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Bud Fowler broke barriers long before Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player to play in Major League Baseball.
Born John W. Jackson Jr. in 1858, Fowler played baseball for over 20 years as a second baseman and pitcher (though he did play all nine positions), becoming a journeyman while playing in the United States and Canada.
Fowler began his career in Massachusetts as a member of the amateur Franklins of Chelsea in 1878. His time with the Franklins gained the attention of an International Association team named the Live Oaks, who were based in Lynn, Mass. After impressing the Live Oaks in their matchup, the team added Fowler to the roster. Once he played his first game, it officially made him the first African-American baseball player to play in any form of organized baseball.
In his first game with the Live Oaks on May 17, 1878, Fowler pitched a 3-0 shutout. As the years went on, Fowler would move from team to team as he faced racism from many sides, including fans and his own teammates. Historians say that he was often one of the team’s best players, no matter who he played for.
Baseball historian Robert Peterson said that Fowler’s skill was of the caliber of a major leaguer. Fowler went on to coach teams and was key in forming the Page Fence Giants, alongside Grant Johnson in 1894.
SABR in 2020 named Fowler as an Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend. Further honors will follow, as the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2022 will induct him into its ranks as an executive.
Fowler passed away in 1913, so he never got to see Robinson become the first African-American to play in the major leagues. His impact, however, is what helped pave the way for Robinson and so many other all-time greats.