The drive between Albany and my hometown of Webster, N.Y. (just east of Rochester along Lake Ontario), is interminable. It really is. I’ve made that tedious, seemingly unceasing trek down I-90 — otherwise known as the illustrious New York State Thruway — dozens of times.
I made numerous trips home from Holyoke, Mass., where I worked for two years at a weekly paper. Then, when I was living in Rochester again, I had to drive east from ROC on I-90, then head up the Northway, a.k.a. I-87, to visit a good friend in Plattsburgh.
Errgh! I hate driving the Thruway. Loathe it. Not only is it supremely boring, but the exorbitant tolls amount to state-sponsored highway robbery.
Thus what happened last month. I spent six days in early June in Millinocket, Maine, for my grandmother’s funeral. For several reasons, it was an exhilarating, emotional, sorrowful, celebratory and draining six days, and by the time I was ready to drive home in the spiffy minivan I bought from my grandmother’s trust — for a single buck — I was quite weary but excited to spend a few days visiting my mom in Rochester.
I split it up into two days — I used to be able to drive 14 hours in the dead of night to various destinations, but I ain’t no spring chicken nowadays — and the first one was miserable, largely because good chunks of Massachusetts just outright suck.
For the second leg, I drove from a hotel just west of Worcester — that’s pronounced “Wuss-ter,” you know — to my hometown of Webster, a benumbing stretch that included the aforementioned part between Albany and Syracuse.
And I wanted to break that expanse up somehow. Naturally, my personality being a pleasant blend of morbid and reverent, that meant stopping in Frankfort, N.Y., for a black baseball legend’s grave — that of none other than the progenitor himself, Bud Fowler.
First, another lengthy sidenote … There’s two basic New Yorks. There’s “downstate,” which is essentially New York City, Westchester County and Long Island, in my view. Then there’s everything else — and that’s a lot more than many people realize — that’s known as upstate. Pretty much everything to the north and west of the Big Apple is considered “upstate,” although there are different distinct regions, such as western New York (Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Jamestown; central New York (Syracuse, Utica, the Finger Lakes, although the lakes could also be considered western NY); the Southern Tier along the Pennsylvania state line (Binghamton, Elmira, Ithaca), the capital region and Tri-Cities (Albany, Rome and Schenectady), the North Country (the entire Adirondacks and stuff along the St. Lawrence River) and the Hudson Valley (between Albany and Westchester County).
And these two parts of the Empire State … They’re simply two different worlds. Downstate is, of course, very urbanized and wealthy suburbanized, while much of upstate is pastoral, farming country, with lots of cool natural and recreational outdoorsy-type opportunities.
There’s also an overarching perception among upstaters that downstate — namely, New York City — perpetually screws upstate be draining all of the government’s resources and causing the absurdly high property tax rates across the state. In essence, there’s a bitterness among upstaters toward NYC based on the idea that upstate essentially subsidizes all the “elites” in New York City. (Many conservative white upstaters, too — let’s face it — loathe downstate, especially NYC, because of their perception that the various minorities “in that hellhole” are freeloading mooches who siphon off the hard-earned money of diligent, honest — read: white — upstate folk.)
What’s my biggest New York demography-based pet peeve, though? Frankly, I often resent the fact that when I’m in other parts of the country — and this is more my frustration with the the hordes of non-New Yorkers out there in the big wide world — and people ask me where we’re I’m from, I can’t simply say “New York,” because many of outsiders automatically assume I mean New York City. I don’t, dude. And that’s really, really irritating, you know.
As a result, whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I never say just, “New York.” I say “Rochester” or “upstate New York,” because 1) I’m very proud of my hometown, and 2) I don’t want people to think I’m a typical New York City dude.
(You can place whatever characteristics and demographics you want on what “New York City” people are, because, as I said, there’s bitterness and distrust, including from the rest of the country as well. Oh, also, an anecdote: Sept. 11 happened early in my first semester of grad school at Indiana, and that’s when I perhaps became most keenly aware of the rest of the country to conflate “New York” as just the city. One evening I was getting a tasty beverage at a mini-mart, when a Bloomington townie noticed my New York license plate and, out of an earnest, heartfelt effort at national unity, said, “You’re from New York? Oh man, I’m sorry about what happened. Well, we stand with you, man. We love New York.” I was very touching, and I couldn’t be angry at the guy because he was obviously sincere, but Rochester is about five or six hours away from Ground Zero. However, and at the risk of sounding like an ungrateful snot, pre 9/11 many people from the rest of the country sneered at New York as a bunch of liberal elites and welfare queens who didn’t care about or respect “real Americans,” as Sarah Palin would so perceptively note. Then 9/11 happens, oh, and everyone’s lovey-dovey with the Big Apple. Yeah, and that goodwill didn’t last very long — within a couple years after 9/11, it seemed like everyone was back to the New York-bashing. The hypocrisy burned my bottom. Or, as Peter Griffin says, “You know what really grinds my gears?”)
But holy cow, I digress …
Thus, in my caffeine-addled mind, Bud Fowler is undoubtedly an upstater like me, and I like to think that Bud was just as proud of his original stomping grounds as I am mine.
Born John W. Jackson in Fort Plain, N.Y., in 1858, and raised in Cooperstown, Fowler was, I believe, an upstate New York kid at heart. It’s why he always seemed to return to the Empire State time and again. No matter how far he ventured, no matter how many teams in no matter how many states, Bud always came home. As sort of an appendix, I included a few examples of newspaper and other reports, both contemporary and modern, of Fowler’s baseball activity in upstate New York post-1900 at the end of this article.
Arguably his most well known — and infamous — venture in New York came in late 1886, when he signed with Binghamton of the International League, one of the country’s top minor-league loops.His already sterling record as a player and teammate, gained from nearly a decade of sweat and dirt on diamonds across the Northeast and Midwest, didn’t matter — during the 1887 season, his white teammates pitched a bigoted hissy fit and demanded Fowler get the boot.
So gone he was. And very swiftly, and semblance of integration in Organized Baseball was gone as well — by 1890 or so, the racial curtain had fallen on the national pastime, and people of color were shut out of the game’s mainstream, a state of affairs that would painfully drag on for well more than a half-century.
Interesting, 21-years-too-late post-script: In January 1908, the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin published a gushingly laudatory commentary by a dude dubbed Forty-Niner, who credited Bud with being a brilliant advertising impresario, making particular note of his Page Fence Giants venture. It’s probably an accurate assessment — in addition to be a multitalented athlete and a vigorously ambitious entrepreneur, Fowler was an incredibly savvy promoter and skilled self-marketer, a fact evidenced by his ability to solicit media coverage for his various ventures across the country.
The newspaper commentary, however, dives neck deep into duplicitous historical revisionism by claiming that Binghamton was proud of Bud’s association with the city, an assertion that, to say the least, completely glosses over the way the same city used bigotry to run him out of town 21 years earlier. Forty-Niner, whoever he (or she) was, even has the chutzpah to ludicrously claim, “The fact that ‘Bud’ is from Binghamton is not allowed to be overlooked. Hence it is that, in his modest way, Mr. Fowler has been, through his wide travels, a very effective advertiser of his home town.”
The article adds:
“Be it known that Bud is, or rather was, a baseball player of parts. During an active career of 25 years on the diamond he played in about every city in the country where baseball is admired, and played with or against a good share of the baseball phenomenons of the day, many of whom still loom large in the baseball sky. ‘Bud’ is a ‘man and brother’ whose skin is black but whose heart is white, and whose manners and conversation testify to a good life. …”
So for 1908, I guess that’s more or less a compliment, if a bit patronizingly, although it strongly insinuates that having a “heart that is black” (as in African-American, not evil) isn’t a good thing.
So, after leaving Binghamton, Bud Fowler became a baseball nomad, venturing hither and yon and back again in search of a way, any way, that he could play the game he cherished. He sporadically trying to establish black leagues in various states (none of them got off the ground), and hitching with white teams outside of Organized Baseball when and where he could.
Probably the apex of that lifestyle came in 1895, when Fowler became a founding member and manager of the Page Fence Giants in Adrian, Mich. The Giants, for a few fabulous years, became one of the best 19th-century black baseball clubs, a star-studded superpower that barnstormed across the Midwest and Northeast, taking on all comers.
However, Bud jumped off the Page Fence train in 1896, beginning what was described researcher/author Peter Morris as Fowler’s “lost years.” In an exhaustive study published in the fall 2009 edition of the journal, “Black Ball,” Morris noted that, even well into the 21st century, much of Bud’s final 18 years of life had been clouded in mystery. For his article, Morris delved into newspaper and magazine archives, Census records and testimonies from Fowler’s contemporaries to assemble many of the pieces of Bud’s post-1895 puzzle. Wrote Morris:
“While many questions remain, the overall picture of those years has come into much clearer focus, Bud Fowler remained devoted to baseball and tried to remain involved in the game through promoting a wide variety of imaginative ventures. In the years after 1895, when daunting obstacles of racism and insufficient capital thwarted many of his attempts to promote baseball clubs and barnstorming tours, he turned increasingly to the idealistic notion of the far west as a land of equality of opportunity. Despite the treatment he received, Bud Fowler never lost his passion for baseball and never gave up hope that the day would come when ballplayers would be judged on their merits rather than the color of their skin.”
We’ll jump ahead to the last few years of Fowler’s life, when he returned to upstate New York — Frankfort, to be precise — to live with his sister, Harriet Odams (several other spellings, such as Odum, of her last name exist), who had married a man named John Odum, a tool grinder (not sure what that is, but it sounds like a job in which one’s extremities might always be in jeopardy of being separated from the rest of him) in roughly 1901. By 1910, John and Harriet — who, at 50 years of age in that year’s Census, was 14 years older than her husband — settled in Frankfort, N.Y., in Herkimer County, on the Tow Path, or Tow Path Road. (Tow paths were pathways running along the Erie Canal that allowed mules to pull, or tow, ships and boats down the Erie with rope from the shore.)
The 1910 Census report with Harriett and John Odum/Odams in Frankfort. Bud isn’t listed on it.
And that’s where Bud headed after he realized that, at long last, he’d come to the end of his baseball career as he headed north of 50 years old. He wasn’t in the best of shape, either — a debilitating malady racked his body by the end of the 19-oughts. It was first believed, thanks to a sensationalistic article in Sporting Life magazine in 1908, to be consumption, or, as it’s known today, tuberculosis. That report proved erroneous, and in 1909, Sporting Life reported that the cause of Fowler’s affliction the puncturing of a kidney by a broken rib earlier in his life.
(The source of the injury appears to be in question; Sporting Life asserted Bud received the pulverizing blow during his career with a particularly nasty collision when stealing second, but Morris and others speculate the critical blow when he was brutally beaten and robbed by a gang of tramps on a freight train in 1898.)
Bud’s condition deteriorated, and he died at his sister’s house in Frankfort on Feb. 26, 1913, officially from pernicious anemia, a rare blood disorder that’s apparently rare in the black population.
Soon after Fowler’s death, scattered obituaries — many of them a single paragraph — appeared in newspapers in the region. The Amsterdam Evening Record and Daily Democrat, for example, noted that for a year or so Bud operated a barbershop in that town “in the Flatiron building at the corner of Market and Shuler streets … and was well known here.”
The Gloversville Morning Herald, meanwhile, under the headline, “Was Well Known in This Vicinity,” related some surprisingly detailed local anecdotes:
“Jackson was well known in this city, having spent some time in this vicinity two years ago. He camped at Vandenberg’s pond at that time and had a number of boats which he rented to fishermen. During the cold weather he came to this city where he worked at the barbershop of Adelbert Dana … He left here for New York, where he was taken ill and later left the metropolis for Frankfort, where he died.”
Up in Watertown, along the east shore of Lake Ontario, one paper (I can’t figure out which one right now) erroneously dubbed Fowler “the last negro to play on a major league club before the edict against members of that race taking part in organized baseball went into effect” (Bud never played in the majors, a snag that’s probably kept him out of the Hall). The article went on to call him a former member of “the Boston team,” adding that Fowler “was playing with the then world’s famous White Sox” before organized baseball gave him the heave ho. The article doesn’t detail what it meant by those team references.
Bud was buried in an unmarked grave details in Oak View Cemetery in the village of Frankfort, just up a small hill from the village’s downtown.
Fortunately, 70-plus years later, resolute SABR members raised enough funds to erect a modest but elegant tombstone on Fowler’s grave. The dedication seems to have earned modest coverage from the local and national media. Here’s an excerpt from a July 23, 1987, United Press International wire story written by Elizabeth Shogren:
“On Saturday, the day before the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown inducts Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter, Billy Williams and former Negro League star Ray Dandridge, the game will remember Fowler in a most basic way.
“A simple tombstone will be erected on Fowler’s grave in a pauper’s field in Oak View Cemetery, just a few miles from where Alexander Cartwright invented the game.
“‘If it hadn’t been for fellows like him, breaking the color barrier would have been delayed a long, long time,’ said Monte Irvin, a star of the Negro Leagues and the New York Giants who is enshrined in Cooperstown.
“‘It was quite a fight for blacks to play. Fowler had such vigor and desire to participate, he didn’t mind taking the abuse,’ said baseball historian Bob Davids. ‘But he is buried in an unmarked grave. He should get some recognition.’”
With that, Davids touched on a key, recurring theme — and perhaps touched a nerve within modern Negro Leagues circles — about the way Fowler has been remembered (or hasn’t been) in his native region in upstate New York.
It’s now three decades after that, and, sadly, Frankfort itself has done little to recognize, remember and honor Bud Fowler and his baseball legacy. When I visited Bud’s grave during my trek across New York State, I stopped to ask for directions at a small mini-mart/gas station, and no one I spoke with there had ever heard of Fowler.
Thus, I reached out to a couple village of Frankfort officials, including Mayor Rick Adams, who answered me with an enthusiastic but disheartening e-mail, one that confirmed my suspicions about the status on the ground there. Adams wrote:
“I am aware of him but truly don’t know much about him other than the fact that he is possibly the first African American Major League Baseball [Bud never played in the majors, a thorny fact that’s largely responsible for his failure to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown] player, and my understanding is he passed away in Frankfort after an illness. I’ve heard he is buried here but never confirmed that for myself.
“We do have a very old cemetery within the village of Frankfort so it’s possible he is there. The town of Frankfort is very large in square miles so if he was in the town I really don’t know if many cemeteries other than one on Higby Road. Unfortunately we do not currently do anything special. I’m not sure if he’s very well known other than maybe some long time residents and sports enthusiasts.”
While Adams’ answer is a bit dispiriting, it’s certainly understandable; in terms of general history, Bud Fowler isn’t exactly found in history textbooks in the nation’s classrooms.
Still, it’s perhaps emblematic of upstate New York’s dereliction in honoring one of its most influential native sons. On that note, I emailed Jeff Laing, whose comprehensive 2013 tome, “Bud Fowler: Baseball’s First Black Professional,” is now the definitive biography of the man and the legend. And, as it turns out, Jeff is an upstater, too — he was born and raised in Troy; got married and went to college in Albany; and earned his first teaching job in Schenectady.
Partially inspired by his shared geographic roots, Laing researched and wrote his book, and, not unexpectedly, came to a similar conclusion as me — Fowler’s native state, including Frankfort, has done a woefully inadequate job of recognizing Bud. Jeff emailed:
“I believe that Bud Fowler is an untapped historical resource in the Herkimer-Ilion-Utica area. I never found anything of substance on local awareness (though I never focused much on Fowler’s personal life and Upstate NY presence). … SABR’s 1987 grave service with Monte Irvin is all I ever found.”
This is all in contrast to the impressive job Fowler’s birthplace, Cooperstown, has done in venerating Bud’s connection to that village, including a festive 2013 ceremony in which one of the streets leading to legendary Doubleday Field was renamed Bud Fowler Way.
File photo (I wasn’t there)
About 10 local politicians and roughly 50 fans and residents turned out for the the celebration as Bud’s legacy was marked with the unveiling of a permanent plaque and information kiosk on the formally-declared Bud Fowler Day in Cooperstown. In his April 25, 2013, article covering the event for the Cooperstown Crier, reporter Greg Klein quoted several officials who commented during the ceremony.
John Thorn, Major League Baseball official historian: ”It strikes me that this is Jackie Robinson week but Jackie walked across a bridge that others built. If Jackie Robinson walked across a bridge, he also would have walked across Fowler Way.”
Then-Congressman Chris Gibson: “I don’t think I can fully appreciate what his life was like. We all have challenges in life. I know I have had my share of challenges, but none of them compare to the challenges he faced in his life. He refused to accept someone telling him no. When he died, he left this world a better place because of the challenges he faced.”
Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz: “I certainly think of myself as a serious baseball fan but it was not until I moved to Cooperstown that I learned the story of Bud Fowler.”
(In addition, the Doubleday Field hosts the Bud Fowler Tournament, an annual high school baseball gathering featuring several local and regional teams.)
Katz learned, as did the whole town of Cooperstown, about Bud Fowler. Why can’t others?
A momentary divergence for a brief rundown on Frankfort and Herkimer County, which is crucial to picturing the atmosphere in which Bud Fowler found himself at the end of his life …
The county itself is a thin, north-south area between the Tri-Cities to the east and Utica to the west, with the northern half containing a portion of the Adirondack Mountains and the lower half extending just south of what’s now the Thruway. Today, its population sits at roughly 64,500; in 1910, when Fowler lived there, it was about 56,300. The black population seems to always have been relatively miniscule; on the 1910 Census record for the Odums, the entire rest of the page, except for a neighboring family, is white, and today, African Americans represent less than 1 percent of the county’s population.
Meanwhile, the village of Frankfort — different portions of which rest on the south banks of the Erie Canal and Mohawk River, respectively — is a separately designated municipality as the surrounding town of Frankfort. In 1910, the total population stood at about 3,300; it’s just 2,600 these days, with a paltry 0.04 percent being African-American.
According to an online history on the town and village of Frankfort, an Ancestry.com-sponsored genealogy site states that shortly after Frankfort’s inception way back in the 1790s, early saw, paper and grist mills popped up, but eventually dairy farming, especially cheese production, became the backbone of the local economy. Dairying is extremely common throughout New York State, with farms large and small covering the hilly, verdant landscape.
As for the village of Frankfort’s industrial and commercial development, states another Ancestry piece, whiskey, gunpowder and sulphur factories popped up at first, but when a railroad line was created in the village, a foundry, paint and carpentry shops, creating a flourish commercial and economic base downtown. But the departure of a few industrial facilities created some financial disruption and reassessment by the time Bud Fowler arrives in the 19-oughts.
Demographically speaking, German migrants formed much of the town’s population, but the arrival of the railroad and its construction attracted a large influx of Italian immigrants who sought employment. Today, more than 44 percent of the village’s current residents have at least some Italian ancestry, so the village seems to always have had a fairly diverse populace, at least in terms of white ethnicities.
In terms of sheer population figures, in 1910 (when Bud lived there) the village boasted about 3,300 residents; in 2010 that number was pegged at about 2,600.
However, drawing out gave outward a bit more, Frankfort — and Cooperstown, Fort Plain and other towns associated with Bud Fowler — rest in the geographic region called the Mohawk Valley, so named after the Iroquois tribe that populated the area before being pushed out by German, Italian and other European immigrants.
Erie Canal and tow path
Located pretty much smack dab in the center of New York State, the Mohawk Valley is often described as tying together — much like the Dude’s rug — the Capital region, the Southern Tier and the Hudson Valley, and serving as a bridge between the Adirondacks and the Catskills. The region is sprawling — it incorporates six counties (Oneida, Herkimer, Otsego, Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie) and small-size urban hubs like Utica, Rome and Amsterdam.
But the Mohawk Valley, beyond its geographic significance, holds just as much cultural and, especially, economic import; as the home to the Mohawk River and the innovative Erie Canal, for the last two centuries the region has been a vital shipping, transportation and industrial link in the state. Here’s how the travel Web site mohawkvalleyhistory.com describes it:
“The Mohawk River corridor through the center of the region is the easiest, most direct route between the Atlantic seaboard and heartland America. This key geographic passage was hotly-contested territory, and a huge factor in shaping the history of our American nation from earliest times. …“The legendary Erie Canal, a technological wonder of its era, was built here taking advantage of the convenient path nature carved through the eastern mountain range to construct a more modern transportation waterway. This reinforced national ambitions, expansion of America’s western frontier, and the westward spread of eager settlers, commerce, and the Industrial Revolution. Construction of the New York Central Railroad and New York State’s I-90 Thruway followed. Millions of people now wend their way through this picturesque landscape year-round.”
So that hopefully draws a basic, and admittedly a very novice one, of the atmosphere in which Bud Fowler found himself.
Now, more than a century later, I hopped off the Thruway at exit 30 (the tolls were a perfectly reasonable $5 and change) to track down the grave of John W. Jackson, aka Bud Fowler, in Frankfort.
Using Siri, that most lovable of iPhone guides, I motored west on State Route 5S, parallel to the sleepy Mohawk River, weaving through rolling hills and past cow pastures, then veered off onto Main Street in Frankfort.
The village is relatively small and modest, maybe a two or three miles in length down Main Street. I know because I got to see it three times — in search of a cemetery, any cemetery, I drove all the way through the village, into some more rolling hills and cow pastures and realized that my powers of perception probably were as good as a professional, working journalist needs them to be.
I turned around in a gravel driveway and headed back into town, inexplicably passing up the road marked “Cemetery Street” a second time and necessitating the aforementioned stop at a gas station.
The small parking lot included a truck or two with Trump bumper stickers — I told you upstate is a whole different world from the Big Apple — and inside was an extremely friendly but not particularly helpful cashier who, as previously stated, hadn’t heard of Bud Fowler and wasn’t sure to which cemetery I was referring.
I was a bit flustered — a normal state of mind for me — but fortunately a customer directed me to the only cemetery of which he was aware. He instructed me, with a somewhat quizzical look on his face, left down Main Street and then left up a steep hill. “You can’t miss it,” he said. “It’s a big hill.”
Of course, I’d apparently missed this hill twice already, which didn’t inspired confidence in myself to find it this time. But I shook his hand and thanked him for the help, somehow resisting the urge to buy at least two Snickers bars in the process.
Fortuitously, I actually saw the indications for the cemetery and headed up a hill. The road, lined with ranch houses and well kept lawns, ran right past Oak View Cemetery, which was laid out on the right (north) side of the byway.
I turned down the westernmost dirt and gravel driveway into the burial ground, which appeared to be well kept — if a little time-worn and weather-beaten — and nestled in a shallow valley. The plots, like most stereotypically pastoral cemeteries, were a mix of tall, ornate obelisks and simple, flat, rectangular grave markers, some dating back a couple centuries, several just a year or so old. Here’s a pic I took looking down a path:
I loved it. I was absolutely heavenly.
(Yet another “quick” side note … Oak View Cemetery apparently fell on some hard times in the years after the SABR ceremony for Fowler. In 2011, the Utica Observer-Dispatch reported that, because the non-profit association in charge of Oak View ran out of money, causing volunteers to take care of maintenance, especially lawn mowing, themselves. However, they couldn’t keep up with what was needed, and the cemetery board eventually dissolved, kicking responsibility for the work to the town government, which now awards annual mowing contractors to an outside firm that then performs 10 mows a year.)
Alas, I’d chosen the wrong path to go down, because, contrary to common sense and all of my experience finding famous graves and just wandering blissfully through these testaments to history, I hadn’t done any prep work beforehand and failed to remember that simply wandering around aimlessly through a cemetery in search of a single grave usually doesn’t result in, “Hey, here it is! Imagine that!”
It was a bit warm as well, but at least not steaming-sauna boiling (i.e. normal New Orleans weather), so at least I hadn’t turned into a human version of those commercials featuring delectable, frosty cans of refreshing soda just dripping with luscious condensation (i.e. my normal state in New Orleans).
Plus there’s Find A Grave! Find A Grave is one of the coolest things to ever be invented by anyone. The entry for Bud Fowler’s burial locale states that the plot is along the “northernmost entrance, right side.”
So I drove down the prescribed alley — and couldn’t find it. I even hopped out of the car and started wandering, a strategy that had worked so well just five minutes earlier.
But wait! Find A Grave has a picture of the tombstone! Seriously, this Web site is more stupendous than six hours of cartoons on Saturday mornings. (They still have that, right?)
From the pic, I deduced that the grave was right along the side of the driveway, and, suddenly, voila! There it was.
I stood in front of the marker for a few minutes, paying my respects to one of the most influential yet overlooked figures in the history of our national game. The air was breezy, and the trees that came right up to the edge of the cemetery — and, in fact, had engulfed some of the older, forgotten graves — swayed silently.
These are the moments I relish. For me, cemeteries and grave sites symbolize and embody the memory of those interred there, hopefully in a modest but stately way. (I say “hopefully” because, as anyone who’s involved in or even just familiar with the Negro League Baseball Grave Marker Project, such a serene state in death frequently eludes many people, both famous and obscure.)
Plus, this was my second cemetery within a week. Just a few days before, I had stood at my grandmother’s grave in the dying mill town of Millinocket, Maine, on a day when the miniscule, swarming black flies typical to early summer in the Pine Tree State swirled frantically in my family’s faces, and a steady drizzle of rain held off just long enough for us to finish the memorial service for Gram and get in our cars for the slow drive back to my grandparents’ house.
My few days in Maine had been fulfilling — it gave me, for example, an opportunity to hang out with my whole family, including my niece and nephews, and I was able to go through my grandmother’s photo albums and family records, including those relating to our Newfoundland ancestry, of which I’m fiercely proud and which will hopefully lead to a written project in itself.
But my time in Maine was also draining and dour. In addition to saying goodbye to our grandmother, the visit to Millinocket represented what in all likelihood be our last visit to a place that had played such a vital role in our lives. When we were kids, our family would spend a week every other summer at our grandparents’ cozy cabin right on the idyllic, forested shores of South Twin Lake, our days spent swimming in water that was clean enough to drink straight from the source, lazily fishing for white perch on a rowboat (it’s where I fulfilled most of the requirements for my Fishing merit badge) and sitting on the dock at desk, gazing at majestic Mount Katahdin in the distance as the sun slipped below the horizon and lit up the northern Maine sky like flame in a campfire.
That’s Katahdin in the background. That’s my sis on the right. And my dad’s arm. Plus water and rocks.
And this trip to Millinocket, the one in which we sadly buried our grandmother and said goodbye to our uncle, was also our last one, and that stung. It all did.
So by the time I stood in front of Bud Fowler’s grave, I was still recovering from that exhausting experience. In truth, it wasn’t the boring drive along the New York Thruway that sapped my strength and attention. It was the reluctant acceptance of loss — creeping, crushing loss.
Because of that, I feel like I needed to stop at Bud Fowler’s grave, not really because I needed a break from driving, but because I needed a catharsis, a way to release the pent-up sorrow and hurt I’d pent up the week before — the sadness I held in because I wanted to seem strong for my family, to show them that I could stand tall amidst emotional trial, especially given my often crippling mental illness, depression and anxiety.
After about five minutes of quiet reflection at Bud’s burial site, I got back in the minivan and wound my way back to the Thruway. (I deeply apologize to the two women I impatiently accosted for directions after getting severely lost — thanks a lot, Siri — and worked up into a minor lather of frustration and exhaustion.) I made it to Rochester, where I visited my mom for six days and had a relaxing, reinvigorating time. Then it was a three-day drive back here to NOLA.
Now, with the Jerry Malloy Negro Leagues conference coming up in just a couple weeks in Harrisburg, I’m getting rested and ready to move forward, cautiously yet confidently. It’s what my grandmother did during her long but frequently arduous life, and it’s what Bud Fowler did, time and time again, in baseball. Especially in upstate New York, time and again. Fist bump to you, Mr. Jackson.
As promised, here’s compilation of some early 20th century articles about Bud’s activities in his home state. I want to note that for some of the dates, scores and other numbers, I gave my best approximation when the type on the page was too blurry or obscured for my feeble, Coke-bottle glasses to discern.
I also stress that this rundown is by no means comprehensive, and in many cases it’s just the bare bones description of the events in question, sometimes without all the background and contest. For such detail, I highly recommend the work of Laing and McKenna, among others. Beyond that, my notes are in brackets:
May 14, 1895, Elmira Star-Gazette — The paper stated: “Anson [presumable Cap Anson] has a rival. Bud Fowler, the second baseman of the colored Page Fence Giants, is forty-eight years of age [actually not even close]. He has been playing ball since 1869 [also not close, unless his team wanted a second baseman who didn’t shave yet].”
May 21, 1901, Auburn Bulletin — Barnes’ American Colored Giants — piloted by Fowler, “late of the Cuban X-Giants” — preps for a three-set series at Norwood the week. The slate will have the Giants budding heads with, among other, a club from Weedsport that apparently had been shifted in its entirety from Allentown, Pa. — so essentially a bunch of ringers, maybe?
April 15, 1909, Ilion Citizen — The Citizen, in a front-page cluster of baseball articles no less, noted: “‘Bud’ Fowler is getting together at Frankfort an all colored team who will open the season with the typewriter artists [probably from the Remington Typewriter Works] Sunday, April 25th.” The article references the Utica State League and claims that the Ilion Typewriter Works team “is the strongest semi-professional team in the valley.” It’s not entirely clear whether the Utica State League references a city-wide circuit or Utica’s entry in that year’s New York State League, the Pent-Ups. (This baseball coverage, by the way, shared the front page with, among other items, an article about a two-headed calf.)
April 16, 1909, Syracuse Herald — The Herald previews the impending launching of the 1909 baseball season in the city of Oneida by highlighting an upcoming clash between Fowler’s Black Tourists and the local Holihan’s Pets club at Citizens’ Park. The Pets squad includes a bunch of studs from Syracuse, included the Syracuse U. varsity team. Holihan’s is prepped to “cross bats with the fast Colored Giants of Frankfort. This team has been gathered together by ‘Bud’ Fowler, an old-time colored ball player, and is said to be the equal of other colored teams touring the country.”
April 19, 1909, Utica Herald-Dispatch — Bud just organized another incarnation of the Black Tourists with the help of a dude named “Tead” Pell of the Deerfields [likely a squad from Deerfield in Oneida County]. The aggregation, scheduled to report the following Sunday and its slate on May 1 against the Ilion Typewriter team, is composed of “Pell, Williams, Northrup, Douglas, Jackson, Williams, Taylor, Frasier, Green, Shepard, McKinney, Dana, Williams, Bradley.” Potential foes are requested to contact Fowler in Frankfort.
April 30, 1909, Utica Daily Press — It appears that, around this time, the barnstorming Black Tourists helped christen the summer hardball season in several towns and for many teams in the Mohawk Valley. Here, we have Fowler’s troupe launching the baseball slate in Bud’s own Frankfort by squaring off against the Remington Typewriter team from Ilion the following morning. The first attempt to play the match was nixed by a rainout.
May 12, 1909, Olean Times Herald — An unnamed squad (but most likely the Tourists) led by Fowler gets thumped by the St. Bonaventure University team, 17-3. Opined the paper: “The colored men played a dopey, slow game … Usually the colored teams are full of snap and ginger, and their coaching is half the show; but yesterday they were speechless, and there was nothing doing.”
June 3, 1909, Utica Observer — Fowler’s Black Tourists are scheduled to arrive in Utica to cross bats with a tip-top team from the local Remington firearms factory. The Observer reports that the Tourists “have just returned from a western trip … They have defeated many of the strongest semi-professional teams in the State.” A news brief item in the Ilion News from the same day also previews the match, saying that “the Colored Tourists are one of the fastest teams now touring and are under the management of ‘Bud’ Fowler.”
June 4, 1909, Utica Observer — Stated this issue: “Bud Fowler’s Colored Tourists will play the Remington Typewriter team at Devenpeck Park Sunday.”
June 6, 1909, Utica Observer — Reports the paper: “The Remington Arms team won an easy victory from Bud Fowler’s Tourists at Frankfort yesterday afternoon. Brown for the Arms team only allowed the colored men two hits and the score was 11 to 4.”
June 8, 1909, Utica Daily Press — Yeah, that game against those gun guys didn’t pan out too well. Reported the Press: “Bud Fowler’s Tourists must have wished that they were still en route when the Remington Arms finished with them this afternoon in a one-sided game played at Frankfort, in which Bud’s [players] were defeated by the score of 11 to 4.”
June 10, 1909, Ilion Citizen — Bud’s bunch didn’t get their mojo back in another contest against the Arms aggregation. Reports the paper: “Bud Fowler’s Tourists came to grief Monday at Frankfort when the Remington Arms team made the score 11 to 0.”
April 29, 1910, Hudson Columbia Republican — Bud visits relatives in town. Noted the publication: “‘Bud’ at one time pitched for a Hudson nine against Stottville when the nines were bitter rivals, and he has not forgotten that game.”
Aug. 8, 1911, Amsterdam Evening Recorder — Here’s the scoop: “Henry B. Jones, of St. Louis, a Western promoter of amusements, has purchased a one-third interest in the all star colored team ‘Bud’ Fowler of this city, and at one time one of the best players in the country, is going to take with him on a tour of the Pacific coast. The deal was closed recently in New York.”
June 20, 1914, Hudson Evening Register — The paper describes an apparently important game between two [presumably] white teams that turned out to a lopsided victory for “Bobbie Storm’s aggregation” and Homestead park. Why this particular contest was important — and not just one randomly plucked from the local sports almanac — is unclear, but the kicker is that the article claims “‘Bud’ Fowler umpired.” Although the Fowler we know did occasionally crouch behind home plate, especially in his later years, there’s no indication whether this Bud Fowler in question is the famous one, i.e. there’s no reference to his race, age or prominence.
A March 1916 issue of the Ogdensburg Journal — Three years after Fowler’s death, this paper asserts that Bud, not noted major leaguer and Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan, pioneered the use of the shinguards in baseball. Stated the Journal:
“But even this pet theory [for Bresnahan] that was all settled and everybody satisfied, has been upset by the revelation that one Bud Fowler, a gentleman of color, with played with Binghamton back in the eighties, wore the first shin-guards. Bud had his troubles, we are now told, for there were those who resented the intrusion of the smoke [yikes!], and it was a regular thing to come into second base spikes first. Bud found he couldn’t last over five innings in any one game, so he got some barrel staves and put on armor.”
Aside from the cringe-worthy term “smoke,” it’s a good theory, but a more popular one nowadays is that it was actually Chappie Johnson, a turn-of-the-century pre-Negro Leagues catcher. Another paper from around the same time, though also smelled a scoop when it came to who was at the forefront of the shin guard revolution — a 1916 article in the Syracuse Herald asserted:
“‘Bud’ Fowler, a gentleman of color, if you please, was the first ball player to wear shinguards, and the players of the old Binghamton International league club of 1884 were the first to utilize the feet-first slide when stealing bases. All parties involved had a motive — in other words, they had a method to their madness. Fowler was about three shades darker than a raven’s wing, but was such a clever ball player that he found no difficulty in hooking up with clubs playing in organized ball, and was duly signed as a second baseman by the Binghamton club of the International league back in 1886. Players in that circuit didn’t take very kindly to this son of Ham, and so Fowler had to wear his shin guards.”
Putting aside the (what the writer probably thought were clever) racial connotations — the son of Ham Biblical reference and the whole raven’s wing deal (not sure if Poe was involved in that allusion) — and possible detail quibbles, that paragraph — written by a reporter named simply “Bob” (we’ll, ah, we’ll talk to Bob) in his “On the Sport Firing Line” column — does pretty capture what actually happened during Fowler’s sour experience in Binghamton.
I also wanted to include a JPG of this article from the June 14, 1908, Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin. It’s a relatively comprehensive bio and career record — reportedly dictated by Fowler himself to the reporter — of the man who, more than 20 years early, was given the bigoted boot from the city. It’s absolutely crucial to note that the article makes no reference to the 1887 brouhaha that led to his premature departure from the home team. There’s too much in the article to write up in this already painfully long blog screed, so here’s the actual article:
The article, interestingly, ends with: “He is now located in Binghamton, operating a barbershop at No. 135 Washington street, but has by no means retired permanently to a quiet life. Indeed he is even now dreaming dreams of further travels.”
Finally, I want to reference an article from the January 1992 issue of the journal, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, by William M. Kimok. In the essay, Kimok gives a comprehensive, detailed and fascinating study of black baseball activity from 1907 to 1950 in New York’s Capitol District (Albany, Schenectady, Troy), which is adjacent to the Mohawk Valley and was well traveled by Bud and his various aggregations. In his conclusion, Kimok writes:
“Throughout most of the period between the turn of the century and 1950, professional and semi-professional baseball in New York State’s Capital District followed the national trend and remained a segregated activity, as all black ballplayers experienced much of the bigotry seen by their non-ball-playing brethren. Yet, it appears playing baseball locally did provide advantages for some blacks — even for those who were not fortunate enough to have been recruited to play ball for big-city teams in the professional black leagues.
“But the most important finding of this study is that the attendance figures, the enthusiastic newspaper reports, and the obvious affinity white clubs demonstrated for attracting black ball clubs as opposition all serve as undeniable proof that blacks, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, were among the greatest promoters of baseball in the Capital District.”
Final note (I swear): Harriet Odums, Bud’s sister with whom he lived the last few years of his life, ended up living a long, full life. After her husband, John, died — I couldn’t pin down the exact date of his passing — Harriet moved shuttled around upstate New York, living in Utica in the 1930 Census and in St. Johnsville in the ’40 Census. And actually, John and Harriet are listed in the 1905 State Census as living in St. Johnsville with Sarah Lansing, a relative of Bud and Harriet’s mother. (Harriet might have even spent a few years in New Jersey, but I’m not certain.)
St. Johnsville is in Montgomery County, as is Fort Plain, where her brother Bud was born and her family lived before moving to Cooperstown, where she was born. Harriet died on June 7, 1956, in Canajoharie, also in Montgomery County. She was interred in Fort Plain Cemetery, where — Find A Grave again! — it appears several other family members (including her, and Bud’s, father’s and mother’s lines) are buried.
In fact, it looks like Montgomery County (the town of Mohawk, specifically) is where John H. Jackson (Bud and Harriet’s father) was raised with his parents, Prince and Diana Jackson, for at least part of his life.
OK, that’s it. I totally swear.