Homecoming for an Unsung Hero

More than a century after his death, Bud Fowler, the first African American to play professional baseball, scores his place in sports history.

A vintage photo of six baseball players.
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
HAVE CLEATS, WILL TRAVEL: Bud Fowler (third from left) with other members of the Keokuk (Iowa) Hawkeyes in 1885.

Last July, some 30,000 attendees of Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony were treated to a picture-perfect day amid the green rolling hills beside Otsego Lake’s southern shore, in Cooperstown, New York.

They were also witnessing a historic event, even if they didn’t realize it.

Of the seven 2022 inductees, former Boston Red Sox superstar David “Big Papi” Ortiz was easily the most recognizable. Former Minnesota Twins stars Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva were well known. So were baseball legends Minnie Miñoso and Gil Hodges.

Two inductees were less familiar. Buck O’Neil was a former Negro Leagues player and manager who, in 1962, became the first Black coach in the Major Leagues (and served as a leading voice in Ken Burns’ 1994 documentary “Baseball”).

The seventh inductee, Bud Fowler, seemed as largely unknown in 2022 as he had been in life. He was the first African American to play baseball professionally, and he was coming home that day.

Born in 1858 in Fort Plain, New York, Fowler moved to Cooperstown with his family when he was 3. He started playing baseball before he was 10. A gifted fielder with a quick bat and endless energy, Fowler was well liked as a teammate and struck others as a man who lived to play the game. (He had one flaw: He was apparently incapable of recalling people’s names, even teammates’ — thus earning the nickname “Bud,” his own catch-all greeting.)

He was a member of dozens of professional teams (many of which he integrated), and he played year-round, traveling North America in summer, then heading to the Caribbean and South America, returning north again in the spring to repeat the cycle. Stories abound of this amiable, upbeat baseball nomad stepping off a train in the middle of nowhere — Stillwater, Findlay, Keokuk — carrying nothing but a small bag slung from a bat, which contained his scuffed-up mitt and a pair of well-worn cleats.

Fowler played at least 10 (and likely more) consecutive seasons of organized professional baseball, a record not broken until Jackie Robinson’s final season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Despite his talent and well-traveled career, Fowler never made it to the Major Leagues. It’s not that he wasn’t good enough. He was. And it wasn’t because his skills faded. They didn’t. His brimming, youthful passion to play baseball never faltered, even as he aged.

In the end, it was Fowler’s skin color that failed him. Even after the color barrier — Major League Baseball’s original sin — rose up in 1887, Fowler still fought relentlessly for a place in organized baseball, as teams everywhere shed Black ballplayers and refused to sign more. Fowler crisscrossed America in search of any team that would take him, like a man desperately trying to outrun an inescapable end. In one awkward instance, Fowler signed, sight unseen, with a team that didn’t realize he was Black until he arrived in town, where surprise gave way to “Sorry, but ...”

Reluctantly, in 1895, he took the well-worn cleats off for the last time.

“My skin is against me,” Fowler wrote. “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 just barred me.”

As the 20th century unfolded, organized baseball, which had earlier been something of a social outlier, with some small degree of integration, became just as segregated as every other part of America.

Then, in 1920 — only seven years after Fowler died, at age 54 — Rube Foster, one of the first great Black pitchers, founded the legendary Negro Leagues. They were a vital showcase for Black ballplayers, and the single most significant catalyst for changing white attitudes about the color barrier, spawning superstars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell.

The Negro Leagues also boosted the career of great Black sportswriters like Wendell Smith, Sam Lacy, and Nell Dodson Russell, talented writers who reminded their readers that only the color barrier prevented Black stars from taking their rightful place alongside Dizzy Dean, Jimmie Foxx, and Joe DiMaggio. Behind the scenes, railroad’s Pullman porters were also a powerful ally in the struggle, surreptitiously delivering Black newspapers across the country; extending the reach of the Black sportswriters; and amplifying their calls for equality, justice, and change.

At long last, change came. During World War II, moral outrage grew over the fact that Black soldiers who were risking their lives for their country would be forbidden from playing professional baseball when they became civilians again.

In 1945, Boston city councilor Isadore Muchnick succeeded in forcing the Red Sox to hold a tryout for three Black ballplayers, including a young Negro Leaguer named Jackie Robinson. The tryout was a sham, thanks to Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. But Brooklyn Dodgers president and general manager Branch Rickey, who liked what scouts had told him about Robinson, signed him.

On April 15, 1947, Robinson, wearing number 42, made Major League history as he trotted out to play first base at a packed, electric Ebbets Field. Flashbulbs popped. A rolling roar swept the park. The color barrier had fallen.

Jackie Robinson was inducted into Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1962. How fitting that exactly 60 years later — the same length of time it took to bring the color barrier down — he was joined in Cooperstown by Bud Fowler.

Few who attended Fowler’s induction ceremony knew much about him, but that wouldn’t have mattered to him. He was never bothered by his anonymity as a player. He had ranged far and wide just to be part of the game he loved. Now he was home again, his legend and contributions enshrined in bronze, recognized for making baseball — and America — better.

Ted Reinstein is an award-winning correspondent for “Chronicle,” WCVB Boston’s nightly newsmagazine. He is also the author of four books, including “Before Brooklyn: The Unsung Heroes Who Helped Break Baseball’s Color Barrier” (Lyons Press, 2021).