Friday, October 17, 2014

180. Bob Bowman: Integrating Dixie


This post has been over 20 years in the making, and much like the path my life has taken, there's a bit of wandering on the way the to the point, so bear with me 'cause it's worth it.

I grew up in Northern New Jersey, and up until I left for art school in Baltimore, I'd never experienced life outside a 50 mile radius of Manhattan. When I graduated college I swore to myself that I would use my career as a designer and illustrator to live in as many different parts of the United States as I possibly could. I wanted to experience and see first hand everything this great country had to offer, but not as a visitor - I wanted to know what it was like to live in all these vastly different places. 

After Baltimore, the first stop in what would become a long odyssey was Cincinnati, Ohio. It was as far removed from where I was from as the moon. As I would repeat in every other place I called home, I threw myself into exploring every nook and cranny I could. I was particularly intrigued by mysterious and inviting land just across the Ohio River: Kentucky. I was 25, 26 years-old at the time and after work on Fridays I'd pack the saddlebags of my old motorcycle with a tent, sleeping bag and cans of food and cross the river into Kentucky. I'd ride the back roads south as long as it was light, then stop in a small town hotel or camp in an open field. In that manner I explored much of the beautiful Bluegrass State and met hundreds of people that a kid from the streets of New Jersey could have only imagined existed. On one of those weekend journeys I wound up in a roadside tavern somewhere in the state's coal region. Of course a Reds game was on the television behind the bar and I struck up a conversation with an old fella on the next stool. We traded baseball trivia and after a few Negro League teasers he lobbed one at me that made me swing and miss:

Who was the first black ballplayer signed to play for a team below the Mason-Dixon Line?

I figured it was someone from the Brooklyn Dodgers organization and I racked my brain trying to come up with a good candidate. I forget now who I threw out there, but it didn't matter, I was wrong. "The answer", said the old fella, "was a pitcher named Bob Bowman in 1951".

I confessed I never heard of him before and dutifully noted his name in my pocket sketchbook, filing Bob Bowman away for future research. Months later I was in the Cincinnati Public Library and I stumbled on the little note. I got a stack of old Spalding Guides from the reference desk and micro film of The Sporting News and looked up Bob Bowman. I found he'd played for the Middlesboro Athletics of the Class D Mountain States League in 1951. It was at the tail end of a long career in organized baseball stretching back to the 1930's including a 4 year stretch in the majors with the Cardinals, Giants and Cubs. Clearly Bob Bowman was not black, but white. In fact he carved out his own niche in baseball infamy as the St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who beaned Joe Medwick in 1940. Medwick was the National League's best slugger at the time and was never the same after Bowman brained him. The injury, besides being horrific even by the rough standards of the day, was significant in that it brought about he adaptation of modern batting helmets.

So, Bob Bowman was indeed an interesting guy, but not a pioneer of baseball integration. A dead end - or so I thought.

Fast forward to last week. In my spare time I'm working on a little personal book project featuring ballplayers who either hailed from or spent a significant portion of their career in Kentucky. I had already written about Mickey Stubblefield who integrated the KITTY League back in 1952 and Happy Chandler, a semi-pro ballplayer in Lexington back in the 1920's who went on to become the baseball commissioner who green-lighted the signing of Jackie Robinson. I was at the library hoping to find some interesting Bluegrass ballplayers to feature when I picked up "Bat, Ball and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball in the Appalachian South" by L.M. Sutter. The book features West Virgina, Virginia and Kentucky coal town baseball so I put it on my stack of books and checked out. Later that night I was thumbing through it and lo and behold there was a photograph of Bob Bowman, pitcher of the Middlesboro Athletics. Not former Cardinals pitcher and white guy Bob Bowman, but black guy Bob Bowman. Turns out L.M. Sutter was a much more diligent researcher than I was and, fortunately for baseball history, was able to uncover the forgotten story of the first black ballplayer to be signed to a team below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Bob Bowman hailed from the Appalachian coalfields of Virginia. As a boy his family moved over the border to Middlesboro, Kentucky, the place he would call home for the rest of his life. The young Bowman grew up big and strong, eventually topping out at 6 foot 2 inches. By incessantly skipping stones across water as a boy, Bowman developed a devastating sidearm throwing motion that translated nicely to baseball when he took up the game.

He developed a unique fastball which he gripped by overlapping his index finger over his middle one and delivered with a submarine delivery from the right side. By 1930 he was a local baseball star around Kentucky's coal region playing with the semi-pro Middlesboro Blue Sox. The Blue Sox was an all-black team that played local amateur white teams from the mines and visiting Negro League clubs. Bowman pitched for the Blue Sox throughout the 1930's and eventually took over as the team's manager. Then as the 1937 season began Bowman disappears from Middlesboro. Author L.M. Sutter speculates that Bowman was picked up by the Ethiopian Clowns, a novelty traveling blackball team. The Clowns made annual trips to Middlesboro and a few of Bowman's teammates on the Blue Sox were recruited by the Clowns during this time. It isn't much of a stretch to see why the Clowns would snatch up Middlesboro's star hurler as well.

Since the Clowns played ball mixed with slap-stick sketch comedy that the serious-minded Bowman would have found distasteful, he never really discussed his time with the barnstormers. The addition of Bowman did much to raise the Clowns' level of play and by 1940 the club had become as respected for their baseball as they were for drawing a cheap laugh from a crowd. For whatever reasons, life with on the road wasn't to the pitcher's liking. He was a family man and three or four summers of playing baseball in a different town everyday with a bunch of ballplayer/comedians had probably wore thin. By 1941 he was back home in Middlesboro with the Blue Sox. 

The popularity of black baseball during World War II led to Bowman again leaving home, this time with the Ashville Blues of the Negro Southern League. The NSL was sort of a minor league for the Negro National and American Leagues. Besides playing teams from their league, Ashville played a heavy schedule against town and factory teams throughout the eastern part of the United States. The hard toll such traveling took on Negro League players is well known but for around $275 a month Bowman stuck it out through 1950 when he returned to Middlesboro. He was back with the Blue Sox when history came calling.

Middlesboro had an entry in the Class D Mountain States League. Though Jackie Robinson and a handful of other black ballplayers had broke the minor league color barrier in 1946, the Mountain States League was still lily-white. In 1950 one of the leagues teams tried to field a black ballplayer but tapped out when faced with opposition from the rest of the circuit. The following season the Middlesboro Athletics tried.

Bob Bowman was an obvious choice to be the man to become the first black player to join a team based south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Though he was 45, the submariner was well-known to local white fans from his decades with the Blue Sox and his ability to pitch on a professional level was proven. On May 8, 1951 he signed a contract with the Athletics and that very night took the mound in relief against the Big Stone Rebels. By all accounts the Athletic's 45 year-old rookie received a warm standing ovation when he entered the game during the 8th inning. Middlesboro was up 9-7 but runners were on second and third with one out. Bowman, perhaps nervous, walked the first batter he faced, then unleashed a wild pitch that let a run to score. Now Bowman's veteran instints took over and he whiffed the next two batters. Middlesboro scored an insurance run in their half of the eighth to make it 10-8. Bowman got the first batter on a fly out then proceeded to walk the bases loaded. As he had done the previous frame, the big veteran bore down and got the next two Rebels in order to preserve the win. It wasn't exactly a barn-burner of a debut, but the important thing was no one refused to play against a black ballplayer and there wasn't a race riot. Bob Bowman had quietly integrated Dixie.

Bowman solidified his position as as the ace of the Athletics staff after he one-hit the Norton Braves at the end of May. The other Bob Bowman was the pitcher/manager for the Braves and that is where the confusion over the two men stems from. What the former major leaguer thoughts were when his struggling Braves team was one-hit by Bowman and subjected to a 27 run onslaught is not recorded. The submariner also baffled Braves batters as he sent 17 back to the bench on strike outs.

Behind the veteran right hander Middlesboro climbed to the top rungs of the standings for the first time in their 3 year existence. Author L.M. Sutter found that the club's home attendance spiked during the teams 1951 revitalization as they battled the Hazard Bombers for the pennant. As good as the Athletics were, the Bombers featured a teenage Johnny Podres. The 18 year-old went 21-8 and in 2 years would be a star with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The aged Bowman finished up with an admirable 17-6 record, making him the second best in the Mountain States League behind the Brooklyn-bound Podres.

Middlesboro faced the Morristown Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. "Big Bob" as he was now called was on the mound for the final deciding game. Bowman pitched the game of his life, striking out 11 Red Sox in 12 innings of shutout ball. He finally gave out in the 13th when he walked in the winning run. It was called the greatest game ever seen in that part of the Appalachins and was Bowman's last game in organized baseball.

The old right hander retired as an active player but kept his hand in the game by coaching the local kids who tried to emulate their heroes' sidearm delivery. In 1975 Bob Bowman suffered a stroke that eventually led to his death on June 25th. He was 69 years old and except for grateful fans in Middlesboro, Kentucky, all but forgotten for his role in integrating the game he loved.

My synopsis of Bowman's short but important career in organized baseball pales when compared to the chapter on him in "Bat, Ball and Bitumen". Hopefully it will introduce a new round of baseball history buffs to a forgotten ballplayer who played a small but important part in breaking down baseball's color line. After I read the chapter about Bowman I emailed the author, L.M. Sutter with a few lingering questions I had about him. Sutter enthusiastically answered all my inquiries and told me that finding Bob Bowman remains one of her proudest moments. I can see why - without Sutter's dogged research one of baseball's integration pioneers would have remained anonymous and eternally confused with the career of a white ballplayer who happened to share the same name.

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