By Ralph E. Moore, Jr.
The Negro Baseball Leagues produced two of the greatest athletes and business leaders this country has ever known.
Consider the stories of Andrew Bishop “Rube” Foster and John Preston “Pete” Hill. Few Little Leaguers or their grandparents know of these men- but they paved the way for Jackie Robinson’s break into Major League baseball in 1947.
Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, an incredible pitcher and a power hitting catcher, were contemporaries of Robinson. But before these fairly well-known men, there were the likes of Foster and Hill.
Rube Foster is “the father of Black baseball,” born in Texas in 1879, he began his career in America’s pastime as a pitcher for the Fort Worth Yellow Jackets in 1897. As he was getting started, the United States was embracing legal racial segregation with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court.
“Separate but equal” applied to the baseball diamond, too.
Foster moved around from team to team for a while: from the Chicago Giants to the Otsego Independents- an all-white minor league in Otsego, Mich., to the Cuban X Giants of Philadelphia, where he won 44 games in a row. After being a highly impressive, game winning pitch for fourteen years, Foster became a business partner with Charles Comiskey’s son-in-law, John Schorling. Comiskey himself was the owner of the Chicago White Sox. Foster and Schorling’s partnership was comprised of Foster’s Chicago American Giants— clearly the dominant Black team of its time– playing on Scholing’s leased, former White Sox field.
Foster was an owner-manager whose team represented the best of what the Negro Leagues would become. Foster created the Negro National League (NNL) in 1920, the first thriving baseball league for African American players, who were barred from Major League Baseball (MLB) at that time and for another 27 years. The Negro Leagues ballplayers received increasingly better salaries and benefits as news of their existence and exceptional play became better known to fans.
Rube Foster continued to run the league as he managed the American Giants, the team he owned. A stressful, time-consuming schedule got the best of Foster and he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1926. He died four years later.
The father of the Negro Leagues was a fierce pitcher, a strong leader, a demanding coach and a shrewd businessman. His vision of Blacks playing professional baseball (including the first night baseball ever) was groundbreaking and filled a tremendous need for Black male athletes to show what they could do. They did so well, Major League Baseball washed their statistics from their counts for decades. In December 2020, a century after Foster began the Negro National League, the MLB announced they would retroactively classify seven negro leagues as “major leagues.” MLB officials also added the stats for roughly 3,400 Black baseball players that were all elevated to major league states.
Rube Foster (1879-1930) was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown in 1981.
The other father of the Negro Leagues was John Preston “Pete” Hill (10/12/1882-11/19/1951) who was an outfielder in the NNL as well as a manager. He played for the Baltimore Blacks Sox after starring on several other teams: the Philadelphia Giants, the Chicago American Giants, the Detroit Stars, the Leland Giants and the Milwaukee Bears. Many of the teams Hill played for were owned by the Negro League’s Rube Foster. Hill and Foster had a player-owner relationship throughout their careers.
There is some difference of opinion as to where and when Pete Hill was born. Some say Pittsburgh in 1880 and others say Culpeper County, Virginia in 1882. Clearly his early years documented him as living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Foster is said to have built his teams around Hill’s talent. At over 6 feet tall, and weighing in at 215 pounds, Pete Hill was a very fast runner, had a powerful throwing arm and could hit a ball like none other. Some considered him the first superstar of the Negro League.
Hill’s batting average was a whopping .365 during the 1910-1911 season while he played in the Cuban Winter League. When Foster created the Chicago American Giants, he made Hill the team captain. During that time he amazingly achieved a hit in 115 out of 116 games. Hill could hit both left handers and right handers equally well even though he was left handed.
At age 36, Rube Foster named Pete Hill the player manager of a new team he had formed known as the Detroit Stars. While on that team he hit a phenomenal .388 batting average in 1921.
Hill played his last game of his playing career in 1925 for the Baltimore Black Sox; he was also a field manager for that team in his final year with it.
Pete Hill died in Buffalo, New York at 69 years of age. He was buried in Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery and Mausoleum in Alsip, Illinois. Hill was inducted into the Baseball Hall of fame in 2006 along with 16 other men from the Negro Leagues and the baseball days before the NNL was formally organized.
Two great men, Rube Foster and Pete Hill, were giants in Black baseball. Foster was an organizing team owner and league creator and the other, Pete Hill, as a star attraction player and team manager. With their great minds, the two friends established Blacks in segregated professional baseball. If it were not for them, there might not have been a Josh Gibson, a Satchel Paige or even a Jackie Robinson. Their combined genius and skill helped lead the way to eventual racial integration in America, starting with sports.
The hidden father figures of African American baseball, Rube Foster and Pete Hill, as well as scores of others, are getting some long overdue but well deserved recognition. Play ball!…but fairly now.
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