Baseball bonds Princeville, Hall of Fame pitcher Bill Foster

CorrespondentSeptember 24, 2013 

William Foster

NEGRO LEAGUE BAESBALL MUSEUM

In the first week of August 1940, the Princeville Grays semi-pro baseball team walloped the Weldon Black Hawks 17-0 in neighboring Tarboro, a town just across the Tar River from Princeville.

On the mound for the Grays was Bill Foster, arguably the greatest left-hander in African-American hardball history. Foster, who hurled a three-hitter, had retired from big-time black baseball – the Negro Leagues – just a few years earlier and settled in Tarboro, where he was reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Thelma Quigless.

The significance of Foster’s competing for the Grays might not have been apparent 70 years ago. Foster, a former pitcher for the great Chicago American Giants who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, was playing in the first town in the country founded and chartered by African-Americans.

“Only a handful of sports figures reaches the Hall of Fame,” said Calvin Adkins, a Princeville native and sports editor for the neighboring Tarboro Daily Southerner. “It’s awesome to know that one of them walked in the same town that I was born in.”

Less than a month after a36-year-old Foster mystified the team from Weldon, much of the town he was pitching for was underwater, flooded by the Tar River. Across the state, from Asheville to Roanoke Rapids, towns big and small were being flooded following torrential rains that pounded the state, a meteorological tragedy that took dozens of lives and left thousands homeless.

The murky waters that engulfed Princeville, however, held even greater gravity for that town’s residents. Since its formal inception in 1885 – when it was chartered by freed blacks in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction – Princeville had faced challenge after challenge, including racism, governmental malfeasance, corruption and incompetence.

While Princeville was struggling to establish its identity and stability during the early 20th century, William Henrick Foster was staking a claim as a star pitcher in the Negro Leagues.

Foster certainly had the pedigree for baseball success. His older half-brother, Andrew “Rube” Foster (they shared the same father) had starred as a pitcher before becoming a manager, owner and, eventually, the trailblazing founder behind the establishment of the first Negro National League in 1920.

Bill Foster was born June 12, 1904, in Calvert, Texas, but he moved to Rodney, Miss., where he was raised by relatives, and where he met his future wife, Thelma Quigless.

A left-hander, Bill Foster rapidly developed into a strong baseball talent that grew to include laser-like accuracy and a dizzying array of pitches, including a searing fastball, a baffling change-up and even a wicked sidearm curve. He got his first taste of the Negro League big-time with the Memphis Red Sox during 1923, then hit his prime with the powerful Chicago American Giants, his brother Rube’s team.

Over the next dozen years, Willie Foster became the dominant left-handed pitcher in the Negro Leagues, a talent rivaled only by Satchel Paige. Negro Leagues scholar and author Larry Lester believes Foster’s accuracy and durability made him one of the greatest pitchers ever.

“Foster was to baseball what Picasso was to painting,” Lester said. “Big Bill could paint the corners of home plate with his colorful palate of pitches. He had a rainbow of pitches that he delivered for a variety of windups.

“This painter was known for his pinpoint control, silver-streaking fastball, a red ball espresso slider, and a blues-inducing, side-arm curve that dropped like a slinky,” Lester added. “During his 16-year career, Foster white-washed many teams.”

Foster retired after the 1936 season and found a new home in Tarboro, where Thelma Quigless, had relocated.

Thelma and Foster were married during November 1941, and Foster procured a job selling policies for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., then a swiftly growing operation founded during 1899 in Durham.

In addition to getting hitched and finding a steady gig in Tarboro, Foster immersed himself in the local social scene, taking part in the activities of a bridge club and a high school sports boosters group, and speaking at a reception for local varsity football players.

Just as Foster adopted his new hometown, the local Tarboro and Princeville communities welcomed their own new baseball legend with a December 1941 reception, for example, held at a local residence in his honor.

Foster couldn’t keep away from the game he loved – he became a Little League manager, a pursuit that continued into the 1950s.

Foster also eventually took the mound for local amateur and semi-pro teams – including the Princeville Grays.

Foster found time to use his seemingly tireless arm to moonlight for other area teams, including the Rocky Mount Black Swans, who gave Buck Leonard his start in the business years earlier. In mid-July, he pitched in a barn-burning, 15-inning, 4-3 victory over the Kinston Greys.

“This was by far the best game that has been played in Adkin Hi Park this season barring none,” a wire story in the Atlanta Daily World reported. “… “Lefty ‘Willie’ Foster, formerly of the Chicago American Giants, a newcomer to the Rocky Mount team, exhibited one of the finest pieces of hurling that has ever been seen in this section of the country.”

The future Hall of Famer wasn’t even the ace of the Princeville Grays rotation. That honor was bestowed upon a local lad, George “Banner” Lewis, a 31-year-old Princeville native and like Foster another left-hander. During a 6-1 July trouncing of Hobgood, Lewis fanned 16 and nearly claimed a perfect game. A month later, and apparently just days before the flood, Lewis guided the Greys to a 10-2 victory against Murfreesboro.

The heart of the Grays, however, was manager Ray Matthewson, who just happened to become Princeville’s mayor later in life. Matthewson was part of Princeville’s “royal family,” a clan that included five eventual mayors of Princeville, including Ray’s brother, sister and two nephews.

The Matthewsons owned and operated a convenience store in town for decades, while Ray excelled at boxing as a 205-pound, 6-foot-2 cinder block of a man, and on the baseball diamond, Mayor Matthewson was the Grays’ manager and star swatter.

The Grays continued to compete at least through 1941, but Foster and Thelma eventually divorced – Thelma remained in town until her death in 1986 age 80 – and Foster remarried and returned to Mississippi, settling in Lorman and becoming the baseball coach and dean of men at Alcorn A&M.

Foster, a lifetime of hardball heroics behind him, died there during 1978 at age of 74 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame 18 years later.

Meanwhile, Princeville has forged ahead, fending off more floods – including a massive inundation in 1999 – arrests of town officials and financial takeovers by the state. Just this summer, the State Bureau of Investigation arrested current Mayor Priscilla Everette-Oates on embezzlement charges.

But even all of that hasn’t dimmed the faith in and love for Princeville held by its proud natives and residents, said Adkins of the Daily Southerner newspaper. Knowing this history includes the pitching stardom of a Baseball Hall of Famer like Bill Foster, Adkins added, just makes the town and its heritage all the more important.

“It lets me know that it doesn’t matter where you lived, or where you played, if you are good enough and smart enough, you can achieve great things,” he said. “Mr. Foster’s inspirational story should be relayed to all the children who are growing up in Princeville, today, tomorrow and forever.”

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