The Louisiana Jackie, Part 1

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I know this is probably overkill for Jackie Robinson Day, given that I’ve already made two other posts today, but I did want to tell a little about this trailblazer in honor of Jackie’s memory … I’ll do it in two parts, one today, one tomorrow.

When I say “The Louisiana Jackie,” I don’t mean NOLA’s John Wright (a pitcher who was signed by the Dodgers with Jackie but never made it to the majors), but Lake Charles native Sam Fowlkes (pic above), who, when inked by the Lake Charles Lakers of the Gulf Coast League minor circuit in 1952, apparently became the first African American to sign with a Louisiana-based professional team in organized (i.e. “white”) baseball.

Sam Fowlkes as born … well, I’m not sure exactly when he was born, ‘cus different official documents give three different dates: Sept. 5, 1926; Feb. 24, 1926; and Dec. 7, 1927.

Regardless of when it was, he was Lake Charles born and bred. His family’s roots, however, trace back to Nottoway County, Virginia, where they were slaves and then sharecroppers into the late 1800s. At some point before the turn of the century, Sam’s grandfather (and likely namesake) migrated to Louisiana and eventually settled in Calcasieu Parish. Here’s the U.S. Census slave schedule from 1850 that lists the branch of the white Fowlkes family that likely owned the black Fowlkeses:

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The younger Sam’s parents, Richard and Rosa Fowlkes, already had seven kids by the time Sam was born, and Richard and Rosa weren’t done, either. So Sam grew up in a pretty big family. When Sam came along, Richard was working as a janitor at the local post office.

Young Sam took up baseball, and he was pretty good at it, too — by 1948, he was pitching for the legendary Chicago American Giants of the Negro American League. He shifted to the equally-as-legendary Kansas City Monarchs for the 1950 campaign. Joining him on the roster was fellow Lake Charles native Ernest Chretian, and the famed John “Buck” O’Neil was the squad’s skipper. Here’s how one African-American newspaper described Fowlkes in April 1950:

“… a stalwart right hander from Lake Charles, La., will be next in line for starting assignments. Fowlkes, 5’1″, weighing 185, boasts blinding speed and a sharp breaking curve ball, is 21 years old.” (There’s no way Fowlkes was 21, but it was common for players of the day to shave a year or two off their ages to make themselves more appealing to teams.)

Some of the black apparently believed it would be youngsters like Fowlkes who would give a boost to the NAL, which was already foundering, just three years after the major leagues integrated.

Speaking of integration, it was in 1952, though, that Sam Fowlkes made his biggest impact on the American pastime, especially in the deep South. To be continued tomorrow …

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