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A shameful moment in Guelph's baseball past

Black pitcher Bud Fowler signed with Guelph Maple Leafs in 1881, but teammates refused to play with him and he left
Bud Fowler, centre, is believed to be the first professional Black baseball player. He signed with the Guelph Maple Leafs (not picture here) in 1881 but never played.

Guelph has a little-known connection to the history of professional baseball.

It is generally believed that the great Jackie Robinson was the first Black athlete to break the colour barrier in major league baseball. In 1947, Robinson made history when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His story is told in the 2013 movie 42 starring Chadwick Boseman.

However, long before Robinson was born, another man was the first Black baseball player to play in a professional league. His career included a brief stop in Guelph.

John W. Jackson, better known as Bud Fowler, was born in Fort Plain, New York, in 1858, the son of a man who had escaped slavery in the south. He grew up in Cooperstown, NY, (now the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum) where he learned to play baseball. It was the age of bare-
handed baseball, and Fowler pitched and played second base without a glove.

At age 14, Fowler played professionally for an all-white team in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. Over the next few years he played at various positions for several teams in New England.

Although he supported himself as a barber, he was paid to play for those teams, making him the first Black professional playing on otherwise all-white teams. Because of the racist attitudes that prevailed at that time, Black players were generally barred from playing on white teams and could only play in what were then called the “Negro leagues” or on Black “barnstorming” teams.

The few Black players like Fowler who were given a chance to play on white teams still found themselves facing the ugly spectre of bigotry among teammates and fans.

In those days, crowds in Canada turned out to watch all sorts of team sports: hockey, soccer,
cricket, lacrosse. Baseball was among the most popular.

As in other towns across the country, Guelph teams developed lively rivalries with teams from surrounding communities. Guelphites filled the stands to watch their team, the Maple Leafs, take on opponents from all over Ontario, and often travelled with the boys to watch the away games.

In 1869, the Guelph Maple Leafs won the Canadian championship. The Maple Leafs were so successful, they earned Guelph the moniker “Hometown of Baseball in Canada.”

One of Guelph’s biggest baseball enthusiasts was George Sleeman, manager of Sleeman’s Brewery and the city’s mayor from 1880 to 1882, and again in 1905-06. Sleeman established his own factory team, the Silver Creek Club. He eventually merged the Silver Creeks with the Maple Leafs, whose
name he kept.

In 1881, Sleeman made Canadian sports history when his Maple Leafs became the first Canadian baseball team to hire professional players from the United States. One of those players was Bud Fowler.

Sleeman personally picked Fowler for the team. He greatly admired Fowler’s talent and believed he would be an excellent addition to the Maple Leafs.

Unfortunately, the poison of racism tainted what might otherwise have been a great moment in Guelph’s athletic history.

According to one account of that incident, “Bill Bicker, a part time player for the Maple Leafs, took exception to Fowler’s presence and led a revolt among his teammates.”

Those players refused to play with Fowler on the team. It didn’t matter to them how good he was, nor did it matter to them that George Sleeman wanted him on the team.

An article in the Guelph Herald, that was reprinted in the Toronto Globe on July 4, 1881, stated:

“OBJECTIONS RAISED TO FOWLER – We regret that some members of the Maple Leaf team are ill-natured enough to object to the coloured pitcher, Fowler. Fowler is one of the best pitchers on the continent of America, and it would be greatly to the interest of the Maple Leaf team if he were retained.
"He has played for a season with the ‘Depews’ of Iowa, and is a member of the Baseball Association of the United States, and is, without a doubt, the finest baseball player who ever stood on the Maple Leaf grounds. He has forgotten more about baseball than the present Maple Leaf team ever knew, and he
could teach them many points in the game.

"Fowler is a well-behaved young man, and it is not at all to the credit of the Maple Leafs to treat him as they have done. We are glad, however, to find that it is only a few members of the team who have done so.”

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any documented record of George Sleeman’s response to this bigoted act of mutiny on his team. We do know of incidents in which white players refused not only to accept Black players on their own teams, but also refused to play against non-white players.

James “Tip” O’Neill, considered one of the greatest Canadian-born ball players of that era, once signed a petition that said: “We the undersigned do not agree to play against Negroes … We will cheerfully play against white people at any time … we are only doing what is right, taking everything into consideration.”

Whatever the details of the situation in Guelph, the final result was that Bud Fowler didn’t play for the Maple Leafs. However, later he did play some games for a team in Petrolia, Ontario.

Fowler continued to play baseball on teams all over the United States, and he certainly encountered other situations in which white players didn’t want him as a teammate.

He played his last game in 1898. Fowler died in poverty in Frankfort, New York,in 1913. Not until 2022 was Bud Fowler’s name enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.