This article was written by Brian McKenna
John Fowler was one of the true pioneers of American baseball, one so far overlooked by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In black baseball history, he is the pioneer. His resume includes a long list of firsts. He is the first acknowledged African-American professional player — way back in 1878 before there were any black teams of consequence. He was the first to play on integrated teams, typically the only dark face on the roster; in fact, he preferred white clubs because they fielded the best nines and offered the stiffest competition through much of his career. As such, he was the first significant black player in the United States. As researcher and author Robert Peterson declared, “Frank Grant, Bud Fowler and George Stovey were unquestionably of major-league star caliber.”
Fowler was the first African-American in Organized Baseball. He also had the widest traveled career and longest, of the early players, by any qualification. Shocking to some, he was the first African-American to captain an integrated club. He was also one of the first significant black promoters, forming the heralded Page Fence Giants and other clubs and leagues. Wherever there was an effort to form a black league during the nineteenth century, Fowler could be found in the mix. Sol White referred to Bud as “the celebrated promoter of colored ball clubs, and the sage of baseball.” White field managers and business managers throughout the country sought Fowler’s advice on fellow black players, at times hiring a man sight unseen for their roster on his say-so. Moreover, Fowler was the one who organized the first successful black barnstorming clubs, a subsequent staple of the industry.
Fowler was a stellar player — in the box, behind the plate, in the field and with the bat. The fact that he bounced from team to team — at times playing for four or five clubs in a calendar year — had nothing to do with his skills. He wasn’t wanted because of his dark complexion. As the Sporting Life proclaimed, “With his splendid abilities he would long ago have been on some good club had his color been white instead of black. Those who know say there is no better second baseman in the country.” Primarily known as a versatile, quick and smooth-fielding second baseman, Fowler also logged many innings as a pitcher and catcher, beginning his career during the tough, barehanded era.
His nickname was “Bud” because that’s how he referred to everyone, but more often he was identified in print as the “colored” ballplayer, or “darkey” or merely “the coon.” One newspaper sarcastically referred to him as “not a blonde.” Surely there were other harsher epithets bandied about among players and in the stands. He was occasionally expelled from his club in midseason because his teammates objected to playing with a black man. Opponents objected, too, even more so; hence, Bud started wearing wooden slats to cover his shins from sliding base runners. Not surprisingly, Fowler’s stays with white clubs and leagues were typically short.
His skills usually enticed others to give him a try, though, and he was often heralded in the press and received accolades from the spectators. Nevertheless, no matter how favorable the media or how pleasant his reception from the fans, he was often let go after just a few games — sometimes with an explanation in the press, sometimes not. He was never held over from one year to the next with a minor league club. Fowler did at least have a chance before Organized Baseball firmly established the color line before the close of the nineteenth century. He played with numerous minor-league clubs over two decades from the late 1870s. He played for more clubs and in more games in the minors than any other black player before the 1950s, hitting .308 in more than 2,000 at bats in organized baseball.
John Fowler was born John W. Jackson Jr. on March 16, 1858 in Fort Plain, New York. His parents were John W. Jackson, born in New York circa 1834, and Mary Lansing Jackson, born in New York circa 1838. Negro Leagues researcher James A. Riley identifies the senior John Jackson as a “fugitive hop-picker.” By the time John Jr. was born, John Sr. was a barber, a profession that was distinctly middle class in the black community. John Jr. learned the profession as well and toiled at it throughout his baseball career to supplement his income.
By 1860, the Jacksons moved to Cooperstown, less than thirty miles from Fort Plain. The family also included a son named Frederick who was born in 1860 but died before the next U.S. Census. Another son, Willis, was born in 1869. At least one other child, a daughter, was born to the couple. The family lived in Cooperstown through the 1870 Census but wasn’t found there in 1880. Taking an average, Fowler lived in the community through much of his teenage years and then moved to another part of New York State or perhaps Massachusetts.
John Jr. attended school locally and learned to play ball on the fields of the Cooperstown Seminary. He was a right-hander who grew to be 5-foot-7 tall and weigh approximately 155 pounds, not particularly tall for the era but not dainty either. He played amateur ball for a few years, but his first year of prominence in the game was 1878 at age twenty. By this time Jackson was calling himself Fowler and would be known as such throughout his entire baseball career. The reason for the name change is unclear. The main motives why a ballplayer played under an assumed name are to avoid trouble with his parents; to shorten a long name; to avoid conflict with college eligibility; to skirt the reserve clause; or to avoid repercussions from past misdeeds — inside baseball or out. The only one of these that makes sense circa 1878 is the first — family interference. In Fowler’s case, this does have some credence. He came from a middle-class family but chose a profession that was unique to his circumstances. There were no professional black ballplayers when he entered the business. His devotion to the game and belief in making a career out of it surely must have conflicted with the notions his parents had of his potential in the sport. As far as the name Fowler goes, there were several Fowlers in Cooperstown, including a prominent businessman, but why he chose the name is left to supposition.
That spring he joined the Chelsea, Massachusetts, club, an amateur, independent team. On April 24, Fowler — as part of a picked nine (sort of a local all-star team) — defeated Tommy Bond and the reigning champions of the National League, Boston, 2-1 in an exhibition game. The game was played in bad weather. The Boston players “were rather unwilling, but went to work, Bond without his uniform, a majority without their ball shoes, and all but Bond, [Pop] Snyder and [Jack] Burdock played in their jackets,” according to the Boston Globe. “The picked nine was made up of Chelsea amateurs with two old Beacons and a catcher from the Highlands.” George Wright scored the only run for the champions, in the first inning after he reached on an error. Fowler ceded only three hits, Bond four.
In May when a Lynn (Massachusetts) pitcher came down with an injury, Fowler was plucked from Chelsea to pitch three games. A white player, George Wood, a future major leaguer, was also brought in from Chelsea to play right field. The Lynn Live Oaks were a member of the International Association (IA). The IA was formed in 1877 and with the League Alliance was one of the first two loosely defined minor leagues, as they operated in cooperation with the National League. Thus, Fowler became the first African-American to integrate a team in minor league history and thus the game’s first African-American pro and the first in what would become known as Organized Baseball.
On May 17, Bud pitched Lynn to a two-hit, 3-0 shutout of the London (Ontario) Tecumsehs. The game was actually a forfeit as Tecumseh walked off the field in the eighth inning after a disputed play at the plate. The tiff may have been a continuation over the dissatisfaction with Lynn fielding a black player, as American members of the Tecumsehs that year spoke out about the presence of black players in the IA. Fowler lost his two other starts, the last being on May 29, 9-3 to Syracuse. After the game the Boston Daily Advertiser explained a franchise shuffle: “The Live Oaks will have their headquarters at Worcester hereafter, and they will be superseded at Lynn by another nine, to consist of Fowler, Flint and Wood of the Chelseas, with Samuel King of the Manchesters for first base and Henry Simonds as shortstop, and others.” Essentially, the Lynn and Worcester teams merged on June 1 and the new club, called the Worcester Live Oaks, remained a member of the International Association. Fowler remained in Lynn with a makeshift nine. Wood continued in the IA with Worcester. In July, Worcester’s main pitcher Bobby Mathews, one of the century’s most prominent pitchers, was suspended for drunkenness. On the 11th, Fowler was called in to pitch a game, a 6-0 loss to New Bedford.
Fowler played for Malden in the Eastern Massachusetts League in 1879. In 1881, he joined the Guelph (Ontario) Maple Leafs. The relationship didn’t last long as his teammates objected to his presence. According to the Guelph Herald, “Some of the Maple Leafs are ill-natured enough to object to the colored pitcher.” He then played a few games for the Petrolia Imperials, another Ontario nine. In 1882, Bud pitched for the New Orleans Pickwicks, a black team sponsored by a local social club. Later in the season, he was player-manager for the Richmond (Virginia) Black Swans.
Near the end of the year, he connected with Henry Bridgewater, a mulatto tavern owner, baseball promoter and politico in St. Louis. Together, they set about to form a black league, a national one — with eastern and western representation. On January 31, 1883, “Fowler, the renowned colored pitcher of the east,” according to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “reached St. Louis yesterday morning, and has signed to play with the Black Sox, the club that will represent St. Louis in the colored league this season.” Fowler set to training the new team and a colored national convention was scheduled. As historian Dr. James E. Brunson noted, “They received letters from New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Lynchburg and Richmond.”
The league never panned out. Fowler left town in mid-May once that fact became clear. He went to Youngstown, Ohio, and joined the local Niles Grays, where, according to the New York World, he “won for himself many congratulations.” Fowler met a local woman in St. Louis whom he married sometime in the early 1880s.
Fowler joined Stillwater (Minnesota) in the Northwestern League in March 1884 after signing with the club in January. He worked out with teammates and, as usual, secured a job locally cutting hair and giving shaves at Hadley’s Barber Shop. He was initially signed as a catcher, but after the club tanked its first fifteen games, Fowler was inserted in the box. On May 25, he captured the team’s first victory, a 13-7 win over Fort Wayne. The Fort Wayne News proclaimed, “His delivery is speedy, and … effective.” In appreciation, the fans awarded Fowler $10 and a new suit. The team then relied heavily on his right arm. He came through, winning five of Stillwater’s first seven victories; however, his days in the box were numbered.
Fowler had been primarily a pitcher and catcher since turning pro. By June, he had a sore arm from overwork, and in fact 1884 marked his transition to the infield. The timeframe suggests that the arm trouble was probably related to the switch that year to overhand pitching. No longer would pitchers be able to work day-in and day-out as they did during the underhand era. Fowler managed only a 7-8 record in twenty games. In the field, he performed a utility role, catching and playing in the infield and outfield. In a total of 48 games he batted .302 and led the league in hits. Apparently his presence on the diamond was still a novelty as the Cleveland Herald proclaimed, “The Stillwater club has a colored player named Fowler who pitches, catches and plays left field in good shape.”
In early May an opposing white player welcomed him to the league. As the St. Paul Daily Globe noted, “Fowler, the lightning colored catcher for the Stillwaters, had his foot spiked by a base runner at home plate breaking the bone of his big toe. The surgeon says it will be several days before he can play again, but Fowler asserts positively that he will be behind the bat again on Saturday.” He returned on the 10th, hitting a double and stealing two bases.
On June 3, Fowler was plunked on the ribs while at bat. He was knocked unconscious and missed three games. Accounts claimed that his ribs were broken but that seems unlikely, as he soon rejoined the club. The club added future major leaguer Otto Schomberg, another strong bat, to the lineup; however, it wasn’t enough. Stillwater was on shaky ground financially and in the league standings. The first home game didn’t even take place until a full month into the season, on June 9. As a result, revenues weren’t covering salaries. The turmoil sparked three managerial changes in as many months.
Trouble was brewing for Fowler personally. On July 26, he was fined $50 and suspended two weeks for refusing to catch pitcher M.J. Bradley. The reason was never revealed, but it isn’t a leap to see a racial motive. Fowler, rarely docile, was perhaps reacting to the pitcher’s reluctance to work in cohesion with the catcher. The suspension was quickly shortened to two games after another player broke his arm.
Stillwater disbanded for financial reasons on August 4 with a poor 21-46 record. Fowler received favorable reviews in 1884. As the Sporting Life noted, he “made quite a reputation in the Northwestern League.” He received praise throughout the league. After one game in Terre Haute, the local Evening Gazette noticed, “The crowd showed their appreciation of his work by applauding him every time he went to bat.” After Stillwater’s final game, the Milwaukee Sentinel declared, “Fowler, the colored player, made one of the finest running fly-catches ever seen on the grounds, and was compelled to doff his cap several times in response to the enthusiastic plaudits of his many admirers.” He remained in Stillwater, barbering into the late fall.
In 1884, the first acknowledged African-Americans appeared in a major-league game. That season, the Toledo franchise en masse joined the major American Association. Fleet Walker, a black catcher, was a member of that club; thus, he instantly became a big leaguer, almost by accident. Walker’s brother Welday was added to the roster in July. No other AA team added a black player and Toledo was dropped after the season. The National League would not knowingly hire a black player until 1947. Fowler played in several top minor leagues during his career. Many of his teammates, some better, some worse, graduated to the major leagues. The opportunity was never granted to him.
Fowler signed with the Keokuk, Iowa, club in February 1885 and joined them in April, as did former Stillwater teammate Schomberg. On June 6, the Omaha club of the Western League disbanded and Keokuk assumed its place in the league, including its poor 5-21 record. Bud appeared in eight WL games at second base before the league broke up on June 15th. Second base was now and would remain his main position throughout the rest of his career, though he would continue to pitch sporadically. Keokuk barnstormed until approximately July 10 when it disbanded. The Sporting Life then reported, “Fowler, the crack colored player, is wanted to manage and play with the Orion (colored) club of Philadelphia, but as yet is undecided as to what he will do. He is one of the best general players in the country, and if he had a white face would be playing with the best of them.” In December, Sporting Life seconded the opinion, “The poor fellow’s skin is against him.”
He doesn’t appear to have joined Orion. After leaving Keokuk, reports indicate that Fowler signed with Milwaukee and St. Joseph (Missouri). He played a few games for the St. Joseph Reds but it doesn’t appear that he actually joined Milwaukee. The Sporting Life spotted him in early August in St. Louis unengaged. At some point that season he played with Portland, Maine, in the independent New England League.
The Pueblo Pastimes (Denver) of the Colorado League signed Fowler by reputation only around the second week of August. On the 16th, the local Rocky Mountain News in surprise noted, “Fowler, the Pastimes’ new player, turns out to be an African gentleman, black as the ace of spades, but a crack baseball player.” The following week the paper declared, “Fowler has two strong points. He is an excellent runner and … always plays ball and is popular with his team.” The latter part of that statement wasn’t exactly the truth. He ran into trouble with some white teammates and was released after only five games. Denver made an impression on Bud though. In September, he opened a barber shop and spent the winter there. He barnstormed into January and participated in foot races, walking and running. He was clocked at 8 minutes, 30 seconds walking a mile and just under five minutes running. During his baseball career, he would occasionally race other players, not always meeting with success. He also joined racing events at various stops during his vast travels in baseball.
The News remarked in July 1886, “Fowler will always be a favorite in Denver.” Perhaps another quote from the newspaper gives an indication why: “Fowler certainly can play ball and do it as good-naturedly as anyone.” During a series that month in Denver — while Bud was with Topeka — the News hailed, “Get out and see the great and only Fowler this afternoon. He’s a dandy.” It also complimented him in May 1886: “A league of colored baseball players has been organized in the South. It is safe to say there will be few of them as good as Fowler.”
In February 1886, Fowler signed with the Guelph Maple Leafs but never joined the Canadian team. Perhaps he or they recalled his ouster five years earlier because of racial tensions. In April, he joined Topeka in the Western League with several former Pueblo teammates. He was injured on May 21, as described by the Nebraska State Journal, “Fowler … had the misfortune to have his right shoulder dislocated yesterday. He made a safe three-base hit and attempted to score when [Lincoln’s Charlie] Hoover, catcher for the home team, put the ball upon him with vigor sufficient to throw him to the ground very hard. He will not be able to play for some days.” Fowler remained with the club all season, appearing in 58 games. He hit .309 and led the league in triples. In September he took a line drive to the eye and missed several games. It was the second injury in the last few weeks. The Sporting Life reported in late August, “Bud Fowler, the great colored second baseman, will captain the Cuban Giants this winter. At a game in St. Joe he was severely injured by a ball striking him in the mouth.” Topeka finished in fourth place. After the season, he returned to St. Louis with his wife and played with a black team. He also pitched for the New Orleans Unions, a black team, during a series with the Cohen club.
The Cuban Giants were the first great black club. Fowler never played for them, but he was recruited to several times during his career. For example, the Sporting Life carried a message from team president Cos Govern, an African-American businessman, in July 1887: “The manager of the Cuban Giant B.B.C. would like to know the address of J. Fowler, the colored professional pitcher.”
In December 1886, Fowler was among the contingent that formed the first national black league. He served as a delegate representing the proposed Cincinnati entry (the Browns), where he was working as a barber at the time. He was assigned to assist with the drafting of the league’s constitution. The League of Colored Base Ball Players, a.k.a. National Colored Baseball League or National League of Colored Base Ball Players, began fielding teams in 1887 after assessing the success of the original Cuban Giants barnstorming club. Surprisingly, the league was permitted to sign the National Agreement which granted it formal membership in Organized Baseball. Unfortunately, the league collapsed after only ten days, partially due to Washington and Cincinnati dropping out on the eve of Opening Day. The two clubs later had a change of heart but the league was failing by then.
In November 1886, Fowler signed with Binghamton (New York) in the International League, another top minor league. Birmingham was extremely happy to have him on board. In response to another recruiter tampering with their new second baseman, Binghamton officials declared in the Sporting Life, “Fowler has not, and will not, be released for any consideration.” They did so knowing of his racial background and even offered a little levity: “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 he is no record player [doesn’t merely play for personal records], and in chasing after balls has become tanned from constant and careless exposure to the sun.” That attitude would change in the middle of 1887, not because of his poor play on the field, rather due to the animosity of his teammates to having a black teammate.
Fowler arrived in Binghamton early in 1887 and secured a barbering position. He joined the club in the spring and ultimately appeared in 34 games and hit an outstanding .350. He received several accolades for his efforts. After a game in early June with the Syracuse Stars, the Sporting Life remarked, “The first game was won by the Binghamtons in the eighth inning, when, with two men out, two men on bases and Fowler at the bat with [two] strikes against him, he lifted the intended [third] for a two-bagger and the game was won. Fowler’s work is very good and in this game he is credited with three two-baggers, a single, three putouts, three assists and no errors.”
There were early signs of trouble, though. For one, a quote in the Sporting Life in April smacks of blatant racism: “Joe Ardner, in one game he played, shows himself to be … far superior to the ‘coon’ Fowler on second base.” The derogatory comment refers to Fowler’s time with the Topeka club. Fowler’s supposed inferiority as a ballplayer was clearly fiction. Secondly, in relation to the Binghamtons the local Daily Leader mentioned in early June, “The report of Fowler’s release was entirely without foundation.” The basis of the reference is unknown but there obviously was some type of conflict. The Toronto World summed up the feeling around the circuit: “A number of colored players are in the International League, and to put it mildly their presence is distasteful to the other players.”
Racial tension on the club came to a head on June 27. That day, Fowler and another black player, William Renfro, were in the lineup, but white players Buck West and Joe Dilworth refused to play and asked for their release. The latter two proceeded to rally the rest of the team around their cause. A petition was inked by nine players and a telegram was sent to the club directors demanding that Fowler and Renfro be released or they would quit (Another black player named Pointter was with the club earlier in the year.). Fed up, Fowler asked for his release on June 30; it was granted provided that he didn’t sign with another International League club. Renfro was later released. One local newspaper, as noted by researcher Neil Sullivan, gave a curt notice to the fans, “Gone coons — Fowler and Renfroe” [sic]. Appeased, West was in the lineup on July 1, but he continued to be troubled. After a loss to black pitcher George Stovey on July 26, he was suspended and released for “indifferent play.” The Boston Herald later announced, “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 itself disbanded on August 20.
It wasn’t only teammates that had it in for the black players. An unnamed International League player gave a revealing interview to The Sporting News two years later: “Fowler [and Frank Grant] used to play second base with the lower part of his legs encased in wooden guards. He knew that about every player that came down to second base on a steal had it in for him and would, if possible, throw the spikes into him. … [Also] about half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when [they’re] at the bat.” Furthermore, league umpire Billy Hoover admitted to calling close plays against clubs that fielded black players.
The year 1887 proved to be pivotal in the exclusion of African-Americans from Organized Baseball. The International League formally banned any additional signings of African-American players on July 14, two weeks after Fowler’s release. Specifically, a vote taken by club owners directed the league secretary to “approve of no more contracts with colored men.” Officials were reacting to white players’ grumblings and derogatory comments by the press suggesting that the International League change its classification to “colored league.” Part of the shame in the situation arises from the success black players had in the league. Besides Bud’s .350-batting average, Frank Grant led the league in home runs, and Stovey registered an outstanding 33-14 record.
On the same day — the 14th — Chicago White Stockings team captain Cap Anson refused to take the field in an exhibition game against Newark of the International League unless pitcher Stovey did not play. Fleet Walker, Stovey’s battery mate, was not scheduled to play that day. Anson had tried a similar tactic unsuccessfully against Walker in August 1883. This time Anson and his club stood firm and Stovey backed out of the game feigning illness. In late July, Monte Ward of the New York Giants tried to sign Stovey to a National League contract, a natural ascension for player who would win 33 games that year. Anson allegedly protested again. Rather than formally excluding black players, Organized Baseball executives essentially worked in cohesion on the topic, the so-called gentleman’s agreement.
In their July 13-issue, the Sporting Life proclaimed, “Fowler has been released and has joined the Cuban Giants. Fowler was certainly a wonderful player [with Binghamton].” He didn’t join the Cuban Giants, instead landing with the Jersey Blues. In mid August, he joined Montpelier (Vermont) of the Northeastern League for eight games as captain — a first on an integrated club. He became an immediate favorite, according to the Vermont Watchman, “Fowler captured the crowd by his fine playing.” The Rutland Herald proclaimed, “Fowler seemed to be the favorite with the spectators yesterday, and was greeted with applause every time he stepped to the plate.” His stellar work on the field attracted quite a few comments. The Watchman further noted, “It was hard work stealing second. Fowler was present nearly every time.” Again it said, “Captain Fowler of the Montpeliers is a colored man and a first-class ball-tosser in every respect. He played a brilliant game yesterday on second and made two of the four runs for his club. The Montpeliers are fortunate in securing him.” In another contest, it recounted, “Fowler played a wonderful [game], being credited with seven putouts and five assists without an error.”
In response to the previous Boston Herald quote about Fowler’s ouster from Binghamton, the Watchman notified its readers, “The ‘colored gentleman’ in question is the present phenomenal second baseman of the Montpeliers, and the above is a most decided compliment for him. Considering his 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.”
Unfortunately, Montpelier folded at the end of August. Fowler and five teammates joined the Laconia (New Hampshire) club. In October, the Rutland Monitor commented after a series between Laconia and Boston of the National League, “The Laconias showed up well and in some respects brilliantly. Fowler, the colored second baseman, made several remarkable plays and filled that position as well as it ever was cared for on the grounds. He was sure on putouts when attempts were made to steal second, and made stops of grounders that were seemingly impossible. It is said he was highly complimented by the Boston players, both for his work here and in the game at Laconia.” The first game was played in Laconia on the 19th, a 15-6 victory for Boston which the Boston Globe called “the finest game of the season.” Fowler struck out twice but also placed a triple. The second game on the following day was played in Concord and was much closer, an 8-4 Boston victory. Laconia hung it up for the season following the contests.
Fowler also organized the New York Gorhams in 1887. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, “Fowler, manager of the colored [Gorham] club, leased the ball grounds on Benkard Heights, Newburgh, and the club has made that city its headquarters.” With Ambrose Davis he organized and pushed for the first “colored championship of the United States.” The three-game series was won by the Gorhams, 2-1. It was the first of Bud’s barnstorming clubs. As Robert Peterson proclaimed, “Barnstorming in Negro baseball goes back to 1887, when Bud Fowler organized a traveling club.” Over the winter, he resided in Johnsville, New York, and planned for another season with the Gorhams.
Early in 1888 Fowler signed with Lafayette (Indiana). According to the Sporting Life in April, “The [Lafayette] club management engaged Fowler … without knowing his color. When they discovered it they released him.” Specifically, according to the Logansport Pharos, “John W. Fowler … arrived in Lafayette Saturday night [March 24], having been engaged to fill the position of pitcher … It was thought that Fowler was a white man, and quite a surprise was in store for the Lafayette players when they discovered that he was a genuine darkey. The manager of the club [Will Simpson] concluded that he wanted only strawberry blondes, and the contract with Fowler was annulled.” In response, Fowler roasted “the Lafayette management for their course. He intimates that as a body of businessmen, who contract with players and pay them advance money, they ought to know enough to find out who and what they are getting for their money. He also gives them the big blast on race prejudice. He claims he asked for his release as soon as he discovered that the city and the club’s board of directors [were] full of race prejudice.”
Fowler then signed with the nearby Crawfordsville Hoosiers of the Central Interstate League. The Logansport Journal looked forward to his arrival, declaring, “Fowler, the colored player, is the only all-around player in the club.” In early May the Sporting Life reported, “Fowler is playing a great game at second, and it is a very unusual thing for a ball to get by him. I shall be very much surprised if the ‘coon,’ as he is called, does not have a record equal to any in our [National] League in his position.” Bud wasn’t just a novelty in Lafayette. After a game in Decatur, the local Daily Republican mentioned, “Fowler is the name of the coal black second baseman with the Hoosier club. He is a great show.” On July 2, the team relocated to Terre Haute and then the league folded at the end of the month. In 53 games Fowler hit .294. The club finished in third, eight games behind Davenport.
Fowler hit the road, playing for various clubs as he traveled south. In mid-August he arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and joined the local club in the New Mexico League. Upon arrival, he gave the Santa Fe Herald an earful about his exclusion from the dining room at the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas. He couldn’t understand it. Referring to black players, he declared, “We are ‘drawing cards’ and add to the receipts of the game wherever we play.” In essence, clubs weren’t backing their black players and even released them upon any slightest provocation. If black players were given full playing time without interference, Fowler said, “We would have better games, better attendance and the game would be properly supported and made success.” Furthermore, “There are several players in the New Mexico League, that I have played with in other leagues and I would like to hear any one of those players speak his opinion and say if he has not found me a gentleman in every respect, and a hard player.”
Fowler appeared in twenty-two games with Santa Fe through September, batting .343. He finished the year, barnstorming well into 1889, with a black club that ended up in California. While in San Bernardino, the Sporting Life acknowledged, “He is playing great ball.”
In May 1889, Bud joined Greenville in the Michigan State League. A rarity, he spent the entire season with the club. Another black player, third baseman Alexander Ross, was also with the club. In 92 games Fowler batted .302 as Greenville finished in fifth place. Teammate Joe Katz led the league in hitting with a .364 mark. From an 1889 newspaper search, historian Peter Morris found an early reference to a batter, in this case Fowler, peaking back at the catcher while at bat to possibly steal the sign or location of a pitch. Fowler’s legend was beginning to expand in 1889 as he started marketing himself, declaring that he had played ball in nearly every state in the country. He regaled writers with stories of playing match games for trappers’ furs and playing in farming communities, pioneer settlements, mining camps and Old West towns. In a few years, he would add to the mystique by tweaking his age and billing himself as the oldest active ballplayer in the game. Probably much to the consternation of Cap Anson, the comparison would, more often than not, mention the Chicago leader as a mere aging ballplayer in relation to the ancient Fowler.
Fowler spent the winter of 1889-90 in Toledo where he signed with Evansville (Indiana). In March he was sold, as noted by the Sporting Life, “Galesburg [Illinois of the Central Interstate League] purchased his release from Evansville, paying $500, Fowler getting a share of the purchase money.” He hit well for the club, batting .322 in 27 games. On May 2 in Galesburg’s home opener, Bud knocked six hits in seven at-bats, scoring five times in a 31-5 win over Peoria. Three days earlier, he knocked a home run “which created a good deal of enthusiasm.” The Sporting Life noted, “The visiting club fielders move back when Taylor, Al Weddige and Fowler go to the bat.” Galesburg disbanded around the turn of June and Fowler caught on with Sterling (Illinois) of the Illinois-Iowa League during all of July.
After his first game with the club on July 1, the Sterling Evening Gazette couldn’t contain its delight in having the new player: “Our new second baseman, Fowler, caught the crowd by his field work, and put-up the finest game at second [base] ever seen here. … Fowler ran out into center twice and took flies away from [center fielder] McCann to the latter’s disgust, but in the eighth made the play of the year by going back of short and getting a fly which made the third out and saved two runs from going over the plate. He must have run 120 feet and the crowd gave him a big recognition of the successful effort.” Fowler rejoined Galesburg in August, now refinanced and reorganized in the IIL, and finished with Burlington (Iowa) through franchise relocation in the IIL. In 36 games in that league he hit .314.
A quote in the Dubuque Daily News in July cited Fowler’s plight in the predominantly white minor leagues: “As [IIL] president Atherton said yesterday, if only he had been painted white, he would be playing with the best of them.” He wasn’t just excluded from the better teams; he couldn’t get a decent meal. In late August, he filed a lawsuit against the Ballingall Hotel in Ottumwa, Iowa, for refusing to serve him in the dining room. Bud did have his followers, though. According to the Dubuque Telegraph that month, “It was amusing to observe the awe with which Fowler, Sterling’s second baseman, was regarded by his colored brethren in Dubuque. When he came into a crowd of them every chair was vacated and the former occupant of the one he condescended to accept could not conceal his gratification nor the others their envy.”
Fowler landed in St. Louis again in 1891, playing for a local club or two. In late May he played shortstop for a club called the Colorado Champions in a game vs. the St. Louis Black Diamonds. He played with several other clubs during the year: Beloit in the Wisconsin State League; Findlay (Ohio), an integrated, independent team; Watertown (Wisconsin) in July; Milwaukee in September. Pertaining to the latter, the Milwaukee Sentinel announced on September 13, “Bud Fowler, the famous Watertown ballplayer, has become a resident of this city and a member of the local baseball club.” He also barnstormed well into the fall.
In early 1892, Bud signed with the Nebraska State League. In April he was assigned to the Lincoln club, where he was named captain. Lincoln later relocated to Kearney. The atmosphere was hostile from the beginning for Fowler and other black players. The Hastings correspondent to the Sporting Life made his feelings known in March: “I think it is a mistake [the signing of black players]. The colored men who played with visiting teams in this city last year gave exhibitions of dirty ball, and the baseball fans here will not attend games where colored players participate.”
In truth, the dirty ball may have been played by the white players. One day during the summer he traded punches with a white player who tried to injure him while sliding into second base. The Sporting Life mentioned in July that at least one player left the league because “colored players are employed … and that he was compelled to associate with them. That was more than his proud Caucasian spirit could brook.” Many of the other white players felt the same, as the Sporting Life noted, “The Nebraska League is the only league in the country which permits the employment of colored players. Quite a number of Negroes are playing on the various teams, but their white fellows make their lives burdensome.”
The league broke up in July after Kearney and Grand Island withdrew. Kearney finished in third place with an 18-21 record. Fowler appeared in 35 games, batting an unusually low .273, but led the league in stolen bases with 45. He then rejoined Findlay and barnstormed into the fall. Findlay’s roster included Fowler again in 1893. In August he again played in Galesburg, this time for an independent team under manager Beldon Hill.
With the Findlay Sluggers in 1894 popped up a twenty-year-old black shortstop named Grant Johnson, a Findlay native. He reportedly clouted sixty homers, being among the first to earn the moniker “Home Run.” Fowler capitalized on the drawing power of his young slugging teammate, talking him into forming a barnstorming black team. They looked for financial backing locally for a club they dubbed the Findlay Colored Western Giants, but the interest just wasn’t there. On August 26, Fowler broke his leg in a game. Johnson took off to play some games with Dubuque. The report of a broken leg may have been exaggerated because Fowler was in the lineup on September 13 when Findlay played the Cincinnati Reds, a 10-2 loss. The game brought out quite a few paying customers as native son Dummy Hoy returned with the Cincy squad. Findlay also took two games from Detroit of the Western League that month and nearly defeated the Brooklyn Bridegrooms on September 20, losing by a run.
With time for organizing, Fowler set to form his club. He hooked up with two white businessmen, L.W. Hoch and Rolla I. Taylor, from Adrian, Michigan, a city about sixty miles west of Detroit. The group aligned with J. Wallace Page, white, who was looking for an advertising tool for his Page Woven Wire Fence Company. They also brought in interests from the Monarch Bicycle Company of Massachusetts as a minority sponsor. John Fowler, Grant Johnson and the businessmen formed the Page Fence Giants on September 21, 1894. As author Michael E. Lomax pointed out, “Fowler was clearly the driving force behind the enterprise” The Giants became one of the first successful black barnstorming teams. The club was professional despite white baseball’s tendency to categorize them as semi-pro, perhaps because they played many white semi-pro clubs in their travels. Adrian was too small to support the club so they survived by hitting the road for much of the season, playing seemingly anywhere a suitable opponent could be found.
“They traveled around the country in a custom-made railroad car which featured sleeping quarters, a cook and a porter,” notes the Negro League Baseball Players Association. The railroad car was a part of the attraction. Players theatrically emerged from it dressed in full uniform and firefighter’s hats. Then they rode bicycles around each town trying to drum up attendance for the game later that day. The men also entertained during the games to keep fans interested and amused. To belie the fears of his white backers, Fowler insisted that he hired only men of high character. He lured the players from other strong black clubs, such as George Hopkins, Gus Brooks and Billy Holland from the Chicago Unions and Sol White from the Cuban Giants.
Fowler served as manager, Johnson, despite his age, as captain. In mid April, they played two games with the Cincinnati Reds, losing both, 11-7 and 16-2. Fowler went 1-for-8. The Cincinnati Enquirer described him “as spry and as fast as any man on the field.” The reference was to Fowler’s age. He was actually 37 years old but told anyone within reach that he was ten years older or more. He sat at the newspaper’s office and regaled the writers with stories of his extensive career which spanned all corners of the United States. The Enquirer bought the embellishment, declaring, “Such veterans as Candy Nelson and Adrian C. Anson are young bloods as compared to this relic of the game.” He also told stories of playing ball professional back in the late 1860s, a full decade before his actual first appearances. He claimed that his longevity was due to his careful conditioning, which allowed little time for “wine, women and song.” The club had a big year, by one estimate posting a 118-36-2 record. Elated, Fowler even started planning an international tour for the nine. However, he left the club at midseason; the attraction of the white minor leagues was too strong to avoid.
In mid-July, the Adrian Reformers, of the Michigan State League, brought in five members of the Page Fence Giants — William Binga, Pete Burns, Fowler, Vacho Graham and Joe Miller — to help during a series with Owosso in a tight pennant race. The new enlistees were needed to strengthen the roster after the recent loss of, among others, Honus Wagner. The Michigan State League was the first minor league to integrate in three years. Adrian’s ace that year, George Wilson, a 19-year-old African-American, posted a solid 29-4 record and batted .327. Fowler never returned to the Giants’ leaving on July 15. He played a few games for Adrian and then joined Lansing of the same league. In 31 Michigan State League games he hit .331, as Lansing fell a few games behind league champion Adrian. As the color barrier was being drawn, Lansing was Fowler’s last stop in Organized Baseball. In total he appeared in 465 games over ten seasons. Because of various reasons, only once did he appear in more than sixty games with one club, Greenville in 1889. From 1896 on, Fowler’s options were severely limited. As he wrote in ’95, “My skin is against me. If I had not been quite so black, I might have caught on as a Spaniard or something of that kind. The race prejudice is so strong that my black skin barred me.”
At the beginning of 1896, Fowler organized the Muncie Londons, a black club based in Indiana. He brought in some of the top black players of the day, including Marshall Coffey, Harry Hyde and a young Harry Buckner. Fowler, now 38 years old, played first base. The Londons were the relocated and reorganized Rock City club of Tennessee, one of the top southern teams. The project only lasted a week into May, as described by the Delphos Herald, “Muncie’s famous Creole baseball team has disbanded owing to the fact that the people would not patronize a colored team … Many of the southern teams would not play them, drawing the color line. Last Friday [May 8] the club played Alexandria, and Bud Fowler, the manager and first baseman left that night for parts unknown. … He is a great player.”
Bud ended up back with Findlay. In December, he was contacted by several businessmen in Galveston, Texas, who wanted to start a club and a black league. As the Galveston Daily News illustrated, “For the past two years the club has been negotiating with Bud Fowler of New York, who has a national reputation among all the different leagues of the country, and who attains to be the oldest player on the diamond. He was finally induced to come to Galveston and manage the club.” Fowler agreed to help out and hopped on a train headed for Texas soon after Christmas. He spent the winter organizing the Galveston Flyaways and oversaw the first practices in January. The potential league needed more than a manager. It needed an experienced baseball man who could construct a fledgling league and attract quality talent. As such, Fowler became the main promoter and organizer for the effort, as the News called him “the leading spirit of the organization.” His efforts paid off, the Lone Star Colored League of Texas kicked off in 1897 with eight clubs.
Later in the summer, Bud played for Findlay and in September joined Lima; according to a report in the Lima Times Democrat on the 16th, “Second base was covered by the old time Bud Fowler of Findlay fame and ebony color.” In November, Fowler was named manager of Findlay but, in the end, the team didn’t operate in 1898. Instead, Fowler had to wait another year for Findlay to re-emerge. As the Fort Wayne News declared in late October 1898, “Grant Johnson and Bud Fowler…have leased grounds at Findlay, O., and will organize a team for next season.” James A. Riley also lists Bud with the Cuban Giants in 1898.
By 1899, the color line, firm segregation, was essentially established. Estimates put the total number of African-American men in Organized Baseball during the nineteenth century at more than seventy. Most were with integrated clubs but the New York Gorhams and Cuban Giants, for example, played as black teams in white leagues. The figure doesn’t include others who played in various other independent white leagues throughout the country. No acknowledged black players would do so for another half century.
Findlay picked up a few strong black players after the disbanding of the Page Fence Giants, including Home Run Johnson and former Adrian ace George Wilson, who the Lima Daily News called “the greatest of southpaw twirlers.” Despite Fowler’s efforts in reorganizing the team, bringing in some solid players and performing the field manager duties, his white teammates wanted him and the other black players gone. They succeeded, as demonstrated by The Sporting News in July, “The white members of the Findlay ball club have drawn the color line and have demanded of Dr. [W.H.] Drake, their backer, that Bud Fowler, colored, be ousted from the team. They will quit if their demand is not heeded.” The other black players had already left to join the Chicago Columbia Giants with many of the old Page Fence players.
Drake appeased the white players, but he joined Fowler in forming, in Findlay, a team called the All-American Black Tourists. Actually the pair had formed the club at the beginning of the year, at least the idea of it, and planned a postseason barnstorming tour to California. Bud contacted his intended squad and they met in Findlay in mid September to begin the trip out west. Unfortunately, finances fell apart by the time they hit Decatur two weeks later and the men scattered.
The Black Tourists arose again in 1900. The traveled like the Page Fence Giants in a railroad car. The games were preceded by a parade from the car to the ballpark. The players emerged in full dress attire: black pants; white vests; tailed coats; opera hats; silk umbrellas. Fowler would openly declare, “By request of any club, we will play the game in these suits.” Fowler formed the Pittsburgh-based Smoky City Giants and managed the club in 1901.
In 1902, Fowler was based, for much of the year, in Indiana. As the Indianapolis Recorder exclaimed in May, “Bud Fowler, of Monrovia, Ind., was in the city this week. Mr. Fowler is manager of the colored All-American baseball team…composed of members of the Cuban Giants, the Chicago Unions, and the Page Fence Giants.” On July 1, the Indianapolis News declared, “A colored baseball league was organized last night.” Fowler was named secretary. He broke two ribs sliding into second base in Indianapolis in 1902 which would have a significant effect on his health in later years. In 1904, he was with the Kansas City Stars, another black club.
At the end of 1904, Fowler tried to establish yet another black professional league, but the backing didn’t materialize. After several failed attempts to organize such a league, he grumbled to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “One of these days a few people with enough nerve to take the chance will form a colored league of about eight cities and pull of a barrel of money.” The timeframe just wasn’t right. The year 1904 was on the cusp of the proliferation of strong black clubs matched with cities that took enough interest to support them. Soon enough, there would be strong black clubs throughout the country. The first successful national Negro league wouldn’t field teams until 1920. Living in Cincinnati, Fowler re-established the Black Tourists for the 1905 season. The club would operate, under his direction, on and off through at least 1909. With the Tourists his thirty-year career in professional baseball ended.
Fowler retired to Frankfort, New York, the home of his sister. In September 1908, the Sporting Life informed its readers of his health problems: “Bud Fowler, probably the greatest colored ball player who ever lived and a man well known in the professional baseball world for thirty years, is dying here [Frankfort] of slow consumption…He was a fine all-around player, good batter and fine fielder, and owing to his careful habits remained long in the game.” The consumption report proved to be erroneous. Fowler personally wrote the Sporting Life in March 1909, “Bud Fowler … writes us from his home … that he has not consumption at all. An x-ray examination has revealed the fact that he has for six years been suffering from an injury sustained while stealing a base in Indianapolis. He broke the lower left rib, which bent inward, growing on the end hard flesh which pierced the kidney. Fowler has had the rib removed by an operation and is now rapidly recovering his health and strength. He has just composed a baseball song, which he has dedicated to the National Commission. It deals with Cooperstown, N.Y., where the game was first named and the first diamond was laid out.”
John Jackson/Fowler, nearly 55 years old, died on February 26, 1913, at his sister’s home of pernicious anemia, a rare red blood cell disorder associated with the inability to absorb vitamin B-12. He was interred at Oak View Cemetery in Frankfort. In 1987, the Society for American Baseball Research purchased a headstone and placed it on his unmarked grave. It reads, “John W. Jackson: `Bud Fowler,’ Black Baseball Pioneer.”
John Fowler was a baseball nomad. He could have had a decent career in the Northeast where he grew up, but he chose to branch out to all corners of the country. The only places he seemed to repeatedly revisit were New York State (where his family was), St. Louis (where his wife’s family was), and Cincinnati. He was seemingly on a mission – the promotion of black baseball and black players. Wherever there was a significant effort to create a black league during the nineteenth century, you’ll find Fowler’s involvement. Sometimes the idea was his, sometimes it was another’s. In the latter case, it was likely that Fowler’s influence existed beforehand to some measure. Of course today we understand the futility of a black man roaming the country in the 1880s and 1890s trying to establish and market such a product. Nevertheless, he did what he could, given the limitations.
I find similarities in the careers of Fowler and the greatest baseball promoter of the nineteenth century, Ted P. Sullivan. Sullivan’s efforts found much more success for an obvious reason – he was a white man promoting white baseball. They both traveled extensively, hitting multiple corners of the map each calendar year. This makes both extremely hard to track. Once they got things up and running, they usually took off for the next challenge. In Fowler’s case, this may be due to the reality of the fans’ apathy come Opening Day. Both Fowler and Sullivan formed teams and leagues with regularity. They brought in some of the best talent they could find and were often sought for their advice on players and assistance in filling open roster spots. Communities throughout the country sought their expertise when getting into the business. Baseball men throughout the land wanted scouting reports and recommendations. As the game was in its early stage, the tasks were never-ending. They readily packed up and headed for the next adventure — perhaps that was their goal all along.
Sullivan and Fowler have another thing in common — the relative obscurity of their careers and their lack of support from Hall of Fame voters. The formation of the Hall didn’t occur until the 1930s, by which time the National and American Leagues had been firmly set as the dominant forces in the game for more than three decades (perhaps that’s also one reason many National Association and American Association careers are ignored). Much of Fowler and Sullivan’s contributions were at the minor-league level or below. In Fowler’s case, he wasn’t welcomed to a higher classification. However, his repeated success in the high minors clearly warranted a promotion to the majors. If I had written this bio without mentioning his race, the reader would be turning the pages looking for the rest of the story — his time in the majors. In Sullivan’s case, his promotional talents were of greater importance at the minor league level.
The figure cited of African-American men in Organized Baseball during the 19th century does not include the League of Colored Base Ball Players, which operated briefly in 1887 and signed the National Agreement.
Thanks to the fine posters at Baseball-fever.com for their responses to a couple questions I had while researching Fowler’s history and black baseball in general.
Jeff Kittel was helpful in providing me with information about Fowler’s time in St. Louis and exchanging a few ideas on the subject.
Dr. James E. Brunson III was kind enough to share some information he collected on Bud Fowler concerning the years 1882, 1883 and 1886.
Aurora News, Iowa, 1890.
Binghamton Daily Leader, New York, 1887.
Boston Daily Advertiser, 1878.
Boston Globe, 1878, 1887.
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Brooklyn Eagle, 1887.
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Burlington Hawk-Eye, Iowa, 1890.
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Chicago Tribune, 1890.
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Cleveland Herald, 1884, 1889.
Daily Inter Ocean, Chicago, 1888-1889, 1895.
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Decatur Daily Republican, Ohio, 1888.
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Dubuque Daily News, Iowa, 1890.
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Findlay Republican, Ohio, 1894.
Fort Wayne Evening Post, Indiana, 1896.
Fort Wayne Morning Journal, Indiana, 1884.
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Logansport Pharos, Indiana, 1888.
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Mansfield News, Ohio, 1899.
Marysville Tribune, Ohio, 1899.
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Milwaukee Sentinel, 1884-1886 and 1891.
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Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln, 1886, 1897.
New Castle News, Pennsylvania, 1901.
New York Globe, 1884.
New York World, 1883.
Olean Times, New York, 1909.
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Wisconsin, 1898.
Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams Before Black Men Played in the Major Leagues. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1970.
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Richwood Gazette, Ohio, 1900.
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Rochester Chronicle, 1887.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 1887.
Rocky Mountain News, Denver, 1884-1891.
Rutland Herald, Vermont, 1887.
Rutland Monitor, Vermont, 1887.
Santa Fe Herald, New Mexico, 1888.
Simons, William M. The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, 2002. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2002.
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Sporting Life, 1885-1909.
The Sporting News, 1899.
Sterling Evening Gazette, Illinois, 1890.
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St. Paul Daily Globe, 1884.
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Toronto World, 1887.
Van Wert Daily Bulletin, Ohio, 1905.
Vermont Watchman, Montpelier, 1887.
Washington Post, 1886, 1892, 1894, 1909.
Waukesha Freeman, Wisconsin, 1891.
Waukesha Journal, Wisconsin, 1891.
John W. Jackson Jr. Fowler
March 16, 1858 at Fort Plain, NY (US)
February 26, 1913 at Frankfort, NY (US)
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