If you haven’t seen it yet, be sure to check out ESPN’s “The Diary of Myles Thomas,” an account of the 1927 Yankees from the (fictionalized) perspective of a minor figure on the team, the pitcher Myles Thomas. I’m not doing any of the writing on the “Diary,” but I have been helping with some research, as one of its central conceits is that Myles was a jazz aficionado who encountered black musicians and ballplayers. The latest entry shows us Rube Foster, confined in the asylum at Kankakee, Illinois, in 1927.
One of the main things I’ve done for them is figure out how we can plausibly have Myles encounter certain stories. It's fiction, sure, but we've been trying hard to make it believable fiction, to give it a sturdy grounding in nuts-and-bolts research. So we work out a lot of scenarios like, “Can we place Myles Thomas at the Negro League World Series in 1925? Or, failing that, can we place Myles in the same room as somebody who did see the ’25 World Series—before the end of the 1927 season?”
In the case of this particular entry, Jimmy Yancey, an early practitioner of boogie woogie piano, serves as the link between Myles and Rube Foster. Yancey was for many years a groundskeeper at Comiskey Park, and his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame entry says he played baseball for the “Chicago All-Americans” during World War I, which seems likely to be a reference to Foster’s American Giants (although I haven’t been able to substantiate any playing time for him with any teams I’m familiar with). (Using Yancey, by the way, is a fantastic idea—one I had nothing to do with.)
Quick notes about a couple of things:
• Yancey tells Myles the story that Rube Foster taught Christy Mathewson how to throw his famous “fadeaway” pitch. This was debunked by Dick Thompson in the Baseball Research Journal in 1996 (Mathewson learned it from a minor league pitcher named Dave Williams in 1898). The guys behind the “Diary” (Douglas Alden and John Thorn) are aware of this, and consciously chose to have Yancey help spread the legend.
•Yancey also tells the story that Foster gained his nickname by defeating Rube Waddell and the Philadelphia A’s. This is well-trodden ground, of course; it appears likely (in my opinion) that Foster in fact defeated Waddell and the white semipro Murray Hills in 1903, but Foster never seems to have faced the Athletics (though the A’s did play the Philadelphia Giants several times in the 1900s). In 1907, however, he stated in print that he beat Waddell and the A’s in 1905. Since Foster himself told the story this way, it makes perfect sense that Yancey could have heard it directly from him.