02/13/09 10:00 AM EST
'Father of black baseball' leads class
As founder of organized black ball, visionary Foster ushered in new era
By Justice B. Hill / Special to MLB.com
Genius can mask itself as madness, and it might be the madness that history forces people to remember most about Andrew "Rube" Foster, a dark-skinned Texan who turned his vision of an organized baseball league for blacks into reality.
In late August of 1926, Chicago police were called to Foster's home and carted him off jail. Less than a week later, Foster found himself in front of a judge, who ruled him insane.
His violent, erratic and delusional behavior brought Foster a bed in an insane asylum, where he remained until his death in December 1930.
While Foster's professional life had been built around greatness, history may overly dwell on its tragic conclusion.
Historians, however, would be doing Foster an injustice to recall this past.
Nobody did more to build a framework for baseball than Rube Foster, a Hall of Famer who earned the title "father of black baseball." Sports history is littered with the tales of pioneers -- risk-takers, visionaries and trailblazers who all seized the opportunity in front of them and turned it into a successful enterprise that would outlive their leadership.
"Rube wore three hats as player, manager and executive," historian James A. Riley wrote in "The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues." "They all sat well on his head."
No hat sat better there than the one Foster wore as an executive, though.
As owner of the Chicago American Giants, he built a team that rivaled any in the history of black baseball. His Giants had the look of the Yankees' dynasty. If the Giants needed a player, Foster got that player.
"He would go out and spend money," Riley said. "His name was known; his team was known. His teams won. They drew crowds. They made paydays. He was able to get the best players."
It was Foster's charisma and intellect that convinced a dispirited group of strong-minded, undisciplined owners of free-wheeling teams to band together for a common purpose: to form a league of their own.
In an America split between black and white, baseball was a mirror that culture. Yet just as white America had its Babe Ruths, Tris Speakers, Ty Cobbs and Honus Wagners, black America had its Willie Wellses, Bullet Rogans, Oscar Charlestons and John Henry Lloyds.
It also had Rube Foster, a visionary with the business instincts of the titans of U.S. industry. He saw opportunity where other people in black baseball saw obstacles.
"Great leaders are visionaries," said Christian Resnick, a professor at Drexel University who's researched sports leadership in baseball.
In a study he co-wrote, Resnick ranked Foster as the greatest executive in the history of professional baseball. Resnick said the sport has had its share of visionaries -- Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, Bill Veeck, Al Spalding, Larry MacPhail, Clark Griffith, Warren Giles, Charles Comiskey, George Weiss and Tom Yawkey -- and they all embodied greatness.
Yet what separated Foster from the rest, Resnick said, was his ability to transform an organization beyond the team. He built an organizational structure from scratch.
During a two-day meeting in Kansas City in February 1920, Foster brought in J.L. Wilkinson, C.I. Taylor and owners from five other teams. Efforts had been made to organize earlier, but they were all unsuccessful.
"Black baseball owners had their own problems," said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois and an authority on the Negro Leagues. "They couldn't agree on a commissioner, and they had a hard time determining what was best for the interest of an entire league."
Now, Foster was presenting fellow owners with a business model that made sense -- dollars and cents. He identified and articulated a vision for them, he provided them with an appropriate league structure and he sold them on the importance of group goals.
His presentation impressed. Owners left the meeting at the Paseo YMCA with a constitution, a name [the Negro National League], an agreement to begin play in 1921 and a league president in Foster.
None of this surprised Foster, the son of a minister. Success, however, never surprises effective leaders; they all believe in their objective.
And Foster did. He figured he could convince owners to stop worrying about their self-interest and focus on the larger themes. He had gone into the two days of meetings so confident he could reach consensus he incorporated the league's name before the gathering began.
After the league was formed, his Giants and seven other teams began play in 1920, a year earlier than expected. Foster, the mad genius, lorded over everything the league did like a dictator.
"Foster ran the league with an iron hand," Riley said. "So who you gonna complain to -- the league president -- about what the league president did? He had his nucleus of buddies, cronies or whatever you wanna call 'em, owners who would go along with whatever he wanted."
Foster was good for black baseball. He established a league structure that allowed black teams to thrive. He profited from it. In business, profits are as fundamental to successful leadership as anything else.
No one knows what direction his league might have taken had Foster's life not ended in an insane asylum, Riley said. Foster, who was inducted posthumously into Cooperstown in 1981, was a man who dreamed grandly. His grand dreams were of a thriving league that allowed black men to make a living playing professional baseball.
Isn't that elite leadership at its highest?
"Yes," said Brian Carroll, a history professor at Berry College and an authority on the black press.
"Without Rube Foster, I'm sure you'd have had a Negro Leagues of substance at some point, but it would have been much later."
Justice B. Hill is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.