#Shortstops: From diamonds to music

Part of the SHORT STOPS series
Written by: Bill Francis

Not only is Bud Fowler regarded as Black professional baseball pioneer – a 19th century star on what was oftentimes a racially hostile diamond – but decades before the Negro Leagues were created, he helped form renowned barnstorming teams that were considered amongst the best in a segregated landscape.

Today Bud Fowler is a Hall of Famer. But a century ago, he was a renaissance man who succeeded in a variety of pursuits – including as a published songwriter.

The man born John Jackson Jr. – who was buried in an unmarked grave 30 miles from Cooperstown for seven decades – will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame on July 24 in the village where he learned the game as a youngster more than 150 years ago. In 2013, his onetime childhood hometown even honored him by naming a street Fowler Way that leads to historic Doubleday Field.

While Fowler gained fame across the country, mainly as a durable and skilled second baseman playing on both Black and white teams, not many know of his artistic and creative side.

Of particular note was a piece of sheet music he composed entitled “The Royal Giants: The Base Ball Hit of the Season,” which was bequeathed to the Baseball Hall of Fame as part of a larger collection from Penny Marshall, the famed actress and director who passed away in 2018. Published in 1909 in Frankfort, N.Y., where Fowler was living with his sister Harriet at the time, it is dedicated to Bill Monroe and Grant “Home Run” Johnson, two former teammates. The final verse even pays homage to his hometown of Cooperstown.

In Jeffrey Michael Laing’s 2013 biography, “Bud Fowler: Baseball’s First Black Professional,” he explained: “In all probability, Fowler’s song was a form of thanks to the players who were responding to the elder statesman of black baseball’s financial need in 1908.”

Reports at the time indicated Fowler’s health was poor, so benefit games were scheduled – including one involving the Brooklyn Royal Giants that included Monroe and Johnson.

“Bud Fowler, probably the greatest colored player who ever lived, and a man well known in the professional baseball world for 30 years, is dying here of slow consumption,” read newspaper reports out of Frankfort in 1908. “Fowler is in destitute circumstances and deserving, on the strength of his long and clean record, of some recognition from his many acquaintances in the baseball world.”

Early in 1909, Fowler’s diagnosis of consumption (what today is referred to as “tuberculosis”) was changed to a pair of broken ribs suffered while sliding into second base and colliding with an opponent’s knee seven years prior.

Ultimately, games to benefit Fowler scheduled for the spring and fall were not played. But reports of the sheet music for “The Royal Giants” surfaced at the time.

Today, after extensive investigation by the Hall of Fame Library, it is thought to be the only surviving copy of this song, and it is certainly the only cataloged copy that is available to researchers.

Taken with the knowledge of Fowler’s other expressive endeavors – the 1895 song “The Page Fence Giants” (no sheet music is known to survive) and the 1912 play “The Retired Black Planter” – a different side of Fowler is revealed.

As Laing writes, they “underscore Fowler’s tireless promotion of the game of baseball as entertainment for the paying customers.” John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian said: “Recent scholarship has revealed Bud Fowler to be something of a Baseball Leonardo.”

When longtime sportswriter Steve Wulf was assigned a magazine story by the Hall of Fame on the relationship between baseball and music, he was told about the Fowler sheet music in the collection. With no known recording of “The Royal Giants,” he took it upon himself to rectify the situation.

Not far from Wulf’s home is the Larchmont (N.Y.) Music Academy. In January, he walked in announced and immediately met Bianca Barragan.

“I explained the challenge and what I wanted to do. She was very nice and said, ‘I'm a singer. I'd like to try this. I just have to find a piano player,’” Wulf said. “She called me a week later and said, ‘We did it. Why don't you come down and we'll download the song for you.’”

Barragan, a faculty member at Larchmont Music Academy specializing in voice and piano, loves singing and loved this challenge.

“It's always great to take a look at new work even though this wasn't a new work, but probably a lesser-known work,” she said. “I think it's important to give voice to those works that haven't been given voice to yet.”

Wulf listened to the recording of “The Royal Giants” and said he “was blown away by how beautiful it sounded. The lyrics aren't particularly wonderful or poetic, but they totally made it seem as if it was of the time. Her voice was transcendent. I thought it was really, really good.”

The recording’s pianist was Douglas Kostner, the organist at the Larchmont Avenue Church. He also does accompaniment work for instrumentalists and singers.

“Rather than just leave the sheet music lying on the page as a song that Bud Fowler wrote in 1909, I wanted to hear what it sounded like,” Wulf said. “And Bianca and Douglas brought it to life.”

According to Kostner, due to the pandemic he and Barragan recorded their parts separately, where he made his piano recording first and she added her voice later. In fact, the two had never met face-to-face until recently.

“I'm going to call it a period piece. It's very obvious that it comes from the early 20th century. It has aspects of ragtime to it and popular music of the era,” Kostner said. “It was interesting to put it together. Before I looked at the words I had in my brain a slightly faster tempo – more like a two-step in a march. But after I looked at the words, I figured that the thing needed to be slowed down somewhat because there were a lot of words. And that's how we arrived at the eventual tempo.”

Kostner suspects Fowler came up with the melody.

“He probably sang it to himself and if you're not a musician, or you don't read music, you might have to sing it to someone who does and they will transcribe it,” Kostner said. “I can't imagine what came first – the tune or the words – because the words, when you hear the song, the words kind of don't always fit. The syllables are in the wrong locations, the stresses are wrong. So maybe the words were shoehorned into the music after he came up with it.”

After recording “The Royal Giants” in January and re-recording in February, Barragan was happy with the final result.

“When you think of baseball music, you think of something very different. I felt that immediately when I heard Douglas’ piano part played,” Barragan said. “And when I started singing it, it definitely felt very true to the genre, which was really exciting. And it was very catchy and was stuck in my head for a really long time after I recorded it.

“I grew up in New York and went to a lot of Yankee games when I was growing up. This definitely brought me back to you sitting in a stadium, which I think is always a good sign of a really good piece when it can transport you in that way.”

The pianist somewhat reluctantly admitted he’s not much of a baseball fan but has a good friend who is.

“I shared with him that I did this recording,” Kostner said. “He thought it was the coolest thing because he knew who Bud Fowler was.”

As an African American, Barragan said recording the song after learning of Fowler’s backstory made it all the more special.

“I think that's why I was super excited to take on the responsibility of recording it because representation matters so much,” Barragan said. “Recording this song more than 100 years after it was written and knowing Fowler’s story made it a great connection to be able to be the one to sing it.”

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the SHORT STOPS series