Bud, Butch, Moses and Moe: A Brief Guide to MiLB.com’s Black History Month Coverage
February, as you know, is Black History Month. And each February from 2006-11, MiLB.com ran a series of articles spotlighting the trials, tribulations and triumphs of black players within and around the world of Minor League Baseball.
All told nearly 40 Black History articles ran on the site during these six seasons, and a full list can be found as a sidebar in the 2011 articles. (Click HERE for an example.) The “Black History Month in the Minor Leagues” series was “retired” after that season because it was becoming too difficult to find article topics that hadn’t been done before, but the content lives on.
This February MiLB.com is running a Black History Month story each and every day — today’s features pioneering umpire Emmett Ashford — and this represents as good a chance as any to re-visit what I believe is a fascinating and easy-to-overlook aspect of baseball (and American) history. Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, and deservedly so, but racial integration was happening throughout the Minor Leagues from 1946 onward and often in far more obscure circumstances. Did you know, for example, that Jackie was one of five players to integrate the Minors in 1946? He was joined on the Montreal Royals that season by Roy Partlow and John Wright, while future MLB stars Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella were suiting up for Class B Nashua.
I was fortunate enough to research and write a dozen Black History Month articles, on some of the aforementioned topics as well as 1949′s wave of black standouts at the Triple-A level, the “minor” Negro Leagues, the bizarre saga of perennially-unpromoted Midwest League superstar Moe Hill, the overlooked career of 39-year-old “rookie” Quincy Trouppe, Nashville legend Butch McCord (who I interviewed in 2006, approximately five years before he died in 2011 at the age of 85), and the accidental legacy of Jimmy Claxton (first black player to appear on a baseball card).
But for whatever reason, the aspect black baseball history that I find most fascinating involves those from the late 19th and early 20th century who played in “white” leagues. While racism was of course prevalent during this time, formal color barriers did not exist and at least 30 black players suited up within the Minors. One of these players was Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 and, as such, has long been identified as the first black player in Major League history. But there’s far more to that story! Walker was also a lecturer, entrepreneur, newspaper publisher, racial theorist and inventor who, in 1891, was acquitted by an all-white jury on a second-degree murder charge.
Finally, there is Bud Fowler, the subject of the first Black History Month article that I ever wrote. This was in February of 2006, when MiLB.com was in its first offseason and I was a part-time employee with, quite frankly, very little to do.
I spent my time that month by getting absolutely obsessed with Fowler’s sprawling career (1879-1904), which he spent entirely within the world of “white” baseball. The Cooperstown native (!) played within 13 different leagues — in 22 states as well as Canada — and was rarely in the same locale for more than a year at a time. After scouring the internet for every last scrap of info I could find and then making several trips to the main branch of the New York Public Library, I wrote a 5000+ word piece on Fowler that remains the longest thing I’ve ever written (or probably will write) during my time producing content for MiLB.com. Read it HERE.
Sometimes I dream of writing a book called “Bud Fowler’s America,” a biography/travelogue that would intertwine his career with the histories (baseball and otherwise) of the various cities and towns that he played in. (Please don’t steal my idea, as it is something that I like to think about while not compulsively checking my Twitter feed.)
AND STOP THE PRESSES! Not even an hour after writing this, as I was compulsively checking my Twitter feed, I came across the news that the village of Cooperstown will be honoring Bud Fowler on April 20th (the 100th anniversary of his death). This will be occurring in conjunction with SABR’s (Society for American Baseball Research) annual 19th Century Base Ball Conference, which is being held in Cooperstown from April 19-21. Mayor Jeff Katz reports:
Cooperstown, New York, honors its own forgotten pioneer, Bud Fowler, on April 20, 2013, with the naming of the entrance into legendary Doubleday Field “Fowler Way” and the installation of a permanent plaque in the brick wall of the first base bleachers. Fowler (born John W. Jackson) is recognized as the first African-American player in organized professional baseball, playing for over two decades in the nineteenth century despite facing constant racial discrimination.
I may have to be in attendance for this. I really think that I oughta be.