Did Rube Foster Go Mad Because He Pushed the Limits of White Major League Baseball?

December 18, 2020 Off By Michael

Photo by the author

This week, Major League Baseball integrated the record books from the segregated era of American history. The commissioner declared the exploits of Josh Gibson, Leroy Satchel Paige, Double Duty Radcliff, and others on even par with George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Walter Johnson, and Cy Young. Cliques abound: It’s about time, a long time coming, and what kept you so long, MLB?

This year marks the 100th anniversary of an organized major league for Negro baseball players. In 1920, as with other facets of American society, sports followed the Plessy v Ferguson decision. There was a white version of reality and a Black version.

In 100 years, a lot of water has floated under the dam. While this acknowledgment by MLB makes up for some of the harm done to Black professional athletes, it does not excuse the wayward thinking of the era that prohibited Black people from patronizing businesses, social clubs, banks, theaters, night clubs, and sporting events with dignity.

Since this was the rule of the day, Black people formed a parallel society with all-white life accouterments in America. It made the Black version of America no less equal than that of the white view. The primary difference is that one was white and the other Negro. One deemed the ultimate experience in America and the other an inferior imitation of life — one acceptable to the prevailing culture and the other not acceptable.

On February 13, 1920, Andrew Foster, one of baseball’s more audacious team owners, dubbed the Rube Waddell of Negro baseball, and deemed at the time as the best pitcher in baseball, Negro or white, by his contemporaries on both sides of the color spectrum, called a meeting of eight owners of Negro baseball teams at the Paseo Young Men Christian Association in Kansas City, Missouri. The Paseo Y had opened six years earlier after the educational philanthropist Julius Rosenwald spearheaded a successful $80,000 building fund.

The Paseo Y brought new life to the corner of 18th & Vine, where Duke Ellington, Jimmy Ruffin, Charlie Parker, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and a plethora of others were stomping the blues. At the same time, Foster brought fresh energy to professional sports. He dared to believe that an upstart league could compete with white professional baseball.

While today’s public knows of Foster’s efforts as the Negro Leagues, Foster did not racially label his league. He named his company The United States Baseball League to give notice to the white clubs that there was a new game in the country willing to go toe to toe for the entertainment bucks Americans were spending on baseball.

As I wrote in my book on the Negro Leagues, The Duke of 18th & Vine: Bob Kendrick Pitches Negro League Baseball (Cascade Publishing House, Atlanta, 2020):

“The organization of an all-Black Negro Baseball League, a move in 1920, that if successful, would pit the Negro League in direct competition with white professional baseball. The league opened its doors to integration from the start. Foster brought together both Black and white owners to organize a rival to white Major League Baseball. With a stroke of a pen in Kansas City that day, Negro baseball team owners went from competing against each other for revenue to competing against major league baseball owners for the audience, innovation to the game, and the precious almighty dollar.

How in the world did a group of unorganized owners, more concerned with protecting their turf than helping another owner make money, unite over the idea of a professional baseball league that would rival the white Major Leagues?”

Organized Black baseball was an instant success. So successful, somebody, if not careful, could get killed, and Bob Kendrick often hints that an attempt to kill somebody occurred three years before the stock market crashed in 1929.

Rube Foster, in Indianapolis for a game against the Indianapolis Clowns, laid unconscious in a hotel room full of gas fumes. Ostensibly, suppose one travels far enough down the rabbit hole. In that case, one can see a desire to blunt the rising popularity of Negro League Baseball because of the economic impact the all-Negro league had on white-only professional baseball.

“Looking in the rear-view mirror that history affords those living in the present moment, one can reasonably assume that Black professional baseball’s runaway success would have led to a different form of integration. The solution would not have been the wholesale sell-off of the talented Black players to the white league. It likely would have led to the merger of the Negro Leagues with Major League Baseball, like what occurred between the American Football League and the National Football League in the late 1960s.

Imagine this dichotomy in a Jim Crow world.

Right, you can’t imagine it.

As a businessman, Foster was as sagacious, albeit differently, as two of his contemporaries, Alphonse Capone, and Marcus Garvey. The government, unable to compete with Capone and Garvey’s business savvy, exiled them, Capone, to the federal prison in Atlanta and Garvey to Haiti.

In Foster’s case, the authorities never found the cause of the gas leak in his room. Then, as the first third of the 20th century closed, the stock market crashed. Americans saw the country’s economic revival under financial plans put forth during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. Despite the financial upheaval on Wall Street, the Negro Leagues caused money to flow into segregated Black economies.

Imagine further, if you dare, a merger between a Black baseball league and a white baseball league. Imagine a fantastic competition, the gate receipts, historical moments, and memorabilia sales. Imagine this dichotomy in a segregated world. The implications for race relations are enormous in terms of peacefully bridging the racial gap without the brutality of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the senseless murder of Emmet Till, the massacre on “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, or the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Imagine, the Negro Leagues Champion squaring off against the winner of the Major League Baseball pennant in the World Series. It is too late to see this dream come true, all-Black teams no longer compete in professional baseball, but this vision, I believe, was the ultimate dream of Rube Foster.

What if today the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) required, let’s say, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) or the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) to admit Tuskegee University or some other HBCU.

You say that can’t happen because, as presently constituted, the HBCUs cannot compete on this level. But what if you rectified past discrimination and required the conferences, with aid from the NCAA, to provide the training facilities and athletic scholarships to make Tuskegee or any historic Black university competitive with other schools in the major conferences like Black colleges were in the days before integration.

HBCUs can become competitive by sharing television revenue received by the predominately white athletic associations with the HBCU athletic conferences. Television revenue would strengthen our HBCUs’ survivability; without it, these schools will never be competitive with their white counterparts. The level of competition, excitement, and gate receipts would be out of this world. The more prominent, healthier, and more agile Black athletes would once again opt for the rich tradition of Black college sports. Suppose you can imagine Jackson State, Grambling State, or Florida A & M in a major athletic conference with all the resources to be competitive. In that case, you grasp Rube Foster’s dream, a clear and present competitor of white professional baseball.”

From the day in 1925, when Foster was pulled unconscious out of that gas-filled boarding house until he died in 1930, he was given to fits of anger and incoherencies. The United States Baseball League languished as Foster had all the receipts, he knew where to find the skeletons, and the once threat to the white American pastime was no more; it’s talent ripe to pluck away 16 years later.

We applaud MLB’s “Johnny Come Lately” respect to the exploits of the men and women who played the game when only the ball was white. We implore them to do more to correct the wrongs of this past discrimination in terms of the economic loss in the communities that had thriving Negro baseball franchises. Also, a more substantial commitment to more Black owners, general managers, scouting directors, and yes, more personnel down on the field would help immensely.

Lastly, for the love of Andrew “Rube” Foster, require the Atlanta franchise to find a name that does not denigrate those native to this land. In search of a new name, God forbid the Atlanta resort to the name of the minor league franchise that operated during segregation, The Atlanta Crackers or it’s major league counter-part, The Atlanta Black Crackers. 

While I have white friends who proudly say of themselves, “I’m a Georgia Cracker,” which etymologically can either mean, “the cracking of the slave master’s whip, a poor white American given to the simple things of life, or a poor Irish person who had only crack corn to eat,” we don’t need to go from one extreme to another. Perhaps, The Atlanta Peaches more aptly portray the region and a significant cash crop grown in Middle Georgia.

Whether there was a conspiracy to blunt the growth of the United States Baseball League or not, MLB owes Foster a debt of gratitude for organizing Black baseball players in a professional league that would drive tremendous revenue into MLB coffers in the late 1940s, and especially in the 1950s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s.

Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik Lawyer: A Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. He is the recipient of Gate City’s R. E. Thomas Civil Rights Award, which he received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. Harvey is an engaging public speaker. Contact him at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com.