South Side Baseball Legend: Rube Foster

South Side Baseball Legend: Rube Foster
Credit: Chicago History Museum

Before Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, and Josh Gibson, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Homestead Grays, powerhouses of the Negro Leagues during the interwar years and beyond, there was Andrew “Rube” Foster and his American Giants of Chicago, which together ruled the African American circuit and later the Negro National League throughout the 1910s and 20s.  During his day, the influence, notoriety, and success of Rube Foster as a player, manager, team owner, and league commissioner could hardly be overstated, so Foster’s conspicuous absence from baseball history in the popular imagination today is tinged with tragic irony.

Foster was born in 1879 in the town of Calvert, Texas.  He began his playing career in Fort Worth, and rose to fame as a member of the Cuban X-Giants.  The team hailed not from Cuba but Philadelphia, and the players were not ethnically Cuban but African American.  The prejudices of the day were such that promoters sometimes branded black teams as “Cuban” in order to make players more acceptable in white venues.

After a brief stint with the team in 1902, Frank Leland brought Foster to Chicago for good in 1906, and for three seasons Foster starred on the Leland Giants as player-manager.  The Giants’ played their home games at 79th and Wentworth.  In 1907, Foster led the team to 110 victories and a Chicago City league title.  Behind Foster’s tactical cunning and deceptive screwball, the Giants won 123 games and lost a mere 6 in 1910.  The team also featured Hall of Famer John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Pete Hill, Grant Johnson, Bruce Petway, and Frank Wickware.

When the White Sox moved to Comiskey Park (then dubbed "The Baseball Palace of the World") at 35th and Shields in 1910, a saloonkeeper who ran a tavern near the Giants home park (and according to more than one secondary source, Charles Comiskey’s son-in-law), bought the old Sox park at 39th and Wentworth.  Schorling constructed bleacher seating for 9000 spectators and induced Foster to build a team fit to be featured at the venue.

Foster split with Leland and formed the American Giants in 1911 by recruiting talent from the Leland and Philadelphia Giants.  "For the next 10 years the American Giants functioned as one of, if not the greatest, independent aggregations in the nation," noted Al Monroe of the Chicago Defender in a Rube Foster retrospective piece published in 1961.  The Giants were the pride of Chicago’s black community.  One Sunday, the team was said to have drawn 11,000, more than both the White Sox and Cubs on that same day.  “Foster,” wrote Jim Bowman of the Chicago Tribune in 1982, “became the best known black man in Chicago.”

As a pitcher, Foster was said to have had no equal.  But his exploits are mostly the stuff of legend.  Even his height and body weight are a source of contention (the SABR article referred to earlier claims Foster was 6’2”/200lb while the MLB article has him at 6’4”/224-260lb), but suffice to say, Foster was an intimidating mound presence.  In 1905, the right-hander was said to have a record of 51-4.  Foster was said to have taught Christy Mathewson the screwball.  He may have outdueled both Cy Young and Mordecai Brown in exhibitions.  Reportedly, Rube acquired his nickname after outpitching Rube Waddell in a 1902 matchup.

Without statistical evidence, it’s hard to say if much or any of this is true.  But a particularly rousing endorsement of Rube Foster’s dominance came from famed African American sportswriter Fay Young.  Young wrote a piece on Foster for the Defender many years after the player’s death, in which the author relayed an encounter he had while taking in an American Giants game with a group of seasoned Negro League fans in 1948.  A young man sat next to them and asked rhetorically, "Ain't Satchel Paige the greatest Negro pitcher who ever lived?"  "We couldn't agree with him," wrote Young, "We knew Rube Foster."

In 1916, the Defender called Foster "The best pitcher the Race has ever known."  Though Young would lament more than forty years later, “Foster lived 20 years too soon.”  Mostly barnstorming and demolishing local competition before black baseball was professionalized, Foster never gained the widespread recognition he deserved as a player.

As a manager, Rube Foster would have been the scourge of 21st century sabermetricians.  A true John McGraw disciple, Foster advocated “inside baseball”: hitting behind the runner, stealing bases, the sacrifice bunt, the squeeze play, the antiquated “Baltimore chop.”  But the game that Rube managed differed from baseball witnessed today.  Whether it was due to a limited number of baseballs used during games, ballpark dimensions, a “dead ball,” or a larger strike zone, runs came at a premium in those days.  So did hits for that matter.  According to Fay Young, Foster “would 'take' an out to get a run across, knowing most of the time that run would be enough for victory."

As a player and manager, Rube Foster put together as notable a career as any African American ballplayer during his era or before.  However, Foster’s largest contribution to baseball history was as a business operator.  In an industry that was dominated by white men who controlled teams and venues, Foster excelled as a negotiator, often securing for his African American players more than half of the game proceeds for appearances against white teams.  However, in the 1910s black baseball remained scattered and unorganized, the talent level of teams in competition with one another was wildly variable, and games were often lopsided.

Foster overcame numerous obstacles to organize the first Negro National League in 1920.  The original NNL teams were Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit, Birmingham, Memphis, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Cleveland.  The “Cuban Stars” were a traveling team with no home city, and teams in Toledo and Milwaukee were “associate members.”  Eventually, eastern teams were brought into the fold.  Foster’s league motto was “We are the ship, all else is the sea.”  With Rube at the helm, the vessel remained afloat for ten years.  Despite some money squabbles and posturing between owners, the league even prospered.

Foster set up the NNL offices in a garage on Indiana Avenue between 33rd and 34th streets.  As commissioner, Foster’s indomitable will and autocratic impulse were matched only by his commitment to the league and his benevolence toward NNL players.  Paying for and arranging travel for all-black teams was one of the bigger challenges of league operations.  Foster built relationships with railroad officials and often fronted travel expenses himself.  He wired money to cash-strapped traveling teams.  Negro League players only made about a quarter of what white pro ballplayers earned, but they still made more than most black workers, including postal employees and school teachers.

Foster imagined the Negro National League not as an isolated business entity, but as a driver for economic development in black communities independent of white financial control.  Foster fit right in with the “New Negro” cultural current moving swiftly through the African American collective consciousness during the World War I years and into the 1920s.  A desire to defy pejorative stereotypes defined the movement, which emphasized assertiveness in economic and social endeavors during a time when African Americans were denied civil rights and employment opportunities.  For Foster, the American Giants of Chicago embodied and advanced this cultural imperative.  He wrote in 1924:

"I take great pride when I refer to the American Giants.  They have done wonders.  When there were no other clubs in existence the Giants traveled thousands of miles to play ball.  Each trip has brought renown to Chicago. ... Our various successes are now history.  The Giants have done more to keep a friendly feeling between the Negroes and whites than any other institution of its kind in the world."

The Giants promoted friendly feelings at a time when these sentiments were sorely needed.  Following World War I, a series of race riots swept the nation; breaking out in upwards of 30 cities across America in 1919, including Chicago, where 38 were killed and more than 500 were injured, many in the streets that surrounded Schorling Park where the Giants played.  The park sat along Wentworth Avenue, known to Chicagoans as the “deadline” separating black and white communities, at a time when the city was becoming increasingly segregated because of anti-black sentiment among white homeowners.

In the context of its time, Negro League baseball was more than a game or simple entertainment, it was a form of unencumbered expression and an opportunity for black players to prove themselves as capable, or better, than white ones; physically as well as mentally.  "Although we were denied our rights as Americans, we did not lower our standards of play,” remembered Foster’s teammate David Marlarcher in 1981, then the last surviving member of those great Giants teams.  “Rube Foster, and other black managers and performers, looked on baseball as a great artistic endeavor—a thinking man's game."

Baseball was an art form, and art as a mode of political expression was a concept familiar to African Americans in Rube Foster’s day.  “At a time when African Americans had virtually no political recourse,” writes Christopher George Buck of the New Negro movement, “their voice could best be heard through their distinctive music, poetry and art—a creative and humanistic effort to achieve the goal of civil rights by producing positive images of African Americans and promoting activism through art.”

What Rube Foster may have achieved had he lived a full life is left to the imagination.  Foster was exposed to a gas leak in his home in 1925, fell into ill-health, and never really recovered.  The mental strain associated with the day to day operations of the NNL is said to have had an effect on him as well.  In his later years, suffering from dementia, he was committed to an asylum where he died in 1930, leaving a wife and two children in their home at 4131 South Michigan Boulevard.  Following Foster’s death, the first incarnation of the Negro National League folded.  Two years later it would be rekindled in Pittsburgh.

For as little as Rube Foster’s name gets bandied about these days, he was a transcendent figure in his day.  "Foster was not a 'Colored' baseball man,” read a Defender piece eulogizing Foster in 1930, “he was a person of consequence wherever baseball was discussed."  A spectacular athlete, a sharp mind, an innovator, and one who seemed to recognize the possibilities inherent in baseball toward racial tolerance and social justice: Rube Foster’s is a legacy of which we, as fans of baseball on Chicago's south side, can be proud.

 

Additional Sources (accessed through the Chicago Public Library website with a valid library card):

 

"RUBE" FOSTER

The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition) (1905-1966); Jul 22, 1916;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 9

 

Negro Teams Thrive During War Years: Rube Foster Was Guiding Genius

Monroe, Al

Chicago Daily Defender (Daily Edition) (1960-1973); May 2, 1961;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 1

 

Rube Foster--A Name That All Baseball Fans Revere

Young, Fay

The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); Aug 7, 1948;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 10

 

RUBE FOSTER PASSES

The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967); Dec 20, 1930;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender (1910-1975)

pg. 12

 

Black baseball's 'father'

Jarrett, Vernon

Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Aug 5, 1981;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. 2

 

THE WAY WE WERE: A forgotten era of sports: The Negro baseball league

Bowman, Jim

Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file); Jul 4, 1982;

ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Chicago Tribune (1849-1988)

pg. G1

 

Some information for this post was taken from:

Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, By Rob Ruck (Beacon Press)

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