When historian and author Larry Lester summarized Rube Foster’s life, he referred to the driving force behind the Negro National League in almost messianic terms.
“I call Rube Foster the godfather of Black baseball. I don’t say that lightly,” said Lester, the chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro Leagues Research Committee. “He was the king among kings.”
At a time when Black people in Chicago and across the country were confronted with violence, Foster leveraged his sizable baseball acumen and considerable determination to found the first successful league for Black baseball players 100 years ago.
Foster, who not only served as president and treasurer of the fledgling league but also owned and managed its first dynasty, the Chicago American Giants, set in motion a historic change that has been seen by fans on the North and South sides for generations.
To convey the importance of the Negro National League, Raymond Doswell with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum posited an alternative history in which Foster’s creation had failed.
“Imagine your World Series champion Cubs without a Jason Heyward or Aroldis Chapman. Or, historically, without an Ernie Banks. Or Billy Williams. Or the White Sox without Harold Baines or Tim Raines or the young kid, [Jose] Abreu, now,” said Doswell, the museum’s vice president of curatorial services.
He added of Negro National League players and owners: “Their success opened the eyes of many in the majority to see what was possible, both from the standpoint of obviously talented play and business acumen, but the fact that ultimately they were equals to others.”
In 1919, the year Jackie Robinson was born and 28 years before he integrated the major leagues, the United States was marred by racist attacks on Black citizens. A great deal of the violence was targeted at Black veterans who recently had returned to the segregated United States after fighting for their country in World War I.
That summer, which is known as the Red Summer, there were about 25 race riots across the country, and the most severe took place in Chicago after a white man stoned a Black teenager in Lake Michigan. The teenager drowned, and police didn’t arrest the perpetrator. Violence ensued, and in a week of lawlessness, 23 Black people and 15 white people were killed. Another 537 were injured, two-thirds of whom were Black.
“It certainly was not something that he was unaware of,” said Leslie Heaphy, an associate professor of history at Kent State at Stark and editor of “Black Baseball and Chicago.” “For Foster, it was all about providing opportunity and trying to make things better for people. And certainly, if you think about the issue of the race riots, those would be something he would want to improve. Those would be something he would be reacting against. So I would have to say they had to have been in his motivation.”
Foster, who was born in Texas in 1879 and called Chicago home as an adult, was not unique in that way, according to Lester. Like many Black entrepreneurs, Foster sought to integrate society.
“You have to understand it from an African American’s point of view that sometimes white America says: ‘These things will happen. Good things will happen, but you have to be patient. Let’s wait,’” said Lester, who authored the books “Rube Foster in His Time” and “Black Baseball in Chicago.” “African Americans respond: ‘I’ve waited long enough. I want it now. I want equal rights now.’ And I think he had that type of attitude that, ‘I’m tired of waiting.’ ”
In a series of columns that he wrote for the Chicago Defender newspaper starting in 1919, Foster spelled out the challenges independent Black baseball teams encountered and made his case for an organized league that would “keep Colored baseball from the control of whites [and] do something concrete for the loyalty of the Race.”
Foster acknowledged that players were skeptical of a league, but he was prepared with a counterargument that drew a comparison to the major leagues.
“I said if you ever expect to really make any money out of baseball it will be done through organization,” Foster wrote. “There are several players playing ball that get more to play one season than the salary list of any three Colored clubs at the present time. They play under organization. Has it hurt them? Do you realize that if protection was given men, there would be money put into baseball, parks would be built, that it would offer inducements to players to try and develop, knowing there was some future attached to their profession?”
Foster also had to win over the owners of other teams whom he invited to the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri, on Feb. 13, 1920, to discuss the formation of a league. Foster arrived with an official charter document for the Negro National League.
“I don’t think they expected him to come as prepared as he did,” Heaphy said.
Foster had a tentative playing schedule, according to Lester, and a business plan: He would earn 5 percent of revenue from most teams and in return, he would book their games at major- and minor-league stadiums. Most Black baseball teams didn’t own their home stadium.
“To a novice owner or a new owner, you’re like: ‘Wow, this man is organized. He’s well-prepared. Perhaps this might work. Let me sign up. I’m ready to sign these incorporation papers and file them and make them official,’ ” Lester said.
There had been about five previous attempts to form a league for Black baseball teams, according to Heaphy. Each one had failed. None of the previous ventures had a leader of Foster’s caliber or experience, she said.
A burly right-hander who threw from various arm angles and also quick-pitched, Foster had been among the premier hurlers of the deadball era. His record in 1905 with the Philadelphia Giants purportedly was 51-4; however, it is difficult to corroborate. Honus Wagner called Foster “one of the greatest pitchers of all time.”
Foster began his managerial career in 1907 as a player-manager with the Leland Giants in Chicago. He led the Giants to 110 wins and the city-league title in his first season. Using a small-ball style, Foster guided the American Giants to the first three titles in the Negro National League.
He also had hard-fought experience as an executive, stemming from his battle in 1910 with Leland Giants owner Frank Leland. Foster believed Leland was making money that his players didn’t see, according to Heaphy, and fought Leland to acquire the Giants team name. The battle went to court and Foster won. The following year, Foster changed the team name to the American Giants.
“He knew all the parts of the game and the business, and that’s what it seemed had been missing before,” Heaphy said.
Foster’s confident, some might call it cocky, attitude also was an asset. It was on full display when he ran into trouble while pitching.
“Do not worry. Try to appear jolly and unconcerned,” Foster has been quoted as saying. “I have smiled often with the bases full with two strikes and three balls on the batter. This seems to unnerve.”
Lester described Foster as narcissistic with a big ego and said, “If I had met Rube, I think I would have been somewhat offended by his personality.”
Lester added: “It’s an attitude that athletes have to have to be successful. They come across as being arrogant to the public, but in essence, it’s how their minds work to achieve greatness.”
One big benefit of an organized league was a regular schedule, which provided players with stability and income.
“Before, when teams were more independent, then there had to be a lot more hustle,” Doswell said. “You had to book games, and you booked games against white and Black opponents. It was much more of a traveling circus kind of thing.”
Foster made the most of the Negro National League schedule. Teams often played five-game series, according to Lester, as opposed to the three- and four-game series that are typical of today’s game to reduce travel costs.
He set the schedule, so Foster booked his American Giants and other top teams against marquee opponents on premium dates.
“This was one of the issues that some of the other owners had with him and, to a degree, rightly so,” Heaphy said with a small chuckle. “He got to schedule the games, so you’re not going to bring the Detroit Wolves to Chicago on the weekend, you’re going to bring the Kansas City Monarchs because you’re going to get the best crowd and then your team is going to make the most money.”
Foster also believed competitive balance was important. In 1919, Foster sent Pete Hill to Detroit to become the player-manager of the newly formed Stars. Hill, who is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was a standout outfielder who played under Foster with the Leland Giants and the American Giants.
“He wasn’t selfish enough to take all the players for himself,” Foster’s son, Earl, said in the transcript of an interview provided by the Baseball Hall of Fame. “His theory was, if I take all the players, when they get ready to play my team, if can’t nobody beat my team or give ’em a good game, then what are people coming to see?”
Foster’s ultimate goal was that the Negro National League would endure to a point. Heaphy and Lester said Foster hoped his league would be temporary and eventually all-Black teams would be integrated into the majors.
He didn’t live to see the integration of baseball. In 1925, there was likely a gas leak through a heater at a hotel where the American Giants were staying and Foster became ill, according to Heaphy. His mental health deteriorated and during the 1926 season he was institutionalized at an asylum in Kankakee. He spent the remainder of his life there, dying in 1930. A year later, in the midst of the Depression, the Negro National League folded.
Foster was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981.
“I don’t think you can overstate the importance of Foster,” Heaphy said. “When you refer to Foster as ‘The Father of the Negro Leagues,’ I think sometimes titles like that are sometimes overstated. But in this case, I don’t think it is because we saw so many previously failed attempts. And Foster was such a strong figure.”