John W. Fowler
a.k.a.: John W. Jackson (his real name)
Positions: 2b, p, ss, 3b, of, c, manager
Teams: minor leagues (1877-1879, 1881, 1884-1899), Page Fence Giants (1895), Cuban Giants (1898), Smoky City Giants (1901), All-American Black Tourists (1903), Kansas City Stars (1904)
Height: 5' 7'' Weight: 155
Born: March 16, 1858, Fort Plain, New York
Died: February 26, 1913, Frankfurt, New York
He was the first professional black ballplayer, beginning his career in 1878, only one year after the first minor league was organized. Born John W. Jackson, the son of a fugitive hop-picker and barber, he lived in Cooperstown, New York, as a youngster, and may well have learned the rudiments of baseball on the sandlots of the region. For some undiscovered reason he took the name of Bud Fowler when he began playing professionally. Unsubstantiated reports that he played with the Washington Mutuals in 1869 and with a Newcastle, Pennsylvania, team in 1872 cannot be confirmed and are improbable.
He began his career as a pitcher, and the first documented account of his appearing in a game was with Chelsea, Massachusetts, in April 1878. Later that month, pitching for Lynn Live Oaks of the International Association, he defeated Tommy Bond and the famed Boston Nationals, 2-1, in an exhibition game. Over the next few seasons he played with Worchester of the New England Association (1878), Malden of the Eastern Massachusetts League (1879), Guelph, Ontario (1881), and the Petrolia Imperials (1881). After 1884, when he finished with a 7-8 record with Stillwater, Minnesota, of the Northwestern League, he did not pitch substantially.
Eventually he became an everyday player and, while he could play any position, second base became his preferred spot. He continued to play in white leagues, appearing with Keokuk in the Western League (1885), Pueblo in the Colorado League (1885), Topeka in the Western League (1886), Binghamton in the International League (1887), Montpelier in the New England League (1887), Crawfordsville in the Central Interstate League (1888), Terre Haute in the Central Interstate League (1888), Santa Fe in the New Mexico League (1888), Greenville in the Michigan League (1889), Galesburg of the Central Interstate League (1890), Sterling of the Illinois-Iowa League (1890), Burlington of the Illinois-Iowa League (1890), Lincoln-Kearney of the Nebraska State League (1892), and the independent Findlay, Ohio, team (1891, 1893-1894, 1896-1899).
In the early days of baseball there was no official color line, and he played in organized baseball with white ballclubs until the color line became established and entrenched. However, his stays were almost always of short duration despite his playing ability-probably because of the race factor. In 1887 he was dropped from Binghamton of the International League and was forbidden to sign with another International League team.
In the fall of 1894, the social conditions led him to organize the Page Fence Giants, an all-black team sponsored by the Page Woven Wire Fence Company of Adrian, Michigan, and the team began play the following spring with Fowler as the playing manager and Grant "Home Run" Johnson as the shortstop and captain. That spring the Page Fence Giants played a 2-game exhibition series against the National League Cincinnati Reds but dropped both games. However, the season was a success, as they ended it with a 118-36 record for a .766 winning percentage and Fowler hit .316 for the year. Fowler had left the team before the end of the season to play with the Lansing team of the Michigan State League and hit .331 while splitting his time between second base and third base. That was to be his tenth and last season in organized baseball, a record until broken by Jackie Robinson in his last season with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
He also played with the Cuban Giants in 1898, and as his playing skills faded, he became more inclined toward organizing and managing various barnstorming black ballclubs. These teams included the Smoky City Giants (1901), the All-American Black Tourists (1903), and the Kansas City Stars (1904), and although now in his forties, Fowler continued to play himself except with the latter team. At the end of his career he asserted that he had played on teams based in twenty-two different states and in Canada.
In 1909, with Fowler in failing health, several attempts were made to play a benefit game for the ailing baseballist, but the efforts all proved unfruitful and the game never materialized. Less than three years later, the "real first” black professional baseball player died of pernicious anemia after an extended illness, just eighteen days short of his fifty-fifth birthday.
Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.