A Baseball Centennial

Andrew “Rube” Foster was a premier pitcher during the first two decades of the twentieth century. He gained fame with the (Philadelphia) Cuban X Giants. Foster pitched four of the five X Giants wins in the 1903 “colored championship of the world,” beating the Philadelphia Giants. The next year, Foster joined the Philadelphia Giants. He won twenty games, including two no-hitters, and led the team to the championship, beating his former team, the X Giants.

(The Cuban Giants formed in 1885 as being dark-skinned Latin American players to evade the ban on Negro players. The X Giants split off from the Cuban Giants.)

Foster posted a 25-3 won-lost record win in 1905 and the Philadelphia Giants repeated as champions. In 1907, he became player/manager for the Chicago Leland Giants. The team won 110 games, including a 48 consecutive, and lost only ten.

From its beginnings near the end of the Civil War, organized baseball effectively excluded African Americans. From its founding in 1876, the professional National League banned Black players. In a Jim Crow world, Black baseball clubs were largely traveling teams, barnstorming around the country, playing local teams, Black and often white. Players from the white Major Leagues regularly barnstormed in the off-season and found the Black teams to be of the caliber of the white big leagues.

Organized leagues of Black teams, were generally short-lived. Most of the money and ball parks were in control of white owners. In 1920, Rube Foster and other team owners founded the Negro National League. Foster as the president was the driving force behind the league’s success.

Constant travel and an unfortunate exposure to a gas leak that nearly killed him eventually led to Foster’s physical and mental deterioration. He was committed to a state mental institution in 1926. He succumbed to a heart attack in 1930 at the age of fifty-one.

Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Six years later, only six of sixteen major-league teams had African-American players on their rosters. Baseball integrated slowly. It also led to the slow but probably inevitable demise of Negro leagues. The Negro National League ceased operations in 1948; the Negro American League made it to the end of the 1950s.

The Baseball Hall of Fame began recognizing the existence of pre-integration Black baseball in 1971 with a new category for players from the Negro leagues. Rube Foster was inducted in 1981.

Kansas City, home to the storied Monarchs, is also the site of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and definitely worth a visit.

There is probably no sport as numbers—now “metrics”—driven as baseball. Now a movement is gaining force to recognize statistics from Negro leagues and include them with M.L.B. data.

Footnote: By 1962, 10% of M.L.B. players were African American; in 1986, it was 18%. Today, it’s less than 8%. (But that’s a whole other story.) Latino players make up 28% of rosters.

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