Foster, Rube

Foster, Rube (1879-1930), African American baseball pitcher, who was known as The Father of Negro Baseball, a preeminent figure in the history of the National Negro League.

A star pitcher, as well as a great manager, strategist, and innovator, Foster founded the Chicago American Giants, one of the finest black teams in baseball. He proposed the first viable black league, the Negro National League, in 1919 when baseball star Jackie Robinson, who would become the first African American to play in the major leagues, was one year old. Foster's historic achievement saved black baseball. Without that achievement, it is fair to say, there may never have been baseball heroes such as Jackie Robinson or Hank Aaron.

Andrew Foster was born in Galveston, Texas, on September 17, 1879, the son of a Methodist minister and Sarah Foster. He attended school in Galveston and by 1901 had attracted the attention of the Philadelphia Athletics, who were training in the South. That same year he went north with the Leland Giants, jumping in 1902 to the Cuban Giants, a misnamed club of African Americans from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He pitched for a salary of $40 a month plus 15˘ for meals, and called himself the best pitcher in the country. He may have been right—that year he won 51 games, one of them a 5-2 victory over the A's star pitcher Rube Waddell, and earned his own nickname, Rube, which would follow him throughout his life.

In 1903 Foster joined the rival Cuban X-Giants, also a Philadelphia American team, and that fall they challenged the Philadelphia Giants to the first modern black world series. Foster won four games as the X-Giants took the series, five games to two. The next year he and most of the X-Giants changed sides, joining their former victims, and this time won again, defeating their old team, the X-Giants. Although sick, Foster won two games, one a two-hitter, the other on 18 strikeouts.

White shortstop Honus Wagner called Foster "the smoothest pitcher I've ever seen." John McGraw, manager of the New York Giants, hired Foster to coach Christy Mathewson and the other Giant pitchers. Foster taught them his screwball, which Mathewson would make famous as a fadeaway. Writing in Sol White's Black Baseball Guide of 1906, Foster summed up his philosophy: Even with the bases filled, he counseled, "do not worry. Try to appear jolly and unconcerned. This seems to unnerve [the batters]."

Foster rejoined the Lelands, then in Chicago, Illinois, in 1907 and led them to 48 straight victories. They finished the year with a 110-10 mark. Chicago Cubs manager Frank Chance wistfully called him "the most finished product I've ever seen in the pitcher's box." The Lelands played Chance's Cubs that fall, losing three games, 4-1, 6-5, and 1-0. Foster pitched the second game, his first in three months after being sidelined by a broken leg. The winning run scored in the ninth on a steal of home, after Foster thought time had been called. In 1908 Foster broke with the Lelands and formed his own team, the Chicago American Giants. With catcher John Henry Lloyd and shortstop Grant "Home Run" Johnson rivaling the Cubs' second baseman Johnny Evers and shortstop Joe Tinker on the double play, Foster called it his greatest team ever. They won 129 and lost only 6. Three years later they were out-drawing both the Cubs and White Sox at the gate, and Cubs manager Evers turned down a challenge for a rematch on the field. The American Giants traveled in their own private Pullman car with uniforms and equipment that dazzled their opponents. In 1914 they beat the Brooklyn Royals four straight and claimed the black championship of the world.

Foster called a historic meeting of black club owners in 1919 and organized in 1920 the first Negro League, serving as president until his death in 1930. The league consisted of the American Giants, Kansas City Monarchs, Indianapolis ABCs, Chicago Giants, Detroit Giants, St. Louis Giants, and a team of traveling Cuban all-stars. A formal schedule replaced barnstorming, mutual raiding was ended, and player salaries increased. Foster probably saved the black league game of baseball.

Foster's own American Giants won the first three pennants from 1920 to 1922. He had a team of "race horses": Cristobel Torriente, outfielder Jimmy Lyons, Jelly Gardner, second baseman Bingo DeMoss, and third baseman Dave Malarcher. Foster designed the hit-and-run bunt for them. A fast man on first could take third when the batter pulled the third baseman off to field a bunt. Sometimes the runner even scored. The Giants made their own breaks and demoralized their foes with their speed, a style later brought into the major leagues by Robinson, shortstop Maury Wills, and outfielder Lou Brock. In their park at 79th and Wentworth, Chicago, they played to overflow crowds, including many white fans.

In 1926 tragedy struck suddenly. Midway through the season Foster suffered a severe mental breakdown and had to be taken to the state insane asylum, where he died in 1930, raving about one more championship. He received a mammoth funeral and was buried in Lincoln Cemetery, Chicago. He was survived by his wife Sarah and two children, Earl and Sarah.

"He was a genius," grieved his former outfielder, George Sweatt. "He had to be—the brainwork he had to do to organize eight teams of Negroes, because they're hard to organize. He was my idol of a man." Dave Malarcher added that Foster had turned down a chance to enter white semipro ball. Although he was a leading drawing card, he turned down the offer to stay with the National Negro League until the time finally came when the big leagues would admit blacks. "The thing for us to do," he said, "was to keep on developing so that when the time did come, we would be ready." The time finally came in 1946, and Jackie Robinson was ready.

John Holway's illustrated Voices from the Great Black Baseball Leagues (1975) is based in large measure on interviews with former players, journalists, and contemporary newspapers. The book also contains valuable statistics. Robert W. Peterson's Only the Ball Was White (1970), likewise based on interviews and newspapers, has a photograph of Foster in civilian clothes (p. 103). See William Brashler's Josh: A Life in the Negro Leagues (1978), Ocania Chalk's Pioneers of Black Sport (1974), Edwin Bancroft Henderson's work The Negro in Sports (1949), and A. S. "Doc" Young's Negro Firsts in Sports (1963).

From Dictionary of American Negro Biography by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, editors. Copyright © 1982 by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. Reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

 

Contributed By:

John Holway