Jackie Robinson may have broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball, the organization, but there were several Black players in the game well before him.
One of those early Black pioneers was Bud Fowler.
Recently inducted hall-of-famer Bud Fowler.
When Fowler was enshrined in Cooperstown along with the best of baseball, many casual fans didn’t even know of the guy before then. Then those casual fans came to know him as a player who did well for several minor league programs in baseball’s early days in the late 19th century.
It only took a deep dive by this baseball history enthusiast about into Bud Fowler, a year after his induction, to find out a very interesting local connection.
As it turns out, Fowler played on one of Sterling’s two recognized professional minor league baseball programs: the 1890 Sterling Blue Coats. (Sterling’s only other minor league team was the 1910 Sterling Infants of the Class D Northern Association.)
Fowler played professional baseball for more than 20 years, from 1872 to 1895, and supported himself in most of the cities he played in cutting people’s hair a barber. Fowler’s debut with the 1872 New Castle, Penn. team comes a decade after another Black man, Moses Fleetwood Walker, made his professional major league debut for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. The way history worked in the days after Robinson’s debut in 1947 was that many, many people didn’t know about Fleetwood until years later, and then many, many people didn’t know about Fowler until even after that.
So how did a future Baseball Hall of Fame player make it to Sterling? Much of this research is based on a 1987 short publication by L. Robert Davids, the founder of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), written for the dedication of a tombstone in Frankfort, New York, where he is buried. Fowler was born with the name John W. Jackson.
From 1885 to 1889, Fowler bounced around the country from cities such as Keokuk, Iowa to Pueblo, Colorado to Topeka, Kansas to Binghamton, New York and then a team named the Hoosiers that began the 1888 season in Crawfordsville, Indiana before moving to Terre Haute during the season. Several minor league teams in baseball’s earliest days would change home bases depending on finances, travel situations and popularity. Fowler played second base throughout much of his career, and pitched on occasion up until 1889.
In 1890, Fowler played for a brief time on the Galesburg Pavers, named after the Purington Paver brick company in nearby East Galesburg. The Pavers were in the Central Interstate League alongside teams from Evansville, Indiana; Burlington, Iowa; Terre Haute, Indiana; and Peoria and Quincy in Illinois. Fowler’s team, however, had a poor 6-22 start to their season before it moved to Indianapolis on May 28. Instead of moving with the team, Fowler stayed in Illinois.
Looking for a different team to play on all of a sudden, Fowler joined a new team in Sterling, the Blue Coats, who were charter members of the new Illinois-Iowa League (“the Two-I League”). Other charter teams were based in Aurora, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Joliet, Monmouth, Ottawa and eventual inaugural champion Ottumwa. [Fun fact: The Ottawa club’s nickname was the Pirates, similar to the public high school in town.]
Sterling’s home games were played on the Sporting Association Grounds near the intersection of Ave. D and West 10th Street, on farm land owned by Augustus Kilgour (namesake of Kilgour Park). The area now is entirely residential, and no existing features of a baseball diamond currently can be found.
The Sterling Blue Coats and new league began play in July, 1890. However, much like how Fowler’s previous team fared, the Blue Coats weren’t all that successful, either, with just 21 wins in their first 72 games. This team eventually went back to Galesburg on July 31 and became the second incarnation of the Pavers, but even they went 8-17. Finally, the club made Burlington its third home, on Sept. 4, renamed themselves the Hawkeyes, and lost four out of its only five games before disbanding for good on Sept. 10.
During a 7-3 home win over Joliet on July 2, Fowler’s glove work at second base was written about significantly in the next day’s Sterling Evening Gazette: “Our new second baseman, Fowler, caught the crowd by his field work, and put up the finest game at second 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 game him a big recognition of the successful effort.”
Fowler’s play was noted as being “unexcelled” in a brief article for the Sterling Standard on July 3: “The colored second baseman, Fowler, is unexcelled, and all the team are above the average.”
One highlight of the Blue Coats’ season was an extra-inning win at Cedar Rapids on July 11. A report of the game written for the Gazette described the 12-9 comeback win as follows: “We started the tenth at [the] head of [the] batting list and McCann drove a liner to left center; Mackey sent him in by a double to left; Fowler followed with a double to center and stole third, and came in when Barnes’ fly was allowed to drop inside the diamond with four able-bodied men standing around it.”
During one of the Blue Coats’ final games as a Sterling-based team, they traveled to Dubuque on July 28 to take on the Giants, where he racked up four hits and five stolen bases. The Giants were owned by Sanford A. Atherton, and the Dubuque Daily Times newspaper covered the game with a comment of note being: “And how some of them ran the bases, especially that man Fowler. Just think, five stolen bases off [of] Jones in one game. As President Atherton said yesterday, if he had only been painted white he would be playing with the best of them.”
Fowler’s performance on the 28th came on the same day a critique of his playing was printed in that day’s Sterling Evening Gazette, courtesy of what had already been published in the Cedar Rapids Gazette a few days before. Appearing the the Gazette’s “Base Ball Notes” snippet was, “Fowler, the colored second baseman of the Sterlings can hit anything and is a great base runner, but he puts up rather a poor fielding game.”
The Blue Boys-Pavers-Hawkeyes wound up finishing in last place in the Two-I with a 30-72 record, and had four different managers during the season: James Donnelly, Charles Wirsche, Al Weddige and Clarence Hoyt. Besides Donnelly, other players with major league experience included Varney Anderson, Fritz Clausen and Jack Scheible. According to statistical research done by Davids, Fowler finished the season with a batting average of .314 (48-for-153), 11 doubles, two triples, 14 stolen bases and 18 runs scored.
Fowler moved on to Findlay, Ohio for the 1891 season and continued to play on several more teams until his retirement. Until 1904, he played and/or managed for four teams recognized as top-level Negro League teams: the Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Michigan; Cuban Giants of Trenton, New Jersey,; All-American Black Tourists of Washington, D.C. and the Kansas City Stars.
While Fowler’s Negro League statistics are not known at this time, minor league totals compiled by Davids give him the following: 465 games played, a .308 lifetime average (628-for-2,039), 112 doubles, 38 triples, seven home runs, 190 RBI, 455 runs scored and at least 190 stolen bases.
We now know him as Bud Fowler, but that is not his real name. John W. Jackson, who earned the nickname “Bud” because he called everyone that, according to Davids, was born on March 16, 1858 in Ford Plain, New York. He grew up in nearby Cooperstown, where most people know today as the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame he is now a part of. Fowler is the only former Cooperstown resident enshrined in baseball’s esteemed hall. After retiring from the game, he went back to New York, where he died on Feb. 26, 1913.
Baseball was Sterling’s first sport that would become extremely popular in America. Football was played almost entirely on college campuses then, and basketball wasn’t invented when Fowler manned second base for the Sterling Blue Coats in July of 1890. Several local baseball teams have come and gone, but its most prominent athlete – Bud Fowler, or John W. Jackson – is a name now new to the community and unearthed from Sterling’s past.
Sterling’s brief tenure as a minor league baseball home comes to a close
From the July 31 Sterling Standard:
“The franchise of the Sterling base ball association in the Illinois-Iowa League was sold last Friday to the Galesburg Association, the consideration being $100, and the payment of league dues $110, together with $310 for unused mileage tickets, or a total sum of $510. It is believed that this sum, together with about $180, due from the League for money unjustly withheld from the Sterling Association on July 4, will pay off all obligations.
“The operating of the ball team thus far this year has cost the stockholders $2,500, above receipts, but they were ready to subscribe sufficient to finish the season, and had the directors decided to reject Galesburg’s proposal, they would have experienced no difficulty in raising the $1,500 necessary to complete the season. In fact, nine-tenths of this sum was already pledged. Under the terms of the contract with Galesburg, the belongs to them from the date of its departure on the present trip. Most, if not all of the players at present constituting the team, will be retained by the Galesburg Association.
“Now if you want to see any more ball at Sterling this season, you will be compelled to wander forth to the suburbs on a Sunday evening and watch the ‘kids’ in their amateur games.”
*In Galesburg, Fowler and the Pavers played their home games at Willard Field, on the campus of Knox College. Knox’s Ford Center for the Fine Arts building stands where the diamond used to be, adjacent to the college’s current diamond, Blodgett Field.