Foster overcame childhood illness to become an outstanding pitcher, a shrewd manager, and the dominant executive in black baseball. As a 6’4″ 200-lb teenager, he joined the Yellow Jackets, a traveling black team in Texas. John McGraw saw Foster during spring training of 1901 (or thereabouts) and wanted him and other blacks for his New York Giants. But, unable to use them, he instead asked Foster to tutor the Giants’ pitchers. Christy Mathewson reportedly learned his “fadeaway” pitch (a screwball) from Foster.
Foster then joined the Chicago Union Giants, pitched a shutout in his first start, but soon lost his effectiveness. He regained his form while with a white semi-pro club in the Michigan State League, and defeated every team in the circuit. Because of his difficulties, he had become a keen student of the game, and a wily pitcher. By 1902 he was with the black Cuban Giants.
In 1903 Foster was the top black pitcher in the country. He pitched the Cuban X-Giants to the black championship, and was the winner in four of their five victories over the Philadelphia Giants in the Black World Series. The following year, he pitched the Philadelphia Giants to the title, and recorded both victories in a best-of-three series against the Cuban X-Giants.
It is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in Foster’s pitching career; he is credited with a 51-4 season early on. Documentation does exist for a 1904 no-hitter he tossed against the Camden, NJ team. He reportedly gained his nickname by defeating the Athletics’ Rube Waddell in 1902, and is reputed to have fared well in duels with major league pitchers Chief Bender, Mordecai Brown, and Cy Young. Frank Chance called him “the most finished product I’ve ever seen in the pitcher’s box,” and Honus Wagner said he was “one of the greatest pitchers of all time…smartest pitcher I’ve ever seen…”
Foster began managing in 1907, when he guided the Chicago Leland Giants to a 110-10 record. Their record was 64-21-1 in 1908. In 1909 Foster challenged the Chicago Cubs to a series, which the Cubs won in three close games. Foster pitched the second game and took a 5-2 lead into the ninth inning, but lost 6-5. Mordecai Brown won the first and third contests. There is no record of any major league club coming forth to answer Foster’s challenge in 1910, when his team went 123-6.
In 1911 Foster left the Lelands to form a partnership with Chicago businessman John C. Schorling. From this union came one of black baseball’s strongest teams, the Chicago American Giants. They dominated both the Chicago semi-pro scene (regularly winning the championship) and national black baseball, capturing Negro League titles in 1914 and 1917 and sharing the 1915 championship with the New York Lincoln Stars. Competing against white major leaguers following the 1915 season, they won the California Winter League crown.
In the winter of 1919 Foster organized the first viable black major league, the Negro National League, which operated in the Midwest and the South from 1920 through 1931. He served as president of the new league until 1926, and ruled it completely. An Eastern counterpart was organized in 1923 and Black World Series between the two leagues were held from 1924 through 1927.
Foster continued to manage through 1925, and won the Negro National League‘s first three pennants (1920-22). He made use of psychology and speed, invented the bunt-and-run, and intimidated opponents. White major leaguers often attended his games to learn his tactics. Though he made few rules, he expected his players to follow them. He ran the games as he ran the NNL – in total control – and once hit a player across the head with his pipe for tripling after he was given the bunt sign.
Foster’s last known public meeting was in 1926 with lifelong friends Ban Johnson and John McGraw, through whom it is believed he was trying to schedule white major league teams to play his American Giants. Shortly thereafter he began to lose his mind, and spent his last four years in the Kankakee, Illinois State Hospital.