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Jolly and Unconcerned

Rube Foster, the Chicago American Giants, and the inaugural 1920 season of the Negro National League

1920 was a big year for baseball. Babe Ruth dressed up in pinstripes for the first time and responded to his new uniform by belting 54 home runs, shattering the home run record of 29 (set the previous year by a Red Sox player named…Babe Ruth). 1920 was the first true year of the live-ball era as the league’s power numbers skyrocketed (led, of course, by the Bambino himself). It marked the first and only death from Major League Baseball play, due to a fastball from Carl Mays striking Ray Chapman in the head in mid-August, leading to new rules regarding ball sanitation and visibility prior to the 1921 season. In October 1920, eight players from the 1919 White Sox were indicted as a result of the Black Sox scandal; in response, following the conclusion of the season, the first commissioner of baseball, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, was appointed to handle the fallout and save the image of the game.

But there was another crucial moment in the history of baseball that didn’t occur in the American or National Leagues. On February 13th in Kansas City, Rube Foster brought together a group of team owners to discuss the formation of a new league. Foster was the owner and manager of the Chicago American Giants, arguably the most dominant black team in baseball. Foster had been a powerful force in the sport for decades, starting as one of the best pitchers in the game before taking on managerial and then ownership responsibilities for the Giants.

Foster had a vision: an all-black league, owned and operated by black men. Prohibited from playing in Major League Baseball, black players had organized their own teams and typically played in traveling exhibitions. Organized black leagues had largely floundered and shuttered due to financial difficulties massively exacerbated, unsurprisingly, by racism, institutional exclusion, and legal segregation. But Foster was a sharp businessman—the post-World War I economy brought a mass migration of African Americans out of the South and into Northern cities, where baseball thrived as a spectator sport. He thought the time was ripe to take another crack at starting a new league, and he was looking to persuade seven other owners with teams in the Midwest to join him. Foster was persuasive and the Negro National League was formed, bringing in stalwarts like the Indianapolis ABCs, the Detroit Stars, and the Cuban Stars. On August 16th, MLB will honor the anniversary by adding a special centennial logo to all jerseys across the league.

The Chicago American Giants have a complicated history. The Kansas City Monarchs (established that spring to compete in the league) may be the most famous today of all teams in the history of the Negro leagues, but at the inception of the NNL in 1920, Foster’s American Giants were the team to beat. Foster joined the team as a pitcher and manager in 1907 when the team was known as the Chicago Leland Giants (named for owner Frank Leland). In 1910, Leland and Foster split up the team and Foster won legal rights to the name “Leland Giants,” which would eventually become the Chicago American Giants. Leland’s team was renamed as the Chicago Giants, which ten years later would be another of the eight charter members of the NNL; Leland, however, was no longer owner, passing away in 1914. Foster’s team settled into the former White Sox home of South Side Park, renamed by Foster in 1911 to Schorling’s Park.

By 1920, Foster had assembled a powerful team. He prized pitching and defense, and utilized a small-ball offense that focused on contact and baserunning. Foster, who was a regular pitcher himself until 1915, knew the value of his position and pulled together a strong pitching staff. Tom Williams and Tom Johnson were baseball veterans. The fluid nature of black baseball at the time meant these two pitchers had spent a lot of time on Foster’s teams prior to 1920, yet also pitched for a myriad of others, sometimes changing teams within the course of a season. Foster also signed Jack Marshall, who contemporary sports journalist Dave Wyatt raved as “one of the best righthanders who ever made his temporary home at Schorling Park – and there have been a great group of North-Paws there.” Marshall was never truly dominant, but spent most of the 1920s on the American Giants as a solid end to the rotation.

Foster also added a southpaw: Dave Brown, who he had scouted from the minor league Dallas Black Giants a few years earlier. Brown had been convicted of highway robbery and Foster paid his $20,000 bond to get him on parole so that he could sign him to the team. By 1920, he was still largely unproven, but would quickly solidify himself as one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. His career was short-lived, however, as he allegedly killed a man in 1925 in a bar fight and vanished as a fugitive—never officially seen again. Over the course of the 1920 season, however, he quickly established himself within the top tier of the league’s pitchers.

30-year-old Bingo DeMoss was team captain—arguably the best defensive second-baseman in the league at the time and undoubtedly one of the best bunters in Negro league history. His teammate, Jelly Gardner, said DeMoss “could hit ’em anywhere he wanted to,” and Gardner was a solid hitter in his own right, often batting leadoff for the American Giants. Dave Malarcher was at third base in his first year with the American Giants—he would eventually take over from Foster as manager in 1926 following Foster’s decline in health. They returned George Dixon as catcher but also started giving more playing time to Jim Brown, focusing heavily on a defense-oriented team that would support their dynamite starting rotation.

That said, they also had one offensive stud: left-handed hitter Cristóbal Torriente out of Cuba. Torriente was already one of the best offensive hitters in black baseball, having spent the previous year putting up a .964 OPS in left field (good for a 194 OPS+, per Seamheads). In 1920, he moved to center to replace Oscar Charleston, arguably the best player in the league, who had hit .409 the year prior. The one-two punch of Torriente and Charleston had accounted for over a third of the team’s scoring in 1919.

Torriente is particularly well-known today for his performance after the 1920 season, when he returned home to Cuba for the winter. The New York Giants spent time in Havana playing exhibition matches against two of the local clubs, and enticed none other than Babe Ruth himself to join them. Ruth, fresh off his record-shattering 54-home run season, obviously wasn’t a member of the Giants but couldn’t turn down a lucrative $1,000-per-game offer to spend part of the winter in the warm Cuban climate. While the Bambino hit somewhere around .500 during the several-week stretch, he was upstaged by Torriente, who outplayed the Babe in dramatic fashion in a now-legendary November 4th performance, in one case smacking a two-run double off of a frustrated Ruth who had taken the mound himself in the 5th inning. Torriente finished the game with three homers, a double, and quite a few more fans—Ruth managed only three long balls in his entire stay in Cuba.

The American Giants played a series of spring exhibition games before taking the field on May 2nd to kick off the inaugural season. The league opener was a home game for the American Giants (an interesting coincidence as Foster, in his role as president of the NNL, controlled all scheduling for the league), taking on the Indianapolis ABCs who were led by their former teammate, Oscar Charleston. The ABCs, one of the foremost teams in black baseball, took the first game of the season in a 4-2 victory over Foster’s American Giants, and the inaugural season was on.

The American Giants’ first real test came in a five-game series in late May against the Kansas City Monarchs, a newly established team of all-stars (headlined by legends like José Méndez and Dobie Moore) who would dominate the Negro leagues for decades to come. After taking a hard-fought game 1 that went 11 innings, Foster’s team won the next four to sweep the Monarchs, largely considered the best offensive team in the league. They continued to win, amassing a 17-game winning streak until finally falling on June 10th to the St. Louis Giants—though they won the other four games of the series.

As June went on, Foster’s squad kept winning. They took a series against Oscar Charleston and the Indianapolis ABCs in front of “one of the largest crowds of the season” at home in Schorling’s Park, exacting revenge for their opening day loss. By now the Negro National League was in full swing, drawing huge crowds and bringing in a hefty chunk of change for each of the teams, much more than they had seen in previous years. It was largely thanks to Foster, who successfully ran the league with an iron fist. Everything ran through him: equipment had to be purchased from him, he coordinated all scheduling (and made a cut of all ticket revenue), and while he received criticism for favoring the American Giants in his work as league president, none could argue he wasn’t effective. According to an Indianapolis paper at the time, “All the managers through the Western circuit are praising Foster. They unanimously claim that his wonderful resources are unbelievable.” His fearless nature was as present in his business dealings as it was on the mound, best exemplified by his famous quote: “Do not worry. Try to appear jolly and unconcerned. I have smiled often with the bases full with two strikes and three balls on the batter. This seems to unnerve.”

Foster, known as a great teacher, was always renowned for his pitching staff, and 1920 was no exception. By late June, the Chicago American Giants were riding high and traveled to Indianapolis for another series against the ABCs. Local Indianapolis papers described visiting Dave Brown, in his first real season of professional baseball, as “some pitcher” (in a complimentary, awed tone, not a dismissive one) and how he struck fear in the hearts of opposing teams and their fans. Backstop Jim Brown was continuing to rise in prominence as well. Another local paper lamented that Brown had “no superior as a catcher, he is sure death to base runners. Fans of Indianapolis will have their first time to see him in action. Those of us who journeyed to Chicago are sorry we saw him, among the saddest, [ABCs hitters] Morten Clark, George Shively and Oscar Charleston.”

The series saw the first stumble by the American Giants, as they lost two, tied two, and won just one in the five-game series in Indiana. They returned home to Schorling’s Park for a series against the always-dangerous Monarchs in early July, where game 1 pitted two aces against each other: the young gun Dave Brown for the American Giants and future Hall of Famer and baseball legend Wilbur “Bullet” Rogan. Charles A. Starks, in a Kansas City paper, gleefully described how Rogan’s performance “made the Giant men look like puriles in their efforts to safely connect with the ball – one little hit they received during the whole nine sessions.” The final score was 4-2 with the Monarchs taking game 1—a few walks from Rogan led to two runs on an error despite only allowing a single hit all game. “Hurrah! Hurrah! The mighty have fallen!” Starks exclaimed in delight.

Understandably miffed at being referred to as “puriles,” the American Giants responded by taking the next three games to win the series. Next up was yet another home series, this time against the St. Louis Giants. [Note: Three of the eight NNL teams were known as the Giants, and two of them were based in Chicago. The American Giants’ method to differentiate themselves was twofold: adding “American” and maintaining a winning record. Both the St. Louis Giants and Chicago Giants ended in the bottom half of the standings at the season’s conclusion.] The ageless tradition of griping about insufficient defense or run support for a pitcher was on full display as two separate papers grumbled how St. Louis starter Bill Drake, channeling Jacob deGrom, did not get the support he was “entitled” to, as the American Giants took the first game and, shortly thereafter, the rest of the series.

Torriente, by now, was establishing himself as the star of the league, or at the very least as a peer of Charleston. He “starred at bat and in the field” to exact revenge in the previous series against the Monarchs, and finished a homer shy of the cycle in one of the games in the St. Louis series (for reference, Torriente recorded nine triples on the season to just two home runs, in part due to the expansive home ballpark in Chicago). But while Torriente was adding a new offensive component that Foster’s teams historically tended to lack, the American Giants’ pitching staff was still the primary dread of their opponents. Dave Brown was the young, rising star of the team but Tom Williams was already established and equally dominant. He had pitched a 1.28 ERA for the American Giants in 1917 for a 13-2 record, spent the next few seasons on a variety of other teams, and returned to the American Giants for the 1920 season to pick up right where he had left off.

Williams “gave a grand exhibition of how to watch the bases and, incidentally, satisfied the huge throng of fans that he is the most efficient slab artist that the Giants have ever owned” in a matchup against the injury-riddled Dayton Marcos. Foster’s small-ball style was working wonders, as the hapless Marcos’ pitchers “failed to hurl the ball so that it could be hit, so the Giants walked to first, then not a few of them stole near the whole route to the home base.” The American Giants took the series, which once again was set in Schorling’s Park (noticing a trend?).

Throughout the season, the Chicago American Giants continued to play exhibition matches against traveling teams who wanted a crack at Foster’s squad. A shrewd businessman, Foster had no problem adding extra opportunities for ticket revenue. These matchups tended to go poorly for the visitors, who simply could not compare to the best team in black baseball. In all, between Foster’s extra matchups and heavy hand in league scheduling, the American Giants played a very favorable, home-focused schedule.

Even so, the Chicago American Giants were, a St. Louis newspaper admitted, “as good on the road as they loom up on the home lot.” The late-July series against the St. Louis Giants, in Missouri this time, was closer than previous matchups but still went the way of Foster’s squad after Dave Brown gave up just two hits in the game 5 rubber match. Even before the St. Louis series had concluded, the American Giants were already looking ahead to the subsequent matchup against the Kansas City Monarchs, their primary competitor in the pennant race.

It was a rare consecutive road series for the American Giants, where record-breaking crowds were anticipated in Kansas City for the marquee matchup of the season. It was a fiery series from the onset, as a fistfight broke out in the opening inning of the series after the Monarchs’ center fielder (and part-time pitcher), John Donaldson, aggressively slid into Chicago first baseman Leroy Grant, who understandably took offense; the situation required police intervention to calm the scene and return to play. The Monarchs had a 7-2 lead going into the 8th inning but the American Giants organized a comeback to score seven unanswered and take the first game, thanks in large part due to Cristóbal Torriente, who even Kansas City newspapers were already dubbing “the black Babe Ruth of the Negro League” (keep in mind this was before his legendary faceoff with Ruth in Havana later that year).

Game 2 continued to live up to expectations, as a crowd of 15,000 (“the largest crowd that ever viewed a game in the history of Association Park”) came to watch the Sunday matchup of legendary Bullet Rogan taking on the American Giants’ Tom Williams. It was a back-and-forth game, with Rogan notching 13 strikeouts as Chicago staged a comeback in the 9th to tie the game. The game lasted to the 12th inning when Rogan took matters into his own hand, smacking the walkoff RBI double off Jack Marshall, who had come in to relieve Williams as the Monarchs evened the series with a 5-4 win. The series remained a tight one but the Monarchs ended up pulling out the victory, taking four out of the six games and putting an exclamation point on the series by shutting out the American Giants in the final game.

The NNL was limited by geographic constraints and consisted only of teams in the Midwest: Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Missouri. However, they included two “associate” members (who were not full-fledged and were therefore not in the running for the pennant) out of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The Atlantic City-based Bacharach Giants were one of these teams; after the Monarchs series in early August, the American Giants finally returned home for a series against the Atlantic City squad. The Sunday opener boasted the biggest-ever crowd at Schorling’s Park, and Foster’s team won a rather chippy game. The legendary Oliver “Ghost” Marcell was at third for the visiting Giants, and when a Tom Williams wild pitch nearly hit him in the head, he charged the mound “with the firm intention of starting a fight” before being restrained by both dugouts. A local Chicago paper was disgusted with Marcell’s conduct (after all, “this class of player must understand that many of Chicago’s best ladies were in those boxes”) and furious he wasn’t ejected. When Marcell was booed by the home crowd at subsequent plate appearances, the paper breathlessly reported the ensuing scandal: “With his back toward the boxes on the left side of the grand stand he proceeded to make immoral movements with part of his body that would resemble a hoochy-coochy dancer.”

The indignity wasn’t enough to affect the American Giants, however, who took the game and the rest of the series, nor the NNL attendance figures, despite the concerns of the aforementioned Chicago paper. The next series at home against the Cuban Stars drew now-typical large crowds. However, by this point, the pennant race was getting out of hand. Despite losing the opener of the series against the Stars, the league standings by mid-August showed “that the American Giants have a comfortable lead and it will probably endure until the close of the season.” The “real battle,” according to the sports pundits at the time, was for the runner-up, which was hotly contested between the Detroit Stars, Kansas City Monarchs, and Indianapolis ABCs. A local Chicago paper even admitted that the Monarchs and ABCs had the short end of the scheduling stick, as “they no doubt have been up against the toughest fighting end of the schedule oftener than the leaders.” The article complained how Detroit, currently in 2nd, hadn’t even played against the American Giants, while the Monarchs and ABCs had much more difficult schedules.

Chicago closed out the month of August with several exhibitions, including a marquee Sunday matchup against a semipro team of white players out of Rogers Park. Tom Williams got the nod and delivered with 11 strikeouts, spoiled of a shutout by two errors from his teammates in the 9th. Even with morning rain and threats of more throughout the afternoon, attendance remained high.

Finally, at the beginning of September, the long-awaited first matchup between the Chicago American Giants and the second-place Detroit Stars was scheduled to take place. A pair of series was on the docket: six games in Detroit followed by a series in Chicago. The Giants’ record was described as “playing 93 games and winning 82 of them,” though at least half of those victories were against non-league opponents—final standings of the season vary but all have the American Giants under 50 wins total. Even local Detroit papers admitted prospects weren’t bright for the Stars, based on the dominance of the American Giants and particularly their pitching rotation— “Foster’s team is exceptionally well fortified with hurling talent,” the paper glumly noted.

Dave Brown took the mound in game 1 and allowed only four hits en route to a Chicago victory. Game two was rained out, setting up a Labor Day doubleheader for Monday, where the Stars took the early game but the Giants took revenge by winning the late game. The series was evenly matched even when it returned to Schorling’s Park, as Chicago and Detroit traded wins. Even though Chicago’s hold on the pennant was assured, Negro National League matches continued to boast huge crowds. By September 21st, the American Giants could be officially crowned league champions.

It’s important to note that while the NNL offered a much more organized playing field for black baseball, it was nonetheless extremely loose with organization. There were not a set number of games to be played and little enforcement to follow the schedule anyway. Some teams ended up playing more than others, some added exhibitions outside of league play, and some teams (cough, Foster’s team, cough) were scheduled for more home games than others. In 1920, the Monarchs played a league-high 78 games, while the Chicago Giants (not Foster’s American Giants) played at most 40. The historical record is murky, incomplete, and full of contradictions (most information here was pulled from contemporaneous newspaper accounts and Seamheads statistics), but what is not in doubt is that the Chicago American Giants took the NNL pennant, recording fewer than 20 losses on the season.

Ever the promoter, Foster’s American Giants finished up September and played through the end of October in a variety of games hyped as “championships,” as they played the leading teams of the Negro Southern League and wrapped up with a long “championship series” against the Bacharach Giants, which Foster’s squad won.

By the end of October, the Negro National League’s season had long been concluded and Foster, though always content to tack on additional games to make more money, had finally called the American Giants’ season to an end. Cristóbal Torriente finished the season with the batting title, batting over .400 on the season, one of only two players with an OPS over 1.000. Dave Brown and Tom Williams combined for a 25-7 record collectively and finished the season with a 1.82 and 1.83 ERA, respectively—top two in the league.

While 1920 heralded the first year of the true Negro leagues, it nonetheless marked the end of an era as well. Foster’s small-ball offense was fading out of style as the NNL saw a less dramatic but similar surge in power numbers to Major League Baseball. The American Giants would win the next two league pennants, but in a less-dominant fashion than the golden 1920 season. They would remain competitive through the decade but the rise of the Kansas City Monarchs and St. Louis Stars (renamed from the Giants) would account for seven of the final nine champions of the league, which shuttered in 1931 with the outbreak of the Great Depression.

The Eastern Colored League was established in 1923 to provide a permanent home for teams like the Bacharach Giants; they would lure away some of the star players of the NNL including Dave Brown and Oscar Charleston. Foster’s team declined in the mid-1920s as did Foster’s physical and mental health; he was institutionalized in 1926 and died in 1930. Dave Malarcher took over the American Giants as manager and won two pennants in 1926 and 1927, but the team (and league as a whole) deteriorated without Foster.

The Negro National League only lasted 11 seasons, but it was 10 seasons longer than most expected at the time. Foster’s savvy with business and baseball formed a strong foundation that kept the league going even after his departure in 1926. He revolutionized black baseball, injecting money and fan passion into the sport in a way that couldn’t be done in the previous era with a bunch of independent teams. It was a fitting way for the inaugural season to end, as the man behind the league’s formation put together the team to dominate it.

Dylan Burris

Dylan has been a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan since 2015. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, he devotes most of his non-baseball attention to college basketball.

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