Ode to Big Rube Foster

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Andrew “Rube” Foster is considered the Father of Black Baseball by those that are familiar with his contributions to the sport.  The problem is, Foster has toiled in anonymity for so long that most are unaware of these contributions.  Having recently read Negro League historian Larry Lester’s latest book on Rube Foster, it is evident that “Big Rube” stands at the apex of black baseball while few people realize the tremendous impact he had on Major League Baseball as well.  On the 94th birthday of Jackie Robinson, I’d like to shine a light on the man who paved the way for number 42.  This is my ode to Rube Foster the pitcher, manager, Commissioner, and visionary.

Andrew “Rube” Foster the Pitcher

With a career record of 191-60, Rube Foster is considered by many as the best pitcher of the black ball era.  Pitching from 1899-1918 Foster spent a majority of his career pitching in Chicago between two teams the Leland Giants and the American Giants.  He threw 7 no-hitters and amassed a career ERA of 1.82.  The nickname “Rube” was bestowed upon him in 1903 when Foster out pitched Hall of Famer Rube Waddell in an exhibition contest between black baseball’s Cuban X-Giants and the major league’s Philadelphia Athletics.

  • Following on of Foster’s epic performances on the mound Hall of Fame manager John McGraw hired Rube Foster in 1903 to serve as pitching coach to a young Christy Mathewson.  Prior to the 1903 season Mathewson had amassed a win/loss record of 34-37.  Foster came to the New York Giants to teach Mathewson the art of the screwball.  For the remainder of Mathewson’s career he was and still is regarded as the best screwball pitcher in baseball.  His win loss record after working with Foster was 339-151, totals that earned him induction into the first class Hall of Fame inductees.  Rube Foster was not elected to the Hall of Fame until 1981, over 50 years after his death.
  • Unbeknownst to Rube Foster his pitching career also benefited boxing Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson.  Having been convicted of a crime for transporting his future white wife across state lines for immoral purposes, Johnson was sentenced to serve one year in prison.  Johnson utilizing his slight resemblance to Foster, disguised himself as the pitcher and joined the team as they traveled to Ontario Canada.  Once there he boarded a ship to Paris avoiding the criminal charges for the next 7 years.

Andrew “Rube” Foster the Manager

As the manager of the Negro National League’s Chicago American Giants Rube Foster finished with a 293-164 record winning 64% of the games his team participated in.  He has been compared to the likes of Hall of Fame managers, John McGraw and Connie Mack for his innovation and success in the game of baseball.  At a time when blacks were not given much respect for their intellectual capabilities many white managers watched and learned from Foster as he managed his players as if they were pieces on his personal chess board.

  • Rube Foster developed a style of baseball known as “Inside Ball,” which centered on speed, bunting, and sacrifices.  Sound familiar?  Yes, the same style popularized in the Major League’s by the 1951 World Champion “Go-Go” Chicago White Sox, Whitey Herzog, and Ozzie Guillen originated with Rube Foster.  Those that saw Foster’s teams play could not ignore the manager’s emphasis on speed and quickness.  The stolen base was a hallmark of his teams as his players constantly took an extra base in a bold like fashion, an art that was absent from the white game at the time.
  • Rube Foster was on a constant mission to prove his teams superiority.  Rube was one of the first black managers to take his team on extended trips to the West Coast in an effort to expose the masses to black baseball at its finest.  He repeatedly took his teams into the deep South, Cuba and Canada and was not afraid to take the credit for teaching many young black spectators the right way to play the game.
  • Foster also issued many challenges to white baseball clubs.  While few teams responded to his challenges the ones that did left with a new-found respect for Foster and the teams he put together.  Foster issued these challenges with an end goal in mind.  It was his vision that once he garnered the respect of white baseball, the fans would demand an annual Cultural World Series pitting the best black baseball team against the best white ball club.  He cited the achievements of boxing great Jack Johnson and his ability to fight the top white boxers as the foundation for his dream Series.

Andrew “Rube” Foster the Commissioner

Rube Foster wasn’t the first to recognize the need for black baseball to be organized but he was the first person to create a sustainable league featuring the top black talent in the country.  As any intelligent leader would, Rube learned from others failures and in 1920 developed the Negro National League which lasted well after he resigned his post in 1926 due to health challenges.

  • In 1887 the League of Colored Baseball Clubs was formed and in less than a month the operation was shut down.  In 1906, the National Association of Colored Baseball Clubs of the United States and Cuba was formed by several white owners.  Their association was over before it started as they failed to play one game.  And finally in 1907, the National Colored League of Professional Ball Clubs was formed yet never materialized.  It was not until Andrew “Rube” Foster’s Negro National League was formed that black ball players had a thriving league they could call their own.
  • The Negro National League did have their difficulties.  Some teams were not as financially equipped as others and had challenges fielding teams the fans were willing to walk through the turnstiles for.  As President of the NNL and head of the Chicago American Giants, Foster was in a rather enviable financial position.  Chicago was the Harlem of the Midwest for the black community, and Foster was one of the few owners that had an ownership stake in his team’s home ballpark.  Therefore, he was paid anytime a rival club needed a field to host their game (this happened often as many clubs wanted to play in markets with flourishing black communities).  The well to do Foster was able to loan struggling clubs money to make payroll, and if a team needed a boost at the box office Rube would loan them a player sure to draw a crowd.   Rube recognized the benefits of star power very early.  In fact, when the NNL was formed Foster’s American Giants fielded some of the best players black baseball had seen.  Placing the success of the league above his own, Foster distributed his top talent to other teams so that each team could have at least one star player.  For an example of Foster’s benevolence towards the league as a whole one need look no further than Oscar Charleston.  Bill James, the godfather of sabermetrics considers Charleston the fourth greatest player ever behind Ruth, Wagner, and Mays.  Foster gave Charleston to the Indianapolis ABC’s in his prime for the greater good  and ultimate success of the Negro National League.
  • Rube felt that the Negro National League could not truly be a league for his people until they hired black umpires.  Initially the league contracted white umpires stationed in the city that the game was to be held and paid them on a per game basis.  Foster saw fit to hire 8 black umpires that were salaried employees and traveled from city to city.  The addition of these traveling employees cost the league an extra $4,000 but it was important to Rube that blacks in all aspects of the game received an opportunity to take part in the “American Pastime.”

Again, props to Larry Lester for the hard work and research.  This post could not have been written without the fresh insight of his latest book, Rube Foster In His Time: On the field and in the papers with Black Baseball’s greatest visionary.

As always, thank you for visiting and I welcome your thoughts, comments, or complaints on Rube Foster and his impact on the sport we love.  Peace!


Tampa Bay Signs Evan Longoria for the Next 10 Years- Why Now?

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss

And lose, and start again at your beginnings,

And never breathe a word about your loss…If by Rudyard Kipling

You may wonder why I opened with a portion of the poem If.  Yes it is a bad ass poem that was used in last nights equally bad ass episode of Boardwalk Empire but that has no bearing on my usage.  The Tampa Bay Rays signed Evan Longoria to a 6 year 100 million dollar extension which will be tacked on to his previous contract which was not set to expire until 2016.  In locking up Longoria until 2022 (2023 if you include the one year team option), it appears as if the Rays are “heaping all of their winnings and risking it on one turn of pitch and toss.”  Don’t let the appearance fool you, the Rays know exactly what they are doing.  Allow me to explain.

1.) The next 10 year deal that works out will be the 1st

Yes, Longoria signed a 6 year extension but remember his extension is added to the remaining 4 years on his current contract.  Adding the two deals together Longoria is guaranteed $136 million dollars over the next ten years.  Of the six previous ten-year deals only one would likely be done again and we have one we need to wait and see on before we pass judgment (Derek Jeter/Joey Votto respectively).  Most of these deals end up being regretted by the ball club because of the absorbent amount of money being paid to older players well past the prime years of their production.  I have no question Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay brain trust are well aware of the success rate on ten-year deals.  Which is why, in terms of average dollars per year, Evan Longoria’s deal is the smallest of the ten-year deals, averaging 13.6M per year.  Therefore, in the event Longoria’s value decreases in his later years (he is signed through his age 36 season) the financial strain will not be as crippling as say Alex Rodriguez’s current 10y/ 275M contract which will pay him 28M dollar in 2013 (age 37 season).

Evan Longoria posses a superior bat and elite defensive skills.  So long as Longoria is able to stay healthy, his bat should play for the majority of his contract.  Considered one of the top two defensive third basemen since 2008 by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), his defense will likely to decline over the life of the contact as he gets older.  This decline should not and likely did not give Tampa Bay much cause for concern.  As a stellar third baseman, the natural progression once his defensive prowess begins to deteriorate will be a move to first base followed by a move to DH.  The Rays foresee many years of plus third base play before said changes will be needed, thus minimizing their concern for the dreaded ten-year contract.

2.) Evan Longoria has a history of injury

Over the first 5 years of Longoria’s career he has only averaged 127 games per year while the past two years have seen him miss a total of 117 games.  What is astonishing about Longoria is that regardless of the games missed when healthy he is off the charts good.  So good that he has outplayed his salary each year, even in 2012 when he only played 74 games.  The website Fangraphs determines a players value in dollars based on the wins they provided to their team versus a replacement level player (think AAA player) also known as W.A.R.

____                 WAR                        VALUE             ACTUAL SALARY

2008                    5.5                        $24.9M                 $500,000

2009                    7.6                         $34.4M                $555,000

2010                     7.7                        $30.6M                 $950,000

2011                     6.1                         $27.4M                 $2M

2012                    2.4                         $10.8M                 $4.5M

As you can see Longoria has provided value to the bargain hunting Tampa Bay Rays each injury plagued year he has been in the league.  Therefore, the Rays were willing to heap their $100M on the chance that Longoria will continue to produce at an MVP level.  If for some reason he can not, just look at all the value they have already realized underpaying for such a phenomenal talent.  It would be almost criminal for Tampa Bay to complain about money lost in the event Longoria can’t physically perform over the final few years of the deal considering the savings they have received for a talent like Longoria.

3.) Why Now?

A team as frugal as the Tampa Bay Rays has trouble competing for the top free agent talent.  Even though Longoria would not have been a free agent until 2016 under his initial contract, the upcoming free agency of two talented third basemen, David Wright (2014), and Chase Headley (2015) would have surely driven up the price for a healthy Evan Longoria in 2016.  Longoria, a younger and arguably more talented player then both Wright, and Headley, would have commanded the type of dollars Tampa Bay could not afford to pay.  Therefore, Tampa Bay took advantage of Longoria’s early injuries and signed him to a deal that represents of the fraction of the amount he would have received had injuries not been a concern.

As always there is a risk involved when signing a player to a ten-year deal.  Tampa Bay found a way to minimize that risk, lock-up the face of their franchise until 2023 and if for some reason Longoria can’t go in 2020 you will hear no complaining from the Rays.  So what does all this have to do with the poem If.  Tampa Bay has taken the calculated risk on one turn of pitch & chance, if they lose and are forced to start again at their beginnings, I doubt Tampa will ever breathe a word about their loss.


Justin Upton and the Tigers is a Perfect Fit

Coming into the 2012 season the Detroit Tigers had two glaring needs: a corner outfielder and a second baseman.  Magglio Ordonez was on his way out, and former #1 draft pick Delmon Young has yet to put together a big league season that justifies Leyland putting him in the lineup everyday.  So what did the Tigers do to fill these two holes?  They signed another All-Star first baseman, leaving a platoon situation at second and Delmon Young in left field.  We are half-way through the season, and the holes left by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in the outfield continue to be of the cavernous variety.  The Tigers have the least amount of production from their right fielders in baseball (-2.9 WAR) and Delmon Young has been the worst left fielder (among qualified players) in the majors (-.5 WAR).  Young now splits time with speedster Quintin Berry, who spent the last eight years playing in the minor leagues before making his pro debut in 2012.  While Berry has done well in a rather small sample size, if the Tigers are to contend in 2012 and beyond they will need another quality corner outfielder.

Last week, as if the baseball God’s had come to cure Dombrowski’s off-season hiccup, the Arizona Central reported that the Diamondbacks are interested in trading Justin Upton, their 24-year-old right fielder.  Yes, that Justin Upton, the two-time All-Star that finished fourth in the National League MVP race in 2011.  Upton is a young player that has yet to reach his prime.  Why the Diamondback’s would consider trading such a young talent that happens to be signed through his age 27 season is a mystery, but it should not serve as a surprise.  This is the second time in his short career the Diamondback’s have shopped their best player and it appears as if the club has reached the point of no return and must trade Upton.   Outfielders typically don’t reach their peak until their age 27 season, a plus for any team contemplating trading for Upton.  That being the case, his career numbers .275/.356/.475 & 12 WAR already trump those of each corner outfielder on the Tiger’s roster.  The Tigers need to acquire Justin Upton and have the pieces to make it happen.

If you took the time to read the linked article from the Arizona Central you noticed that in return for Justin Upton the Diamondback’s are looking for a shortstop, third baseman, or star starting pitcher.  The Tigers have a red-hot third base prospect in Nick Castellanos (20) who could serve as the center piece of a deal with the D-backs.  In 2012 Castellanos is hitting .363/.406/.516 between A & AA Ball, was the MVP of the All-Star Futures game, and was recently ranked as the 15th best prospect in all of baseball by Keith Law of ESPN.  Obviously, with his recent success Castellanos has generated a tremendous buzz among Tiger fans who are eager to see the him in the Bigs.  With the recent success of Mike Trout (20) and Bryce Harper(19), I understand the source of their impatience yet realize the Tigers would be better served by moving the young third baseman now.

To the fans dismay, it’s unreasonable to expect Castellanos to play in the majors for the Tigers anytime soon.  As a third baseman Castellanos is blocked by one of the best right-handed hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera (signed through 2015).  Moving Cabrera back to first base is out of the question as the Tigers expect Prince to be manning first base for the next eight years.  Blocked at third the Tigers organization began playing Castellanos in right field for their AA affiliate.  There are two issues with this move: 1) Castellanos loses some of his value moving from third to right field as third base is a more challenging defensive position; 2) Castellanos MAY become an All-Star right fielder or he MAY be the next Cameron Maybin.  What we do know is Nick Castellanos IS a prospect and prospects are a gamble because they have yet to prove themselves on the Major League level.  I’m sure many Tiger fans remember Maybin, our last major prospect.  There was a time when Maybin was an un-tradable prospect until we were able to trade him to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera.  You know the rest of the story, Cabrera (the proven commodity) is one of the best players in baseball for the Tigers, and Maybin (the prospect) has since been traded from the Marlins to the Padres and has yet to reach the potential Tigers fans had come to expect.  A majority of fans tend to place a premium on prospects because they represent the unknown.  In this instance, I’ll take the two-time All-Star who has shown he can play at or near an MVP level.  Give me Justin Upton playing right field for the Detroit Tigers!


The First Half MVP of the 2012 Tigers is…

 

Quick, throw away all your E-troit* Tiger biases, forget whose your Tiger, and tell me which Tiger has had the best 2012 season at the half way point.  *(Not a typo – the D has been removed until the Tiger’s exhibit anything resembling a Major League defense).  I know, our biases are strong, we love our new Prince of Motown so let me help you out.  Here are the slash lines for the top 3 Tigers in 2012:

Player A – .324/.383/.558

Player B – .335/.411/.552

Player C – .299/.379/.497

Now that we have gotten those biases out of the way, I’m making the argument that Player B, Austin Jackson, has been the best Tiger in the first half of 2012.  While I realize slash lines can not tell the whole story I will go behind the slash line in my defense of A-Jax.

(A= Miguel Cabrera; C = Prince Fielder)

Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski’s plan entering 2012 was to field the best beer league softball team with two rather large (pun intended) defensive anchors at the corner infield spots.  Unfortunately, the 2012 Tigers bats have not been able to score runs at the rapid pace their defense has been able to gift wrap runs for the opposing team.  They lead the American League in unearned runs (43), and have the worst Ultimate Zone Rating (-27.2) (an advanced statistic that quantifies the amount of runs saved by a defense over the season) in the league.  In fact, each Tiger player that started Opening Day has a negative Ultimate Zone Rating at their respective position in 2012, except for Austin Jackson (5.2).  Jackson has been the sole Gold Glove candidate on a team that at times appears to be playing with gloves made of stone.  Therefore, Austin Jackson gets a boost when measured against the other Tigers for playing stellar defense in center field, a position where defense is of grave importance, all while producing eye-popping numbers at the plate.

Since Austin Jackson came to the Bigs in 2010 Tiger fans have taken issue with their free swinging lead off hitter not getting on base in front of Miguel Cabrera.  Jackson lead the league in strikeouts in 2010 and finished 3rd in 2011, which drained his value as a lead off hitter because he simply was not getting on base enough.  This year, his strikeout rate is down and his walks are up resulting in an On Base Percentage of .411, tops on the team and good enough for second in the American League.  And what does it mean to the Tigers to have their lead off hitter getting on base for the big hitters?  Without Jackson in the lineup the Tigers are 8-14 (.363), and with him they are 34-28 (.548).

One could pose the argument that Miguel Cabrera has been the best Tiger in 2012 and I would listen.  I’m a huge fan of Miguel’s but putting bias aside, my issue with the Cabrera argument is that is based on his counting stats.  For instance, Miguel Cabrera has 18HR/52R/71RBI to Austin Jackson’s 9HR/53R/38RBI.  Cabrera has produced great numbers, but only looking at a player’s counting stats to measure their effectiveness can be problematic because they are dependant on so many other factors.  Case in point the largest disparity between the two players is their RBI totals.  RBI are dependant on other players being on base when you get your hits.  This negatively effects Jackson as a lead off hitter because he starts the game with no one on base and in the middle innings his RBI total is dependant on the bottom of the order, generally the weaker hitters, getting on base in front of him.  The pro Cabrera camp would then argue that the two players have scored about the same amount of runs, a stat Jackson should lead batting first in the Tigers lineup.  This argument brings to light another issue with only using counting stats.  Miguel Cabrera has played in 22 more games than Austin Jackson and has had 92 more plate appearances ie more opportunities to hit HR’s, score runs, or collect RBI.

Many stats have been created to right the wrongs that counting stats create. One such stat is weighted runs created+ (wRC+), which seeks to quantify a players total offensive value measured by the runs they create.  Austin Jackson has the third highest wRC+ score in the American League (163) behind Mike Trout and Robinson Cano.  Miguel Cabrera’s 153 score is good enough for 5th in the League.  Not a large disparity but all things equal A-Jax has been the more productive offensive player.  Finally we will look at the amount of wins above a replacement level player (WAR) the two have added to the Tigers.  WAR is a useful tool because it takes into account a players offensive and defensive  contributions to determine a player’s overall value.  Again Austin Jackson’s 4.0 WAR is higher than that of Miguel Cabrera (3.3 WAR). By no means am I arguing that Austin Jackson is a better baseball player than Miguel Cabrera, who has played at a consistently high level for 10 straight years, but for the first half of 2012 Austin Jackson has been the best player on the Tiger’s roster.


MLB Throws Magic an Assist

When two billion dollars is spent its usually not the spender that is that is doing the celebrating. Unless of course you are a part of the Magic Johnson-Stan Kasten investment group which just dropped a ton of cash for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Prior to their purchase, the Dodgers were run by a dysfunctional owner who openly defecated upon Dodger fans. On his path to destruction, the previous owner clouded years of tradition and goodwill, and was on the verge of puling off what was once considered unthinkable. Entering 2012, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (say that three times fast), however brief, were able to wrestle the headlines and LA fans from the Dodgers. The Angels were on their way to becoming LA’s team. Then Magic stepped in, and with some help from both Kasten and Bud Selig, the Dodgers found themselves back at the apex of the LA baseball scene in the hearts and minds of the fans and media.

We are a couple of days removed from the announcement of the sale and already expectations for the Dodgers return to glory are as high as a Magic Johnson sky hook. Almost simultaneous with the announcement mainstream media touted Magic Johnson as the saviour of the Boys in Blue. The reports were that a 2 billion dollar price tag made the Dodgers the Yankees of the West. With Magic on board the Dodgers would soon be a perennial playoff contender making a run at all the big free agents. Hell, a few reports already had the Dodgers signing either Cole Hamels or Matt Cain in 2013, more than 9 months before they actually become free agents. My enthusiasm for the Dodgers return to glory is much more tempered and any on field success the Dodgers realize I will attribute to Stan Kasten’s involvement rather than the Magic Man. This is not a shot at Magic, it’s just that Kasten has done it before, having worked as President of the Atlanta Braves during their rise to prominence in the 90’s. This is Magic’s first foray into the world of baseball, and Johnson will be the first to admit roster construction is not his forte.

While I won’t join the chorus and proclaim that Magic will bring Showtime to the Dodgers, there is one aspect of his involvement that has me very excited. Major League Baseball has never gone out of its way to promote their individual athletes. In the inner city, the fallout from MLB’s reluctance to follow the NFL and NBA’s star generated promotion has been tremendous. Inner city youth no longer desire to become the next Jackie Robinson. They have traded Willie Mays dreams for Lebron and Cam Newton realities. The inclusion of Magic Johnson into the once private and exclusive “Billionaire Boys Club” of MLB owners signals to me that baseball realizes it needs a Rebirth of Cool and Magic is the perfect guy to lend an assist.

Magic understands the ins and outs of marketing/promotion in the inner cities of Los Angeles. At a time when business owners refused to invest “in the hood” Magic built successful movie theaters in the same neighborhoods others feared. While others sat on the sidelines Magic doubled down and brought not only TGI Friday’s to the hood but he also brokered a deal to build over 100 Starbucks, many of which thrived in the inner city. Magic’s purchase of the Dodgers means the team will have a presence in the inner cities of LA, and where the former point guard goes others tend to follow. Case in point, can you imagine Matt Kemp, the Dodgers star center fielder, denying Magic’s request for the two of them visit the local Boys and Girls Club to promote the Grand Old Game. The answer is simple, Kemp will follow! Now can you imagine any other big league owner visiting ANY inner city on purpose. I can’t, and this is what has me excited. For a long time MLB has operated from a lily white model that sought to maintain the status quo. It appears as if MLB is ready for a change. They threw the Magic man an assist, let’s see what he does when he is the one receiving a beautiful pass.