Bud Fowler, Black Pioneer, and the 1884 Stillwaters

This article was written by Robert Tholkes

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

The proliferation of professional baseball teams in 1884 provided an historic high-water mark for the sport’s surge of popularity in the early 1880s. Teams and leagues were launched on a wing and a prayer in May, only to crash in August and September. The Northwestern League and its entry from Stillwater, Minn., the team whose season is traced here, were typical. The over-expansion of 1884 also produced an unprecedented demand for players; when combined with the temporary relaxation of strictures on racial relations in that pre-Jim Crow year, the opportunity was created for the first noteworthy entry of black players into the upper levels of Organized Baseball. John W. (Bud) Fowler, pioneer black player and organizer, played for the Stillwaters from start to early finish. If franchise instability and the inclusion of blacks are accepted as the two most distinctive characteristics of professional baseball in 1884, then their combined influences capsulized a memorable baseball year.

Bud Fowler (real name John W. Jackson) was already a well-traveled veteran when he was recruited for the Stillwaters by the team’s chief spokesman and operating officer, Charles P. Gregory, a local attorney. Behind Gregory were a group of businessmen and other civic boosters who had become stockholders in the Stillwater Baseball Club. Fowler’s name first appears in a boxscore in 1875, as pitcher for the Live Oaks of Lynn, Mass., a white team. The article accompanying the boxscore mentions that he was colored, but does not otherwise indicate that his presence was extraordinary.

He presumably spent the years between 1875 and 1884 plying his dual trades of ballplayer and barber, as he did in Stillwater, playing wherever his color permitted. If, as is now believed, he was born in New York State in 1858, he was 26 when he somehow made contact with Gregory and joined the Stillwaters.

The Northwestern League, which added Stillwater among other cities when it doubled its membership to 12 teams for 1884, was fairly fast company, possibly the best which Fowler had entered to that point. Several players, such as Fowler’s teammate, Frank Jones, Bob Caruthers of Minneapolis and Dave Foutz of Grand Rapids, went directly from the Northwestern League to National League or American Association teams. The Milwaukee team, in fourth place when the league folded in September, afterward joined the Union Association and won eight of 11 games in that circuit. Stillwater (population 15,000) faced the double handicap of being much the smallest city in the league (Bay City, Mich., was next smallest at 27,000) and of being remote from sources of available players.

To fill his roster Gregory engaged various Easterners such as Fowler and Chicago-area players unable to catch on with teams closer to home. Minneapolis and St. Paul both fielded teams in the Northwestern League, and thus Stillwater’s advantage of having two natural rivals in the field was offset by rivalry for the limited pool of local talent; only Joe Visner of Minneapolis was persuaded to cross city limits. Of the 13 players signed by Stillwater before the beginning of spring practice on April 15, four were sent home before the season started May 2, and four more were dismissed or left before the team folded, forcing management to employ other teams’ rejects. By the time the team dissolved, 27 players had worn Stillwater’s cardinal-and-white colors.

The playing field was also a major problem. Extensive renovation of the existing field was necessary for league play, and this was not completed until June. As a result, the team played its first 26 games on the road.

Under the circumstances, a player of Fowler’s capabilities must have seemed a godsend and a prodigy – or should have. He wasn’t in the lineup, however, for the opening game, a 15-0 disaster against Peoria in which the team made ten errors and had only five hits. Fowler had been one of the first signees and was in town early in March, working out when possible and barbering in the meantime. He roomed at an establishment called the Live and Let Live House and presumably did his best to get along in what was then (and remains) an overwhelmingly white community. Integration very definitely had its limits, and his name doesn’t appear in an April newspaper article listing ballplayers who had attended the big event of the spring, the opening of the new roller skating rink. Fowler had been signed as a catcher. He had been a pitcher-catcher since starting his pro career, though he would soon turn to the infield, winning a reputation as a top fielding second baseman. Stillwater was relatively well stocked with catchers, so the versatile Fowler played where needed, pitching or playing the outfield and sometimes catching and playing third base.

Fowler’s benching, if it was that, was short-lived. He made his debut the next day, May 3, in a 12-8 loss to Peoria. He contributed a triple and single in five at-bats, playing center field and catching. The team suffered a jolt that day when field manager Joel May, a former railroad superintendent, requested his release so he could accept a position with the Northern Pacific. His request was denied, and the team stumbled on, losing game after game under May’s unwilling direction, until the losing streak reached 15 on May 22. Manager May was finally liberated and replaced by Joe Miller of nearby White Bear Lake, a National Association alumnus.

The losses in the streak ranged from the ridiculous (21-9 to Bay City and 16-0 to Quincy) to the exasperating (1-0 to Peoria on a dropped fly ball, a loss in which Fowler lined into a triple play). Aside from the triple play, Fowler stood aloof from the futility.

He made his pitching debut on May 7, holding Quincy to one run in three innings after starting the game in left field. A foot injury suffered May 8 hampered him for a while; he returned to the box on May 16, losing his first start to Bay City by a respectable 4-0 score. Finally, on May 25, he posted the team’s first victory, 13-7 over Fort Wayne. He was, meanwhile, receiving favorable reviews in the press. Newspapers in Bay City, Quincy and Peoria praised his outfield play, his hustle and his fast pitching, and the Stillwater Sun lauded him on May 13 as the “colored bonanza.” He was earning a reputation as an exciting player. More tangibly his win over Fort Wayne also netted him a bonus from admirers in Stillwater – $10 and a suit of clothes.

The baseball bubble in Stillwater, however, had been considerably deflated by the losing streak and the team’s prolonged absence from home. Criticism and sarcasm replaced the optimistic expectations of April, despite a turnaround following the initial victory. With Fowler pitching regularly and with the addition of new players, notably future major leaguer Otto Shomberg, the Stillwaters swept three-game series from Fort Wayne and Terre Haute. By the time they returned to Stillwater for the June 9 home opener against Minneapolis, they were 7-19 and in tenth place. Fowler had accounted for five of those six straight victories, pitching six complete games in nine days, and was 9-for-24 at the plate with four doubles.

Fowler was allowed to rest his arm after the winning streak ended June 3 and was available to pitch in the two opening home series against Minneapolis and St. Paul, which were virtual standoffs. Fowler split two decisions against Minneapolis, recording 17 strikeouts, as Stillwater won two of three, and took a less active role in the St. Paul series, where two of three were lost. Judging by the amount of attention Fowler was getting in the local press, he had become a local favorite. The rave reviews in out-of-town papers were reprinted by the daily Sun (until it folded on June 1), and the weekly Messenger commented on June 14, at the end of the Minneapolis and St. Paul series, “Fowler is our baseball Mascot.” This was a somewhat left handed compliment when it is considered that black mascots in that era were usually young boys kept as batboys and good luck pieces. It does indicate an affectionate regard and, one would hope, respect for Fowler’s prowess.

The earlier winning streak, which produced enthusiasm for Stillwater’s homecoming, and the series of close, exciting games against their home-state rivals were the zenith of Stillwater’s season. Though the team later posted four-game and five-game winning streaks, they remained in tenth place or worse, and their record from that point never was better than 11 games under .500. Additional home games against Minneapolis and St. Paul weren’t scheduled until August, too late to help attendance. The town’s decision in June to ban Sunday baseball didn’t help either; the team resorted to scheduling games in White Bear Lake.

Manager Miller compounded matters by resigning on June 15. An ex-umpire named Fred Gunkle replaced him, only to leave before month’s end in favor of ex-Chicago infielder Johnny Peters. Peters accomplished a brief revival, leading the club to extra-inning victories at Minneapolis on July 1 and 2 that, according to Sporting Life, “set the citizens of Stillwater wild.” Fowler did not resume his pitching heroics, presumably because of arm trouble. He pitched only sporadically in the team’s last 32 games, playing instead in the outfield. He put together a torrid streak at the plate from June 26 to July 14, going 16-for-31, but also drew a $10 fine for a wild throw.

Meanwhile, rumors of dissolution had begun. The Messenger denied such a report on June 28, stating the team was making expenses. By July 12 many speculated that the team would disband at the end of the year, and the stockholders were assessed to raise operating funds. Roster changes and financial problems – some paydays were probably missed – were keeping things unstable on the field as well. The team lost six straight in mid-July, turned around and won four, then resettled into its losing ways. Fowler, after pitching in four of five games between July 9 and July 18, didn’t play in five of the next seven; he perhaps still had a sore arm. Players continued to come and go rapidly as the month drew to a close, and financial losses mounted. The Messenger noted on July 26 that costs per game were $100 plus salaries, while receipts varied between $25 and $100. Stockholders were failing to pay the assessment levied on July 12.

Faced with a shambles on the field (the team lost its last six games by a combined score of 59-12) and off, the directors finally voted to disband, effective August 4, making Stillwater the fourth Northwestern League club to go under. The players were paid off. Losses totaled about $7,500, and the team’s last battles were fought in court, where stockholders who had paid their July assessment sued those who had not. Sporting Life, down on the team and the town in general since the daily paper had folded on June 1, fired a farewell salvo on August 13:

This club should never have been admitted to the league … the one-horse character of the village can best be gleaned from the fact that it was not able to sustain a daily newspaper. A fine town truly for a baseball club.

Bud Fowler apparently had no immediate plans. His presence in Stillwater was noted a month after the dissolution; he had returned to barbering. He could call his performance with the Stillwaters a success – a batting average of .302 and a 7-8 pitching record for a team that finished 22-41. Johnny Peters eventually helped him catch on with the Keokuk team of the Western League for 1885. That year proved no more stable for him – he played on three teams, each of which disbanded. He continued to play on largely white teams, performing well above standard but was denied a major-league shot. In 1890, when growing intolerance ended the brief history of black players in nineteenth-century Organized Baseball, he lost his last chance to play in the major leagues.