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Negro Leagues
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Negro Leagues Legacy

The Genius
Foster made Negro League Baseball successful
By Steve Goldman
MLB.com


Andrew Foster earned the nickname, "Rube," after he defeated Rube Waddell in an exhibition game.
A NOTE ON NOMENCLATURE
Andrew Foster comes down to us as "Rube" because he once outpitched the great Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia A's, and was given Waddell's nickname as a trophy. All resemblances between Foster and a rube of any kind end right there. Waddell was, to put it simply, a nut, and Rube fit him perfectly. There was nothing of the rube about Foster, and the nomenclature may even, for some, serve to obscure his great intelligence. Therefore, in this biographical sketch Foster will be referred to by his given name of Andrew.

1919
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The last year of the second decade of the 20th Century represented a turning point for organized baseball in the United States, with all of the shockwaves emanating from Chicago. In the world of white baseball, that season's World Series competition between the hometown White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds would set in motion events that would see the demise of the National Commission and the rise of the commissioner system.

In the world of black baseball, ideas that Rube Foster, the ambitious, intelligent owner-operator of the Chicago American Giants, had been germinating for years reached critical mass and impelled him to action: after years of barnstorming against weak competition and numerous victories in the informal "colored championships," Foster was going to make an all-out effort to force the squabbling, divisive black ball owners to a league structure that would legitimize Negro baseball as a sport, place them all on a sounder financial footing, and, ultimately, claim the respect of the white leagues and lead to improved status for black athletes.

THE BASIC FACTS
Andrew Foster was born on September 17, 1879 at Calvert Texas, the son of a minister. He grew to be a big man for his day, 6-foot-4, and weighed somewhere between 224 and 260 pounds (some sources list him as closer to 6-foot-2 and 200, but photographs of Foster depict a man of significantly greater girth, as do contemporary caricatures, which show him, even as an active pitcher, to verge on the obese). Armed with a confounding screwball, Foster joined the Chicago Union Giants in 1902 and commenced a career as one of segregated baseball's premier pitching attractions. In 1907 he became player-manager of the Chicago Leland Giants and found that he was an even better leader of men than he was a pitcher.

As a manager his bearing was highly reminiscent of his contemporary, John J. McGraw (1873-1934). Both insisted that the authority of the manager was absolute and demanded unfailing allegiance to his strategy. "If you haven't got the intelligence to fit into this play," his third baseman Dave Malarcher quoted him as saying, "you can't play here."

Foster's trademark play was the bunt and run, in which a baserunner had the potential to go from first to third on a ball dropped in front of the plate. The method worked; in 1910, Foster's Giants reportedly won 109 of 118 contests.

In 1910, Foster took advantage of the relocation of the White Sox to the brand new Comiskey Park by entering into a partnership with John M. Schorling, Charles Comiskey's son-in-law, to make use of the Sox' former home at South Side Park. Stealing players from Leland and other sources, Foster formed the Chicago American Giants. Foster now possessed three legs of a tripod, whereas the rest of black baseball only had, at most, two: he was an owner, he had a great team, and most importantly, he had possession of a ballpark.

The American Giants spent the next decade rampaging through baseball, posting outstanding records and championships nearly every season. Foster was soon dissatisfied with being the biggest fish in a small pond. He knew he was a great manager and a savvy baseball operator, and he had a need to show off his acumen on a larger stage.

For years, Foster had claimed that he had taught Christy Mathewson his screwball, that John McGraw and Connie Mack had him on permanent retainer as a consultant. These claims might or might not have been true; the important point is that Foster longed to be on an equal footing with the white magnates.

Towards the end of 1919, Foster began to publicly agitate for the independent Negro teams to form a confederation.

THE WORLD OF ANDREW FOSTER
The maturation of Foster's ambitions was well timed. Andrew Foster's Chicago was a place of tremendous business for the ambitious African American. It was, despite riots in 1919, still a liberal city on race. Black businessmen prospered. It was in Chicago that Jesse Binga prospered in real estate and founded a bank, that Anthony Overton succeeded in cosmetics and banking with the Douglass Bank, the second black bank granted a national charter. Both institutions were of tremendous symbolic value to a community struggling to rise economically. The 1920s were a great decade for black entrepreneurship. As the country boomed, the number of business opportunities blossomed. Wrote Vishnu Oak in The Negro's Adventure in General Business (1949), "It was during this period that Negro businessmen ... started corporate enterprises for the production of articles of every description, including brooms, dolls, mayonnaise, perfume and toilet goods, hair preparations, soap, hosiery, cotton and woolen goods, mattresses, flour, chemicals, dyes, radios, movies, lumber, burial caskets, tiles, coal, oil and stoves."

This movement was in part a result of the overheated economy of the decade, but also the payoff of a campaign by black intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois and John Hope to encourage the retention of the fruits of labor -- capital -- in African American hands. Hope had said, "The Negro's status has changed considerably since the Civil War, but he is today to a great extent what he has always been in this country -- the laborer, the day hand, the man who works for wages. ... The white man has converted and reconverted the Negro's labor and the Negro's money into capital until we find an immense section of the developed country owned by whites and worked by colored. ... We must take in some, if not all, of the wages, turn it into capital, hold it, increase it."

Foster had applied their dictum to black baseball, and, with arguable exception being taken to the fact of his white partner, Schorling, largely succeeded. Yet, simultaneously, Foster was becoming increasingly isolated. White interests largely controlled the venues where black teams might play, and as such the teams were entirely at their mercy.

White stadium owners would take extortionate percentages of the gate in exchange for permission to play, or might not let a team play at all. Eventually these booking agents decided to vertically integrate and do away with the black owners altogether. Most prominent of these expansive bookers/owners was New York's Nat Strong, who held a monopoly on most semipro venues in the New York City area as well as control of the Brooklyn Royal Giants.

The rapidly evolving interest of whites in black baseball mirrored developments in the overall economy going back to the nation's beginnings. There were numerous successful black business enterprises going back to colonial times. However, there was never a black business so successful that it could not be undercut by political or economic machinations or physical coercion. If black businesses needed capital they were forbidden it; if they needed property they were denied it; if they needed profits they were undersold; if they wanted to defend their rights in court, they were denied access to the courts. And if all else failed, one could always count on an angry mob to do the job. The attitude of the white majority was, there is nothing you can possesses that we cannot take away.

Andrew Foster was not one to accept the usurpation of what he viewed as his sport, his team, his success. If whites were going to monopolize the outlets, he would form a league and monopolize the talent -- and ultimately the revenues.

FOSTER'S CRUSADE
"I have fought against delivering Colored baseball into the control of whites, thinking that with a show of patronage from the fans we would get together," Foster wrote in 1919. "The get-together effort has been a failure. In justice to myself and the many players that will eventually befit by ownership with system, money and parks, admitting that I cannot prevent it much longer, as in the past, I had better see that the snow does not stay in my yard after these many hard years of effort."

Despite his frustrations, on July 2, 1919, Foster vowed, "We will have the circuit at last." On February 13, 1920, Foster, having finally gotten his fellow western owners to the table, surprised them with completed incorporation papers and a league agreement. Less than a year later, the Negro National League played its first contest.

Among the fist steps had been to freeze out Strong and his allies, who were left to form their own weaker eastern circuit. True to its origins, the Negro National League's letterhead bore this motto: "We are the ship, all else the sea."

The effort involved in founding the league wrecked Foster's health, and the edifice barely survived his involvement with it, which ended with his incarceration in a sanitarium in 1926. The Negro National League flickered out in 1931, laid low by the Great Depression and the absence of Foster's guiding hand.

Foster's league had been flawed from the start, and the involvement of semi-silent white backers called into question whether Foster had truly met his goals of a racially autonomous business. Still, he had proved his larger point. The black game did not have to be run on a hand to mouth basis; structure improved it, made it a more compelling sport, and it could be run as a large scale entertainment without the interference of whites in management. When the League was reborn in 1933, its backers would be the black numbers kings, figures from the wrong side of the tracks to be sure, but African American entrepreneurs nonetheless.

BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTE: The author would like to acknowledge his indebtedness to the following works: The Shaping of Black America, Lerone Bennett, Jr.; The Negro Leagues Book, Clark and Lester, eds.; The Best Pitcher in Baseball, Robert Charles Cottrell; Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues, John Holway; The Biographic Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, James A. Riley.

The opinions above are solely those of the author and are not reviewed or sanctioned by Major League Baseball. Comments welcomed at oldprofessor@home.com.