Postion(s) – Pitcher, Manager, Executive
Years – 1902-1926
Teams – Chicago Union Giants, Cuban X Giants, Philadelphia Giants, Leland Giants, Chicago American Giants
Bats – R
Throws – R
Why you should care: Foster was the driving force behind the Negro Leagues. Without his fearless dedication, nationally organized African-American baseball would not have succeeded to the extent it did and may not even have existed at all. In the face of daunting racial and economic difficulties. Foster’s unwavering leadrship kept the operation from failing.
And given the multitude of talent that emerged from the Negro Leagues, its success proved crucial to the enrichment of the sport for generations.
He was also a star pitcher in the 1900’s and 1910’s, believed by many to have taught the legendary Christy Mathewson his formidable “fade away” pitch.
As a manager, Foster employed a hyper-aggressive strategy on the diamond, focused heavily on using base runners to put pressure on the defense. He frequently deployed hit-and-run plays, squeeze bunts, and other methods to create motion on the bases.
In a brilliant career that thrived despite institutional as well as cultural opposition, he did it all – as a player, manager, executive, and pioneer. The game hasn’t seen such encompassing brilliance since, and, perhaps, never will again.
The fine print: There was something regal about him.
Andrew “Rube” Foster had an aura – an impressive melange of confidence, defiance, and ambition – and he used it to create one of the great organizations in the history of baseball. More impressively, his ascent of one of the more comprehensive career ladders in the game included multiple triumphs. And befitting his undeniable charisma, he commanded attention at every rung along the way.
Unfortunately, he was fated to live his remarkable baseball life at a time when most refused to embrace his accomlishments. Successful black sportsmen were not merely ignored by the sporting public in the early 20th century they were largely reviled. However, Foster persevered, because that’s what he always did. He simply outwilled his opponents.
Beginning in 1902, he first garnered attention as a star pitcher for the Chicago Leland Giants, one of the best African-American teams in the country. The big Texan’s pitching repertoire was daunting – a powerful fastball, a knee-buckling curve ball, and a devastating breaking pitch that almost defied description but was technically labeled a “screwball” when a more apt moniker couldn’t be found.
Reportedly winning more than fifty games a season between 1903 and 1905 for the Cuban X Giants and Philadelphia Giants, Foster was the envy of teams everywhere – Black or White. Sadly, the sport’s biggest stage, the Majors, refused to provide the arena of opportunity that Foster’s talent demanded, because of a profoundly stupid objection to his pigmentation. His skin color, however, was mysteriously not an issue when it came time for him to offer advice and pitching instruction to big league players.
No less than the great Christy Mathewson, pitching ace for the New York Giants and considered by many to be the most dominant pitcher of his era, was thought to have learned his greatest pitch, the fade away, from Foster. However, years of innuendo over the episode – and a lack of tangible proof – have dimmed its credibility. Still, the fact that so many so readily accepted the story as fact speaks to the legacy of Foster’s considerable picthing skill – that he could be easily seen as teaching one of the true greats of the game how to be even greater by using one of his, Foster’s, trademark pitches.
In 1907, Foster was given the opportunity to more fully demonstrate that teaching ability – as well as his extraordinary capacity as a leader – when he was named the player-manager of the Leland Giants. His Leland teams, who were based out of Chicago, were fearless. Under his taut instruction, his players relentlessly raced around the diamond.
Despite the sport’s reputation as a static and halting endeavor, Foster created his own more dynamic version. Above all else, his vision of the game emphasized speed and precision. The synchronicity of runners flashing from base to base and the hitter putting the ball in play at the just the right moment and location required immense discipline.
Under less demanding leadership, such a bold strategy would have disintegrated into chaos. However, Foster demanded attention and obediance because of his supreme confidence in himself and his players. Subsequently, those players succeeded largely because they simply believed they could not fail.
In 1910, Foster and his players perfected the concept. Compiling an astonishing 123-6 record that season, the Leland Giants may have been one of the greatest teams to ever take the field. Led by incomparable shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, the Giants were a blur on offense and seamless on defense, executing Foster’s demanding game plan flawlessly.
As the cleanup hitter, it was Lloyd who made the team go, finishing the year with a .417 average. On defense, Lloyd, center fielder Pete Hill, and catcher Bruce Petway gave the ball club formidable strength up the middle of the field (Lloyd and Hill were later inducted into the Hall of Fame, in part, for their defensive prowess). On the mound, Frank Wickware and Pat Dougherty dazzled.
In 1911, the Leland franchise was re-formed as the Chicago American Giants, and Foster cemented his reputation as one of the game’s greatest managers. After leading the American Giants to multiple championships (1911-1914, 1916), Foster expanded his influence in the game multi-fold by organizing top African-American teams in the Midwest into the Negro National League in 1920.
Prior to that, African-American baseball was a patchwork of smaller regional leagues operating independantly and on shoestring budgets – diluting revenue potential and, more importantly, talent over a wide-ranging and disconnected wasteland. Foster’s ability to consolidate the best clubs in his area into one organization and place them in direct competition with one another yielded two important benefits.
First, the increased level of overall play drew more interest which increased the gate and attracted top players. Second, by securing a league presence in the biggest Midwestern poplation centers, teams had access to better facilities – often renting Major League ballparks while big league clubs were on the road – and were able, in turn, to provide greater access and capacity for fans in big cities to attend games.
Of course, administrating such a sprawling operation was a monumental task. And there was an added degree of difficulty involved. Racial tension was never far from anything black businesses tried to accomplish in the 1920’s.
Even with those stacked odds hovering ominously over him, Foster remained unfazed. When addressing the situation, he once said, “We are the ship, all else the sea.”
And with his steady hand on the wheel, Foster navigated the league through the turbulent waters that inevitably come with success and notoriety. When a rival eastern league swept in to lure top players away, he negotiated an uneasy truce and arranged for the two leagues to play a championship series at the end of each season beginning in 1924.
However, the constant struggles and strain of keeping his newly expanded operation going began to wear Foster down. By 1926, his considerable will finally collapsed. He suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be institutionized.
Sadly, he never fully recovered.
The man whose pitching prowess first brought him attention, whose managerial brilliance held it, and whose entrepreneurial vision expanded it was tragically reduced to a frightened and confused shell of his former self.
He died in 1930, deprived of the opportunity to see his considerable efforts advance African-American baseball to its greatest glory.
Despite his troubled and tortured final days, Foster’s true legacy is impressively enduring. His tactical genius as a manager influenced strategies in the Negro Leagues for years. In fact, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Basbeall in 1947, he brought the dazzling style of the Negro Leagues with him. As he amazed big league crowds with his daring and fearless baserunning, few probably realized that his game was largely a by product of a philosophy dreamt up decades earlier by Rube Foster.
And those early pioneers of baseball integration, like Robinson and Larry Doby, owed their professional foundations and preparedness for the rigors ahead directly to Foster’s organizational handiwork. The Negro Leagues served as the bedrock for developing the best African-American baseball had to offer for years. Even before the integration of the Majors, Foster’s creation led to a prime showcase for scores of legendary players like Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, and Satchel Paige.
Rube Foster’s remarkable baseball life was appropriately honored with induction to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1981. Sadly, though, the long overdue acknowledgement of his equal – and, perhaps, superior – footing of greatness in the game to his caucasin counterparts happened fifty years after he was gone.
Still, such an honor is a fitting final chapter to one of the most extraordinary stories in the history of the sport.
James, Bill and Neyer, Rob, “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers: an Hisotrical Compendium of Pitching, Pitchers, and Pitches,” Simon and Schuster, 2004.