The summer of 2006, the summer I turned 23, David Kirschenbaum invited me to write a poem for issue 37 of Boog City, a baseball issue. I have never been a baseball fan, but then as now under the right conditions, I appreciate an assignment, and David’s invitation was my entry-point into a research-based creative practice that has informed much of my work since.
I chose to write about Bud Fowler, the first of at least 30 African-Americans to play on integrated professional baseball teams before 1899, when the “gentleman’s agreement” barring Black players became the law of the land. I found material in New York public library books, electronic databases, and microfilm, and as I worked my way through several drafts, ultimately dropping a string of quotes from the sources directly into the poem, I decided that it needed to close on an action, to show Fowler doing something. For that I could not rely on 100-year-old newspaper articles; I needed to see a baseball game in real life.
With this in mind, I pestered David until he got us press passes for a Staten Island Yankees game. Of course I was the only one in the press box who wasn’t keeping score. I was interested in baseball as a site of social and historical reckoning, but I had never learned the rules of the game. Since Fowler was primarily a second baseman, I focused on the player standing nearest to second base, until, in the sixth inning, I learned that I’d mistakenly been watching the shortstop the entire time. In his daily poem “7.19.06,” David describes what happened next:
she’d ask me what’s he doing
as the second baseman readied himself to field a ball
that might come his way.
and i said readying himself
and she said that wasn’t good enough
and the guy next to her in the press box said
that’s what he was doing, readying himself.
with an inning left
if the s.i. yankees lost in nine
as it looked like this game was headed,
lauren took off to find that line
coming back 20 minutes later
when the game was over.
“so’d you get it,” i asked her.
“yeah,” she said, “i had to get away from you
and the constant babbling in here.”
Here’s my poem:
Reckoning at Keystone Sack:
The Peculiar Career of Bud Fowler
who thinks of a Negro when he says “American”?
—Thomas Dixon, Jr., 1905
Selecting the appropriate deportment, the sacrificial second baseman
—called “coon,” “dusky,” “proof against sunburn,” “import,” “disgrace”—
once pitcher once catcher many times barber often curiosity—
again chased by his intentions or maybe mania maybe packhorse security
in cross-roading spike-fielding hard-hitting trails (but who knew
this National Pastime would have so many innings?:
It is in fact the deep-seated objection to Afro-Americans that gave rise to the feet-first slide.
About half the pitchers try their best to hit these colored players when at bat.
We, the undersigned members of the Binghamton Base Ball Club, hereby refuse to play ball if the colored players, who have been the cause of all our trouble, are not released at once.
Gone coons – Fowler and Renfroe.
The Board finally directed Secretary White to approve no more contracts with colored men.
the least expendable son of Cooperstown, born 1858 too black
for “Spaniard,” “Mulatto,” “Cherokee,” a talent so distasteful
as to prompt the invention of shin guards—
not race won but race born, representative of no nation, state, club or team
but of skin no barbershop diplomacy can strike,
no life-sized portrait, pennant or proof—
not import but inmate, this diamond too narrow, these bleachers too wide
(the batters reload and the umpire falls down)—
straddling the line between brown dirt and green field, hand to thigh, feet poised
to spring, awaits the crack of the bat.
Dixon, Thomas, Jr. “Booker T. Washington and the Negro.” The Saturday Evening Post, August 19, 1905. Microfilm, New York Public Library. Dixon’s novels The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905) served as the basis for America’s first feature film, The Birth of a Nation.
Sporting Life, 10/24/1891, quoting Ned Williamson, reprinted in Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball, with Other Documents of the Early Black Game 1886-1936. Ed. Jerry Malloy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. p. 140
Sporting News, 3/23/1889, quoting anonymous International League player, reprinted in Sol White’s History of Colored Base Ball, with Other Documents of the Early Black Game 1886-1936. p. 138.
The Binghamton Daily Republican, 8/9/1887, reprinted in “Baseball’s John Fowler: The 1887 Season in Binghamton, New York.” Richard White. Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 16.1 (January 1992). p. 7
The Binghamton Daily Leader, 7/13/1887, reprinted in “Baseball’s John Fowler: The 1887 Season in Binghamton, New York.”
The Binghamton Daily Leader, 7/16/1887, reprinted in “Baseball’s John Fowler: The 1887 Season in Binghamton, New York.”
What struck me in the end was not so much action as waiting. The second baseman is a genius at anticipation, always on the verge of several possible futures: “straddling the line between brown dirt and green field, hand to thigh, feet poised/ to spring, awaits the crack of the bat.” I saw this image as a metaphor for Fowler’s fraught career and for a country still grappling with its ghosts. What I did not see just turning 23—pre-college, pre-grad-school, certainly pre-books—was that by sending me into the archive, this assignment for Boog City was the crack of the bat I was waiting for.
LAUREN RUSSELL was Boog City copy chief from 2010 to 2011. She is the author of Descent (Tarpaulin Sky Press), winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2021 Anna Rabinowitz Award, and What’s Hanging on the Hush (Ahsahta Press). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, Cave Canem, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, she is now an assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University and director of the RCAH Center for Poetry at MSU.
BUD FOWLER was born John W. Jackson in Fort Plain, New York, in 1858. He grew up in Cooperstown and made his professional baseball debut in 1878, becoming the first of at least thirty black players to play on integrated teams before 1899, when the “gentleman’s agreement” barring blacks and dark-skinned Latinos from professional baseball became the law of the land. He played in at least ten minor leagues over as many scattered seasons and on several all-black barnstorming teams, including the Page Fence Giants, which he founded. Competent in any position, Fowler excelled as a second baseman. He retired from baseball in 1904, died of a rare blood disease in Frankfurt, New York in 1913, and was buried in an unmarked grave. In an attempt to remedy this situation, the Society for American Baseball Research provided an engraved headstone in 1987.