The Negro National League is Founded
“Rube Foster is the pitcher of the Leland Giants, and he has all the speed of a [Amos] Rusie, the tricks of a [Hoss] Radbourne (sic), and the heady coolness and deliberation of a Cy Young,” wrote Frederick North Shorey of the Indianapolis Freeman in 1907. “What does that make of him? Why, the greatest baseball pitcher in the country; that is what the best ball players of white persuasion that have gone up against him say.”
Foster partnered with John Schorling, son-in-law of Chicago White Sox owner Charles Comiskey, to form the Chicago American Giants in 1911. He negotiated for the team to play at the White Sox’s old stadium, South Side Park, where he developed one of the finest black baseball teams in the country. As manager, Foster taught his players the strategies of “inside baseball” that managers like the New York Giants’ John McGraw had successfully employed in the white National League. Aggressive, daring and – most importantly – exciting, the American Giants consistently outdrew both the White Sox and the Cubs and established a style that would later become symbolic of Negro National League play.
While Foster was enjoying considerable financial success with his American Giants, he remained frustrated by how fellow owners and players were being treated by booking agents. In 1919, he began writing a series of columns in the Chicago Defender newspaper in which he advocated the need for a black professional baseball league that would “create a profession that would equal the earning capacity of any other profession… keep Colored baseball from the control of whites (and) do something concrete for the loyalty of the Race.”
Foster had to work tirelessly to persuade both his fellow owners, who were reluctant to cede their autonomy, and players who feared organization would negatively affect their salaries. In February 1920, African-American team owners convened at a YMCA in Kansas City to discuss the prospect of a colored baseball league.
Foster surprised them all when he showed up with an official charter document for the Negro National League already in hand.
The NNL created a forum where many star players could make a bigger name for themselves – especially to white audiences. Future Hall of Famers Cool Papa Bell, Martín Dihigo, Bill Foster, Judy Johnson, Satchel Paige and Turkey Stearnes all flourished in the NNL, along with many others. The league would also inspire rival organizations like the Southern Negro League and the Eastern Colored League, whose teams would square off against NNL squads in the annual Negro League World Series.
Foster continued to manage his Chicago club and serve as NNL president until a nervous breakdown led to his retirement in 1926. He passed away in 1930 – 51 years before his election to the Hall of Fame – and soon the financial hardships of the Great Depression forced nearly every colored baseball league, including the NNL, to shut down.
“The leagues died having served their purpose,” said baseball writer Steven Goldman, “shining a light on African-American ballplayers at a time when the white majors simply did not want to know.”
Matt Kelly is the communications specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum