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FOSTER, WILLIAM HENDRICK [BILL, WILLIE]

William Hendrick Foster (1904–1978).
Pitcher Willie Foster (1904–1978) was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996. Courtesy Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

FOSTER, WILLIAM HENDRICK [BILL, WILLIE] (1904–1978). Willie Foster, the half-brother of Negro National League founder and baseball player, Andrew “Rube” Foster, established himself as perhaps the most dominant left-handed pitcher in the Negro leagues during a career that lasted from 1923 to 1937.

William Hendrick Foster was born on June 12, 1904, in Calvert, Texas, to Andrew and Geneva Foster. His mother died when he was four years old, and following this loss, Willie Foster moved to Mississippi where he lived with his mother’s parents. He grew up in Mississippi and completed his schooling there before attending Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (present-day Alcorn State University) in Lorman, Mississippi. In 1918 Foster left the historically-black college and moved to Chicago to seek work in the city’s famous stockyards.

Foster also hoped he might find a spot on the Chicago American Giants, the dominant Negro League baseball team owned and managed by his brother Rube. When Rube refused to allow his younger brother to play for the team, Willie returned home to Mississippi and reenrolled at Alcorn. With the rejection, Willie Foster held a grudge against his brother for the rest of his life.

In 1923 Willie Foster finally broke into Negro League baseball when he signed with the Memphis Red Sox. He quickly displayed his talent as a left-handed power pitcher, a fact that caught the eye of brother Rube. Despite the bad feelings between the two, Rube Foster prized winning more than anything. As a result, he used his authority as president of the newly-created Negro National League (NNL) to force Bubbles Lewis, owner of the Memphis team, to send Willie to the Chicago American Giants.

Willie Foster pitched for the Chicago American Giants from 1923 to 1930. At the same time, he occasionally pitched for the Memphis Red Sox and Birmingham Black Barons. For Foster, he experienced great success during his time with the American Giants.

With Willie Foster as their top pitcher, the American Giants won Negro National League pennants in 1926 and 1927. In 1926 Foster won twenty-six consecutive games, including both halves of a doubleheader against the Kansas City Monarchs in the NNL playoff series. In the 1926 “Colored World Series” against the Bacharach Giants, Foster pitched three complete games and relieved in a fourth. The following year, he again pitched the Chicago American Giants to NNL and “Colored World Series” championships. Furthermore, his record on the year consisted of thirty-two wins and three losses.

Following the 1930 season, when he also served as manager of the Giants, Foster jumped teams. First he joined the Homestead Grays, owned by Cum Posey. Foster then left the team to join the Kansas City Monarchs. After one year away, however, he returned to Chicago in 1932 and joined Cole’s American Giants of the new Negro National League. He led this team to another “Colored World Series Championship” in 1933.  

Foster continued to pitch with several different teams, including the Pittsburgh Crawfords, until 1938. During his career, He recorded wins over many notable African American pitchers, including Satchel Paige and Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan. In exhibition games against stars from the white major leagues, he posted a .600 winning percentage. Foster also started for the West team in the inaugural East-West All-Star game held in Chicago in 1933.

After retiring from baseball, Foster married his childhood sweetheart Thelma Quigless Gross on October 16, 1941, in Tarboro, North Carolina. They had one son, William Douglas Foster, born on August 22, 1942. The couple divorced, though, and Foster later remarried, this time to Audrey Simmons.  

During the baseball offseason, Foster continued his education at Alcorn A&M College in Mississippi and graduated in 1933. He first worked in sales for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company after his retirement, but in 1960 he returned to his alma mater as dean of men and as baseball coach. He held this position until 1978. Willie Foster died on September 16, 1978, on the Alcorn campus. He was buried in Carbondale Cemetery in Alcorn, Mississippi.  Posthumously, Willie Foster received election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996. He was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, and in 2010 Alcorn State University chose to name its baseball field after him as recognition for his tenure at the school.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

“Alcorn State University Holds Plaque Unveiling Ceremony in honor of the McGowan Stadium/Fisher Field on May 6” (http://www.webcitation.org/656wP1nzm), accessed August 31, 2016. Rob Fink, Playing in Shadows: Texas and Negro League Baseball (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2010). Lawrence D. Hogan, Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. 2006). National Baseball Hall of Fame: Bill Foster (http://baseballhall.org/hof/foster-bill), accessed August 31, 2016. Robert Peterson, Only the Ball was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). James A. Riley, The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1994).

Rob Fink

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Handbook of Texas Online, Rob Fink, "Foster, William Hendrick [Bill, Willie] ," accessed December 15, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffo56.

Uploaded on September 7, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.