Brendan Crighton (D-Lynn) says it could be near what is now Barry Park. Or, he says, it could be near Lynn English. Since those two parts of the city aren’t even remotely close to each other, it will remain one of the great mysteries. 

But what’s not a mystery are Fowler’s skills, both as a pitcher and a second baseman (he had to wear wood in his pants to keep from being spiked during slides into the base). 

Here is what one fledgling newspaper, founded the previous December by Horace N. Hastings, said about Fowler’s during a game against the London, Ontario Tecumsehs — a team he defeated in his only professional game as a pitcher:

“The Tecumsehs left Lynn in a very disgusted state,” The Daily Evening Item of Lynn wrote. “To be whitewashed by a club which they felt morally certain of vanquishing with ease, as they had the day before, was too much. It was evident to all the spectators that they were ready to jump at a chance to forfeit the game, which they saw they were incapable of winning.”

Later, in the same story, The Item wrote that Fowler was “a very fine pitcher, and it is a pity he cannot be permanently secured.”

There are two takeaways in Fowler’s biography which should seem undeniable even more than 125 years after the fact. The first is that Fowler had to have loved baseball to put himself through the rigors of racism and ignorance. I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Dave Winfield, when giving Fowler’s induction speech to the Hall of Fame, that “professional” in 1878 did not mean multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. It probably meant meal money. 

The second takeaway is that the teams that recruited Fowler had to be impressed enough with his baseball skills to endure the controversy that came with him. On those two presumptions alone, you have to conclude that Fowler was the real deal and that his inclusion into the Hall of Fame isn’t some kind of symbolic gesture. 

Fowler was an itinerant ballplayer. As Winfield said in his speech on behalf of Fowler, Johnny Cash could have written that song “I’ve Been Everywhere” about him. Lynn was but a stop along the way. But like that of another famous abolitionist and crusader for equal rights — Frederick Douglass — it was an important one.

Give Jackie Robinson his due. Wear his No. 42 every April 15. His was a major step in American cultural history. 

But don’t forget the likes of Bud Fowler. He had the same struggles and fought the same fights. And he deserves his plaque in the Hall of Fame, right beside another American who endured biases that kept him from playing in the Major Leagues — Buck O’Neil. 

They were both giants. They suffered the same indignities. And they persevered.

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