“The light of wisdom and the spirit of service to the public”

For most of its first century, organized professional baseball in America was strictly segregated. This shameful era lasted until 1947 when the great Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier as Major League Baseball’s first African-American player.

But though the doors of Major League Baseball may have been closed to them, African-American baseball stars of the early 20th century still found a way to showcase their talents, thanks in part to the work of a Chicago ballplayer who on February 13, 1920, chartered a new league which would change baseball forever.

Rube Foster of the Chicago American Giants was among the most dominant pitchers in baseball history. Foster started his career with the Chicago Union Giants in 1901 and won 44 consecutive games in 1902 with the Philadelphia X-Giants. As the team’s player-manager he led the Chicago Leland Giants to 110 wins in 1907. In 1909 his team met the previous year’s World Series champion Chicago Cubs in a three-game exhibition series. A year later, after winning 123 games, Foster could not get any MLB team to play against his squad.

He offered sound advice for dealing with trouble in pitching or in life. “Do not worry. Try to appear jolly and unconcerned. I have smiled often with the bases full with two strikes and three balls on the batter. This seems to unnerve.”

Foster joined with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey’s son-in-law John Schorling to lease the old park the Sox would be vacating when they moved into their new Comiskey Park on Chicago’s South Side. Taking the field in 1911 Foster’s American Giants brought a new, aggressive style of play to the game which wowed spectators with entertaining, fast-paced action. Foster’s squad sometimes drew more attendance than the Cubs or White Sox. But problems elsewhere threatened the team’s bottom line.

Teams were at the mercy of booking agents who were overwhelmingly white and who saw to it that much of the money made from ticket sales did not get into the hands of the teams or their players. Teams struggled, and many had trouble securing leases on ballparks. Some became barnstormers, traveling the country looking for a game anywhere they could find one. By the late 1910s, African-American baseball was in serious trouble. Rube Foster was determined to save it.

“The wild, reckless scramble under the guise of baseball is keeping us down, and we will always be the underdog until we can successfully employ the methods that have brought success to the great powers-that-be in baseball of the present era: organization,” Foster said.

Rube Foster, 1924. 
Foster sought to organize the African-American teams into a league with a more sustainable business model. Only through organization, he felt, could teams survive for the long term. But attempts in the early years of the century to organize such a league had failed. Team owners were resistant to change, and feared the repercussions of handing over any aspect of control to a league office. Players worried their already-meager salaries could be put at risk. Foster, however, was confident that an organized league was the solution to the wide range of problems, and in February 1920 he had changed enough minds that team owners agreed to a meeting at a Kansas City YMCA to talk about creating an African-American baseball league.

By the time the meeting convened, Foster had already drafted a charter for a new organization which he had named the Negro National League (NNL). As a star player and accomplished manager, Foster himself had little to gain and much to lose by throwing his fortunes in with the rest of the league, but he could see the long-term benefits of organization.

“To his undying credit, let it be said that he has made the biggest sacrifice,” said Ira Lewis, secretary of the new NNL. “Mr. Foster could have defied organization for many years. But happily, he has seen the light – the light of wisdom and the spirit of service to the public.”

The NNL would include teams in seven Midwestern cities, including Chicago. The fledgling league faced some enormous hurdles in getting off the ground. Teams did not have their own ballparks: instead, they used their city’s existing major league park when it was available. This arrangement greatly complicated scheduling. Home teams hired umpires, which led to much controversy, and games would sometimes be cancelled because teams got a better financial offer from a different club for a game on that same date.

But through the sheer force of Rube Foster’s determination and the highly-talented ballplayers on the field, the league soldiered on through the early 1920s, gaining in stature with each season. The Giants dominated the early days of the league, winning the first title in 1920 and repeating in 1921 and 1922, before the Kansas City Monarchs, the team which would later include Jackie Robinson on its roster, took the next four crowns. By then, a similar league of African-American teams had begun to follow Foster’s example and was forming in the east. The winners of the two leagues would begin meeting in an annual championship series starting in 1924.

Foster and the NNL were innovators, introducing night games and an all-star game between the top players in the competing leagues. He continued to play and manage with the Giants until his health declined in the mid-1920s. He was president of the league when he finally had to leave baseball for good in 1926. So committed was he to the NNL and to African-American baseball in general that he was known to help competing teams meet their expenses – sometimes from his own pocket. He died in Kankakee in 1930, just as the Great Depression began to present the league with a challenge it could not overcome. The NNL folded the next year.

Though the NNL was gone, its legacy in baseball history lived on. The league had been the first long-term organization of African-American baseball teams in the United States, but it would not be the last. It had given many great players the chance to play the game on a grand stage. Future Hall of Famers James “Cool Papa” Bell, Martin Dihigo, William “Judy” Johnson, Norman “Turkey” Steanes and the ageless Leroy “Satchel” Paige played at least part of their careers in the NNL or one of its successor leagues.

East-West All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in 1936. 

Foster, too, would join these baseball greats in Cooperstown, being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1981. In 2010 he was depicted on a U.S. postage stamp honoring the NNL and its successors.

To honor the 100th anniversary of the NNL’s founding, the Negro League Baseball Museum (located just two blocks from the site of that historic meeting at the YMCA) in Kansas City has announced a year-long commemoration, including a centennial art exhibition, historical artifacts, and the opening of an education and research center named for the legendary ballplayer Buck O’Neil.

“What Rube Foster accomplished…is monumental and richly deserves to be more than just a footnote in baseball history,” said museum president Bob Kendrick.

Though the NNL did not survive the Depression, interest in African-American baseball did not die with it. Many of the original NNL teams organized into a new league in 1937, and it was this league from which Jackie Robinson would step forward a decade later to join the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrate Major League Baseball, at long last fully opening our “National Pastime” to all Americans.