Note: The following essay was originally published in the Outsider Baseball Bulletin, October 6, 2010.
“News reaches this office that Zack Foreman is dead. The letter does not state the cause. Zack, the fans will remember, was with the Monarchs this summer. He and his brother own a whole town down in Oklahoma. Both have money. Zack purchased a Locomobile recently. One day when he was playing in Kansas City he handed Rube Foster a small package and asked him to hold it for a minute. Some one brushed against Rube and the package fell to the ground and broke open. Rube noticed some money and wondered what was coming off. Zack was gone so long Rube opened the package to fix it up right and here is what the big fellow found in what he was holding: Twenty-one hundred dollars in $1 bills and seven $50 bills. When Zack returned Foster told him to let him know the next time because he (Foster) did not want to be responsible for any such sum as that. Zack waved his hand and said, ‘Oh, that’s a small amount.’ And some fans think all ball players are broke.”
--Frank Young, Chicago Defender, October 8, 1921
Funny how packages of money are so liable to burst open randomly like that. Anyway, Zack Foreman, Kansas City Monarchs pitcher during their first two seasons (1920 and 1921), was probably a wealthy young man. A Locomobile was a very high-end luxury car; the Model 48, introduced in 1919, cost an astonishing $10,000 (the equivalent of $130,000 in 2011).
So where did the money come from? Did Zack and his brother really “own a whole town down in Oklahoma”? And why did he die so young—only 27, rich, a professional athlete?
Zachariah Foreman, Jr., was born in July, 1893, near Redland in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, just west of Fort Smith, Arkansas. His father, Zack Sr., was born in the same area in the 1840s, not much more than a decade after the infamous Trail of Tears forced the majority of the Cherokee people west to the Indian Territory for good. What’s often forgotten today is that wealthy Cherokees, like other affluent Southerners of the time, kept slaves—and those slaves accompanied them to the new territory. Zack Sr. was thus born into slavery. After the Civil War this black population attached to the Cherokee Nation became known as Cherokee freedmen. A bitter controversy about the tribal status of their descendents continues to this day.
Whether or not the elder Zack thought of himself as a Cherokee (I’d guess he did), he was probably the sharpest businessman in the Cherokee Nation in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One of the main sources for his early career is the oral testimony of a white man from Sequoyah County named J. J. Cape, collected in the 1930s by the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Cape tells the Zack Foreman story like he was Jack and the Beanstalk. No magic beans, but it all starts with a young boy and a cow, in this case a lame cow left behind by some men taking a herd to market. From a very young age Zack, presumably still a slave, had to work to support his widowed mother. Sensing opportunity, he took charge of the abandoned cow and nursed her back to health. The cow turned out to be pregnant, and when she gave birth to a calf, Zack Foreman had the beginnings of his own herd.
Cape claimed that Zack Foreman, Sr., never learned to read or write, but still managed to make himself a successful cattleman and pillar of the community, eventually becoming “the wealthiest man, white or black, in the Cherokee Nation,” according to the Indianapolis Freeman (November 28, 1891). He married a young schoolteacher named Mattie, started a family, built a store and a cotton gin. When the Kansas City Southern railroad bypassed the small black community where the Foremans lived, Zack convinced them to build an extra track, a “spur,” linking his property to the main line. He gave everybody in town work scraping and grading the road and laying the ties, allowing those who owed him money to pay off their debts this way, while the company put down the rails. That way he could ship cattle or cotton directly from his land. Thus Zack Foreman Sr. became “the only Negro in the United States at that time who privately owned a railroad.”
Their small town became known as Foreman, or sometimes Foreman’s Spur, and acquired a U.S. post office on October 31, 1898. Mattie Foreman became the postmistress. Every year on August 4 the small town held an Emancipation Proclamation Picnic, featuring barbecue, games, dancing, red lemonade. “Zack and his wife were always crowned king and queen of the festival,” Cape recalled. “They rode a pair of black horses and passed in review before the crowd after the crowning. Everyone loved Zack and Mrs. Foreman.”
Zack Foreman Sr. died on August 5, 1916, the day after the Emancipation celebration. According to the Fort Gibson New Era, “His funeral was very largely attended, blacks, whites, and Indians being present.” He left behind four sons (Sheridan, Roscoe, Zack Jr., and Dewey) and two daughters (Rhoda and Urah), and a fortune worth at least $12,500, according to the newspapers. That is more than a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money.
Zack Foreman Jr. grew up under very different circumstances than his father. According to Phil Dixon, he attended Langston University, the first (and only) black college in Oklahoma. How he became a professional ballplayer is unknown, though one possibility is that he came into contact with ballplayers in the Army. There’s no direct evidence he was a veteran, but there were several on the Monarchs, of course (Bullet Rogan, Dobie Moore, Robert Fagan, Lemuel Hawkins). There is a piece of circumstantial, negative evidence in the fact that no draft card for Zack Foreman has surfaced. One of the main reasons someone would not have filled out a draft card is if he were already in the military before the draft, having enlisted in the regular Army; and the 25th Infantry, the source for much of the Monarchs team, was regular Army. None of the other Monarchs who had served in the 25th registered for the draft, either.
Whether or not he had been in the Army, by January 1920 Zack Foreman was back in Foreman, and he was married to a schoolteacher, like his father had been. That June he appeared in several Negro National League games for the Kansas City Monarchs, though he didn’t see out the season with them. In 1921 he became a semi-regular in the rotation, and won more often than he lost, finishing 7-4, 4.23. As a pitcher he was evidently a soft tosser, with good control but very few strikeouts. In July 1921 his cousin Sylvester Foreman joined the team as a catcher; unlike Zack, he would go on to a decade-long career in the Negro leagues.
Zack Foreman (L) and his cousin Sylvester, both members of the 1921 Kansas City Monarchs.
Zack’s last appearance with the Monarchs was on August 6 in Kansas City. He was trounced 9 to 4 by the sad-sack Chicago Giants, exiting the game after eight innings, having given up 11 hits and eight runs and striking out no one. It’s unclear whether he was injured or had simply been released by the Monarchs. Either way, he was in Foreman on Saturday, September 17, visiting family, while Sylvester continued with the Monarchs.
After midnight he engaged in a poker game at the gin house his father had built. Between 4 and 5 in the morning a dispute arose. Foreman jumped up from the table and put his hand in his pocket. One of the other players, a man in his mid-thirties named John Foye, rushed at Foreman with a knife, and said, “Zack, don’t come out with nothing—if you do, I’ll cut your goddamn head off.”
“You might as well cut, because I’m coming out,” Foreman replied, and he drew a pistol. After a tense moment, Foye and his brother-in-law ran out of the room. Then Foreman put the gun in the scabbard in his overalls and went out after them. Foye was waiting for him around the corner of the house, and shot him as he walked by. The bullet entered the back of his head and lodged just behind his right eye. He was taken to the porch of a nearby house, where he died within two hours, just yards from his father’s cotton gin.
It took a sheriff’s posse several hours and “a hard chase” to track down Foye, finally capturing him in nearby Cottonwood. After several trials and appeals over the next several years, he was finally found guilty of manslaughter in the first degree, and sentenced to four years in the penitentiary.
By 1930, Zack’s older brother Roscoe had become the postmaster at Foreman, their mother’s old position; but the post office was shut down on August 31, 1936, swallowed up by the Depression and the Dust Bowl that decimated the local economy and led to mass migration out of Oklahoma. When you look up “Foreman, Oklahoma,” on Google Maps, you find a few buildings or houses in the area, so there is still at least a hint of the long-ago African-American community. What became of the Foremans I don’t know; but the remains of Zacks Sr. and Jr. must still be down there somewhere, perhaps in a family cemetery no one remembers.
P.S. Since this originally ran in the OBB, I have found out that Zack left descendants; Phil Dixon went to college with his granddaughter, and promises to tell the real story about Zack’s life and death in a future book.