EXCERPT: Wartime Basketball
An excerpt from Wartime Basketball: The Emergence of a National Sport during World War II (May 2016) by Douglas Stark.
From Chapter 2: The Color Line Falls, 1942-1943
There was only one game scheduled for the National Basketball League on Friday, December 11, 1942. It pitted the Chicago Studebakers, new to the league, against the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, who were entering their second season of league play. For most followers of professional basketball, this game would take a back seat to the star-studded match-up featuring the two Wisconsin teams who were playing exhibition matches in Milwaukee. Normally, an exhibition match would not generate this much interest, especially against league play, but in this case the games did not disappoint. The double-header featured the Oshkosh All-Stars against the world famous Harlem Globetrotters, while the second tilt showcased the Sheboygan Red Skins paired against the New York Renaissance (Rens). The Globetrotters and the Rens were two of the best black basketball teams in the country, and their appearance always generated great interest and overflow crowds. One could be forgiven if all the basketball-watching focus was centered north in Milwaukee and not in Chicago.
It was an early-season game. Chicago stood at a surprising 2-2, while Toledo had dropped its first two games to start the season 0-2. Cicero Stadium at Nineteenth and Laramie Avenue, not exactly Chicago Stadium, served as the host site. The tip-off was scheduled for 8:15 p.m., to be preceded by a preliminary game at 7:00 p.m., a game of local teams that might draw more interest than the main feature. Thanksgiving was a few weeks past, while Christmas still stood a few weeks away. College football was entering its bowl season, and the local newspapers had started the annual hype machine. Of the three main newspapers in town, the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Herald American, and the Chicago Tribune, only the Tribune sought fit to write a brief preview article. Notwithstanding the press’s indifference to the contest in the days leading up to the game, the game was actually significant. Chicago and Toledo were both integrated, and the game pitted the first two integrated basketball teams to play against each other in a professional league in the twentieth century. It marked a significant milestone for the game of basketball, one that largely went unrecognized at the time and, to some degree, has still been underappreciated more than seven decades later.
Changes were afoot for the 1942–43 NBL campaign. Seven teams finished the 1941–42 NBL season, including the two-time defending league champions Oshkosh All-Stars; the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, a charter member of the league since 1937–38; the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, both of which had just completed their first year in the league; the Indianapolis Kautskys, a charter member that sat out the previous season; the Sheboygan Red Skins; and the Chicago Bruins, who finished their third season in the league. With the war in full swing, the league was affected by players being drafted and teams being challenged by a shortage of available players.
Five teams were set to begin the new season, including Oshkosh, Sheboygan, and Fort Wayne. Long-standing member Akron withdrew, the last time the Goodyear company would field a professional basketball team. (Goodyear did, however, return to amateur ball.) Citing the effects of the war and the impact of the draft on its players, Indianapolis temporarily halted its league participation for three seasons and would not field a team again until the 1945–46 campaign, effectively missing three seasons during the height of World War II. At the end of the 1941–42 season, Indianapolis’s owner, Frank Kautsky, addressed the local media and explained his decision to halt his team’s operation for the duration of the war: “I felt as though I’d be doing something wrong.”1 Toledo returned for a second season. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bruins, George Halas and Bill Bidwell’s team, withdrew, only to be reconfigured in a much different way. The biggest change for the upcoming NBL season was the inclusion of black players on two of the teams. The Chicago Studebakers and the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets would make history by becoming the first two integrated professional basketball teams to play against each other in a league game in the twentieth century.
Integration in basketball happened sooner and with less fanfare than it did in other sports. As Todd Gould has declared, “racial integration was born out of simple necessity.”2 This milestone came four years before Kenny Washington suited up for football’s Los Angeles Rams, five years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, and
a full sixteen years before Willie O’Ree laced his skates for the Boston Bruins. Unlike those three sports, which integrated with a single player, professional basketball in 1942 integrated with ten players joining two teams. “Basketball was a great melting pot of all sports for all people,” Bill Himmelman, basketball historian, noted. “Players are in shorts
and shirt and bumping into one another. You do this a few times with people; you realize that there is no difference with people. Basketball was the great integrator of all sports. It did it easier and quicker than other sports.”3
Bill Reynolds, writing in his book Rise of A Dynasty: The ’57 Celtics, The First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America, reflects on the integration of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1950. Many of his comments are also applicable to integration in 1942. “It had been three years since Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball, but professional basketball’s integration in 1950 took place almost quietly, with none of the demonstrable hate and public fervor that had accompanied Robinson’s entrance into the Major Leagues. One theory was that basketball players had been to college and didn’t seem to harbor the same vitriol against blacks as did many baseball players, most of whom had not gone to college. Many baseball players had also grown up in the South. Another theory was that college basketball had long been integrated in much of the country, so most players had played against blacks before.”4
1. Todd Gould, Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana and the Birth of Professional Basketball. (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1998), 104.
2. Gould, Pioneers of the Hardwood, 116.
3. Bill Himmelman, interview by the author, Norwood NJ, August 2007.
4. Bill Reynolds, Rise of a Dynasty: The ’57 Celtics, the First Banner, and the Dawning of a New America (New York: New American Library, 2010), 129–30.