Book Review: Bud Fowler – Baseball’s First Black Professional
Author: Jeffery Michael Laing
Baseball before the establishment of the current Major Leagues tends to fall between the cracks of knowledge most fans possess. That’s a shame because baseball before 1903 is fascinating, as were the stars of those early eras -- including Hoss Radborne, Kid Nichols and Bud Fowler.
This was a time of transition in the United States of America and in baseball too. Even the rules were evolving and the game was spreading, first south during the Civil War and then west in the following 30 years. It was the era before the gentleman’s agreement that banned blacks from playing professional baseball. That was the era that Bud Fowler, born John Jackson in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1858 lived in.
While Fowler wasn’t the first African American to play baseball, he was almost certainly the first black professional, starting a career in 1878 and slowly watching and trying to play professional ball against the best opposition as baseball. He went through the transition that slowly shut blacks out of the game.
But from 1878 until his death in 1913, Fowler spent his career involved with baseball, playing pro ball, semi pro ball, scouting, managing and promoting the game. He wasn’t just a player but worked at every level of management, mainly for black teams. During his life there was probably no more respected black player, and he was frequently cited as being one of the best players of any color, especially when he finally gave up pitching and focused on being a second baseman.
And based on the numbers he would have been considered one of the elite stars in the game if he’d been allowed to play in the majors. But racism was a major factor of the age, and the only thing that was greater in America at the beginning of Fowler’s career was the urge to win.
But over his lifetime that changed. While Cap Anson is usually given the credit for shutting black players of of baseball, he was hardly alone. Prejudice slowly pushed men like Fowler who wanted to play professionally from one league to another as one by one they shut blacks out of the game.
That never deterred Fowler for very long. He started teams, he promoted teams, he barnstormed, and he was a legend in his own time. If there was a black authority of the game, it was Fowler. And this book is his story.
This is a thought-provoking book, but not without its flaws. One is that though we have here the story of Fowler, we don’t get a huge feeling of who he really was. But we can forgive author Jeffery Michael Laing for that. Recreating a man who’s been dead 100 years isn’t exactly easy, especially in book that is historical rather than fictional. If we overlook that the book stands up very well despite the lifting of wholesale prose from newspapers and other accounts of the day.
The book is a little academic, probably a bit moreso than it needed to be, and it focuses not just on baseball and racism, but about the attitudes toward the games, gambling and the changing mores of the eras that Fowler played though.
This is definitely a book for the history buff. It’s not a terribly difficult read, but at times (especially during the wholesale lifted phrasing from days gone by) it can be a bit tedious. Still it opens your eyes to a different age and a different experience in the game. I do wish that the book had focused a bit more about that, but I certainly got a lot out of reading it.
And in the end, I do agree with the author. Fowler probably does deserve a plaque in Cooperstown.
Give this book a solid 2.5 balls for the baseball historian. For everyone else, knock it down a bit but it's a worthy read, especially if you’d like to see how the other half played.
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