Willie Foster was a sports superstar to African-Americans in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Considered by many the best left-hander to pitch in the Negro Leagues, he was never better than when he was on the mound for the Chicago American Giants in the 1926 postseason. His team was down 2-1 to the Kansas City Monarchs in a best-of-five series for the Negro National League pennant, and with only a double-header left, he pitched and won both games.
Chicago advanced to the Negro League World Series against Atlantic City and there he pitched — and won — all four games to take the title.
And now that’s Foster — in a dark suit with a double-breasted jacket, white shirt and tie, wide-brimmed hat — standing so stoically in a city’s cobblestone street with his his right hand cupped on a baseball bat turned walking stick. That’s how he’s captured in a Kadir Nelson painting that will be one of many works on display at the Sinclair Community College art gallery in Building 13 beginning Monday through March 12..
The piece is entitled “Willie Foster and Young Fans” and directly behind him are four small boys in tattered clothes and newsboy caps, each holding a piece of baseball equipment as they try to emulate their hero right down to the look on his face.
Along the storefronts in the background you notice the whole community — an old man on a chair in front of a barber shop, a numbers runner, an interested woman — all focused on the embodiment of success that has stepped into their world.
If you can get all this from one oil painting on canvas, it is just as they say: One picture is worth a thousand words.
So then consider this and the other 35 pieces of art — all part of the “Shades of Greatness: Art Inspired by Negro Leagues Baseball” exhibit going on display at Sinclair — and you have enough words to start quite a conversation.
And that’s the purpose of this exhibit that is the brainchild of Michael Carter, the superintendent of Sinclair’s School and Community Partnership program, and will be part of the 21st annual REACH Across Dayton studies conference at SCC on Feb. 28.
REACH — Realizing Ethnic Awareness & Cultural Heritage across Dayton — promotes cross-cultural understanding between various people in the Miami Valley. Its daylong event that includes speakers, workshops, art projects and music, will conclude with a show by Deron Bell and the Dayton-Funk Allstars band.
The conference is $50 and includes lunch. A special reception the night before at Sinclair is free and open to the public.
While REACH often uses arts and humanities to further communal understandings, Tess Little, the organization’s co-coordinator with artist Bing Davis. said this year “REACH is trying to extend its reach” into the sports world thanks, in part, to the Shades of Greatness exhibit.
The fit seems perfect. Dayton has a prominent place in Negro Leagues lore.
The Dayton Marcos, led by Candy Jim Taylor, were one of the eight original teams in the Negro National League, which began play in 1920.
And no one around here champions the Negro League cause any more than Carter.
Growing up on Lexington Avenue in Springfield’s East End, Michael Carter remembers a man who lived two doors down — a Mr. Ballard — who played in the Negro Leagues. Although the man loved the game, he wouldn’t watch major-league baseball in his later years because of the segregationist snub he had felt in his playing days.
After graduating from Wittenberg University, Carter was a high school basketball standout at Springfield South High School and Trotwood-Madison High before becoming an administrator at Sinclair.
Over the years he has become more and more involved in his hobby. He has an extensive collection of Negro League jerseys and he’s also begun taking annual history jaunts with his older brother Darnell, a retired Springfield attorney and historian.
This past summer they were joined by Tony Roseboro, the nephew of the late John Roseboro, the six-time all-star catcher with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, and visited the Negro League Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City.
That’s where Shades of Greatness especially captured Michael’s imagination.
The exhibit was developed by the museum, which brought in artists from across the nation, immersed them in the Negro League history and legacy and then tasked them with capturing the experience — including the meaning and impact the game had on African-American communities — in their work.
They ended up with some 36 art pieces — done by 27 artists — and over the past few years that collection has become a national touring exhibit, displayed everyplace from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to the Louisville Slugger Museum, the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee and college campuses like Georgia Tech and Northeastern University.
“As soon as I saw it, I said we’ve got to get that back here to Sinclair,” Carter said. “It was absolutely great stuff.”
Part of history
As Carter has traversed the athletic world, he has been dismayed when he ran across people who knew sports but knew nothing of the Negro Leagues, its importance to the African-American community or its connection to the Dayton area.
Then again, he shouldn’t have been surprised.
Two Negro League legends lay in unmarked graves in Dayton for decades until Good Samaritans stepped in to rectify the matter in recent years.
The late Ray Brown was one of the greatest pitchers ever, a star for the Homestead Grays, and yet when he was chosen for enshrinement at Cooperstown back in 2006, he was found in a forgotten plot in Green Castle Cemetery on Nicholas Road in West Dayton.
Similarly, W.G. Sloan, the Dayton Marcos pitcher who commandeered a boat during the 1913 flood here and saved some 300 lives, died in 1931 and was found in an unmarked gravesite at Woodland Cemetery.
Stories like that help fuel Carter. He believes Negro League Baseball is “a part of American history that is important and kind of forgotten and untold.”
“Before the Civil Rights movement that so much is written about, this — the experiences, the meaning to the communities — was part of the Civil Rights movement,” he said. “Sports is often the precursor to what happens later.”
Carter contacted Madeline Iseli, the vice president of advancement at Sinclair, about bringing Shades of Greatness to the school. One of her areas of administration is the Sinclair Foundation, of which the John and Connie Taylor family are great donating partners who support the Visiting Scholars Initiative.
That’s how the funding was arranged and Carter said it was almost by chance that he got connected with Tess Little and the REACH Conference, which usually has an integral art component.
From there Pat McClelland, the school’s gallery coordinator and collecting curator, was brought on board, though at first he wondered if a sports collection would fill their needs.
As soon as he and Little did some research, saw the scope of the exhibit and especially saw Kadir Nelson’s work, they were sold.
The exhibit is turning out to be the gift that keeps on giving. Now youngsters involved in Sinclair’s Young Scholars Program — which prepares and later funds teenagers to become their families’ first college students — will be doing projects centered around the Shades of Greatness show.
And the daylong REACH conference on Feb. 28 will have two dozen offerings.
But make no mistake, the visual centerpiece of all this is the Negro Leagues art exhibit and among the pieces is a painting by artist Bonnye Brown that shows four young women, all with fancy dresses, a couple with stylish hats, each wearing bright, red-lipped smiles and one showing the hopes of all as she crosses her hands across her chest with “be-still-my-heart” expectation.
The four appear to be looking down in the dugout, almost giddy at meeting their dream guy, one of those larger-than-life ballplayers like Cool Papa Bell, Candy Jim Taylor or … yes … Willie Foster.
The title of the piece is “Catch Me A Ball Player.”
From Feb. 3 to March 12, everyone can catch themselves just such a ball player at Sinclair.