I apologize I’m getting to this so late in the day — very hectic Wednesday …
Anyway, to conclude the Sam Fowlkes story, in continued honoring of Jackie Robinson Day … Around 1950-ish, this Lake Charles native made it to the pitching mounds of the famed Kansas City Monarchs and the Negro American League. That in and of itself — to follow in the footsteps of such legendary hurlers as Satchel Paige and Hilton Smith — is quite an accomplishment for an ol’ Pelican State guy.
But in July 1952, Fowlkes made his biggest mark on baseball history. That’s when he was signed by the Lake Charles Lakers of the Class B Gulf Coast League of organized baseball. Granted, that’s a relatively low-level minor-league circuit that really only included teams from the deep South, but the Lakers’ brave inking of their native son was very bold. To quote the Chicago Defender, with the move, Fowlkes became “the first [black player] ever signed by a white team in Louisiana.”
Also granted, that’s a landmark for just one state, but it has to be considered in context — this is one of the states of the “deep South,” where racism allegedly was the strongest and most intractable. There’s also an historical context — earlier that summer, a bill had been submitted to the Louisiana State Legislature that, according to the Defender, “would have banned Negro players from competing with whites in all sports in the state.”
The bill, however, was defeated, albeit by a sliver — 13-12.
In the wake of that political development, there apparently wasn’t a big deal made in the region by Fowlkes’ presence on the Lake Charles squad. Again, per the July 19, 1952, Defender story:
“Folkes [sic] has not yet made an appearance with the Lake Charles team, but nothing is expected to happen when he does made [sic] his first mound appearance.
“Truman Stancey, sports editor of The American” — to clarify, it was Truman Stacey of the Lake Charles American Press — “said he had talked with most of the players on the Lake Charles team ‘and their comments was that if he can pitch, he’s the man.'”
The Lakers also eventually signed another African American, utility infielder Ernest Chretian, soon after bringing Fowlkes aboard.
By the time 1953 rolled around, both the “mainstream” media and the black press were publishing articles about how, to quote a Washington Post headline over an Associated Press, “Negro Players Now No Novelty In Southern Baseball Leagues.” That AP article surveyed various minor leagues in the South and found that “at least 11 professional leagues across Dixie plan to use Negroes in 1953, or at least give them tryouts.”
The African-American Pittsburgh Courier, meanwhile, blared, “Seeking Tan Talent: Diamond Trend on Upgrade in South.”
There were, of course, a handful of exceptions, the most prominent being the Class AA Southern Association, which, amazingly, never did integrate at all before it died in 1961 — a death that can largely be attributed to such staunch segregation.
That proved that, while the trailblazing efforts of Fowlkes, Chretian and others were certainly vital, they also didn’t exactly change America in one moment. In fact, things didn’t go well for the two Lake Charles men after that; while the aforementioned Pittsburgh Courier article states that the Lakers “used Pitcher Sam Fowlkes last year and probably will have him back this season,” in June 1953, the Lakers released both Fowlkes and Chretian. The reason is a little unclear.
It’s an upsetting coda to this story, but again, the Big Picture must be considered — regardless of how long the Lake Charles pair stuck with the Lakers, what they achieved was still very significant for the state of Louisiana, the South and America as a whole, and both players, especially Fowlkes, deserve to be recognized for what they accomplished.