Rube Foster and Black Baseball in Chicago

This article was written by Jerry Malloy

This article was published in Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles

This article was originally published in “Baseball in Chicago,” the 1986 SABR convention journal.


Rube Foster (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)Obviously, no history of major league baseball in Chicago could ignore the White Sox or Cubs. So, too, no account of the national pastime in Chicago would be complete if it did not include black baseball. The central role Chicago played in the history of the Negro Leagues can be indicated by considering (1) the astonishing career of Andrew “Rube” Foster, the Father of Black Baseball, and (2) the annual celebration of black baseball excellence that took place each year at Comiskey Park, the Negro League’s East- West All-Star Game. Both are as much a part of the rich fabric of Chicago’s baseball history as the “Homer in the Gloamin’” or the interminable foul balls off the bat of “Old Aches and Pains” himself.

First, there’s Rube Foster. Historian John Holway is right: “White baseball has never seen anyone quite like Rube Foster,” although I suspect that Al Spalding comes closest. Foster was a giant of a man who took giant steps in everything he did. He fit right into Chicago about the time that city planner Daniel Burnham was exhorting: Make No Little Plans! When Thomas Carlyle wrote that history is the biography of great men, he might be summing up black baseball for the entire first quarter of the 20th century. Rube Foster, cutting an unimaginably wide swath through Negro baseball, proved impervious to the Peter Principle; he never found a level of incompetence as a player, manager, team owner, league founder, or commissioner.

Foster’s later multifarious success in baseball can obscure his talent as a player. For the first decade of the century, he may have been the best pitcher in black (perhaps even white) baseball. He signed on with Frank Leland’s Chicago Union Giants, a powerful all- black team, in 1901, for $40 a month plus 15 (GL_cents sign) per meal. He was a strapping, pistol-toting, 22-year-old, right-handed son of a preacher from Calvert, Texas. His chief baseball weapon was a nasty screwball thrown from a submarine delivery. Later, he pitched in Philadelphia and New York. Along the way, he met a lot of people and made a lot of fans. White sportswriters compared him with the likes of Joss, Rusie, Radbourne, and Cy Young. Indeed, he got his nickname by whipping the A’s Waddell in an exhibition game. Some say that John McGraw hired him as a pitching coach and that he taught Christy Mathewson his “fadeaway.” There’s no denying that he certainly could pitch. No less a hitter than Honus Wagner called him “one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He was the smartest pitcher I have ever seen in all my years in baseball.”

The cleverness and guile that Wagner recognized in Rube’s makeup became increasingly apparent as his baseball presence expanded into larger and more extensive realms. In 1907 he returned to Chicago, this time to stay, as player-manager of the Leland Giants. Upset at the team’s share of the gate when the Giants played white teams, Foster convinced Frank Leland to let him try his hand at negotiating the split. Soon he was able to demand a 50-50 split, and never again did a Rube Foster team play for less than half the proceeds.

The Leland Giants played in Auburn Park at 79th and Wentworth (and, at 69th and Halsted and, at 61st and Racine) became a perennial powerhouse in Chicago’s strong, integrated city league. This circuit included the talented semi-pro teams with large followings such as the Logan Squares, Gunthers, and Duffy Florals. Major leaguers such as Johnny Kling, Joe Tinker, and Johnny Evers often picked up a few extra bucks by playing as ringers on these teams. The Leland Giants (and, later, Chicago American Giants) also had great success during the harvest season, when, for about a month each year, the best touring teams from the Midwest converged on Chicago for some ferocious baseball battles.

The 1907 Leland Giants had a record of 110-10, including 48 straight wins. Following the 1909 season, the Leland Giants played a three-game exhibition series against the Cubs, who had finished second in the National League that season. The Cubs won all three games, by scores of 6-5, 4-1, and 1-0. Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown won two games and Orval Overall won one in the hard-fought series, which was covered by the white press, including the Tribune’s (GL-ital) young sportswriter Ring Lardner. Foster tried throughout the remainder of his career to get the Cubs to consent to a rematch, but never succeeded. This was partly due to Commissioner Landis, who, during the 1920s put the kibosh on annual exhibition series that the Chicago American Giants played against a team of white major leaguers put together by Harry Heilmann.

By 1910, Foster had compiled what he considered to be the greatest team of all time, black or white. Featuring such stars as John Henry Lloyd, Pete Hill, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, Bruce Petway, Frank Wickware, and Pat Dougherty, the Leland Giants won 123 games and lost only six!

In 1911 Foster entered into a partnership with a white businessman named John Schorling. Together they bought the ballpark that Charles Comiskey was vacating as he moved his White Sox into their sparkling new stadium, the current Comiskey Park, on 35th and Shields. The Old Roman’s old ball park, at 39th and Wentworth, thus became the first home for one of the greatest sustained success stories in the history of Negro sport in America: the Chicago American Giants. This great team would cast a giant shadow for the remaining years of apartheid baseball in the United States. So vast was this team’s impact that the inclusion of the word “American” in its title, whether due to greatness or good fortune, proved apt indeed. And so clear was Rube Foster’s imprint on them, that they were often referred to as simply “Rube Foster’s Giants.”

Like all successful black baseball teams, the Chicago American Giants could survive only by touring extensively and abandoning the notion of an “off season.” Traveling to areas as remote from Chicago as the West Coast and Cuba, Rube Foster’s team created excitement, a festive carnival atmosphere wherever it played. With Foster insisting on nothing less than first-class accouterments, what a spectacle it must have been when the American Giants burst into town in the epitome of opulence: their own private Pullman coach! Dave Malarcher, Foster’s star third baseman, who later succeeded him as manager of the team, recall:

I never shall forget the first time I saw Rube Foster. I never saw such a well-equipped ball club in my whole life! I was astounded. Every day they came out in a different set of beautiful uniforms, allkinds of bats and balls, all the best kind of equipment.

The American Giants traveled everywhere, as you know. No other team travel as many miles as the American Giants. When Rube gave them the name American Giant, he really selected a name. That was a good idea, because it became the greatest ball club that ever was. That’s right: the way he played, the way he equipped his team, the way he paid his men, the way he treated his men, the miles that they traveled.

As a manager, Foster’s style was ruthlessly aggressive. He built his attack around relentless speed and hustle. He consistently defeated teams that hit for higher averages or more power by using bold base running. He was an exponent of the hit-and-run bunt, wherein a fast base runner would advance two bases on a bunt play, usually going from first to third, but often scoring from second base. All of Foster’s players, even his rare power hitters, such as the Cuban Cristobal Torriente, were expected to be excellent bunters. Bunting drills included laying down bunts into Rube’s own strategically placed hat. Foster’s passion for the bunted ball was demonstrated in a 1921 game against the Indianapolis ABCs. The American Giants fell behind by the score of 18-0, with only two innings left. Foster signaled for bunts on eleven (11!) straight hitters. A couple of grand slams later, the Giants had scored nine runs in each inning to tie the game, 18-18. Foster often used his ubiquitous pipe to send in plays, waving it in certain ways, or sending up a couple puffs of smoke. He also used it as an implement of discipline, thumping the skull of a player who missed or played through one of his signs.

Off the field, Foster could be charming. He often entertained players, writers, and fans with stories from his colorful career, addressing everyone, male and female alike, as “Darling” in his Texas drawl. But once a game began, he was strictly business, and would not tolerate disobedience. One of Rube’s players, Arthur Hardy, recalled Foster’s firm manner:

I wouldn’t call him reserved, but he wasn’t free and easy. You see, Rube was a natural psychologist. Now he didn’t know what psychology was and he probably couldn’t spell it, but he realized that he couldn’t fraternize and still maintain discipline. He wasn’t harsh, but he was strict. His dictums were not unreasonable, but if you broke one he’d clamp down on you. If he stuck a fine on you, you paid it—there was no appeal from it. He was dictatorial in that sense.

He was able to command the respect and admiration of his players, many of whom went on to successful careers as managers after their playing days were over. There are those who speculate that he purposely cultivated his acquaintanceships with white managers such as Connie Mack and John McGraw in the hope that one day he would be asked to form a black major league team. Perhaps. But baseball minds surely would recognize a fellow member in the brotherhood of great managers.

As great a player, owner, and manager as he was, Rube Foster’s most impressive accomplishment was the creation of the Negro National League in 1920. (An all-Negro Eastern League was formed in 1923). Among the many changes wrought by World War I was a redistribution of the black population of the country. When Rube Foster first arrived in Chicago at the turn of the century, Negroes comprised only about two percent of the population of the city. By the middle of the century’s second decade, however, blacks from the South were pouring into Chicago and the other large urban centers in the North.

This great migration occurred just as Foster was in the process of establishing the Chicago American Giants. In 1917 alone, the black population of Chicago increased by 65,000. But this unprecedented population boom was not an unmixed blessing. After the war, racial tensions throughout the nation intensified, resulting in a series of race riots, the worst one occurring in Chicago, where 23 blacks and 15 whites died. (Foster’s team was on the road at the time and had to postpone its return home since their ballpark was occupied by soldiers.)

While the advantages of creating a Negro League were obvious to many, it had been unsuccessfully attempted several times, as far back as 1887 and as recently as 1906 and 1911. But it remained for someone of the prominence and perspicacity of Rube Foster to accomplish the Bismarkian task of pulling together the divergent independent teams into a united league. What Hulbert and Spalding did for the National League and Johnson and Comiskey did for the American League, Rube Foster alone did for the Negro National League. Created at a meeting held in Kansas City in February 1920, the NNL’s charter members, besides Foster’s Chicago American Giants, were: Joe Green’s Chicago Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs, St. Louis Giants, Detroit Stars, Cuban Stars, and Dayton Marcos.

Rube Foster was the de facto czar of this league until his disabling illness in 1926. From his office at Indiana and Wentworth, he ran the NNL as a benevolent autocrat. Realizing the need for a semblance of balanced competition, he moved players around from team to team, even depriving his own Chicago American Giants of the great Oscar Charleston, whom he sent to Indianapolis. When the Dayton franchise, which he financed out of his own pocket, failed, he moved it to Columbus, Ohio.

When teams ran out of money on the road, he wired money so they could return home. When teams ran short of dough and had problems meeting their payroll, Foster advanced loans for players’ pay. Even among such energetic and successful owners as J. L. Wilkinson of the Kansas City Monarchs and C. Taylor of the Indianapolis ABCs, Foster was acknowledged as the undisputed kingpin of the league, overseeing matters great and small. He even composed the league’s motto: “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea,” an accurate analogy for Rube’s role within the league itself.

The Negro National League never totally established stability and unity over a long period of time. Compromises had to be made to accommodate more traditional forms of income (such as exhibitions and barnstorming), and teams played unbalanced schedules. The league turned out to be an aggregation of essentially independent teams. But it did succeed in giving concrete form to the model of self-help and self-reliance, free from white interference or control, envisioned by Booker T. Washington as the best hope for the well-being of the race. In forming the NNL, Foster said he wanted “to create a profession that would equal the earning capacity of any other profession,” to “keep Colored baseball from the control of whites,” and “do something concrete for the loyalty of the Race.” The Chicago American Giants provided a paragon of black excellence. He set a standard for those who followed to admire and emulate. That was his real genius.

Rube Foster died December 9, 1930, after spending the last four years of his life in an asylum for the mentally ill in Kankakee, Illinois. One of the greatest baseball minds of all time suddenly and sadly collapsed, and he was remanded to the institution by a judge. Black Chicagoans did not forget his contribution to their community. Thousands paid homage as the body of the most famous black in Chicago lay in state at a funeral home. Fifty-one years later, Rube Foster became the tenth veteran of the Negro Leagues to be enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Neither the Chicago American Giants nor the Negro National League as Foster built them survived long after his death. The Great Depression had a devastating impact upon the already impoverished black baseball fans of the country. However, in the 1930s a new league was formed, largely under the leadership of Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee. The Chicago American Giants were revived, and continued to play a prominent (though less opulent) role in Negro baseball through the remaining years of segregated baseball.

In the 1930s and 1940s Chicago became the mecca of Negro baseball, as Comiskey Park was the site of the most spectacular annual event in black sports: The East-West All-Star Game. The Negro League World Series, which pitted the East Coast and Midwest champions against each other, never attained the glamour or aura of historical moment that the major league World Series did. Instead, the focal point of the season in the Negro leagues was the mid-season East-West Game. (Several times second games, usually called “All-Star Classics,” were played in various eastern cities, but never achieved the heights of the annual Comiskey Park extravagance). When the current owners of the White Sox desert that fine and noble structure known as Comiskey Park, they will be abandoning the home of one of the most distinguished elements of the heritage of black baseball in America.

The East-West Game originated as the brainchild of Roy Sparrow, an aide to Gus Greenlee, in 1932, a year before the major leagues’ first midsummer classic, which also was played at Comiskey Park. The game quickly established itself as the undisputed centerpiece of the black baseball season, an unsurpassed festival of black baseball pride. Chicago’s Grand Hotel became the center of the Negro League universe as thousands flocked to Chicago for the East-West Game. League cities even sent bathing beauties to represent their teams, adding to the hoopla. In 1935, the game was tied in with Joe Louis’ fight with King Levinsky. Year after year, railroads added cars to all trains headed to Chicago to accommodate the fans eager to see their all-stars play. By the 1940s, the game had become such an event that the Chicago Defender, one of the major Negro newspapers in the country, would refer to a crowd of 35,000 as “disappointing!”

The Negro League’s All-Star Game preceded the major league’s by a year. In fact, the black event often outdrew its white counterpart’s during the 1940s.

Attendance figures were regarded as omens for eventual integration by many. At a time when attendance in many major league cities was slipping, the Negro Leagues showed impressive growth. The Kansas City Monarchs regularly outdrew the Blues, the Yankees’ minor league team in that city. In 1942, the Monarchs, with Satchel Paige, defeated a team of white major leaguers in Wrigley Field before 30,000 fans, while only 19,000 watched the White Sox host the St. Louis Browns on the same day. Such figures encouraged many Negro leaders to hope that this would be their entree into the major leagues. A market this vast, they calculated, would simply be too lucrative for organized baseball to ignore. And, in fact, one of the motives frequently attributed to Branch Rickey in his decision to sign Jackie Robinson was his desire to capitalize on the expanding Negro market that he was shrewd enough to notice.

And attendance figures at Comiskey Park for the East-West Games were very imposing indeed. By the time the fourth game was played, in 1936, the Negro League All-Star Game attendance exceeded that of the major league counterpart. The black game also outdrew the white game in 1938,1942,1943,1944,1946, and 1947—with no game held by the major leagues in 1945 due to wartime restraints. Attendance hit its peak in 1943, when 51,723 fans jammed into Comiskey Park. In the following year, 46,247 watched the East-West Game, while only 29,589 watched the major league All-Star game at Forbes Field.