By Greg Klein
---- — Former Cooperstown resident Bud Fowler, a 19th-century baseball player regarded by baseball historians as the first African-American player in professional baseball, will be honored by the village on April 20.
The entrance to Doubleday Field will be named “Bud Fowler Way” and a plaque in his honor will be placed in the bricks of the stadium on the first-base side. In addition, Mayor Jeff Katz has designated April 20 as “Bud Fowler Day.”
Katz said that he is a baseball fan and historian and had been aware of Fowler’s story and local roots, but it wasn’t until he started talking with Baseball Hall of Fame senior curator Tom Schieber, that the idea to honor Fowler in Cooperstown began to form.
“He came up with the idea of renaming a street in Fowler’s honor, but I thought it would be a tough sled to say, rename Beaver Street to Fowler Way. Then we were talking about the idea with trustee Cyndy Falk, and she found out that the entrance to Doubleday Field, which we had all just assumed was a driveway, was actually an official street on the map.
“So now we had, not only an unnamed street, but one that was in a perfect location to honor him,” he said. “From there, everything fell into place nicely.”
Katz said he hopes the event will get national attention from sports outlets such as ESPN and the Major League Baseball Network.
“The possibility exists that we can make this a big deal,” he said. “I believe the story will galvanize national attention. From our perspective, there is nothing better than shining a light on a forgotten hero who is also a native of our village.”
Fowler, born John W. Jackson in Fort Plain, grew up in Cooperstown, where his father worked as a barber on Main Street.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Fowler played amateur baseball for several years and began to play professionally in 1878, when he pitched for a team in Chelsea, Mass. Later that month, he pitched for an all-star team against the National League team from Boston, known as the Red Stockings.
Fowler continued to play professional baseball through 1895, and played many of those years on integrated teams, but by 1896, he was prevented from playing on integrated teams. He spent much of the next decade organizing teams and leagues for African-American players.
“I think everyone agrees that this is a Jim Crow story,” Katz said. “(Fowler) trying to bridge that gap must have been very difficult.”
The ceremony will be held in honor of the 100-year anniversary of his death. He was born March 16, 1858, and died Feb. 26, 1913, in Frankfort. The ceremony is also being held in conjunction with the 2013 Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Baseball Conference sponsored by the SABR, which will take place April 19 and 20 in Cooperstown.
“It would be great if we could have honored him on the actual anniversary of his death, but it was just too soon to make it all come together,” Katz said. “Then when we learned that the SABR people would be here in April, it made perfect sense to honor him then. In addition to being statisticians, SABR-metrics and so forth, they are historians. So they are the perfect people to help us present this baseball history in a new light.”
There will also be an event at the Bullpen Theater of the National Baseball Hall of Fame on April 21 in Fowler’s honor.
Katz said that several graduate students from the State University College at Oneonta, who are in Falk’s extension program, are making a display about Fowler’s life that will be featured at Doubleday Field, just inside the stadium on the first base line. The students will also make a presentation on April 21 at the Bullpen Theater.
“I can’t wait to see what they present,” he said. “Part of what they are looking into will be the Jim Crow aspect and the family history. If his father was a barber here in town, it seems to indicate that there would have been a larger African-American population here at one point. It is really fascinating.”
Katz said he and several other people involved with the event have looked into Fowler’s family tree in hopes of inviting some descendants, but so far they have not had any success.
“We know he did not have any children,” he said. “But he had brothers and sisters, so it is possible there are relatives. Our attempts to find them have not gone very far in terms of success. Part of what we hope is that the publicity for the event will reach them because we would like to have them be a part of it.”