The 97th anniversary in 2017 of the founding of the Negro Leagues during a Feb. 13, 1920 meeting at a YMCA building in Kansas City also marks the moment when Andrew “Rube” Foster asserted his vision for the future of African-American baseball.
It was Foster who brought together the eight original franchise owners that day and showed them a charter he had drawn up to begin play among the eight Midwestern clubs owned by the group of businessmen he’d invited to the meeting. The Negro National League, as it was called, operated from 1920 through 1931 and was the first Negro League to reach stability and last more than one season.
By the time the meeting ended that day, the Negro National League had been born and Foster had become its first president in addition to his ownership of the Chicago American Giants, the team for which he had also been player-manager for many years.
In addition to the Giants, the original eight franchises also included the Chicago Giants (who didn’t begin play until 1921), the Columbus Buckeyes, the Dayton Marcos, the Detroit Stars, the Indianapolis ABCs, the Kansas City Monarchs and the St. Louis Giants.
It was really all Rube Foster. He took the leadership role here. He had booking rights for four of the original eight teams. Essentially, he cut a deal with the other organizers of the Negro Leagues and divested those booking rights for three of the teams, kept the Chicago American Giants then became president of the Negro Leagues.
-- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick
Kendrick was not just celebrating the anniversary of the Negro Leagues founding, but also the continuing restoration of the old Paseo YMCA building in Kansas City, which will eventually provide the museum with an education and research center as well as room to expand the current museum. He eventually hosted a reception to show friends of the museum the progress that was made.
One of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s board members, Landon Rowland, had purchased the dilapidated building for the museum in the early 2000s. It had been abandoned and boarded up since the 1970s and required a major capital project to restore it.
The project stalled following the 2006 death of Buck O’Neil, the great player and manager who had become the face of the museum after it opened in 1990, and the country’s economic crisis that followed. Luckily, one of O’Neil’s good friends, Ollie Gates, the entrepreneur and owner of world famous Gates Bar-B-Q, decided to finish the project.
“Mr. Gates left the board of directors to steer the process and he involved some of his friends, so we’ve been able to advance this important project in a phase-by-phase manner because the museum wasn’t in position to do a comprehensive capital campaign at that time,” Kendrick said.
“We took this building that was on the verge of being lost to the ruins of time and started to shore up its structure. We replaced the windows and we replaced the roof. Mr. Gates leaned on many of his business partners and friends to do that. A lot was done pro bono.”
The library and research center had been O’Neill’s dream and Gates and Kendrick and all of the friends of Negro League baseball wanted to see the project reach fruition so people who love baseball could learn about the game’s African-American culture and the visionaries.
“Unfortunately, very few folks know about Rube Foster,” Kendrick said. “Rube without question was one of the most brilliant baseball minds this sport has ever seen. He was an absolute genius.
“Rube preached a different style of baseball. Rube didn’t just encourage but demanded the style that became a signature of Negro Leagues baseball. It was very fast. It was very aggressive. It was very daring. So his players would bunt their way on and they would steal second, they would steal third and if you weren’t smart they would steal home.”
So confident was Foster in the skill and competitiveness of Negro Leagues baseball that his original vision included a day when Negro Leagues teams would eventually merge with Major League Baseball.
“As a leader, Foster thought he could create a league that was so dynamic that he could force Major League Baseball to expand,” Kendrick said. “Under Rube’s thought process, black teams would eventually be brought into the Major Leagues and you’d have had black ownership, black managers, every aspect of the game being filled by African Americans.
“When he formed the Negro Leagues Foster boldly proclaimed, ‘We are the ship, all else the sea.’ In many ways, that was his declaration of independence. It was his way of putting the baseball world on notice that a new player had arrived on the scene that had to be reckoned with.”