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Willie Foster

William Hendrick Foster
Nicknames: Willie, Bill

Career: 1923-1938
Positions: p, manager
Teams: Memphis Red Sox (1923-1924, 1938), Chicago American Giants (1923-1930, 1937), Birmingham Black Barons (1925), Homestead Grays (1931), Kansas City Monarchs (1931), Cole's American Giants (1932-1935), Pittsburgh Crawfords (1936)
Bats: Both
Throws: Left
Height: 6' 1''   Weight: 195
Born: June 12, 1904, Calvert, Texas
Died: September 16, 1978, Lorman, Mississippi
National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction (1996)

A half-brother of the famous Rube Foster, Willie Foster was a pitching star for the Chicago American Giants for over a decade. With near perfect control and a wide assortment of pitches, all delivered with the same motion, the tall left-hander was at his best when the stakes were highest. With a crucial game to win, Willie was the kind of pitcher a manager wanted on the mound. He was a smart pitcher who knew how to get the most out of his vast repertory of pitches, which included a blazing fast-ball, a slider, a fast breaking drop, a sidearm curve, and a masterful change of pace. According to Jocko Conlon, "Foster was comparable to Herb Pennock, only faster and had beautiful control, adding that he was really something to watch."

His mother died when he was only four years old, and the youngster was reared by his maternal grandparents in Mississippi. He attended school at Alcorn College until 1918, when he traveled North to Chicago to work in the stockyards and attempted to sign on with Rube's team as a pitcher. His half brother's refusal to allow him to play with the Chicago American Giants created a resentment that continued throughout his life.

After this rejection, he returned to Mississippi and later signed with the Memphis Red Sox in 1923. However, Rube exercised his power to demand that the younger Foster be sent to Chicago. Memphis owner Bubbles Lewis capitulated, and the hot left-handed pitching prospect was signed by Rube before the end of the season. Foster divided each of his first three seasons between the American Giants and a southern team, registering marks of 5-2, 6-1, and 7-1 before playing his first complete season in Chicago in 1926, the year after Rube Foster yielded the managerial reins to David Malarcher. That year Foster was still in college in Tennessee in the early stages of the season.

His tenure in Chicago included pennant-winning seasons in 1926, 1927, and 1933. In the 1926 season he won 26 consecutive games against all levels of competition while compiling an 11-4 league record to lead the American Giants to the second half title. In the Negro National League playoffs against the Kansas City Monarchs, first-half winners, for the championship, the American Giants needed to win both games in a final-day doubleheader to capture the pennant. With the team's back to the wall, Foster started and won both ends of the doubleheader, defeating Bullet Rogan in each contest to claim the Negro National League flag.

Foster followed this with a sensational performance in the World Series against the Eastern Colored League champion Bacharach Giants. He pitched 3 complete games while relieving in another, getting 2 victories, including a shutout, and compiling a 1.27 ERA. The following year Foster compiled a sensational 32-3 record, with a 21-3 league ledger, and was again the workhorse in the Series, pitching 2 complete games relieving in 2 others while picking up 2 more victories to go with a 3.00 ERA.

After each of the championship seasons he played winter ball, traveling to Cuba after the 1926 season, while opting for the California winter league after the 1927 season, where he finished with a 14-1 record. The left hander's ledger showed 14-10 and 11-7 seasons for the next two years, and after two seasons without a pennant, Foster was named manager of the Chicago American Giants for the 1930 season. Although he couldn't produce a pennant, he fashioned a 16-10 record in league play.

In 1931 he was enticed away from the Giants temporarily to join the Homestead Grays, where his presence made an already good team the greatest of all time. In September, in a rare occurrence, he pitched Cum Posey's Grays to a victory over J.L. Wilkinson's Kansas City Monarchs and then, with the permission of both owners, switched teams for the remainder of the season. He is credited with a combined 9-2 record for both clubs. Back in the Chicago fold, his league ledger showed 15-8 and 9-3 seasons for 1932-1933, each producing a pennant. The first year they copped the Negro Southern League flag, and the latter year he pitched the American Giants to a pennant in the new Negro National League.

His performance in 1933 made him the choice as the starting pitcher for the West squad in the first East-West All Star game. At that time the rules did not restrict a pitcher to only three innings in All Star competition, and Willie pitched the complete game victory over an East lineup that read like a Hall of Fame roll call. In 1934 the American Giants won the first-half championship but lost a tough playoff, 4 games to 3, to the second-half champion Philadelphia Stars.

After a league performance of 6-3 during the 1935 season, including a victory over Satchel Paige in a late September matchup, Foster joined the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1936, the last year of their black baseball domination, and although past his prime, he was still a formidable presence on the mound. Although he worked out with the Memphis Red Sox in the spring of 1938 and pitched in an April exhibition game against the Elites, the 1937 season was the left hander's last full season with a top team in the Negro Leagues. The following season he played with the Yakima Browns, a lesser team.

He always deported himself in a gentlemanly manner and commanded respect. During his baseball career, Foster had pursued his educational goals in the off seasons and, after retiring from baseball, he became dean of men and baseball coach at Alcorn State College in 1960, a position he held until shortly before his death. He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996.

Source: James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994.

William Foster photo

Willie Foster