Rube Foster was the big man behind the first successful Negro baseball league
100 years ago, it took a combination of salesman and dictator to launch a historic era for black teams
One hundred years ago, on Feb. 13, 1920, Rube Foster — the outsize owner of the Chicago American Giants — walked into the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri. Trailing Foster were 11 other men: three sportswriters, Cary B. Lewis of the Chicago Defender, David Wyatt of the Indianapolis Ledger, and Charles Marshall of the Indianapolis Freeman; attorney Elisha Scott; and the owners of seven other black baseball teams.
This was Foster’s meeting. He’d arranged it and he led it. On his agenda was one item: Create a Negro baseball league with a national footprint equal to that of the white major leagues, on and off the field.
Foster had been dreaming about it — and championing it — for years. The timing was right, said Negro Leagues historian Larry Lester. “With blacks serving honorably in World War I, albeit in segregated units, Americans were more open to African Americans forming their own teams.”
As Foster saw it, black players had already proven in barnstorming tours that they were as talented as white players. So why not create a black league to parallel the white major leagues? Besides, maybe one day baseball would be integrated. Shouldn’t the owners of black teams be ready?
Foster, a big personality in an even bigger body — he stood a few inches taller than 6 feet, and depending on the day, tilted the scale somewhere between 220 and 260 pounds — was an excellent salesman. But he also knew of what he spoke. He had built the preeminent black team of the era, the Chicago American Giants, into perennial winners.
So, on Friday, Feb. 13, when he took out the league charter and incorporation papers and placed them on the table, his fellow owners readily signed. By Sunday afternoon, all eight teams — the Detroit Stars, the Cuban Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs, the St. Louis Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Dayton Marcos, the Chicago American Giants, and the Chicago Giants — had hammered out a constitution, bylaws, and player selections, and appointed Foster president.
They’d also settled on a name: The National Baseball League of the United States. The organization soon took on a less formal title, the Negro National League, and would go on to become the first viable black baseball circuit — and launch what we now refer to as “The Negro Leagues.” (There had been two previous attempts at organizing: The first league never played a game; the other lasted only one season.)
When Foster and the other owners left the YMCA, the league had a vision that was encapsulated in a slogan borrowed from the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass:
“We are the ship. All else is the sea.”
Andrew Foster was born in 1879 in Calvert, Texas. His parents, Andrew and Evaline, had been enslaved and, upon Emancipation, became sharecroppers. Young Andrew left school after the eighth grade, set on becoming a professional baseball player. He hooked up with a local barnstorming team, the Waco Yellow Jackets, and began to attract notice. At 17, he made his way to the Midwest and, by 1902, was making $40 a month playing for the Chicago Leland Giants. Legend has it that in an exhibition game against the major league Philadelphia Athletics, Foster beat their star pitcher, Rube Waddell — and from then on, his teammates called him Rube.
The history of black barnstorming teams is sketchy — few records were kept, and mainstream newspapers often ignored the games. But it is known that, while pitching for the Giants, Foster blossomed into a bona fide star. And the stories, some apocryphal, grew around the big man. He is said to have won 44 games in a row in 1902. Two years later, the Philadelphia Item reported that Foster, pitching for the Philadelphia Giants in the “colored” world championships, struck out 18 Cuban X-Giants, setting a record for black baseball. Another widely circulated story had New York Giants manager John McGraw hiring Foster to teach star pitcher Christy Mathewson the screwball.
“If Andrew Foster had not been born with a dark skin,” wrote the Philadelphia Telegraph, “the great pitcher would wear an American or National League uniform. … Foster has never been equaled in a pitcher’s box.”
That opinion wasn’t limited to the black press. The sporting editor for the Detroit Free Press, commented, “Several of them [black players] would be in the big leagues, were it not for their color, and notably among these players is ‘Rube’ Foster, who is considered among the best pitchers in the world. … He is the best known Colored man in the world today.”
As player-manager of the Leland Giants, Foster famously invented strategies to thwart opposing teams. According to Lester and fellow historian John Holway, Foster popularized the hit-and-run, the drag bunt, the double steal, the suicide squeeze, and what he called the “bunt-and-run” — that is, advancing a runner from first to third on a surprise bunt.
In one game, the story goes, with his Giants down 18-0 to the Indianapolis ABCs in the eighth inning, Foster signaled for 11 bunts in a row. Opposing fielders were so flummoxed they couldn’t get anybody out. The Giants went on to hit two grand slams and tie the score before the game was called on account of darkness.
In his book Rube Foster in His Time, Lester quotes Wee Willie Powell, who played for Foster in the mid-1920s: “When Rube would sit there on the bench in his street clothes, fans always thought he was giving signals with his smoking pipe. Sometimes he would, sometimes he wouldn’t,” Powell said. “To confuse the opposition, he made other players think that was what he was doing. While they’d be watching Rube, somebody else on the bench was giving the real signals.
“Foster was the smartest baseball man I ever knew.”
In the early 1900s, black businesses began to flourish in Chicago as the Great Migration brought millions of African Americans from the rural South to the Northeast and Midwest. The city’s so-called Black Belt became home to businesses of all kinds — insurance companies, banks, funeral homes, real estate dealers, and retail stores.
According to Lester, “When you’re dealing with a situation where separation is legal, you really don’t raise too much opposition. It’s not right, and it’s not comfortable, for me as a minority, but what can I do? I’m not allowed to go here, I’m not allowed to eat here, I’m not allowed to sit here. I don’t have any options. So Rube Foster didn’t have any options other than to put a quality black team on the field and show all Americans, black, white, yellow, whatever, that we are human beings who just want to play baseball, and we are human beings who put a good product on the field.”
But Foster also was willing to do business with whites. For example, he knew black teams had a far better chance at success if, instead of paying booking fees to white stadium owners to use their facilities, they owned their own ballparks. No written contract survives, but Foster formed a partnership with John Schorling, a white tavern owner in Chicago, that gave Schorling half of the Chicago American Giants. In exchange, Schorling, who had taken over the White Sox’s former park from Sox owner Charles Comiskey, gave the American Giants a permanent home.
“What Rube Foster recognized was that for him to do business in mainstream America, he had to negotiate with the white power structure,” Michael Lomax, the author of Black Baseball Entrepreneurs, 1902-1931, told The Undefeated. “So, he was trying to create his segregated enterprise, which was the Negro Leagues, to work within the fabric of the national economy. That was pretty much the goal of the African American businessman of the early 20th century.”
Foster fell short of his goal to see every team have its own park. Still, what he achieved at the YMCA that day didn’t only make history — it changed the course of it.
With Foster at the helm, the Negro National League was a success. Baseball became a source of pride in African American communities and players enjoyed much the same stature as ministers, doctors, lawyers and dentists.
“It became a viable league with a structure similar to Major League Baseball,” Lester told The Undefeated. “They abided by the same rules that Major League Baseball did. They ordered their baseballs from Wilson manufacturing company. They ordered their bats from the Louisville Slugger company. They got their uniforms and gloves from Spalding. They were just like the major leaguers, except their skin was darker.”
But Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis didn’t want his players shown up by black clubs and banned them from competing in interracial games while wearing their pro uniforms. In 1921, when Babe Ruth ignored the mandate, Landis slapped the Yankee slugger with a 40-game suspension and a $3,700 fine, the amount of Ruth’s World Series share. (Ruth continued to defy Landis’ order, suggesting that the commissioner “go jump in a lake.”)
Buck O’Neil was a 12-year-old aspiring baseball player in Florida when Foster brought his team to Palm Beach to play an exhibition game. In his autobiography, I Was Right on Time, O’Neil wrote, “For us, seeing the Chicago American Giants in their red-and-white uniforms and CAG across their shirts, it was like seeing the gods come down from heaven.”
O’Neil went on to play for and later manage the Kansas City Monarchs. “I was baseball crazy,” he wrote, “and people like Rube Foster gave me the idea that it was possible to dream the dream of playing for a living.”
The only thing Foster wanted more than to spread black baseball around the country was to make money doing it. He started by scheduling and booking parks for most of the teams in the league.
“He worked out a deal whereby the teams would pay him a 5% booking fee,” Lomax said.
Foster previously had vilified white stadium owners for charging such a fee. But now, black teams were paying it twice: 5% to the white stadium owner and 5% to Foster.
“Without any ledgers, it is problematic to suggest how much of that booking fee went into Foster’s pocket and how much was used to sustain the league,” Lomax said. “Without question, he ran the Negro National League like a dictator.”
As a result of Foster’s unqualified power and questionable math, he was often the subject of criticism. But even those who railed against him admitted he was an effective leader and hell-bent on seeing his league succeed. It’s unclear how much money Foster earned in baseball — most historians say he was far from wealthy — but he often propped up troubled franchises with his own money, and paid transportation costs when teams were short of funds. He even sent his own star outfielder, Pete Hill, to the Detroit Stars to boost the Stars’ level of play — and their chances to compete for the title.
In exchange, however, he expected others to follow his edicts or face the consequences.
In his book, Only the Ball Was White, author Robert Peterson wrote that after the 1920 season, Foster reportedly shut down the Dayton Marcos franchise and redistributed its best players to other teams — while the club’s owner, John Matthews, was sleeping.
“He was loved and hated,” Lester said. “Some of the fellow owners felt like he was maybe too powerful. I chalk that up to jealousy. Until you become successful, nobody really knows who you are. He was out there, making changes. He was an innovator, had a Rolodex memory, big ego, and some people didn’t care for that type of demeanor, but he made it happen. And that’s the bottom line.”
Lomax agrees. “What he did in the segregated economy embodied the ideology of Booker T. Washington, the doctrine of self-help and racial solidarity.
“He always maintained the attitude of being a businessman first, a race man second.”
At six o’clock on a spring morning in 1925, Foster was about to take a bath before heading to the ballpark. His American Giants were in Indianapolis playing the ABCs. As he stepped into the tub, he became overwhelmed by gas fumes, and collapsed on the floor of the boarding house bathroom. He lay there, unconscious, inhaling the poisonous vapors, until he was discovered four hours later, leaning against a still-lighted gas heater. Although he recovered, his physical and mental health were never the same.
The following year, Foster had what has been described as a nervous breakdown. Some say it was a result of the deadly gas, but more likely, he cracked under the pressure of keeping the league together. As he himself had written in the Chicago Defender, “The strain placed upon me has proved great almost beyond endurance.”
His behavior became erratic and he was sent to the Illinois State Hospital in Kankakee, where he died of a heart attack four years later, in 1930. He was 51. He left behind a wife, Sarah, and a 20-year-old son, Earl. (His daughter, Sarah, had died at the age of 5 in 1921.)
More than 3,000 mourners packed St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago for the funeral. Two carloads of ﬂowers preceded the hearse in a procession that stretched a half-mile.
The Chicago Defender described the scene: “Andrew ‘Rube’ Foster was buried at Lincoln Cemetery Monday just as the church bells were tolling the hour of day at noon. Ball players and family and friends stood ankle deep in the snow as the body was lowered into the grave.”
The National Negro League lasted until the Great Depression hobbled it in 1931, but it started up again a couple of years later — and remained in existence until Major League Baseball was integrated. During that time, the Negro Leagues also expanded to include seven circuits.
Foster didn’t live to see his dream of interracial baseball. But the talent that his National Negro League spawned was undeniable — it fielded 16 future Hall of Famers, including Cool Papa Bell, Oscar Charleston, Turkey Stearnes, and Monarchs owner J.L. Wilkinson.
Foster himself was enshrined in 1981.
Now, as the Negro Leagues centennial gets underway, the Paseo YMCA, the building where Foster held his historic meeting, has been transformed into the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, located around the corner from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
There, baseball fans congregate in the spot where the big man once stood, armed with nothing but a sheaf of papers and a radical idea that black baseball players should be competing on the same level as their white counterparts.