Two unidentified members of the Empire Baseball Club of Visalia pose for an 1879 photograph (Click picture for larger version)
It might be a stretch to say that baseball in Visalia has its roots in Northern Ireland. But not much.
When Thomas Fowler was born on March 17, 1829 just outside Belfast, Ireland, his parents couldn't have known that their son would eventually become the patron saint of baseball in a small California rancher town over 5,000 miles away. In fact, they would not have had the slightest idea of what "baseball" was. But Thomas was destined to be first a traveler, then a wanderer, and then a restlessly enthusiastic picture of American frontier success.
The first sign that young Thomas was not going to be an ordinary man was when he left Ireland at age 18. Nobody knows why. Maybe he didn't either. But he arrived in New York in 1847, and found work as an apprentice at a machine shop, breathing poisonous iron dust all day long.
As a young immigrant with a dangerous, exhausting, low-paying job, Fowler could have become one of the faceless thousands of Irish who were swallowed alive by the 19th Century New York slums. In fairness, his family was very wealthy, and he may have come to the country with more resources than the average immigrant. But that, in itself, was part of what made Fowler so fascinating: he was the family's only son, and stood to inherit a fortune from his parents if he had just stayed in Ireland. But he chose to risk it all to come to America, where, in the days before wireless money transfers and interconnected world banking systems, his family's wealth was largely useless.
When he was tired of the machine shop job, he didn't sail back to Irish safety, either. Instead, he wandered down through the American South to New Orleans, and then migrated through the plains to Texas, and then found his way from Texas to California, where, in the early 1850s, he settled in the newly incorporated region of Tulare County.
Fowler was originally drawn to California by the Gold Rush, which had begun a few years earlier. California was rumored to be a land where precious ore was everywhere and quick riches were easily found. In reality, gold was very difficult and arduous to mine, and required a large amount of luck to find. Fowler quickly realized that the people who were getting rich weren't the miners themselves; they were the merchants who sold food and goods to the miners. Fowler deftly adjusted his plans, and instead of spending his money on mining equipment, he started buying, breeding, and slaughtering beef cattle to supply food to the mining communities.
Over the following years, his business boomed and expanded, until he dominated the meat markets in Central California and in silver-rich Nevada. He acquired a 40,000 acre ranch, and his cattle, with their distinctive "76" brand, were said to be in the "tens of thousands."
Fowler became one of California's wealthiest and well-liked citizens, and he used that popularity to win election to the State Senate in 1869. He would be re-elected multiple times. "Honest Tom" had reached the pinnacle of his influence and success. He married, had five children, and seemed to be set for life.
But he was still the same restless man who had left a fortune in Ireland and wandered across North America, and he needed a new challenge. He had always dreamed of being a succesful miner; it was, after all, what had driven him to the state in the first place. Pragmatism had made him a cattle rancher, but prospecting was what he really wanted to do. So when the opportunity presented itself, he purchased the rights to the Empire Mine in Mineral King, raised millions of dollars in investment, and went to work on his new venture.
As a side project, he also founded a general store in Visalia and named it after his mine. The Empire Store was born, and became a major sponsorship force in the area.
With his considerable money and clout, Fowler could fund any cause or venture he liked. One of those causes, it turned out, was baseball. It's not exactly known how Fowler became a fan of the new craze that was sweeping the country. Some speculate that he picked it up while making frequent visits to San Francisco and Sacramento, but that's just an educated guess.
Regardless of where he found the sport, Fowler seemed to enjoy any kind of competitive action. He was known for his boisterous, stereotypical Scotch-Irish temperament; the California Senate Guide of 1878 described him as "a fearless man, a little apt to get excited." The guide warned that "It is dangerous to tread on Senator Fowler's toes, for he is as quick to resent as to forgive an injury...He is a hard man to fight against, for the reason that he has acres, cattle...and a pluck that will surmount any difficulty."
That Fowler had this kind of personality isn't surprising, not necessarily because of his heritage, but because of the tremendous forcefulness it took to establish oneself as a giant in the tough mid-19th Century California landscape. Laws were not always evenly enforced, bandits and robbers were still rampant, and justice was something that individuals often took into their own hands.
Once, according to popular legend, Fowler and a friend (another Irish immigrant) got into a heated argument by the shores of what is now Bravo Lake in Woodlake, California. They supposedly squared off and boxed for the rest of the day, and attracted a crowd of native Yokut tribesmen, who yelled "Bravo!" every time either of them landed a punch, thus giving the lake its name. Whether the story was true or not, the fact that people widely believed it suggests that Fowler's nature was intensely competitive, making him an ideal patron for sports.
And so, in April of 1879, a new baseball team was formed. They were known as the Empire Club of Visalia, officially sponsored by Fowler's Empire Store. It was the first organized team in Visalia's rough and once-lawless history. Fifty years after Thomas had been born across the Atlantic Ocean, he and his self-financed club were about to make history. But it wouldn't be pretty.
Their first opponents were the Two Orphans club of Bakersfield. Bakersfield had a head start on Visalia in population and baseball, and already boasted a few established teams. The Weekly Visalia Delta described the Two Orphans as "an old club," and relatively speaking, it probably was.
Two Orphans had agreed to come to Visalia via train to play against the Empires, who had not even held a formal practice since being founded less than a week earlier. The game was played on a Sunday in front of "a large number of people," who saw the experienced Two Orphans take advantage of the green Empires in a 31-6 pasting. But the event was still a rousing success, as the crowd was enthused about the new sport, and Bakersfield players "expressed themselves as well satisfied with the reception they received in Visalia" and agreed to host a return contest a few months later.
Later that summer, Visalia traveled to Bakersfield for the rematch. “They will also take with them their guns and glass ball traps, and have a pigeon and glass ball shooting match,” reported the Weekly Delta. “The Bakersfield boys may win the base-ball match, but they will find it difficult to beat our boys at shooting.”
The Empires traveled to Bakersfield on July 13th, 1879. The Visalia team, along with “60 of Visalia’s encouraging and enterprising citizens together with a number of ladies and the Visalia Silver Cornet Band” left at 1 AM on Sunday. They arrived in Bakersfield at 5 AM and were “met by a delegation from the Two Orphans and the Bakersfield band in a most cordial manner.” After resting briefly at the Arlington House and French Hotel, they were greeted by the locals. “The citizens, many of them old Visalians, called during the morning and spoke their welcome,” reported the Delta. After listening to several “soul-stirring airs” from both the Visalia and Bakersfield bands, the crowd moved to the sporting grounds for the shooting contest and ballgame.
As it turned out, the Weekly Delta was half-correct in their prediction: Bakersfield won the baseball game and the shooting contest. This time, the Empires managed to score 21 runs, more than tripling their output from three months prior. Unfortunately, Bakersfield scored 44.
The final inning-by-inning line score, reprinted in the Delta, was not pretty:
Empire (Visalia) 0 0 0 0 4 2 6 5 4 - 21
Two Orphans (Bakersfield) 4 3 3 5 6 9 5 5 4 - 44
Obviously, the rule of skipping the bottom of the ninth inning when the home team had already won was not in place yet.
After the games, the Visalians were escorted back to their hotel, where “a sumptuous supper was given by the Two Orphans.” The Visalia delegation used the Weekly Delta to convey their gratitude to the citizens of Bakersfield for their hospitality, and wrote that they hoped “to be able at no very distant day to return the compliment.”
Within the next few years, multiple teams had been sponsored and founded in Visalia, and they were regularly competing with and beating Bakersfield teams. By 1887, Visalia had a seven-team city league. By the 1890s, a San Joaquin League was in place. Baseball was firmly entrenched in Tulare County, and was there to stay.
Unfortunately, Thomas Fowler wouldn't see much more of it. His mining venture proved disastrous, and he lost almost all of his once-considerable fortune. In 1884, while returning from a trip to San Francisco to act as a witness in a land lawsuit, he tried to step off of a still-moving train as it came to the Goshen stop, stumbled, and fell heavily. At first, he didn't appear to be seriously injured, and he continued on to Visalia the next day. But he died that night. Doctors suspected that he had ruptured an artery in his fall, but no autopsy was conducted, and his exact cause of death was never officially established. He was 55 years old.
Fowler left behind little money but a large reputation. The city of Fowler, just outside Fresno, was named after him over twenty years after his death. But his biggest legacy may have been the team of ragtag, inexperienced ballplayers he sponsored in 1879.
Minor League baseball wouldn't permanently come to Tulare County until after World War II, but the groundwork had been laid 67 years earlier by a man who lived a uniquely American life. Thomas Fowler was born in war-torn Northern Ireland, made his fortune in the Wild West, and died in baseball-crazed Visalia.