Ervin Fowlkes was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on January 18, 1922, and grew up in the Brownsville section of that humid city on the banks of the Calcasieu River.1 He was the seventh-born of Richard and Rosa Fowlkes’ 10 children. Richard and Rosa were both natives of southeastern Louisiana, although Richard’s paternal line traces back to slavery and sharecropping in Nottoway County, Virginia.2
Ervin’s younger brother, Samuel, left a larger mark in baseball history. Sam is thought to be the first black player to break the Louisiana baseball color line when he pitched for the Lake Charles Lakers in 1952. Both Ervin and Sam played for prominent Negro League teams in the years after World War II.
Ervin enlisted in the US Army in December 1942 and served through the end of 1945, attaining the rank of corporal. That following season he appeared with his brother on the roster for the 1946 Boston Blues of Branch Rickey’s ephemeral United States League.3 Sam was a pitcher and Ervin was a shortstop. The team played most of its games in the West and in New York, principally at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field. In fact, former Blues pitcher Robert Scott said that he didn’t remember ever playing in Boston.4 The Blues disbanded, along with the rest of the short-lived league, before the season was over.
In 1947 Ervin played shortstop and sometimes second base with the barnstorming Detroit Senators for the majority of the season. He appears to have joined the team only after it was involved in a bus crash on May 24 in which six of the team’s players were injured.5 The Cincinnati Enquirer provided a more detailed account of the crash in its June 18, 1947, edition:
“[…] a bus occupied by the Detroit Senators, Negro baseball team, crashed into a garage. … [Walter] Burch, who was driving the bus, en route to Cincinnati for a series of games, turned into the opposite side of the road in rounding the “Big Bend” on the Dixie Highway when the brakes on the bus failed, police said. Several of the players were injured.”6
The Enquirer made no mention of the seriousness of the injuries. However, it did report that Edward and Rosella Kroiss, the owners of the property into which the bus had crashed, had filed a $500 lawsuit against Senators owner Abe Saperstein, Burch, and the Dependable Motors Company. Prior to the crash, there is no record of Fowlkes playing for the Senators; his name appears for the first time in an article and box score from a May 29 game against the Havana Las Palomas at Cincinnati’s Fans Field; thus, it is possible that he was signed to replace one of the players who was injured in the bus crash.7
It is unclear where Sam spent 1947, but he pitched for the Kansas City Monarchs and the Chicago American Giants in 1948. Though Sam became the better-known player of the two Fowlkes brothers, it was Ervin who played on the team that made it to the last Negro League World Series as a member of the 1948 Homestead Grays. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Fowlkes was a part-time shortstop for that championship squad. He has been described as “a good fielder but light hitter who usually batted in the eighth spot in the lineup.”8 His role was limited, and available statistics – which likely are incomplete – list him as having only 12 at-bats that season.9
Sam went on to play for several more seasons with the Monarchs; Western Canadian teams from Delisle and Saskatoon; the Lake Charles Lakers; and the Roswell and Clovis, New Mexico, teams. However, no accounts of Ervin playing baseball after 1948 have appeared. He went on to live in Kansas City, Missouri, where he married Ardella Cook in December 1957. Ervin and Ardella remained in Kansas City, raising a son and daughter while he worked as a branch manager for the S.A. Maxwell wall-covering company. Ervin was actively involved with his Baptist church and local Masonic club until his death on December 3, 1994, at age 72. He was buried at Leavenworth National Cemetery.
This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.
1 Some sources, including baseball-reference.com, list Fowlkes with a birth year of 1924; however, his official military record lists his year of birth as 1922. As to the spelling of Fowlkes’ name, he can be found listed most frequently with his first name spelled Erwin, though he is sometimes also listed as Irwin. His last name has been given alternately as Foulkes or Folkes. Census records show that his given birth name was Ervin Fowlkes.
2 “The Louisiana Jackie, Part 1” from Home Plate Don’t Move blog – homeplatedontmove.wordpress.com/2014/04/15/the-louisiana-jackie-part-1/, confirmed via US Census records.
3 Center for Negro League Baseball Research, cnlbr.org/Portals/0/Rosters/Rosters%20-%20United%20States%20League%20(1945-1946).pdf.
4 Chris Lamb, “Did Branch Rickey Sign Jackie Robinson to Right a 40-Year Wrong?,” Black Ball: A Negro Leagues Journal, Vol. 6: 17.
5 “Twin Bill at Reds’ Park Today. Detroit Outfit to Play Despite Accident – Las Palomas, Crescents Also Billed,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 25, 1947: 36.
6 “Chicagoans Named in Bus Crash Suit,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 18, 1947: 18. Abe Saperstein, perhaps best known as the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, was also a former co-owner of the Birmingham Black Barons. Winfield S. Welch, the Senators’ manager in 1947, had been the Black Barons’ manager and had scouted much of the Birmingham squad’s talent while Saperstein co-owned the team. There is some irony in the fact that Fowlkes ended up playing for the Homestead Grays in 1948, since the Grays defeated the Black Barons – Saperstein’s and Welch’s former team – in that final Negro League World Series.
7 “Detroit Nine Beats Havana Crew, 8-3,” Decatur (Illinois) Daily Review, May 30, 1947: 15. In what appears to have been an ongoing problem for Fowlkes, his name is misspelled as “Irvin Fowlics” in this news article.
8 James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994), 295.