Foster, Andrew ("Rube")

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FOSTER, Andrew ("Rube")

(b. 17 September 1879 in Calvert, Texas; d. 9 December 1930 in Kankakee, Illinois), hulking founder of the Negro National League who, in three decades as a player, manager, and executive, became one of the most influential and visionary figures in baseball history.

Foster was raised in Calvert, a bustling cotton town and railroad hub in Texas that during his childhood was the one of the largest cities in the state. His mother, Sarah Foster, was a gospel singer and his father, Andrew Foster, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. (Both parents were likely former slaves.) Foster's mother died when he was a child, and his father remarried, giving Foster several half-siblings. In 1897 he enrolled in Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, where he briefly studied for the ministry and pitched for the school's baseball team. For several years afterward, he worked as a day laborer in Calvert and occasionally as a pitcher for the Waco Yellowjackets, a nearby black team.

In 1902 Foster left for Chicago to join the Union Giants, a powerful black team run by respected manager Frank Leland, at a salary of $40 per month. After one season there, he moved on to New York City, where he reportedly compiled a 58–1 record for the Cuban X Giants after mastering a new pitch called the fadeaway. (Today this pitch is known as the screwball.) Around this time, he is said to have taught the fadeaway to New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson at spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, although this claim remains unverified. From 1904 to 1906 Foster pitched for the powerful Philadelphia Giants, where he reportedly defeated the celebrated pitcher Rube Waddell in an exhibition game, thus earning the nickname he would carry for the rest of his life, Rube. In a much ballyhooed championship game in 1904, Foster defeated his ex-teammates, the Cuban X Giants, striking out eighteen batters and cementing his reputation as one of the best pitchers in baseball. By 1907 his renown was so great that when Sol White, his manager in Philadelphia, published a baseball manual, it was Foster who authored the section titled "How to Pitch."

In 1907, at age twenty-seven, Foster returned to Chicago and rejoined Leland, this time as player-manager. In 1910 the Foster-led Leland Giants were one of the most powerful teams in baseball history. In addition to Foster, their lineup included the unparalleled John Henry Lloyd at shortstop, left-handed slugger Pete Hill in center field, power hitter Grant "Home Run" Johnson at second base, and star defensive catcher Bruce Petway. Playing against all comers, the team posted a 123–6 record for the season. Foster decided to capitalize on this success by splitting with Leland to form a team of his own in 1911. With financial backing from a white businessman, John Schorling, Foster purchased South Side Park from the Chicago White Sox, who had vacated it in 1910 when Comiskey Park was built. Foster christened his new team the Chicago American Giants and paid generous salaries that induced many star African-American players to join his franchise.

Under Foster's guidance the American Giants pioneered the speedy, slashing style of play for which black baseball would become famous. With smarts that equaled their skills, Foster's players employed techniques like the hit-and-run, the sacrifice bunt, and the stolen base to become black baseball's dominant team of the 1910s. The American Giants were members of the formidable (and integrated) Chicago City League. During the winter months Foster frequently took them on tour, playing in locales including Havana, Cuba; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Butte, Montana. By 1917 Foster had retired as a player, instead devoting his time to the managerial and business aspects of the team.

In 1920, with black baseball plagued by scheduling difficulties among the various independent teams, Foster decided to create his own league. In a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in Kansas City on 13 February 1920, Foster and five other businessmen met to officially form the Negro National League. Earlier attempts to form African-American leagues had been unsuccessful, but Foster succeeded where others had failed. The league's founding coincided with the Great Migration of 1916 to 1921, when 500,000 blacks left the rural South to live and work in northern cities; they were often eager to attend a ball game after a day's work in a factory or slaughterhouse.

Foster was elected president and treasurer of the new organization, which included his own American Giants as well as teams in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Dayton, Ohio. Foster envisioned his league as a rival to the white major leagues and worked tirelessly to gain the approval of both fans and the press. The league was a first-class operation—the American Giants traveled in their own private Pullman car—and its success led the Chicago Defender to label Foster "the most successful Colored man in baseball, the only one that has made it a business."

Foster ran his league with the same autocratic leadership style that characterized his counterpart in white baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. He drew no salary as the league's president, but as its booking agent he kept 10 percent of all gate receipts. In addition to owning the American Giants, Foster was a part-owner of several other teams in the league and distributed players among them to ensure competitive balance. His high-handedness disenchanted some fellow executives, but his success as a businessman ensured their continued support.

Foster's league and team both enjoyed considerable success in the 1920s, as the American Giants captured the first three Negro National League titles. The team's top pitcher during the decade, and perhaps the best in black baseball, was Willie Foster, his half brother. Willie was twenty-five years younger than Foster and, having been raised by his grandparents in Mississippi, barely knew his famous brother before joining the American Giants. Though the brothers had their differences, the pitching skills of the one and the managing skills of the other kept the team competitive during the mid-1920s.

Foster married Sarah Watts on 29 October 1908; they had two children. In 1925 some acquaintances noticed that Foster's actions had suddenly become erratic and paranoid, and his family observed memory and recognition problems. On 11 February 1926, according to his son, Foster held a clandestine meeting with John McGraw and Ban Johnson, two of white baseball's most influential figures. Shortly thereafter he began exhibiting signs of mental illness, including barricading himself in a public rest room and, later, chasing imaginary fly balls in his front yard. Early in 1926, after a violent confrontation at their apartment on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, Foster's wife had him committed to Kankakee State Hospital, a state-run mental institution.

After four years there he was said to be gradually recovering when, on the evening of 9 December 1930, a nurse found Foster dead in his bed. The official cause of death was heart failure, and he was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago. The next summer, after having been without Foster's guidance for four years, the Negro National League folded. His contributions to baseball went largely unrecognized until 2 August 1981 when, more than half a century after his death, he was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Foster was famed for his commanding yet easygoing manner, smoking his ubiquitous pipe while addressing males and females alike as "darlin'" in his booming Texas drawl. A mythic figure in many ways, he was known for his generosity with money and for finding work for down-and-out ballplayers. Although only about six feet tall, he weighed more than 250 pounds at his heaviest and impressed most who met him as a gigantic man in every sense of the word. An organizational genius, Foster proved that segregated baseball could be a viable business for African-American entrepreneurs. As an outstanding player, innovative manager, and visionary businessman, he is arguably the most uniquely talented individual in baseball history.

Foster is the subject of a sketchy biography by Charles E. Whitehead, A Man and His Diamonds (1980). Better information can be found in the archives of the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, which contain clippings, correspondence, and other materials. Considerable information on Foster's early playing career is in Jerry Malloy, ed., Sol White ' s History of Colored Base Ball, with Other Documents on the Early Black Game (1995). A detailed chapter on Foster appears in John Holway, Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers (1988). Notable articles were published in Abbott ' s Monthly (Nov. 1930), Afro magazine (5 Sept. 1953), and Hue magazine (Aug. 1957). An obituary is in the Chicago Defender (11 Dec. 1930).

Eric Enders