Willie Foster: A coach’s coach

Published 12:10 am Sunday, June 6, 2010

He was a very special person, a soft-spoken man who conducted himself in a gentlemanly manner and commanded respect, so it was probably no surprise to the men he coached and to others who knew him that William Hendrick Foster was chosen to the National Baseball Hall of Fame 18 years after his death.

The only question might be why did it take so long?

“I learned a lot from Coach about life, how to handle myself, how to conduct myself,” one of his team members, Lonnie Walker, reminisced about Foster. Walker is the retired men’s basketball coach at Alcorn State University, and as a youth he played baseball on a team coached by Foster.

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Willie Foster is one of only three Mississippians in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. One is Dizzy Dean. Neither Dean nor Foster was born in Mississippi — Foster was a Texan and Dean was from Arkansas, but both are buried in the Magnolia State. The third, James “Cool Papa” Bell, was born Starkville but didn’t live in the state.

Foster’s mother died when he was a small child, and he was raised by grandparents who lived at Rodney in Jefferson County. In his younger teens, Foster attended Alcorn but left in 1918, moving to Chicago to work in the stockyards. He also tried to sign on with the Chicago American Giants as a pitcher, but he had a much-older half-brother, Rube Foster, co-owner of the team, and Rube refused to let him play, telling Willie, “That’s no life for you, don’t play baseball.”

Willie came back to Mississippi about 1924, and soon the strapping young man — he was 6-foot-2 and weighed 200 pounds ­— signed on with the Memphis Red Sox, owned by his uncle, Robert “Bubbles” Lewis.

Willie showed amazing talent. He was a left-handed pitcher who knew every trick in the book, catching the attention of his brother, and soon he was on his way to Chicago.

His record until he left the Negro League in 1937 is an impressive, almost unbelievable series of wins, and during part of that time he was in college in Tennessee. In 1926, he won 26 consecutive games. In another season, he compiled a sensational 32-3 record.

The editors of “The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues,” in calling him the pitching star for the American Giants for over a decade, said he had “near-perfect control and a wide assortment of pitches, all delivered with the same motion …. He was a smart pitcher who knew how to get the most out of his vast repertory of pitches, which included a blazing fastball, a slider, a fast-breaking drop, a sidearm curve, and a masterful change of pace.”

But Willie always remembered the importance of an education, and between off-season barnstorming jaunts to Cuba and California, he came back to Mississippi, enrolled at Alcorn, and earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture in 1933.

There were some big names in sports associated with Willie Foster’s career, such as Satchel Paige, whom Willie outpitched in a 1935 matchup. After his retirement in 1937 because of an aching arm, he was front man for the Harlem Globe-trotters. In the 1950s, he signed on as a coach at Tennessee State; in 1960, he returned to Alcorn as dean of men and head baseball coach.

It wasn’t long after that when Lonnie Walker came to Alcorn, a college freshman who had planned to go to Michigan State to play football “but my godmother knew I wanted to play basketball. My high school coach’s wife had gone to Alcorn, and she told my mother all about it” is the story of why he came to Mississippi. He remembers, “I had no idea where I was going, to the backwoods, and when I got here I cried, but it has turned out to be a wonderful, wonderful life.”

A lot of that success he attributes to Willie Foster, who talked to his students about values, warning that it would be easy to get into trouble and that “everyone was watching. He would say, ‘Just be yourselves and you won’t have any problems.’ He was tough on us, but he explained values and taught us how to carry ourselves.”

Walker said Coach Foster was a soft-spoken, mellow person who could talk to you about anything. He loved the outdoors, liked to hunt and fish and liked all sports, “but he was a baseball person. He had played the game. That’s what made him so good with us, because he had played.

“I wasn’t aware at the time how great he was,” Walker said. “It was not until later on in my career as a coach that I learned about so many things he had accomplished. He didn’t speak about it at all.”

He was a coach who would go out and show you in practice what he expected, Walker said, “He would pitch for us, let us know how to hit the curveball, the fastball, all those things.”

Henry Houze, another of Foster’s students, remembers him as a wise man with a deep baritone voice who in his 60s could still play ball — and show others how.

Houze, who served Alcorn in public relations for 34 years, said Foster told them, “I don’t care how great an athlete you are, you need to get an education, because if a school is going to hire you you have to have a degree.”

Others described Foster as “jovial, plainspoken, and unpretentious.”

If a game wasn’t going his way, Walker said, Foster might call time out, “but he didn’t chew you out …. he looked you straight in the eye. He taught us many things. He taught us to be leaders.”

His concern for his students extended beyond the playing field, and Houze told a story of when he came to Alcorn on a football scholarship but had to drop out and work every other semester. When his work calendar and the school year didn’t jibe, Foster registered his student and paid the fees, which Houze repaid.

In 1972, Walker returned to Alcorn as basketball coach and renewed his friendship with Coach Foster. In 1978, Foster had a stroke as he was walking out of his house and soon died. He is buried at Carbondale Cemetery at Westside.

He was a man of principle, Walker said. “Thank God for his leadership. He had a lot of class. No question about it.

I appreciate Doug Arp for telling me about Willie Foster and introducing me to Lonnie Walker and Henry Houze.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.