Big Bill Foster, perhaps the greatest black left-hander of all time, has died at 75. Foster suffered a heart attack at his home in Lorman, Miss., in September, still waiting for the phone call from Cooperstown that never came.
And unless the Hall of Fame changes its voting rules, or the old-timers' committee upsets predictions when it votes March 7, the other Bill Fosters of the old Negro leagues will be shut out again, and possibly for many years to come.
Foster starred for the Chicago American Giants from 1926 until 1934.In his rookie year, he was credited with 26 straight victories, plus several crucial playoff wins and the clinching ninth game of the black world series, 1-0, over the Atlantic Bacharachs.
Tall and lanky, he was a left-handed version of his more famous contemporary, Satchel Paige, and the two matched up in some 27 duels mano a mano over the years. Foster claimed he won the final two, an iron-man feat of taking both ends of a doubleheader to give him the final edge over Satch, 14-13.
Against barnstorming white big leaguers, Big Bill boasted a mark of six victories, one defeat, beating such stars as Charlie Gehringer, Harry Heilmann, Paul and Lloyd Waner, and Heinie Manush, all of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Foster almost made it to the hall in his lifetime. He just missed election in 1977, the last year that black old-timers were named by a special committee headed by former New York Giant star Monte Irvin. The Irvin group, which included Dodger great Roy Campanella, named two men -- shortstop John Henry Lloyd and versatile Martin Dihigo (he played eight positions) before disbanding itself. Foster was third on the ballot.
Today, many other living Negro league veterans with excellent credentials are still waiting. All are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Others, like Foster, have passed on in the last few years.
Cooperstown's board of directors met last Monday but refused to take action that would have made it easier for Negro league veterans to be admitted.
The blacks' fates are in the hands of the special veterans' committee, made up of 17 whites and one black, Campanella. The committee votes March 7 but, under the rules, it may elect only two men, either two whites or one white and one black.
Last year, the committee chose the first course, naming pitcher Addie Joss and owner Larry MacPhail -- who, ironically, had been an adamant foe of big league integration.
"We all realized the injustice of the rules," said Jo Reichler of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's office, one of the 17 whites. The committee voted unanimously to ask permission to name three men a year, two whites plus one black.
But even this conservative proposal was rejected by the Hall of Fame board of directors.
Board President Ed Stack, an attorney for the Singer Sewing Machine family that donated the land for the Hall of Fame, had suggested adding more blacks to the committee. Three vacancies were to be filled last Monday, but all three were filled by whites, thus maintaining the 17:1 ratio.
With the death of former National League President Warren Giles, the vets' committee this year will presumably give one of its two slots to Giles. The late Chuck Klein, an outfield ace with the old Phillies, is the favorite for the second slot. That will leave the blacks out in the cold again.
Although the blacks were not admitted to the white majors, they earned their right to enter Cooperstown by beating teams that had many of the white stars now there -- Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Jimmy Foxx and Grover Cleveland, among them. The two races frequently barnstormed in the fall and winter.They played more. than 400 games over the years, and box scores in the microfilm of black -- and sometimes white -- papers confirm the fact: The whites won 168, the blacks 268.
And the whites weren't loafing. Ty Cobb, the American League batting and stolen base champ of 1910, played a series against blacks in Havana that winter. He was outhit by Lloyd, thrown out three straight times stealing, stomped off the field and vowed never to play blacks again.
In 1931, a year after he hit.400, Bill Terry played Coll Papa Bell and other black stars in St. Louis. Terry struck out three times that night against a curve-baller named Ted (Big Florida) Trent, a teammate of Bell's on the St. Louis Stars. "The lights were bad," Terry complained. Maybe. But no one else struck out three times that night.
Six years later, he took his National League champion New York Giants to Havana for some spring-training games against Kihigo, Luis Tiant Sr. and other Latin blacks. The champs lost six out of seven. "this has long since ceased to be a joke," Terry muttered.
The point is, the white stars did not like to lose.
It's no surprise then that some of the stiffest oppostion to admitting old-tme blacks to Cooperstown comes from white players of the period. Two of them, Terry and Gehringer, served on the veterans committee that turned its back on them last year.
Nine did get in under the old Irvin committee: Paige; Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, legendary home run twins of the old Washington Homestead Grays; Irvin; Bell; third baseman William (Judy) Johnson, a committee member; Lloyd; Dihigo, and outfielder Oscar Charleston, usually called the best black player of all time, an early Willie Mays -- John McGraw said he best ever, black or white.
That made nine, a mythical all-star team as it were, and Irvin and Campanella promptly announced that there were no more eligible veterasns left to name. They voted them-selves out of business.
Among those passed over by the special committee was Raleigh (Biz) Mackey of the Philadelphia Stars, greatest all-around catcher in blackball annals -- yes, better than Gibson. Ironically, Mackey taught the yound Campanella everything he knew, and Campy alwas said Mackey was "like a father to me."
Only an outcry from the fans saved Mackey and others from permanent exclusion and their fates were turned over to the white vets' committee.
The irony of the present voting procedure can be illustrated mathematically:
Blacks Whites Pct. (TABLE) Interracial games won,(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN) 1885-1947(COLUMN)269(COLUMN)168(COLUMN)61 Members in Hall of Fame,(COLUMN)(COLUMN)(COLUMN) 1885-1947(COLUMN)9(COLUMN)138(COLUMN)6 Members on vet committee(COLUMN)1(COLUMN)17(COLUMN)6(END TABLE)
With the deaths of Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean, who often barnstormed against blacks, few white men remain alive with enough firsthand knowledge of black baseball to judge which of its stars belong in Cooperstown.
On the other hand, every black who knows his blackball histroy also knows white baseball lore.As veteran sportswriter Eric (Ric) Roberts of Washington asid, "We were twice as lucky as you whites. We had our heroes and your heroes, too."
The blacks are also victims of the reaction against previous vets' committees that mad*e wholesale elections, includng many players whom the baseball writers and others considered unworthy.
Now, even Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, an original supporter of Satchel Paige's elecsisting on only two veterans' elections a year. Given the makeup of the committee and its restrictive rules, this just about rules out blacks.
Actually, an argument could be made that the committee should consist of 17 blacks and one white.
Who, then, are some of the still-living black greats who are still waitng outside Cooperstown's doors?
"Gentleman Dave" Malarcher, now 85, was probably the best third baseman in America between the Home Run Baker and Pie Traynor eras. He hit.368 against barnstorming white big-leaguers and managed the American Giants to two black world championships. He is still an active real estate broker in Chicago.
Webster McDonald, 79, soft-spoken submarine-baller for the Philadelphia Stars, who won 14 and lost three against white stars etc. McDonald pitched a seven-inning no-hitter against Jimmy Vernon and other white stars in 1939. Connie Mack of the A's told him, "I'd give half my club for a man like you."
Willie(Devil) Wells is often compared to Low Boudreau in the field and hit.392 against white big-leaguers. He taught the yound Irvin to play short during his stint with the Newark Eagles and sent Irvin, Larry Doby and Don Newcombe to the majors.
Irvin himself said Leon Day, his Newark teammate, was a better pitcher than the modern Bob Gibson, who is a shoo-in for Cooperstown.
Irvin's manager at Newark, Ray Dandridge, has been compared to Brooks Robinson at third (Campanella said Ray was better than Campy's flashy Dodger teammate, Billy Cox). Ray hit.321 against white big-league pitching, and was just too old to make the majors after 1947.Now 65, he tends bar in Newark.
Companella's own first choice is Kansas City Monarch pitcher Hilton Smith, the invincible man of black baseball, the reliever who habitually trudged in from the bullpen to save the big games that Satchel Paige started. Paige had the color and publicity, but on the mound, Campy said, echoing another black veteran, "My God, you couldn't tell the difference!"
Outfielder Norman (Turkey) Stearnes, one of the best black sluggers who was yet fast enough to lead off and play a great center field for the Detroit Stars. He hit.374 against black pitching,.404 against white. He is now 75 and in poor health in Detroit. "If they don't put him in the Hall of Fame," said Bell, "they shouldn't put anybody in."