Baseball's John Fowler: The 1887 Season in Binghamton, New York
In selecting our men we have given special attention to ball playing and deportment; and believe by this combination of good character and ball playing we have a lot of fellows that stand in both above criticism. Today I met with Fowler, the colored player, for the first time in my life, and am satisfied that he comes within our ideal.(2)
That was Manager Henry J. Ormsbee's observation, referring to John "Bud" Fowler in February, 1887, three months before his Binghamton Bings began their International League season with nine other minor league teams. Fowler was the team's first black player -- in fact, he had been playing baseball since the 1870s, and was "the first black professional ball player."(3) Fowler played second base for the Bings until July, 1887, when he asked for his release. His "combination of good character and ball playing" was never in question, but his teammates' "good character" was. Fowler's brief stay in Binghamton aptly illustrates Harold Seymour's contention concerning baseball's first black players, "their careers were blemished by racial prejudice, often of the most virulent kind."(4) Although Fowler led the team in batting, and was one of the team's best fielders and base runners, racism forced him off the team before Independence Day.
By 1887, Fowler was a baseball veteran and an acclaimed player. The color line had not yet been drawn officially, and some blacks were allowed to play on white teams. Regarding Fowler, Sporting Life posited that
The poor fellow's skin is against him. With his splendid abilities he would long ago have been on some good club had his color been white instead of black. Those who know say there is no better second baseman in the country.(5)
Art Rust maintains that "the white press then recognized Fowler `as the equal to any of his contemporaries at his position'."(6) In spite of his athletic ability, Fowler was subjected to racial prejudice throughout his career. His race was a constant issue, and he was usually identified as the "colored player." In 1885, the Denver Rocky Mountain News suggested that "Fowler has two strong points: he is an excellent base runner and proof against sunburn. He don't tan worth a cent."(7) Shortly before his release from the Bings, a Binghamton newspaper labeled him the "coon."
The year 1887 was a pivotal year for blacks in baseball. Minor league rosters, especially in the International League, often included blacks. Moses Walker, the first black major league player, was a catcher for a Newark team. Frank Grant played second base for Buffalo, and Robert Higgins pitched for Syracuse. Robert Peterson argues that "the season of 1887 dawned full of promise for Negro players in organized baseball....there was reason to hope that more and more Negroes would enter organized white leagues."(8) Indeed they did. On May 25, the Binghamton Daily Leader reported that "Oswego has signed Randolph Jackson, a colored player of Illion, who was recommended by Fowler, for second base."(9) William Renfroe joined the Bings in late May, and in his first game pitched a league victory over Utica before 4,000 fans at Binghamton's Riverside Park. On June 4, two black pitchers faced each other, perhaps for the first time in organized baseball. Higgins and Renfroe squared off, with the Syracuse club winning 10-4. the Daily Leader noted that "the colored pitchers of the respective teams did the work in the box, although Renfroe was pounded for only 9 actual hits, he was less effective than Higgins."(10) Within months, though, racism emerged as a disruptive as well as humiliating issue on many teams, and drove most blacks from their leagues. Jules Tygiel contends that "1887 marked the apex of black acceptance. Events of that year began the precipitous slide that would lead to total exclusion."(11) A hint of those approaching events occurred on the Buffalo Bisons. On April 18, the Binghamton Daily Republican noted that "complaint is being made that Grant, the colored second baseman, is being used as a star player by Manager Chapman. …