AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
Baseball fans are making their annual pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., for the National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz gets his plaque in the hall, and a lesser-known player, Bud Fowler, is also being honored. It's part of an effort to celebrate Black players who came before Jackie Robinson. Here's Vaughn Golden of member station WSKG.
VAUGHN GOLDEN, BYLINE: When people think of pioneering Black baseball players, Jackie Robinson is usually the first to come to mind. He was the first Black player in Major League Baseball. But decades before Robinson was even born, John Jackson, better known as Bud Fowler, was playing on professional white teams. John Thorn is the official historian of Major League Baseball. He says Fowler was a well-regarded pitcher and second baseman in the 1880s.
JOHN THORN: It's not merely the stats that we have but the fact that there was always a home for him. Everybody wanted Bud Fowler - until they didn't. And the people who didn't want him were his teammates.
GOLDEN: And Fowler encountered that racism often. In 1887, two players on the Binghamton Bingos refused to play with Fowler. The team's owners caved and Fowler left. Soon after, all the teams in the league banned Black players, beginning the creation of baseball's color line. Thorn was on the committee that voted to induct Fowler. He says his credentials matched Hall of Famer contemporaries like Sol White and Frank Grant.
THORN: The thing that left him off the ballot when Sol White and Frank Grant went in was the very thing that got him in this time because it was his dignity as an African American that prevented him from accepting slights from teammates or townspeople or media.
GOLDEN: James Brunson is an author and historian specializing in Black baseball. He believes figures like Fowler haven't been given enough consideration.
JAMES BRUNSON: We need to take it seriously, and I think we're still operating on a pre-Jackie Robinson philosophy that nothing good came out of Black baseball in the 19th century.
GOLDEN: Brunson points to statistics. He says while digitization of old newspapers is helping provide statistics from the early days of baseball, those stats aren't always reliable. Brunson thinks it runs deeper, though. For instance, many accounts incorrectly credit Fowler as the first Black professional ballplayer. Brunson says that fails to acknowledge professional all-Black teams that were around since the 1860s.
BRUNSON: The first professional Black teams showed up, Fowler was - what? - 12 years old. I mean, that's an insult.
GOLDEN: In 2020, Major League Baseball made a huge step. It acknowledged that the segregated Negro Leagues qualified as a major league, meaning its players belonged in the record books along with white athletes. Josh Rawitch is the president of the Hall of Fame. He says that mission has found its way to Cooperstown, too.
JOSH RAWITCH: I think Major League Baseball has done a great job of trying to bring light to the fact that there were, in fact, leagues that existed - Negro Leagues and before - and that when you look at the caliber of talent that existed in the Negro Leagues, it was certainly on par with the National League and the American League.
GOLDEN: Both Thorn and Brunson agree there are more Bud Fowlers out there. And finding and honoring them only presents opportunities to deepen baseball's legacy.
For NPR News, I'm Vaughn Golden in Cooperstown, N.Y.
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