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It was the cruelest of ironies that the wretched injustice of Major League Baseball's infamous color line conspired to keep blacks from competing against their white counterparts at the highest level and by extension dimmed the spotlight that might have shown millions of baseball fans just exactly what they were missing. Deprived of a chance to play, they then had to suffer the indignity of having their own Negro leagues exploits be largely overlooked or even lost entirely for almost a half century after the color line had been obliterated.
Memorabilia from the Negro leagues was largely a casualty of that disgraceful system of baseball apartheid, making artifacts from the heyday of the black leagues all the more important nearly a century later. How then to comprehend the significance of a stunning game-worn jersey from one of the true giants of the Negro leagues, unearthed only recently and instantly taking its place as perhaps the holy grail for collectors of the long-defunct universe of segregated black baseball?
Willie Foster, the greatest left-handed pitcher in Negro League history, wore this remarkable Chicago American Giants jersey circa 1927, leading a team that had captured the Negro League World Series titles from 1926-27. Foster, elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, boasted a career record of 143-69, but as is the case with virtually all of the great black players of the period, statistics - especially those quite obviously representing only a fraction of the actual production - tell only a smattering of the story.
In what may likely be one of the most important Negro leagues artifacts to turn up in the hobby in several decades, this heavy wool Spalding jersey proudly offers a glimpse into the shadowy world of segregated baseball. Made from the same material as major league uniforms of the period, the shirt is nothing short of sensational, with official Spalding tag on the collar and intricately embroidered "Foster" in a distinctive script on the bottom-left on the back. The shirt shows obvious game use, including the expected wear around the collar and shoulders, along with some loss of the embroidered black piping around the collar and some loss of the black felt on the team name "Chicago." There is a button missing at the top of the shirt and one seemingly replaced at the bottom. In spite of these technical traits the shirt is breathtaking in its presentation.
The jersey recently surfaced from an estate sale in the Southern California desert, an area where Foster played Winter League baseball in the California League annually in the late 1920’s-early 1930’s. The shirt has been style-matched to vintage photography from the era, which like all other aspects of the historical record, does not survive in anything approximating what might have been available in a more benevolent situation.
Foster, the much-younger half-brother of Negro league player, pioneer and fellow Hall of Famer, Rube Foster, played for the Memphis Red Sox in 1923 and '24, the Chicago American Giants from 1925 to '30 - and again from 1932 to '35 and in 1937 - the Homestead Grays and Kansas City Monarchs in 1931, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords in 1936. In 1926, Foster won 23 games in a row and 26 overall, but his most amazing performance came the last day of the playoffs to determine the Negro National League title. Needing to win both games of a doubleheader against the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, Foster hurled complete-game shutouts in both games of a doubleheader against another Hall of Famer, Bullet Joe Rogan, 1–0 and 5–0, to put the Giants into the World Series. Foster's pitch selection included a fastball, overhand curve, slider, sidearm curve, and a changeup. Wille Foster passed away in 1978 in Lorman, Mississippi, at the age of 74. Includes a comprehensive LOA from Dave Grob of MEARS.
NOTE: This is the first and only Negro League Hall of Famer jersey ever authenticated by MEARS.