Friday, April 23, 2010

American Giant

     Andrew "Rube" Foster was easily the finest black pitcher before Satchel Paige, and perhaps the best, black or white, of his day. Cubs manager Frank Chance called him “the most finished product I have ever seen in the pitcher’s box.” Alas, Foster was born a couple generations too early to play in the white major leagues.
     Foster was a master of the psychological aspects of pitching. “The real test comes when you are pitching with men on bases,” he explained. “Do not worry. Try to appear jolly and unconcerned. I have smiled often with the bases full with two strikes and three balls on the batter. This seems to unnerve them. In other instances, where the batter appears anxious to hit, waste a little time on him, and when you think he realizes his position and everybody is yelling at him to hit it out, waste a few balls and try his nerve. The majority of times you will win out by drawing him into hitting at a wide one.”
     Foster was already the most famous black player in baseball when he started up his own club, the Chicago American Giants, in 1910. He leased South Side Park, an 8,000-seat facility at 39th and Wentworth, from John Schorling, a saloonkeeper and the son-in-law of Charles Comiskey (whose White Sox were just moving into their palatial new home at 35th and Shields). For years, Comiskey would happily reap tidy profits from black baseball while stressing the need to keep the major leagues all-white.
     Foster's new team was a juggernaut. “He put on all the plays and he had the type of men that could do just what he wanted them to do,” Buck O’Neil said. “Can you imagine a ballclub with eight or nine Rickey Hendersons? This was the Chicago American Giants in 1911, 1912."
     The American Giants played few games in Chicago. Instead, they traveled throughout the Midwest, West, and even the South, going to places where few black teams had dared to play. They dressed in the most stylish suits, rode the rails in a private Pullman car, and became black America’s team. In every dusty town they went through, the African-American community greeted Foster as a conquering hero. “I shall never forget the first time I saw Rube Foster,” said Dave Malarcher of Louisiana. “I never saw such a well-equipped ballclub in my whole life. I was astounded. Every day they came out in a different set of beautiful uniforms, all kinds of bats and balls, all the best of equipment.” If one of the local players showed especially well against his club, Foster was liable to sign him up on the spot; this was the equivalent of winning the lottery for a young black man living in the Deep South at the time. Malarcher was among the players who experienced this miracle.
     The American Giants went 123-6 in 1910. They were the dominant force in black baseball throughout the teens, although they were challenged for supremacy by clubs such as the Indianapolis ABCs, Detroit Stars, and St. Louis Giants. These stronger clubs tended to play each other only rarely, because games against white semi-pro and industrial teams generally drew better crowds than all-black contests. Taking note of this, the Chicago Defender complained that it would not be surprising if the American Giants soon “depended on the other race altogether.” But the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South into northern cities during and immediately after World War I changed all that. Suddenly there were hundreds of thousands of new fans available for black baseball.
     Throughout 1919, Foster loudly campaigned for a league that would serve this burgeoning pool of potential fans, stop the merry-go-round of players jumping from club to club for a few extra dollars, and eliminate the presence of white investors in the black game. (On these last two points, Foster would have had to be taken with a large pinch of salt. He had built his club by blithely raiding the rosters of others, and he remained heavily dependent on the financial backing of his silent partners, Schorling and Comiskey.)
     The Negro National League was founded in February 1920 in Kansas City. In addition to the American Giants, the league included the Chicago Giants, Cincinnati Cuban Giants, Dayton Marcos, Detroit Stars, Indianapolis ABCs, Kansas City Monarchs, and St. Louis Giants. Its letterhead proclaimed “A.R. Foster” as Chairman of the Board of Directors and as Chairman of the league’s governing body, the National Association of Colored Professional Base Ball Clubs. It also carried, in a swirling script, the motto “We Are the Ship, All Else the Sea.”
     The NNL’s first game was played on May 2, 1920, with Indianapolis beating the American Giants 4-2. Each of the eight teams was supposed to have a permanent home ballpark and was scheduled to play 100 games, but these plans soon went awry. The Cincinnati Cuban Giants never did line up a suitable ballpark, so they played all their games on the road. Some teams skipped league games on Saturdays and Sundays in favor of more lucrative dates with local white clubs. “Foster spent long hours in his office,” Mark Ribowsky wrote, “seeking to solve every problem in the operation. When teams ran out of money and were stranded on the road, Rube would wire them enough to get home. When teams were on the verge of going bankrupt, Rube would send a payroll advance to keep them afloat. Still trying to pump up weak clubs, he continued to rearrange player rosters.”
     It was rocky going at first, but the Negro National League survived and even flourished. The eight teams drew a total of 616,000 fans the first year, and each made a profit. Foster did not take a salary to run the league, but an entity called the Western Booking Agency, of which he was sole owner, collected 10 percent of all gate receipts; this meant an $11,000 windfall for Rube in 1920, and considerably more in later years. Foster stayed on as manager of the American Giants for the first two years of the NNL’s existence. In the absence of a balanced schedule or official record keeping, and with newspaper coverage of the league spotty at best, no one could say for sure which team had won the first NNL pennant. When the league office declared that the American Giants had, no one complained.
     Foster’s league prospered throughout the early twenties. Total player salaries soared from $30,000 in 1920 to $275,000 in 1925. The first Negro World Series was played in 1924. It matched the Kansas City Monarchs against the Philadelphia Hilldales of the new Eastern Colored League. The 10-game series was a traveling show, with two games played in Philadelphia, two in Baltimore, three in Kansas City, and three in Chicago. Kansas City won the series five games to four with one tie.
     The series was a huge success, both artistically and financially, but it marked the last hurrah for Foster. The Eastern Colored League, which had been formed by white entrepreneurs impressed by the profits Foster’s league had rung up, soon began luring NNL players with its higher salaries. Foster worked harder and harder trying to stanch the flow of stars to the rival league. By 1926 he was physically and mentally exhausted; he had to be institutionalized. He remained in the state hospital at Kankakee for the rest of his life, convinced that he would soon be summoned to pitch in the white World Series. On December 9, 1930, Foster suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 51. Three thousand persons attended his funeral in Chicago.
     Foster had aimed for nothing less than creating a stable, self-sustaining league for black ballplayers that was on a par with the white major leagues. He didn’t quite pull it off, but he came as close as anyone ever would. In the thirties and forties, the Negro Leagues featured players such as Cool Papa Bell, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Satchel Paige, and a few dozen others who were at least the equal of their white counterparts. The undeniable quality of the play on the field, however, was usually accompanied by the same casual approach to contractual commitments, financial management, and other formalities that Foster had fought so hard to overcome.
     After Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the black leagues survived, barely, for another decade while the likes of Larry Doby, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Don Newcombe, Luke Easter, Sam Jethroe, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, and even the forty-something Paige became part of a mass exodus to the major leagues.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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