As we enter week four of play on the field inspired by Rube Foster, several aspects of the Calvert born baseball legend motivate me.
First, Rube was one of the best pitchers baseball ever had, even considering the separation between black and white during much of his time. The guy was phenomenal. With Rube at the helm, his teams won championship after championship while newspapers across the country acknowledged him as one of the all-time greats, if not the very best. He defeated teams of both colors while players and coaches alike acknowledged he was something incredibly special.
What I find most compelling about the way Rube pitched was that he used every tool in his kit to baffle the batter. He harnessed the unique ability to hurl several pitches at various speeds as he mixed locations and even mechanics of delivery. Throwing from assorted positions around the rubber and altering his technique while he pitched, Rube’s eccentric and adaptive style contrasts starkly with the polished and precision pitching of today where value is concerned solely within minute calculations of algorithms. Much effort is expended to expose fluctuations as flaws, revealing the most minute critique of detail showcased by computers and cameras at multiple angles. Part of me enjoys these technology enhanced evaluations and yet I also long for a hint of pre-technology romance.
While I absolutely enjoy the stories of heavy gunslingers like Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson with narratives based on the overwhelming firepower of blazing fastballs, I also cannot help my fascination with those who make their living incorporating ancillary assets; using other means to get the job done. Rube Foster was one who apparently had an impressive fastball but also additional tactics to overcome his adversary on the field of battle. Along with changing pitches, speeds, locations, and even the arm slot of his delivery, Rube was known to alter his mechanics to keep the batter off balance.
And Rube was not afraid to incorporate theatrical antics. In one instance, he asked the umpire to check the position of the batter's feet to ensure he was inside the officially marked area of the batter's box. Taking the bait, the batter looked down to check for himself. When he did so, Rube threw a fastball right down the middle. A strike was called and the batter was left with one less opportunity to swing away. Whenever Rube was on the mound, it seemed the hitters were always guessing. He was reported to be so good that John McGraw, famed manager of the New York Giants, hired Rube to teach star pitcher Christy Mathewson how to throw the “fade” which would later become known as the screwball.
Second, Rube and his teams played aggressive baseball. Home runs came but the compelling aspect of watching his players was that they manufactured runs and didn’t simply wait for the inconsistent and occasional effects of the long ball. They hustled, took risks, stole bases, bunted to advance runners, and slapped the ball through holes where the defenders weren’t positioned. Don’t get me wrong. Hitting a home run and watching the ball leave the field and deposit itself in the crowd is one of the greatest single moments in all of sports. “Going yard” immediately elevates emotions and crushes spirits, depending on which team you are supporting. I absolutely love home runs. But I also enjoy witnessing a fast team defeat a powerful team by making things happen instead of just sitting back and waiting for the middle of the lineup to crush a big fly. Rube’s teams produced runs in volumes with the wooden bat or soles of their spiked feet. They were not afraid to get dirty. Rube and his boys got it done no matter what and they did so by playing aggressively.
Third, Rube was one heck of a promoter. Not only was he a player and coach, but he also managed teams and leagues, growing the skills of his players while at the same time filling the stands with excited fans. He pushed his teams to greatness while writing about the experience in the local and national newspapers. He called for baseball to be elevated as a professional game and he took it there because he was a quintessential professional himself. He lead a group of unorganized independent teams and transformed them into the Negro National League where his team, the American Giants, won the first three championships.
Rube Foster was a top pitcher, manager, and promoter. Now that is an inspirational standard to set.
As I consider my own contributions to the world and my undying passion for the game of baseball, I wonder where exactly I might make a name for myself. Like Rube, I think I’d like to begin by acknowledging the importance of baseball and the impact it has made on my life. The fact remains that while I enjoy many other activities, no other has enthralled me more. It still surprises and humbles me that I get so darn emotional about playing and watching a man throw a ball from a small hill and another man try to hit it. It’s just so very simple. Yet there are volumes more beneath the surface. One need only set down the phone and invest in the game before you in order to begin revealing the greater intricacies. In that way, baseball is like life. You get what you put into it, as a player or a fan.
I’m not sure where the game will take me, if anywhere. I am uncertain at this point if my name will ever be known. For now, I’ll simply spend my afternoons in the desperate heat of summer, hitting grounders and fly balls to anyone who shows up to catch them. I absolutely do this for myself and the simple joy of it. I do this for the kids and adults who come to watch and play. I do it to say thank you to the Lord as I use the body he gave me and point the way to him through a grateful state of play.
But along with all of that, I play, inspired by a man who elevated the pastime of baseball for a group of people that had been left out. While I certainly don’t share his skin color, what I do claim is a love of humanity and passion for a simple game that has the potential to bring us all together. It has happened before in history and I see it happening now.
And so I play this game, not only for the reasons above, but also for the man from Calvert who brought it to so many others…
* Facts about Rube Foster referenced in this blog were obtained from the book The Best Pitcher in Baseball by Robert Charles Cottrell.