During the winter of 1926, Wesley Rollo Wilson, the dean of east coast black sportswriters, conducted an interview with Rube Foster that has become a key text in the modern reconstruction of Negro league history. I first happened upon it because I was looking for more information about the confusion between Walter Ball and George “Georgia Rabbit” Washington—but there’s a lot more here.
It was really not so much an interview as an oration by Rube Foster with Wilson as stenographer.
This column has been used as the source for a number of oft-repeated nuggets, claims, and facts, not all of which are strictly speaking accurate, though by no means is it a totally unreliable source. There are a few small corrections you could make to this column. Rube’s years are a little off sometimes—Pete Hill didn’t leave for Chicago until a year after Foster did, in 1907, for example, and Rube joined the Philadelphia Giants in 1904 rather than 1903—but these are trivial.
These are a few of the more interesting (and questionable, or in one case misquoted) claims that have been frequently cited and repeated, but only rarely (if ever) actually examined:
•Rube Foster names the 1910 Leland Giants “the greatest ball team in the history of the game, BAR NONE!”—and claims that the Leland Giants “won 123 games and lost 6.” I haven’t tried to compile all the games for the 1910 Lelands, but they did win 22 and lose only 2 (while tying 1) against black professional teams. In Cuba in the fall of 1910, however, they won 7, lost 5, and tied one—making their overall record against Cuban and “Negro league” teams for the calendar year 29-7-2. I’d guess Rube wasn’t counting Cuban games.
•Rube considered Bill Monroe “the greatest player who ever lived and one who would have been a star in any league. Ask John McGraw—he knows.” I think this quote has been a garbled a little and transformed into McGraw (rather than Foster) declaring Monroe “the greatest player of all time” (for example, see Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia, p. 561).
•Rube claims that the heavyweight champ Jack Johnson—“Yes, THE Jack Johnson”—played first base for the Philadelphia Giants in 1903 and 1904. This is apparently the source for Johnson’s entry in Riley’s Biographical Encyclopedia (p. 436), where Riley takes Rube’s claim at face value. Needless to say, Johnson was not the Giants’ first baseman, then or ever. He was a friend of Foster, however, and there were some other baseball connections for Jack Johnson, which I might write about some other time.
•Rube declares that “In all the years I pitched I lost only SIX games to colored teams.” He had a great winning percentage, but not that great: 48-17 against black professional teams in the U.S., and 19-13 against Cuban teams in Cuba. Again, he probably wasn’t counting the Cubans. (I haven’t tried to separate out his wins over Cuban Stars teams in the U.S. from his overall “Negro league” record—maybe if you don’t count Cuban teams at all, anywhere, his claim holds up…)
There are also a couple of nuggets of information here that haven’t been much remarked on, but that are also pretty interesting.
•He says that when John Henry Lloyd joined the Lelands he was an outfielder until the shortstop (George Wright was the 1909 Lelands’ shortstop) fell ill in Jacksonville, presumably during spring training. “Lloyd was brought in to fill the position and our shortstop lost his job forever.” Of course Lloyd had already been a middle infielder for several years with the Cuban X-Giants and Philadelphia Giants. It’s hard to believe he wasn’t signed to play shortstop for the Lelands. Yet Rube seems to be saying here that he meant to convert Lloyd into an outfielder until fate intervened.
•And of course there’s the original reason I became interested in this interview. Talking about the Philadelphia Giants, he remarks that “Georgia Rabbit” Washington joined the team. This provides solid confirmation of my circumstantial case that George Washington (and not Walter Ball) was the “Georgia Rabbit” that Sol White was referring to in his book. To underline this point, earlier in the column, when Rube refers to Walter Ball coming to Chicago to play for the “Union Giants” in 1906 (Foster, or Wilson, means the Leland Giants) he calls him “Thomas Walter Ball,” and not George Washington Ball. (Official documents call him “Walter Thomas Ball.”)