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Black baseball pioneer who once played in Stillwater will get Cooperstown honors

7 May 2022

Brent Peterson’s twin obsessions — history and baseball — merged 40 years ago in a freshman history class at Mankato State University. For a class project, he began researching Bud Fowler, an obscure minor league vagabond who played in the late 19th century and is widely considered the first Black man to play organized baseball.

“Fowler’s the one who got me into history,” said Peterson, 58, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Stillwater for the last 20 years. “Athletes are often credited for inspiring young people. Well, Bud Fowler began inspiring me nearly 80 years after his death.”

When Peterson learned that Fowler spent the 1884 season playing for a Stillwater team, he was hooked. He can tell you where Fowler resided in 1884, the Black-owned Live and Let Live boardinghouse on Chestnut Street. He can rattle off arcane statistics such as Fowler’s .313 batting average against future Hall of Fame pitcher John Clarkson. He can even tell you where Fowler worked on off-days: clipping hair at Black barber Sam Hadley’s shop at 113 S. Main St.

Four decades into his Fowler infatuation, Peterson is calling this summer “nirvana for a baseball geek like me.” He’ll make a fourth pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the July 24 Hall of Fame inductions of several players with Minnesota ties — former Twins Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and David Ortiz, who went on to blossom in Boston. There’s Minnie Minoso, who walked in a single plate appearance with the St. Paul Saints in 1993, becoming the first man to play professional baseball in seven separate decades.

Last but not least there’s Fowler, who will be introduced by St. Paul-born Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.

“Bud Fowler overcame numerous obstacles to become one of the most significant players in baseball history,” Winfield says on the Hall’s Facebook page, going on to call Fowler “an important barrier breaker.”

A barber’s son who was born in 1858 as John W. Jackson, Fowler changed his name for unknown reasons and grew up in Cooperstown, where a street was renamed Bud Fowler Way for him in 2013. He’ll be the first hometown star to be enshrined there.

A versatile player who primarily pitched and played second base and catcher, Fowler never made it to the major leagues. He played for as many as 17 teams in more than a dozen minor leagues, from Vermont to the New Mexico Territory, mostly because of his skin color.

Fowler was “unquestionably of major league star caliber,” according to historian Robert Peterson’s book, “Only the Ball was White.” A Massachusetts newspaper in 1909 said Fowler “never wore a glove, taking everything that came his way with bare hands.”

Organized baseball began barring Black players in 1887, prompting the birth of the Negro leagues in 1920 — seven years after Fowler died of a blood disorder. A few weeks shy of his 55th birthday, he apparently never married or had children.

“Fowler was often spiked, hit by pitches on purpose and he showed he wouldn’t be pushed around by refusing to catch a certain pitcher,” Peterson said. He was suspended and fined $50 for refusing to play, according to a newspaper in 1884, “but he was back in the lineup in two days.”

Off the field, Fowler organized successful Black barnstorming teams and provided scouting reports on the best players of color.

His stint in Stillwater didn’t last a full summer. The Northwestern League team, beset by financial woes, folded in early August with a 22-41 record. But Fowler hit .302 and compiled a 7-8 record on the mound, according to Bob Tholkes, a Columbia Heights baseball historian who chronicled that 1884 season for the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR, tinyurl.com/Fowler1884).

“The racial curtain was about to descend across professional baseball,” said Tholkes, whose research revealed that Stillwater citizens came up with a $10 bonus and a suit of clothes after Fowler pitched a victory against an Indiana team. He played the following year in Keokuk, Iowa, where a rare photo shows him with his all-white teammates.

If you’d like to learn more about Fowler’s season in Stillwater, Peterson and Tholkes will be talking baseball at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Brookdale Library, 6125 Shingle Creek Dr., Brooklyn Center. The free event, sponsored by the SABR’s Halsey Hall Chapter, includes a display of vintage baseball memorabilia and books about the diverse history of Minnesota baseball (tinyurl.com/FowlerEvent).

A retired Target financial expert, Tholkes shares Peterson’s fascination with Fowler. He dug into the pioneer’s 1884 season in the pre-internet era of the mid-1980s, sifting through newspaper archives at the Minnesota Historical Society and “simply satisfying my curiosity about the curious presence of a prominent Black player of major league caliber in a local setting.”

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.

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