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Negro Leagues' legacy begins with Foster

As Civil Rights Game nears, a look at one of black baseball's pioneers

The Civil Rights Game has traveled around the country to various venues since the first one was held in Memphis, Tenn., in 2007, and on May 30, when the Astros host the Orioles, it's landing in Houston, a city that played a big role in helping advance the movement forward in the South 50-plus years ago.

The Civil Rights Game, and its message, encompasses the most important elements of the integration of both America and Major League Baseball. To fully embrace and understand the significance of baseball desegregating in earnest beginning in 1947, it's important to know what -- and who -- came before that.

That brings us to Andrew "Rube" Foster, a pioneer of one of the most important eras of the game's history, whose body of work earned him a moniker unmatched by anyone from that time: "The Father of Black Baseball."

Foster was reared not far from Houston, in a small, proud town named Calvert, Texas -- located about 120 miles from the Bayou City in the Bryan-College Station metro area.

Importance-wise, Foster's Texas ties pale in comparison to other things he's known for, like being at the front and center of the efforts to create and operate an organized baseball league that preceded African-Americans gaining entry into Major League Baseball. Foster was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.

But as the Civil Rights Game festivities culminate in Houston a short time from now, it's appropriate to give the proverbial tip of the cap to a native Texan who had a profound impact on baseball in the early 20th century, and whose influence is still felt nearly 100 years later.

Born in 1879, Foster, son of a reverend, showed at a pretty early age that he had a gift for baseball. So much, in fact, that he dropped out of the eighth grade to join a local team called the Waco Yellow Jackets, an independent black team, with whom he excelled as a pitcher.

Enduring racism as an African-American player as he traveled with the team, Foster eventually moved out of Texas and joined the Chicago Union Giants, one of the top African-American teams in the country. Through the years, he played for several teams and established himself as, according to historians, the best African-American pitcher of the first decade of the 1900s.

But by 1920, Foster was known for much more than his pitching prowess. He also gained notoriety as a visionary whose leadership parlayed a seemingly outlandish business venture into what later became known as the Negro National League.

Wrote Charles E. Whitehead in the 1980 book, "A Man and His Diamonds":

"In the annals of baseball there are certain names such as Cy Young, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Connie Mack, and John McGraw that are immediately recognized, even today. Yet, there was one baseball great, Andrew 'Rube' Foster, who was reported to be greater than any of the aforementioned, but who because of his race is today almost forgotten."

In the 34 years since that writing, the Negro Leagues have gained a more prominent presence in baseball history. Certainly, the last 20 years have seen a raised awareness of the significance of the Negro Leagues filtered throughout Major League Baseball, thanks to events such as Civil Rights Weekend; a yearly celebration of the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier; the 2006 induction of 17 Negro League players and executives into the Hall of Fame; and the emergence of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, bringing the Negro Leagues back to life more than 50 years after the last game was played.

At the forefront of the museum is the Negro Leagues' forefather, Foster, who started it all by holding a meeting at a YMCA in Kansas City, Mo., with a few other owners of Midwestern black teams that existed by barnstorming and playing whoever would play them.

These owners formed the Negro National League, and soon, rival leagues from the East and South wanted in as well. Almost immediately, the Negro Leagues helped spark an economic boon in many black communities.

Foster, described by Negro League Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick as "one of the most brilliant baseball minds ever" and who was "light years ahead of his time," infused a style of play that became signature for the Negro Leagues: fast and aggressive. In fact, Foster was known to fine his players as much as $5 if they were tagged out standing -- they were instructed to slide.

To make sure they knew how to properly drop a bunt, Foster drew circles on the first- and third-base lines, and if any of the players couldn't bunt inside the circle, he would fine them.

His bold (and somewhat expensive) tactics resonated, presumably because he had the pedigree to back up his somewhat tough-guy approach. Whether he was pitching, managing or starting up and running a new league, most of what Foster touched turned to gold. Who would dare defy him?

Robert Peterson wrote in his book, "Only the Ball was White": 

"From about 1911 until 1926, he stood astride Negro baseball in the Midwest with unchallenged power, a friend of Major League leaders, and the best known black man in Chicago. Rube Foster was an unfettered genius who combined generosity and sternness, the superb skills of a dedicated athlete and an unbounded belief in the future of the black baseball player.

"His life was baseball. Had he chose otherwise, baseball would have been the poorer."

It's a legacy well earned -- and richly deserved.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.