Grave Story: Elmer Foster (1861-1946)

Here lies Elmer Foster, an outfielder for three teams in the 1880s & ‘90s. He was, in the words of the great Chicago newspaperman Hugh Fullerton, the greatest disturber and enemy of peacefulness that the game had ever seen. Foster played for the New York Metropolitans of the American Association (1886), New York Giants (1888-1889) and Chicago Colts (1890-91)

Elmer Foster was born in Minneapolis on August 15, 1861. According to the 1870 and 1880 federal censuses, he was raised in Illinois. By 1883 at least, he was back in Minneapolis, playing ball with an amateur club called the Brown Stockings. He was evidently their catcher, and his season ended on August 24 when he fractured his ankle in a game. He entered professional baseball by signing with the St. Paul Apostles of the Northwestern League in February 1884. While he was praised for his catching abilities, St. Paul used him as a left-handed pitcher. According to the stats that are available on Baseball Reference, Foster had a 17-19 record and a 1.18 ERA. While that sounds amazing, bear in mind that this was a primitive era for fielding. Foster gave up 209 runs in 329-1/3 innings, but only 43 of them were earned. He also walked 95 batters and 44 wild pitcher, to go with 223 strikeouts. His batting average was just a shade over .200.

Source: A.G. Spalding Baseball Collection, New York Public Library.

Foster’s season and, ultimately, his pitching career ended on August 26, 1884. He broke his arm while throwing the first pitch of the game against Milwaukee. “His friends on the ground at once made up a handsome purse of money for his benefit,” the papers reported. A charity game for his benefit was also organized in St. Paul among local businessmen. Foster worked a few games as an umpire while he recovered and was praised for his impartiality.

Foster signed with the National League’s Philadelphia Quakers as a pitcher in 1885, but his arm wasn’t up to the task. He was cut and instead signed with a team in Haverhill, Mass., as a center fielder. In 47 games, he hit .309 and played admirably in the field. Had things gone according to his plan, it would have been his last season in baseball.

“He will retire from the diamond and take up with his first love, the stage,” reported the Saint Paul Globe in October 6, 1885. He headed to Chicago to begin rehearsals for his role of Horatio Marsden in “The Union Heroine, or Siege of Vicksburg,” starring Rose Lisle at the Criterion Theatre. He also and appeared in Minneapolis’ Pence Opera House as James Dalton in “Ticket-of-Leave Man.”

The lure of baseball, though, was just too great, and he signed with the New York Metropolitans for the 1886 season. “He is classed among the rising players, and some good work is expected from him this season by those who have made it a point to study the individuals of the Metropolitan team,” reported the Saint Paul Globe.

Aside from superstar Dave Orr, New York had a horrible offense and slogged to a 53-83 record. Foster batted .184 while playing second base and the outfield. He also got in a fight in a game against Newark (of the Eastern League) in early April. The umpire called a balk on the Newark pitcher, and the team captain, a man named Burns, argued with the umpire. Foster started jawing at Burns, and the two had a fight which would have resulted in a riot had the police not interfered.

An add for Ticket-of-Leave Man, starring Elmer Foster. Source: Star Tribune, January 16, 1886.

After being let go by New York, Foster returned to play for the Minneapolis Millers in 1887. He was absolutely magnificent, hitting .415 and slugging .608. His 17 home runs were more than double the next-best player on the team, and he also had 18 doubles and 15 triples. He was said to be a top center fielder, and he stole 62 bases as well. The Saint Paul Globe awarded Foster a silver baseball bat for his accomplishments.

That kind of a season left him in high demand among the major-league teams, though not without some controversy. Indianapolis tried to sign him by bending the rules; the earliest date to sign new players was October 20, but the Hoosiers tried to sign Foster a contract on October 17, dated 10 days ahead. Giants manager Jim Mutrie swooped into Minnesota a couple days later for a $4,000 contract and a $1,000 advance, which Foster signed. Indianapolis protested, and publications criticized Foster for supposedly breaking a contract, but he was a Giant.

For all that wrangling, Foster failed to produce at all with the Giants. In fact, he asked for his release in mid-season but was refused, because the team still hoped to make some of their money back with him. He batted .147 in 37 games, with 15 runs scored and 13 stolen bases. With an outfield of Jim O’Rourke, Mike Tiernan and Mike Slattery, Foster could do no more than serve as an occasional replacement. The Giants went 84-47 and won the NL pennant, as well as the postseason series against the American Association’s St. Louis Browns, largely without his help.

To make his season more miserable, an article written toward the end of the year stated that he had essentially abandoned his young wife, Cora, and their child. The report in Chicago’s The Inter Ocean stated that they hadn’t heard from him in months and hadn’t received any money from him. It was patently false, as the Minnesota papers reported that Foster had gone back home several times during the Giants’ western road trips. Foster came to the offices of Chicago’s Inter Ocean and, according to the paper, “looked as though he wanted to kill the umpire or knock somebody out of the box.”

“I wish to correct nearly every statement in that item,” he said. “I have sent money home regularly, and have built my wife a comfortable home at Minnehaha, where I expect to see her to-morrow, as I leave to-night at 5 o’clock for Minneapolis… The whole story is a fabrication.”

Foster’s tenure with the Giants lasted for 2 more games in 1888. He went 0-4 with 3 walks and 2 stolen bases before being released in mid-May. He traveled back home to Minneapolis, where he rejoined the Millers as the team captain. He hit close to .300 and clobbered 16 homers in 90 games.

Elmer Foster shown broadcasting Game 4 of the 1924 World Series over radio. Source: Hennepin County Library.

In the offseason, Foster and teammate Moxie Hengle ran an ice-skating rink at the Millers ballpark. The rink had to close early due to poor attendance, and when the papers reported the business failure, Foster responded by punching out the Star Tribune sports editor, O.E. Remey, when the two encountered each other at a sporting goods store. He pleaded guilty and received a $5 fine. On the field, he returned to the Millers but was benched in late July 1890 for “indifferent play.” He actually filed suit against the team, claiming that the team had “no right to prevent him from earning support for himself and family.” I don’t know if the case went anywhere, but the Millers’ problem was solved when Cap Anson secured Foster’s release in order to sign him to the Chicago Colts.

Foster was installed in center field, and though he didn’t start playing with the Colts until September, he finally showed some of the promise that he displayed regularly in the minor leagues. He slashed .248/.325/.467 in 27 games, with 11 of his 26 hits going for extra bases (4 doubles, 2 triples, 5 home runs). Two of those homers came in his second game with the team. He stole 18 bases and was superb in the outfield as well, committing just 1 error.

Whatever good will Foster generated with Anson, he frittered it away quickly. Anson was a disciplinarian, and Foster was walking chaos. The outfielder seemed to delight in torturing his manager. He slit Anson’s air mattress with a penknife while Anson was sleeping on it during one train ride. He poured ice water on a sleeping Anson on another trip and spent the rest of the ride hiding in Fullerton’s berth. He once asked Anson if the manager would be willing to foot his laundry bill at one hotel. The hotel promptly presented Anson with a bill for more than $70 – Foster had all of his charges, including dinners and drinks, listed as “laundry” on his bill.

On April 25, Foster and teammate Pat Luby went out drinking, and both were fined $25 by Anson. When they ignored his orders to go to bed, he increased the fine to $50. Foster woke up the next morning to travel to Cincinnati with the rest of the team. Anson instead gave him his release from the team. He appeared in 4 games for the Colts, with a homer and a .188 average.

Over parts of 5 seasons, Foster had a .187/.258/.277 slash line. He had 72 hits in 105 games, with 6 home runs (all with the Colts). He stole 37 bases, had 41 RBIs and scored 56 runs. Despite his reputation as a fantastic outfielder, his .853 fielding percentage was almost 50 points below league average.

Foster finished 1891 with the Kansas City Blues of the Western League. Columnist Fullerton reported that the Colts’ president Jim Hart practically pushed Foster onto a train to Kansas City to get him away from the Colts. The next time Foster and Hart met, the ballplayer thanked his former employer for sending him to Kansas City. He said he’d found the greatest collection of carousers ever. “We haven’t been to bed for a week!” Foster enthused. He did great in Kansas City, with a .300 batting average and 8 home runs. The team itself, though, dropped from second to seventh place. Apparently the rest of the team couldn’t keep up with Foster’s late-night habits.

Aside from a game for the Millers in 1895, when he was 33, Foster never played professional ball again. From the stats that are available, Foster hit .321 in the minor leagues with 41 homers. That game in 1895 was a one-time-only return appearance with the Millers. He knocked a home run in 2 at-bats.

Foster’s mother Mary died in December 1890, leaving an estate worth about $150,000 to her six children. Foster got about $25,000, so he no longer needed to travel to seek out a baseball job. He stayed in Minneapolis and helped to found a new team called the Browns. He was the captain and first baseman. Ironically, the team’s secretary and treasurer was O.E. Remey, the editor Foster decked just a couple of years previous. I guess there were no hard feelings. He also got into the piano business with his brother, R.O. Foster, and ran for the state legislature in Minnesota. It doesn’t appear that he won any elections, but that piano business did very well for a number of years. Foster & Waldo pianos were manufactured into the 1920s and are rare today.

Foster was arrested for assault — again — in January 1893, when he beat up E.M. Runyan, secretary and general manager of the Minnehaha Park Syndicate. Foster believed Runyan to be the author of a paper that reflected poorly on him, according to the Star Tribune. The assault occurred at a street car depot, and Runyan hit his head on the edge of the platform and was badly injured. Foster avoided jail time by paying a $200 fine.

Elmer Foster poses with his namesake, Foster “Babe” Ganzel. Ganzel, the son of Foster’s old teammate Charlie Ganzel, played briefly in the majors as well. Source: Star Tribune, July 17, 1928.

From there on out, Foster seems to have kept his temper in check. He remained active in the piano business and also returned to the stage now and again, such as a 1900 production of “A Celebrated Case” at the Lyceum in Minneapolis. He didn’t settle down, though. One friend of Fullerton’s was in Minnehaha for business. He was sitting outside of his hotel when he heard a commotion. A man at one end of the street, on horseback, was standing in the saddle and firing a six-shooter in each hand as fast as he could. The man ducked for cover and came out of hiding when he realized that nobody else on the street had moved.

“What was it?” he asked one man. “O, that wasn’t anything,” the man replied. “That was only Elmer Foster going home.”

Foster lived long enough for some of his (on the field) exploits to become the stuff of legend in Minnesota. He was compared to the likes of Cobb and Ruth – not bad for someone with a lifetime batting average of under .200. He picked up the game of golf in his 70s and played it almost every day, and he was a frequent visitor to Nicollet Park to watch the Millers play. Foster died on July 22, 1946 at the age of 85. He is buried in Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis.

One last story from Hugh Fullerton, from June, 1906:

“We went to lunch together at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. The little lunch room was filled with women, shoppers – women of the first families – who had dropped in for a quiet lunch at the old hostelry. Foster was extremely demure during the meal, but as we were coming out it happened that a table stood directly in our path.

“Foster, beautifully clothed, bearing himself with grace, and seemingly the personification of good breeding and gentlemanliness, suddenly took a short run, jumped clear over the table, alighted easily, and, walking as if nothing had happened, continued his way out of the room, leaving the most astounded aggregation of New Yorkers ever assembled.”

Hugh Fullerton, syndicated column, June 3, 1906

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