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April 22, 2013

C-town street honors baseball pioneer

By Greg Klein
The Daily Star

---- — Many baseball historians see the path from Bud Fowler to Jackie Robinson, but it official Major League Baseball historian John Thorn sees it this way:

“This is Jackie Robinson week, but Jackie walked across a bridge that others built,” Thorn said at Bud Fowler Day in Cooperstown on Saturday. “If Jackie Robinson walked across a bridge, he also would have walked across Fowler Way.”

Fowler Way is the new name for the Cooperstown village street that leads to Doubleday Field. It is named in honor of black baseball pioneer Bud Fowler, born John W. Jackson, whose father was a barber in the basement of the building at 92 Main St. 

Thorn joined about 10 elected officials and more than 50 spectators to dedicate the new street and unveil a plaque and information kiosk in Fowler’s honor. The kiosk includes information collected by members of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. 

Among the spectators were dozens of members of the Society for American Baseball Research, who were in town for the 2013 Frederick Ivor-Campbell 19th Century Baseball Conference. The organization has taken an active role in rediscovering and honoring Fowler, thought to be the first African-American to play organized baseball.

Looking at Saturday’s crowd, Baseball Hall of Fame librarian Jim Gates joked that “72.4 percent of all the people in North America who know who Bud Fowler was are here,” but added that “we believe that (percentage) will decrease significantly now.”

Fowler was born March 16, 1858 in Fort Plain and died Feb. 26, 1913 in Frankfort, where he is buried. Fowler played professional baseball for almost 20 years on integrated teams, but was often fired or forced out when teammates refused to play with him. In 1896 he was prevented from playing altogether. He spent the rest of his life organizing teams and leagues for African-American players.

“I don’t think I can fully appreciate what his life was like,” said Congressman Chris Gibson, whose district includes Cooperstown. “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.

Gibson entered a proclamation honoring Fowler into the official Congressional record, and presented the proclamation to Cooperstown Mayor Jeff Katz on Saturday — one of an armful that Katz received. Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent his Mohawk Valley representative, Sonny Greco, with one. State Senator Jim Seward gave Katz one too. So did Thorn and Gates, on behalf of MLB and the Hall of Fame.

Katz credited HOF senior curator Tom Schieber with enlightening him about Fowler’s role in history.

“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,” Katz said.

Schieber suggested naming a street in Fowler’s honor, but Katz said he thought it would be “a tough sled” to rename an existing one. 

Trustee Cyndy Falk, through her research, found out that the entrance to Doubleday Field was actually an official street on the map.

“So now we had not only a street looking for a name, but a name looking for a street,” he said.

The attempt to bring public attention to Fowler appears to be working. The New York Times ran a feature on him this week. A representative of National Public Radio attended Saturday’s unveiling. 

The sign marking Fowler Way was unveiled by Cooperstown varsity baseball players Ethan Bliss, Sawyer Haney and Nico Knull on Saturday. They wore their CCS uniforms for the event, but stitched across the back of each jersey was the name “Fowler.”