As a child, Andrew Foster came to baseball out of survival. Andrew Foster was one of six children, but two of his siblings didn’t make it to adulthood. Tuberculosis claimed their lives, and the prevailing wisdom at the time was to go outside to avoid contracting the disease. So, young Foster went outside and played baseball, and he credited the sport with what kept him alive. “If it hadn’t been for playing ball and living outdoors, I don’t suppose I’d be here today,” Foster said. “All my other family died.”
This wouldn’t be the only time in his life that Foster would use baseball as a means of healing after tragedy.
In the summer of 1919, when Foster’s playing days were over, a raft filled with Black boys including 17-year-old Eugene Williams drifted across an invisible line separating the white and Black parts of 29th Street beach in Chicago. Enraged by the mistake, a white man hurled a rock at the children causing Williams to fall out of the raft and drown. The murder of Eugene Williams was the catalyst for the Chicago Race Riots of 1919 in which 38 people died, but it was also the final push needed for Foster to fulfill a goal he had been working on for the better part of a decade: to form a national Black baseball league.
Foster’s front-row seat to America’s Red Summer highlighted the inequitable treatment of Black Americans and the dismissal of their contributions. Before the summer of 1919, Black ballplayers played in a variety of different structures—including barnstorming teams and short-lived leagues like the League of Colored Baseball Clubs.
Foster himself played the independent Waco Yellow Jackets before joining the Chicago Union Giants in 1902. In 1903, Foster pitched the Cuban X-Giants to the Black baseball championship and the next year, he joined the team he defeated, the Philadelphia Giants, and pitched them to a championship.
Throughout the first 10 years of the 20th Century, Foster had several exhibition opportunities to prove his worth against white competition. Honus Wagner once called Foster, “one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.” Foster is often credited with teaching Christy Mathewson the screwball. Foster earned the nickname “Rube” by outdueling Rube Waddell in an exhibition match in 1902. Foster also held his own against Cy Young and Mordecai Brown. Foster clearly had the talent to excel in white baseball, but he would never be allowed to compete in the American or National League.
Foster’s work, however, would pave the way for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier in 1947. On February 13, 1920, Foster arranged for a meeting at the YMCA in Kansas City, Missouri between himself and seven other owners of Black team owners. Foster became owner of the Chicago American Giants following the 1909 season. There, Foster proposed his idea to form a Black national baseball league equal in its scope to the white National League and American League.
Foster had been trying to get other owners on board throughout the 1910’s but was unable to get any of them to commit. The seven other owners in Kansas City were quick to agree, however. The league that would come from this meeting was the Negro National League, the first of what we commonly refer to as the Negro Leagues. There were eight founding clubs: the Detroit Stars, the Cuban Stars, the Kansas City Monarchs, the St. Louis Giants, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Dayton Marcos, the Chicago Giants, and Foster’s Chicago American Giants.
Foster was appointed the president of the Negro National League though he continued to own and manage the Chicago American Giants. This conflict of interest led to a complicated legacy for Foster. Foster drew criticism for prioritizing his own team. Not every team in the league had their own stadium so Foster would book fields on their behalf and charge a five percent booking fee for the trouble.
How much of this Foster pocketed and how much of it he fed back into the league to sustain it is unknown. Foster used his own money to cover the payroll and transportation fees of poor teams.
In 1925, an accident at a boarding house bathroom in Indianapolis left Foster exposed to gas for hours on end. Foster lived through his encounter with the poisonous fumes, but his mental and physical health never fully recovered.
His declining health compounded with the stress of holding Negro National League together and Foster suffered a psychological breakdown. In 1926, Foster was admitted to the asylum at Illinois State Hospital in Kankakee where he would live out the remainder of his life.
Foster died of a heart attack in 1930, one year before the Negro National League folded due to the Great Depression. Though Foster’s iteration of the league didn’t survive, Black baseball would live on. Gus Greenlee would revive the Negro National League in 1933, and the Negro American League would be founded in 1937. The NNL ceased operations and joined with NAL in 1948, and the NAL would continue until 1962
Though Foster could ruffle feathers, he was a deeply loved figure in Black baseball. His funeral in was attended by more than 3,000 people who braved a Chicago winter to pay their respects to the man responsible for lifting Black baseball as high as it was. Foster played baseball as a means of survival, but baseball lived because of people like him.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.