Who was the greatest pitcher during the first decade of the 20th century? Cy Young, perhaps. Christy Mathewson? Maybe Joe “Iron Arm” McGinnity”? The immensely talented and idiosyncratically eccentric Rube Waddell? Addie Joss? A case can be made for any one of these hurlers. However, the truth is that perhaps the very best of them couldn’t be identified by 95% of the fans of the American pastime. Beyond that, this same individual was considered by many astute observers as the equal of the legendary and irascible John McGraw as a manager. He was one of the most successful owners in the game, and as an Administrator, was the equal of such as Ban Johnson, the President and founder of the fledgling American league. That man was Rube Foster. In all of these respects, there has never been anyone who excelled in all of these capacities in the history of rounders. And although he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1981, he remains a rather obscure figure in baseball history. But the truth of the matter is that without Foster, there likely would not have been an organized Negro league; without Foster, it is likely that there never would have been a Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, or a Jackie Robinson.
The first black players to participate in Major League Baseball were Moses Fleetwood and his brother Welday Wilberforce Walker, both of whom played for the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association back in 1884. Three years later, the Chicago White Stockings were scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Newark Little Giants. Cap Anson, perhaps the greatest player of that period, was the player-manager of the White Sox. Anson was a virulent racist. The starting pitcher scheduled for the Little Giants was George Stovey, acclaimed as the greatest black hurler of his time. Before the match, Anson noticed Stovey warming up to start the game, with his battery mate Fleetwood Walker as catcher. Anson bellowed “Get that n#$^%r off the field!” He then added that otherwise he would not allow his team to play the game. Both Stovey and Fleetwood Walker feigned injury, watching the game from the bench. The next day, both black ballplayers were fired from the team. Soon afterwards, both the National League and American Association unofficially banned black players from baseball, with an informal decree known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement”. It would not be until 60 years later, in 1947, that another black ball-player, Jackie Robinson, would play in the Major Leagues.
In 1899, a 20-year-old phenom by the name of Andrew Foster pitched for the Waco Yellow Jackets . Foster had a reputation as a gunman, and was known to carry an ivory-handled pistol under his belt while on the mound. More importantly, Andrew was blessed with a blazing fastball, exceptional curve, and an uncanny screwball, all of which he could throw with deadly accuracy. Rube was the master of the quick pitch (before the balk rules.) He would throw with or without a wind-up, pitch overhand, side-arm, or underhand. During one stretch, Foster was reported to have pitched 11 consecutive shutouts in 11 days. This would sound like a legendary folktale, except for the fact that it was reported by the Southern white press. In 1905, Andrew pitched a brilliant exhibition game against the Philadelphia Athletics, beating Rube Waddell, and from that time on he bequeathed the nickname “Rube.” John McGraw, who was perhaps the only manager of that era who favored integration in baseball, requested that Foster teach his young pitcher, Christy Mathewson, his “fade-away” pitch, otherwise known as the screwball. Mathewson, up to that time an average hurler, soon became a consistent 30 game winner for the Giants.
Black baseball records were notoriously incomplete; nonetheless, authenticatable records show that Foster’s win-loss mark from 1903-1916 was 152-24-8. In 1907, Foster was given the title of player-manager for the Leland Giants. Foster was a quick student of the game; in his first season, the Giants compiled a record of 110-10, including an amazing 48 straight wins. Foster’s shrewd gamesmanship and acumen were the stuff of legends. Rube was perhaps the first manager to freeze balls before games, as well as drown the infield. On one occasion, the balls were so hard that they wouldn’t bounce, and the opposing team’s best power hitters couldn’t hit it out of the infield. Foster also employed an elaborate set of hand gesticulations which seemingly indicated signals; however, the actual cues were smoke rings and puffs emanating out of his corncob pipe.
After winning the black-baseball championship in 1909, the Leland Giants challenged the Chicago Cubs, the premier baseball team of that era. Although the Cubs prevailed, each game was a nail-biter, and the umpiring was suspect to the point that even the white fans booed the umpires for questionable calls, yelling for the Cubs to beat them fairly, or quit playing. Because of the closeness of the games, neither the Cubs nor other major league squads ever agreed to play any of Foster’s clubs again.
Foster’s dream of a black major league, which was designated the Negro National League, finally came into being in 1920. The NNL’s teams played in the Mid-West and the South from 1920 to 1931; during that time Foster served as President, financier, negotiator, booking agent, and de facto Commissioner; it is inconceivable that the league would have even existed without his leadership. Foster would continue in this capacity until 1926.
“If the talents of Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Ban Johnson, and Judge Kennesaw 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.” *
Towards the end of 1925, Rube Foster was nearly suffocated to death by a gas leak in a rooming house. It is likely that the results of Carbon Monoxide poisoning caused serious and perhaps permanent brain damage. Rube never completely recovered; his behavior became increasingly erratic; gradually he began experiencing dementia. He was prone to frequent lapses in memory, and his actions became both bizarre and frightening; he would be seen running down the streets adjacent to his house chasing non-existent baseballs, and apparently began hearing voices stating that he had been called to pitch in the Major League World Series. At one point he bolted himself in his office and refused to leave; some days later he was found destroying furniture in his home and then went after a close friend with an ice pick; his wife started screaming, claiming her husband was going crazy. The local constable appeared, and arrested Rube; he then appeared before what was called the “Psychopathic Court.” Foster was deemed insane, and was sent to the Kankakee Asylum. Rube would never regain his sanity. By the end of that decade, the Black Baseball League disbanded, and would not experience a rebirth until 1937.
Rube Foster passed away on December 9, 1930, at the Kankakee sanitarium where he had been institutionalized for four years. Foster was buried amidst flowers, including “a huge baseball made of small chrysanthemums with roses for the seams, which weighed over 200 pounds. In 1981, Foster was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He was the first representative of the Negro leagues elected as a pioneer or executive.
*Robert Peterson: “Only the Ball was White: a History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams” 1970
Best Pitcher in Baseball – Rube Foster, the Negro League Giant – Charles Cotrell