By Greg Klein
---- — Many baseball historians see the path from Bud Fowler to Jackie Robinson but it was the official Major League Baseball historian, John Thorn, who articulated it best.
”It strikes me that this is Jackie Robinson week but Jackie walked across a bridge that others built,” Thorn said while speaking at Bud Fowler Day in Cooperstown on Saturday. “If Jackie Robinson walked across a bridge, he also would have walked across Fowler Way.”
Fowler Way is the new name for the Cooperstown village street that leads to Doubleday Field.
Thorn joined about 10 elected officials and more than 50 spectators to dedicate the new street and unveil the installation of a plaque and information kiosk at the baseball field in honor of Fowler, who was
born John W. Jackson and whose father was a barber in the basement of the building at 92 Main Street.
Among the spectators were dozens of members of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) who were in town for the 2013 Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Baseball Conference. It is SABR
members that have largely been responsible for rediscovering and honoring Fowler, who is thought by many historians to be the first African-American to play organized baseball.
”We joke that with the 19th century group here in town, 72.4 percent of all the people in North America who know who Bud Fowler was are here,” said Baseball Hall of Fame librarian Jim Gates. “We believe that (percentage) will decrease significantly now.”
Although a small group of people knew the story of Fowler, very few details of his life were known until recently and there are still many mysteries. There are only two known photos of him and no known descendants.
He was born March 16, 1858 in Fort Plain and died Feb. 26, 1913 in Frankfort, where he is buried. In 1987, SABR members raised money to mark his grave. SABR and Friends of Doubleday Field raised the money
for the marker which is in the brick wall of the first-base-side grandstands.
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, playing on many integrated teams. Often team members refused to play with him, and those situations usually ended with Fowler being fired or deciding to move on. A team in Binghamton barred him after his teammates refused to play with him. In 1896 he was prevented from playing altogether. He spent the rest of his life organizing teams and leagues
for African-American players.
”I don’t think I can fully appreciate what his life was like,” said Congressman Chris Gibson, whose 19th district includes Cooperstown. “We all have challenges in life. I know I have had my share of challenges, but none of them compare to the challenges he faced in his life.
”He refused to accept someone telling him no,” Gibson continued. “When he died, he left this world a better place because of the challenges he faced.”
Gibson entered a proclamation honoring Fowler into the official Congressional record and presented the proclamation to Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz on Saturday. Katz left the event with his arms filled
with proclamations. Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent his Mohawk Valley representative, Sonny Greco, with one. State Sen. Jim Seward gave Katz one too. So did Thorn and Gates on behalf of MLB and the BBHOF.
It was Katz who came up with the idea of Bud Fowler Day after hearing about him from Hall of Fame senior curator Tom Schieber.
”I certainly think of myself as a serious baseball fan but it was not until I moved to Cooperstown that I learned the story of Bud Fowler,” Katz said.
“Tom Schieber came up with the idea of renaming a street in Fowler’s honor, but I thought it would be a tough sled to rename a village street. Trustee Cindy Falk, through her research, found out that the
entrance to Doubleday Field was actually an official street on the map.
“So now we had not only a street looking for a name, but a name looking for a street,” he said.
Students from the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a museum-science program, helped prepare for the event by doing extensive research into Fowler’s life.
Students Ashley Bowden, Nick DeMarco and Ryan Leichenauer prepared the kiosk at Doubleday Field with help form Doreen DiNicola of DeNicola Designs. Bowden and Leichenauer also made a presentation at the Hall of Fame on Sunday morning.
According to their research, Fowler played for at least 20 teams in 13 leagues over his 30-year career. At one point, frustrated with his experience, he left baseball and went to work as a barber. However, he
returned to organize an African-American barnstorming team, a precursor to the Negro Leagues.
Fowler never stopped trying to help his fellow players. Before his death he was organizing a barnstorming tour of the west coast.
The attempt to bring public attention to Fowler appears to be working. The New York Times ran a feature on him on April 14. A representative of National Public Radio attended Saturday’s unavailing.
The plaque is permanent.
Fowler Way is now marked at the corner of Chestnut Street and the entrance to the stadium. It was unveiled by three members of the Cooperstown varsity baseball team, Ethan Bliss, Sawyer Haney and Nico Knull. They wore their CCS uniforms for the event, but the uniforms had one addition: Stitched across the back of the jerseys was the name Fowler.
It is the hope of Katz and the others that the name sticks. “The New York Times certainly was the most significant piece so far and to me that is encouraging,” he said.