In 1892, the great Cy Young—baseball’s all-time pitching leader in wins (511), innings pitched (7,356), starts (815) and complete games (749)—won 36 games, the highest single-season mark of his storied career. In 1903, Rube Foster, a 24-year-old African American pitcher, won 54.
Sporting a Gift
Foster’s prodigious talents as a ball player, however, were eclipsed by his gifts as a manager and executive, gifts that enabled him to form, govern and maintain the Negro National League, the nation’s first successful professional African American baseball league, until a mental breakdown ended his amazing career. The league he created outlived him for several years until it succumbed to the Great Depression. Other black baseball leagues would be formed, however, and many of their players went on to successful careers in the Major Leagues after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
Andrew “Rube” Foster, was born in Calvert, Texas, in 1879, the son of a minister. Soon after completing the eighth grade, Foster began his professional baseball career with the Waco Yellow Jackets as a pitcher. In 1902, he won 51 games for the Chicago Union Giants—“giants” in those days was code for a black team—and in 1903, he went 54 and 1 for the Cuban X Giants. The 6-foot 3-inch Foster combined a solid repertoire of pitches with a devastating screwball and a razor-sharp baseball mind. Foster outpitched the Hall of Fame white pitcher Rube Waddell in an exhibition game in 1902, and thereafter was nicknamed “Rube.”
Foster was, in the words of Frederick North Shorey of the Indianapolis Freeman (the leading black newspaper in America), “the greatest pitcher in the country.” In 1907, he was named as player-manager for the Chicago Leland Giants and led the team to a head-turning 110-10 record, the beginning of a brilliant managerial career. Foster’s teams combined good pitching with sound defense and an aggressive running game that often employed the hit-and-run. In 1910, Foster acquired ownership of the Leland Giants, renamed it the Chicago American Giants and led the team to a 123–6 record.
In the words of author Robert Peterson: “If the talents of Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Ban Johnson, and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis were combined in a single body, and that body were enveloped in a black skin, the result would have to be named Andrew (Rube) Foster.” Foster flourished in a baseball milieu that deliberately shut blacks out of the highest levels of the sport, but he both longed for and anticipated its end.
Baseball began in the 1840s when Alexander Cartwright drew up written rules for the game, which had evolved from rounders, cricket and English town ball. In 1867, baseball’s first structured national organization, the National Association of Baseball Players, included in its constitution this chilling clause: “It is not presumed by your nominating committee that any clubs … are composed of persons of color.”
In 1887, white owners instituted a “Gentleman’s Agreement” to keep black athletes off white teams. But the mass migration of African Americans to the industrial North after the Civil War made black baseball teams financially viable, even if they had to barnstorm—travel to cities and towns big and small in search of opponents from amateurs to pros—to make ends meet.
Early attempts to form a Negro league were tried and failed in 1886, 1890 and 1910. In an op-ed piece Rube Foster wrote for the Indianapolis Freeman in 1910, he called for support to form a black league. He understood that black players needed the legitimacy of a league to earn recognition by the white baseball establishment, which maintained the fiction that there were simply no black players good enough to play in the major leagues.
In 1920 the ingredients for a Negro league finally came together: financial support, skilled players, newspaper coverage and, most importantly, the leadership of Rube Foster.
The Negro National League
A group of owners met at the Kansas City Paseo YMCA in February, 1920, to discuss the formation of a colored baseball league, to which Foster brought an official charter document that was formally adopted. The original Negro National League, with Rube Foster as its president, consisted of the Chicago American Giants, Chicago Giants, St. Louis Giants, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABCs, Cincinnati Cuban Stars, and the Kansas City Monarchs, whose owner, J.L. Wilkinson, was the lone white among the league’s teams. Foster prohibited swearing, fighting and protesting umpire decisions by leaving the playing field, although barnstorming was still allowed during the season. Far from the onfield antics depicted in “Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings,” the conduct of the teams in the NNL was all business; the game was played to win. And Foster’s team did most of the winning, taking pennants in 1920, 1922, 1926, 1927, 1932 and 1933.
The other mainstay in the NNL was the Kansas City Monarchs, whose owner, J.L. Wilkinson, traveled with his players, stayed in the same hotels, and often ate meals with them, giving him a deep understanding of the problems his players faced as they encountered segregated accommodations. Wilkinson demanded high standards of conduct and appearance from his players, and in return transported them in a tourist bus equipped with a cook. He even took lights to barnstorming games, making night games possible.
In 1922, the Kansas City Call, a black newspaper, declared, “There is nothing that brings the two races closer together than the Monarch ball games.” The Monarchs went on to become one of the great black franchises, fielding such stars as Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Ernie Banks and Jackie Robinson.
Success ... at a Cost
The NNL proved a roaring success for Rube Foster, who took a percentage of the gate receipts for every league game, but in 1926, the triple demands of owner, manager and president took its toll. Foster exhibited signs of a mental breakdown and was ordered to an asylum in Kankakee, Illinois, where he remained until his death in 1930. Foster’s passing and The Great Depression precipitated the demise of the first Negro National League, but others popped up in its place and provided the first professional experience for greats like Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Roy Campanella.
Jackie Robinson’s celebrated entrance into the major leagues in 1947 was the beginning of the end for black teams in America, who nevertheless survived until 1960. They demonstrated the athletic prowess of black players, and ensured that when the color barrier was finally broken, African Americans would be poised to take full advantage.
Rube Foster, J.L. Wilkinson, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neill, James “Cool Papa” Bell and many others associated with the Negro leagues have been installed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but their stories are more expansively told in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, established in 1990 and located two blocks from the Paseo YMCA in the 18th and Vine District in Kansas City, where the first Negro National League was formed in 1920. Since moving into its 10,000-square-foot home in 1997 (which it shares with the American Jazz Museum), the museum has welcomed more than 2 million visitors and continues to illuminate a vital and under-told chapter in American baseball history.