How Bud Fowler's Hall of Fame baseball career was ruined after racist revolt in Binghamton

George Basler
Special to the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

The following is excerpted from the book "That Happened Here?" by Gerald R. Smith and George Basler, published by the Broome County Historical Society. Copies available at the society’s office in the Broome County Library.

Binghamton’s baseball history is long and colorful, and Bud Fowler, just elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, is part of that history.

Fowler came here in 1887 to play for the Binghamton Bingos in the International League, then considered one of the top minor leagues in the country. Playing second base, his best-known position, he established himself as a star. By the end of June he was hitting .350, with 42 runs scored, and was acknowledged as the best player on the team. But he was gone only a few days later, after playing only 34 games, when nine white players staged a revolt by signing a letter stating that they would no longer play with a black man. It was not a proud moment in Binghamton sports history.

Bud Fowler

Nor was 1887 a proud moment for baseball as a whole. On July 14, two weeks after Fowler’s release in Binghamton, International League club owners — stung by complaints from white players and press comments that it was becoming a “colored league” — voted to approve no more contracts with African-American players. The American Association and National League, two major leagues, followed suit shortly thereafter. The “color line” would last until 1946 when Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.

The ban hit Fowler hard because, as an intense competitor, he wanted to play on integrated teams since they offered the best competition, according to Jeffrey Michael Laing, author of the biography, "Bud Fowler: Baseball’s First Black Professional." “My skin is against me” Fowler poignantly reflected in his later years. “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 barred me.”

The Southern Tier can claim Fowler as one of its own. He was born John W. Jackson Jr. in the Mohawk Valley town of Fort Plain, but his family moved to Cooperstown when he was an infant. His father worked as a barber when African-Americans were prominent in the trade. Fowler learned the trade himself and, over the years, worked as a barber in between stints on the baseball field.

Fowler had a well-traveled career that took him to 21 states and territories. Not averse to self-promotion, and myth-making, he would regale newspaper reporters with stories about playing baseball with cowboys and Indians, with fur traders, and for bags of gold dust in mining camps.

While these stories should be taken with some degree of skepticism, there’s no question that Fowler was a true baseball nomad.

So the Binghamton Bingos officials knew they were getting a quality player when Fowler signed with the team in November 1886. He came here after playing with the Topeka (Kansas) Capitals of the Western League.

Binghamton officials seemed happy to have him, at least at first. Manager Henry J. Ornsbee observed: “Today I met with Fowler, the colored player, for the first time in my life, and am satisfied that he comes within our ideal.”

Officials even injected a little humor into the hiring, noting “Fowler is a dandy in every respect. Some say that Fowler is a colored man, but we account for his dark complexion by the fact that he is no record player (doesn’t merely play for personal records), and in chasing after balls has become tanned from constant and careless exposure to the sun.”

Fowler responded by tearing up the league. “He went on to have one of the great half years of his career. He was a true all-star,” Laing said. By the end of June he was clearly one of the three top players in the league. Fowler even won a contest for being the team’s leading batter during a home stand at the end of May when he went 8 for 16 (.500).

Underneath the surface, however, racial animosity was festering. The Toronto World summed up the poisonous feeling: “A number of colored players are in the International League, and to put it mildly their presence is distasteful to white players.”

The fact that the International League was only one small step below the major leagues raised the stakes for all concerned. Crowds could be rowdy and many ballplayers came from the South, which meant they objected to playing with black players and certainly didn’t want them taking their jobs. They weren’t shy about aiming balls at Fowler’s head when he was up to bat or spiking him while he was in the field. 

Bud Fowler's gravestone in the Oak View Cemetery in Frankfort, New York. At bottom right is a program from the stone's 1987 dedication ceremony.

Fowler and other African-American players had to have real grit to play. The physical threats were intense enough that Fowler — along with Frank Grant, another African-American star player — is credited with inventing shin guards to protect his legs from being ripped apart by incoming runners’ spikes. Shin guards would become standard equipment for catchers.

What made the situation worse in Binghamton was that the Bingos were stinking up the town — they would finish the season a pathetic 19 games under .500. Nothing sours a team’s atmosphere more than losing. Attendance hit the skids, and the owners began to worry about the bottom line. The players, meanwhile, came under criticism not only for poor play, but for intoxication and poker playing until late hours.

On June 27 the simmering racial tension led two white players, Buck West and Joe Dilworth, to refuse to play and ask for their releases. While the Bingos initially backed the black players and fined West and Dilworth $50 each. That didn’t stop them from fomenting a player revolt. Nine players, in the end, signed a petition saying they would not take the field with the black players.

Faced with the revolt, and no doubt concerned about their financial investment, the Bingos’ board of directors reversed their support. They folded like a cheap suit. Fowler, disgusted by the player revolt, asked for his release on June 30. It was granted on July 2, along with a prohibition that banned Fowler from playing with any other International League club.

At first, the team attempted to paper over the situation and make it seem like the Bingos best player was leaving voluntarily. In a public letter, possibly written for him, Fowler said he was leaving of his own accord to join the Cuban Giants, a traveling black team that was very popular despite not having a Cuban player in sight.

But the letter was a whitewash. Fowler never joined the Cuban Giants. Instead he took his talents to the lower-level Northeastern League, where he landed a position with a club in Montpelier, Vermont. There he immediately became a star, hitting an outstanding .429 in eight games before the season ended.

The real story of why Fowler left Binghamton leaked out some two months after his departure when the Daily Leader, in a front page story, broke the news of the players’ revolt. There is no record that the news caused any great uproar among the Binghamton fans even though Fowler was a standout while here. They just, more or less, accepted the news as the status quo of the times, Laing said.

Ironically Buck West, one of the leaders of the revolt, got his release three weeks after Fowler left town for “indifferent play.” Equally ironically, the release of the black players did nothing to salvage the Bingos’ lousy season. They continued their dismal descent and disbanded in mid-August.

Years later, Fowler couldn’t hide his bitterness about what happened here. He told the Cincinnati Post in 1905: “Did you ever hear the story of the way Negro ballplayers were side-tracked? … There were six of us in the International, back in ’87, and the white players sent in a protest to the League Directors, who passed a rule that in the future no colored players other than those then under contract should be signed. …That is how the color line was sprung by a lot of boot-legs.”

After his stay in Binghamton, Fowler continued his baseball career with other teams and organized barnstorming tours.

As health issues took their toll, Fowler’s last years were a struggle. His body aged much too soon. Toward the end of his life, having never married or fathered children, he went to live with a sister in Frankfort, New York. In September 1908, Sporting Life reported that Fowler was destitute and dying of consumption (tuberculosis) in Frankfort. Associates made several attempts to play benefit games to cover the family’s expenses, but none came to fruition. He died on Feb. 26, 1913 at his sister’s home in Frankfort.

Thankfully, Fowler’s achievements are now being remembered in Binghamton. In 1999, he was inducted into the Binghamton Baseball Shrine that recognizes players who contributed to the region’s baseball legacy. “Through no fault of his own, his stay with the Bingos was a short one, but one that left an indelible and sad mark on Binghamton’s baseball history,” Jim Maggiore and Michael J. McCann noted in their book on the shrine.

Well said.