The Father of Black Baseball
By: Matt Kelly | @mattkellyMLB
Baseball was changed forever on Feb. 13, 1920, when a group of team owners came together in Kansas City and formed the Negro National Leagues. But those owners might never have come to the table and organized toward a common goal if not for the persistent efforts of Andrew “Rube” Foster.
Foster saw how an organized league could help Black teams and their stars break free of selfish booking agents and bring in the crowds they deserved -- and his vision proved critical. Black MLB stars of the late 1940s and early 1950s like Robinson, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Ernie Banks and Hank Aaron would have had a tougher time attracting the attention of Major League scouts had it not been for the Negro Leagues, the wildly popular organization that traces its roots back to Foster – known to many as the “Father of Black Baseball.” But Foster was more than simply a league founder; he was also considered one of the best pitchers and managers of the early 20th Century. Here are some key points to know about Foster, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
• Foster was born in Calvert, Texas on Sept. 17, 1879, and saw several of his siblings succumb to tuberculosis. Seeing the first-hand effects of the disease affected Foster, who later said “if it hadn’t been for playing ball and living outdoors, I don’t suppose I’d (be) here today.”
• He began his baseball career with the Fort Worth Yellow Jackets in 1897, and then went on to play for the Chicago Union Giants and an integrated semi-pro team in Otsego, Mich. His success in Otsego drew attention from the Philadelphia Cuban X Giants, the club with which Foster really caught on. Beginning in 1902, Foster won 44 games in a row on the pitcher’s mound, and he led the X Giants to the black baseball championship the following year as he earned four of his club’s five wins in the title series.
• Soon, Foster’s pitching reputation was spreading far and wide. Legend has it that manager John McGraw, of the all-white National League’s New York Giants, asked Foster to tutor a young pitcher by the name of Christy Mathewson, and that Foster allegedly taught Mathewson the “fadeaway” screwball pitch that made Mathewson the greatest white pitcher of his generation.
The story also goes that Foster acquired his nickname, “Rube,” after outdueling another future Hall of Fame hurler, Rube Waddell, in an exhibition game. Hall of Fame slugger Frank Chance described Foster as, “the most finished product I’ve ever seen in the pitcher’s box.”
• Foster sought more than the status of an ace pitcher. He became player-manager of the Chicago Leland Giants in 1907 and led them to a 110-win season and the city league title. Three years later, Foster formed his own club – the Chicago American Giants – and wooed stars like Pop Lloyd, Pete Hill and Home Run Johnson that transformed the new team into a juggernaut. By some accounts, Foster’s American Giants won 128 of their 134 games in 1910.
The following year, Foster partnered with Charles Comiskey’s son-in-law, John Schorling, who agreed to let the American Giants play at Chicago’s South Side Park. The Giants became the most famous and financially successful black baseball club, consistently outdrawing both the all-white Cubs and White Sox at their new home. Foster gradually transitioned from the mound to full-time managing and front office duties, pitching his last game in 1917.
• The American Giants dominated opponents for the rest of the decade, but Foster came to lament the lack of a unified black baseball championship league. He also sought a way for black team owners to control their own scheduling and gate receipts.
After several efforts to convince fellow owners to organize a league, Foster surprised them when he showed up at a February 1920 meeting already holding an official charter document for the “Negro National League.” Foster would not be denied, and his fellow owners finally put pen to paper, forming a league that featured teams in Chicago, Cincinnati, Dayton, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City and St. Louis. Under the slogan, “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea” in a nod to its independence, the Negro National League was a near-instant success. Foster’s own American Giants club drew nearly 200,000 spectators during the ‘21 season.
• The NNL continued to flourish in the early 1920s as Foster served as president and treasurer while also continuing to manage the Giants. He was known to aid teams in financial trouble by covering payroll out of his own pocket. Meanwhile, other clubs, like Foster’s Giants and the Kansas City Monarchs, became more profitable than white teams and inspired offshoot leagues in the South and the East Coast. As the decade continued, player salaries and bonuses rose to new heights.
Rube Foster - The Father of Black Baseball, produced by Matthew Leib | matthewleib.com
• Foster had a hand in so many aspects of the NNL’s early success, but the overwhelming nature of all of his duties eventually caught up to him. In 1926, Foster suffered a nervous breakdown and he was confined to an asylum in Illinois for the remainder of his life. He passed away on Dec. 9, 1930, and nearly 3,000 people attended his funeral in Chicago. Foster is interred at the Lincoln Cemetery located in Blue Island, Ill.
• The NNL experienced deep financial troubles after Foster’s passing, further compounded by the Great Depression, but rose again as a second version of the league in the early 1930s. Together with the Negro American League, the NNL became the showcase for Black baseball talent, as well as a box-office force in American cities. Supremely talented players including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard, Martín Dihigo and many, many others became national stars thanks in large part to Foster’s vision of a powerful and unified league.