By Marcus Henderson
Arthur “Rube” Foster holds an honored place in Black sports history, but most people know nothing about him.
“He was a shrewd, determined businessman with superior organization skills,” wrote William C. Rhoden, author of a book titled Forty Million Dollar Slaves.
Unlike Jackie Robinson, his goal wasn’t to become the first Black in a White-defined league. His goal was creation of a professional baseball league owned, organized, managed and played by African-Americans, Rhoden wrote.
Foster created baseball’s Negro National League in 1920. That marked one of the last times that Blacks controlled and owned a major-league sports organization.
“It would be a crime for the Negro, who has such an abundance of talent in such a progressive age, to sit idly by and see his race forever doomed to America’s greatest and foremost sport,” Foster once wrote.
Foster was a star pitcher, a manager and a team owner who spearheaded a groundbreaking league. The fast pace of the Negro league drew a cross-section of fans attracted by the bunting, the stealing of bases, the spikes-first slides and the circus-like catches.
Foster envisioned a well-run and competitive league when it was time to negotiate with the major leagues, because he knew that integration was inevitable, Rhoden wrote.
“Organization is our only hope — we have the players, and it could not be a failure, as the same territory is traveled now by all clubs, with no organization or money,” Foster wrote in the Indianapolis Freeman newspaper.
Foster called a meeting of the Black owners of the eight strongest teams to Kansas City. They formed the Negro league. Foster did not want any White owners, but J.L. Wilkinson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, was admitted as part of the nine-team founding group.
Before Foster, Black teams were just traveling and playing hit-or-miss exhibition games, local neighborhood teams or White major leaguers looking to make extra money on the side, Rhoden noted.
This circuit was known as barnstorming and under that tradition, Whites were the sole controlling booking agents. The Negro league helped break the agents’ strong hold.
As word spread about the league, the White-run Eastern League of Colored Baseball (ELCB ) offered to buy Foster out. The ELCB offered Foster a team of his own and the opportunity to play in a $100,000 stadium if he came to their league. Foster turned down the offer and began booking games successfully, preventing the other leagues from controlling all the big-time Black names in baseball.
The league began to blossom with each city having a team to cheer for, players to identify with, and a pennant race to follow.
Foster was the league’s greatest strength but also its weakness, Rhoden wrote. He ordered team uniforms and equipment. As commissioner, he settled disputes, and he sent his own players from his Chicago Giants to weaker teams to keep the league competitive. He made a lot of money by getting a percentage of the gross of each gate, but he poured money into unstable franchises and guaranteed hotel bills for teams stranded on the road.
In 1926, Foster negotiated with American League President Ban Johnson and New York Yankees Manager John McGraw for his team to play their squads when they visited Chicago. But, the Major League commissioner killed the idea.
This dealt a blow to Foster, realizing his league would never become a part of White baseball. Foster suffered a nervous breakdown and died at age 51.
Without the vision of Foster, the league died in 1932.
Gus Greenlee formed his Negro Baseball League in 1933. He and Alex Pompez, the owner of the New York Black Yankees, were the only owners of their own stadiums.
They fell to the same opposition as Foster. However, various Negro leagues sprang up throughout the 1940s and finally died out in the 1960s, but none accomplished what Foster did.
Civil rights activist Audley “Queen Mother” Moore expressed regret for fighting to integrate individual players and not whole teams into the Major Leagues.
“Organization is our only hope…”
“When our teams played in the communities throughout the country, our communities were ablaze with activity — our hotels, we had hotels and all, we used to have taxis, shoeshine boys, old women selling candies and peanuts and everything,” said Moore. “Now you have a Negro or 10 Negro or 20 Negroes there, but the White man gets all the gate.”
Foster stood on principle, Rhoden noted. He had the opportunity to leave Black baseball for the majors, but he wanted to take whole teams and owners with him. But, even to this day, there’s no Black owner of a major league baseball team.