The 2019 Twins walloped their way into the baseball playoffs — not to mention the history books — with the most home runs ever launched.
But now that the long season is history, here’s a quote for fans slumping into winter withdrawal:
“The game of today is more scientific than when I played it. In my day we played more for the sport of the thing, but now the players are thoroughly commercialized. They are after the coin.”
Elmer Ellsworth Foster, maybe the best Minnesota baseball player you never heard of, uttered those prophetic words back in 1923. That was 30 years after Foster, a Minneapolis-born baseball star in the 1880s and ’90s, retired to sell pianos.
“He was the Ty Cobb of his day,” sportswriter George Barton wrote in 1923. “Baseball fans of Minneapolis who saw Foster play when in his prime never tire telling of the remarkable fielding and batting feats of the once-famous Elmer.”
A colorful carouser, poet and actor off the field, Foster is among the forgotten characters who will be revived at the 19th Century Minnesota Baseball Symposium on Nov. 16 at the Minneapolis Central Library. The daylong, $40 event — sponsored by the local chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research — features top baseball historians and local experts.
They’ll no doubt recall Foster, whose on-field skill and off-field histrionics made him a legend in his day. He was a catcher, pitcher and outfielder for early pro teams in St. Paul, Minneapolis, New York, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Chicago — often brawling with editors and managers.
When a Minneapolis group honored him in 1939, the 76-year-old Foster “brought down the house” with his four-stanza poem that opened: “As I rejoice with you this evening, worse the wear on wobbly pins, you’ll find on me no medals, ’cepting spike marks on my shins …”
The fifth of six children, Foster was born in Minneapolis on Aug. 15, 1861 — three years after statehood. His twice-married mother, originally from Maine, became a wealthy Minnehaha Falls-area land owner and philanthropist who left a hefty inheritance.
“As far back as I can remember baseball was a steady diet for breakfast, dinner and supper,” Foster said in a 1913 interview, when he claimed to have witnessed the first organized Minnesota baseball game in 1867 and the first one with salaried players a decade later.
He broke in with a St. Paul team in 1884 when the rivalry with Minneapolis bristled. “Flour City fans were betting St. Paul would not take a game,” Foster recalled in 1913. “Minneapolis fans came down loaded to the guards with money.”
Despite bettors favoring Minneapolis 3-to-1, St. Paul won 4-0 and, Foster said, “Minneapolis fans went home badly bent.”
Much of what’s known about Foster’s diamond exploits are captured in old newspaper clips — now digitized — and a new blog. There’s the story of him climbing a fence for “one of the most miraculous catches recorded in baseball history” for the Minneapolis Millers in the 1890s.
“Seeing that the ball was going over the palisade, Foster ran up the scantling extending from the ground to the top of the fence, steadied himself by grabbing the top board with one hand and spearing the ball with the other just as it was passing over the fence.”
Then there was the time playing for Chicago, during extra innings in semidarkness, when Foster sprinted after a line drive but caught a low-flying sparrow instead. Several sportswriters verified the catch, but modern-day Minnesota sports historian Stew Thornley isn’t so sure.
Game stories from Foster’s time in Chicago included “no mention of such an event,” said Thornley, one of the symposium’s panelists, “and it wouldn’t surprise me if it [was] just a tale among the yarns that got told back then.”
Either way, Thornley considers Foster “a quintessential Minneapolis baseball-loving kid who grew up with the game.”
A new blog called RIP Baseball is full of Elmer Foster information. Atlanta baseball aficionado and blogger Sam Gazdziak, has visited 500 ballplayers’ graves, researching and writing about those beneath the headstones — including Foster’s burial spot in Lakewood Cemetery.
“Elmer is one of my favorite discoveries,” said Gazdziak, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, noting Foster’s career as “an actor, a businessman, a prankster, a rule-breaker, an occasional wildman. ... He was an absolute hell-raiser, and one of baseball’s great forgotten characters.”
Gazdziak’s blog post at tinyurl.com/Fosterblogpost includes stories of Foster’s “late-night habits,” brawls, drinking binges, contract squabbles plus stage acting performances and the player’s angry denial that he abandoned his wife, Cora, and their daughter, Florence. (They all appear, along with a son, Jay, in an 1895 Minneapolis census log.)
Elmer Foster died at his Lake Minnetonka home in 1946 at 85.
Seven years earlier, in that poem he prepared for the banquet honoring him, he said:
“Well, I’ll soon be on the pathway, leading to that Great Divide. It’s a comfort when the time comes, I’ll look down on you with pride.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: http://strib.mn/MN1918.