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Chicago's Harlem Globetrotters

Did you know that one of the most famous organizations in professional sports and entertainment, the Harlem Globetrotters, was a Chicago-born institution? Founded by a short, Jewish man from the North Side, Abe Saperstein, and a group of African-American athletes from the South Side, the Globetrotters were based in Chicago for 50 years, from 1926 through 1976. Saperstein coined the team's name for two reasons. First, he wanted to capitalize on having a traveling team of black ballplayers (a novelty in the late 1920s). Harlem being the center of African-American culture, that part of the name provided an instant signal as to the make-up of the team. Second, Saperstein wanted potential audiences to think his team had traveled the world. And so the name Harlem Globetrotters was born – though the team wouldn't actually play a game in Harlem until 1968!

The Globetrotters emerged from a team of athletes from Wendell Phillips High School. They played under the banner of the South Side's Giles Post of the American Legion. They eventually became the Savoy Big Five, taking their new name from Bronzeville's Savoy Ballroom. Saperstein was the team's coach, promoter, traveling secretary and, when injury or fatigue struck one of the players, substitute off the bench.

Savoy management hired the team to help boost sagging attendance at their dance hall. They soon became the Globetrotters and set out to make a living as traveling basketball pros.

The fledgling professional basketball leagues of the times were strictly "whites only," so African-American players had to go the barnstorming route, roaming the country and picking up games wherever they could find a willing opponent and a paying crowd. In the beginning, the Globetrotters didn't employ the clowning act that they're so well-known for today. It began in the late 1930s both as a means to entertain the crowd and to give the team's small roster a chance to catch their breath during the action. In fact, through the early 1950s, the Globetrotters were one of the finest basketball teams in the world, winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1940 and beating the mighty Minneapolis Lakers in a watershed game at Chicago Stadium in 1948.

Stars like Marques Haynes, "Goose" Tatum, Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal helped make the Globetrotters an international sensation. Haynes, along with founder Saperstein's sisters Fay and Leah, and daughter Eloise (Abe Saperstein died in 1966), reminisce about the teams origins and history on this Chicago Stories documentary. Also weighing in: Chicago-born basketball icons Ray Meyer and Isiah Thomas, among a host of others.

Links and Bibliography
Official Site of the Harlem Globetrotters
A complete online guide to the team and their madcap basketball skills.

Minneapolis Lakers Vs. Harlem Globetrotters
An account of two teams on a collision course.

Early Wendell Phillips High School Basketball Teams
Historical information on the site of the Illinois High School Association.

Association of Professional Basketball Research
Lots of statistics and other details about the Globetrotters and other early professional basketball teams.

Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame
This organization preserves and promotes the game at all levels and serves as basketball's ultimate library of history.

Meadowlark Lemon Foundation
The official site of the Clown Prince of Basketball.

Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island
Go behind the scenes of the movie "The Harlem Globetrotters," courtesy of Bob (Gilligan) Denver.

Here are some books that can provide more information about the history of the Harlem Globetrotters and early African-American basketball pioneers:

Sky Kings: Black Pioneers of Professional Basketball by Bijan C. Bayne, African-American Experience, Franklin Watts, A Division of Grolier Publishing, 1967

Harlem Globetrotters by George Vecsey, Scholastic Book Services, 1970

The Harlem Globetrotters by Josh Wilker, Chelsea House Publishers, 1997

Elevating the Game: Black Men & Basketball by Nelson George, University of Nebraska Press, 1992

Glory Bound: Black Athletes in White America by David K. Wiggins, Syracuse University Press, 1997

American Sports: From the Age of Folk Games to the Age of Televised Sports by Benjamin G. Rader, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1996, 1990, 1983

Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., 2000

The Pro Basketball Encyclopedia, edited by Zander Hollander, MacMillan, 1978

Rewriting History: The Birth of the Globetrotters By program producer Jay T. Smith

Let me begin by letting you in on an important piece of information. I am not a historian; I'm a television producer. But in putting together our Chicago Stories program about the Harlem Globetrotters, I knew part of our story would focus on the organization's origins. So my fledgling work as a historian began. The Globetrotters history seemed straightforward. At least two books about the Globetrotters (Harlem Globetrotters by George Vecsey, 1970, and The Harlem Globetrotters by Josh Wilker, 1997) discussed the team's play at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom in 1926. Numerous other publications, including many years worth of Globetrotter "official" game programs, the team's official website, and at least two television documentaries told the same story. It goes like this: The Globetrotters played at the Savoy Ballroom in 1926, a ploy by Savoy management to increase attendance. The scheme didn't help, and the games were soon dropped. The team then decided to hit the road, and their first "road game" was on January 7, 1927 in Hinckley, Illinois, 50 miles west of Chicago. So I went to the library to try and find some old newspaper articles about the Savoy Big Five, and their games in 1926. I didn't find any. In fact, I found that the sequence of events, as reported by dozens of sources, could not have happened.

Chicago's Savoy Ballroom didn't open for business until November 23, 1927, more than 11 months after the team supposedly finished their run at the Savoy. How do we know this? In talking to a number of actual historians, I was told that the best place to get historical information, especially about dates, is from newspaper articles of the day. If you find an old newspaper that reports that the Savoy Ballroom opened on November 23, 1927, (which the Chicago Defender does in its November 26, 1927 edition), it is unlikely that they missed the facts by more than a year. Here's part of what that Defender article says:

"The thousands of fashionably dressed patrons hurrying in the rain from their cars Wednesday evening to attend the grand opening of the Savoy ballroom were met with such a glow of warmth and beauty as they stepped into the lobby, as was almost bewildering."

On December 31, 1927, the Defender ran a short piece, promoting the Savoy Big Five's first games:

"Basketball fans will be given a real treat next week when the fast Howard University quintet meets the Savoy Bear Cats [this is the only reference to the team as the Bear Cats; in the post-game article, they are called the Savoy Big Five] in a two game series at the Savoy ballroom, 47th St. and South Parkway. The contests have been scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, Jan. 3 and 4.

There are a number of reasons why a record crowd is expected to see the game. First, there will be dancing after the game and second, it will be the first time that a Howard University basketball team has invaded Chicago.

The Savoy team is composed of such players as Ramsey, formerly of Wendell Phillips, and Lester Johnson, formerly of Howard University.

"The Savoy team was formerly known as the American Legion Big Five."

The next week, the January 7, 1928 issue of the Defender talks about the Savoy team's two victories over Howard:

"...The Savoy quintet, playing its first game, flashed into the lead at the outset and was never headed."

So, based on this information from the Chicago Defender, we can be fairly certain that the Savoy Big Five did not play at the Savoy Ballroom in 1926. In fact, it seems that they did not play at the Savoy until nearly a full year after they played their first game in Hinckley, Illinois. But did they actually play a game on January 7, 1927 in Hinckley, as all prevailing sources site? This would prove to be a much more difficult task to sort out.

As I mentioned, I am not a historian. In fact, the complicated and convoluted history I was finding about the Globetrotters nascent days would be very difficult to make clear in a television documentary, especially one that couldn't devote much more than a minute to the issues, given the 75-plus years of history that needed be covered in less than 30 minutes. Though excited about being able to correct the historical record, (indeed one that is wrong in so many sources), making the story clear on television would be very difficult. The task was so daunting, in fact, that on our television program, we simply state as fact that the Globetrotters played in Hinckley on January 7, 1927, and that they played at the Savoy in 1928. There's no bragging about correcting the historical record; that would take too long and be too confusing (and too self-serving).

So, back now to trying to pin down that game in Hinckley. You see that the game was mentioned in our television program as fact. That's because it was cited so many times in the historical record, and contrary to the opening of the Savoy, there is no neat way to dispute it. Here are the facts we found to lead us to believe that it is at least possible that the team (then known as the Giles Post American Legion team) played in Hinckley on January 7, 1927. First of all, there is an ad in the Hinckley Review newspaper of January 6, 1927. The ad promotes a dance on Friday night, January 7, with "Music by the White Ivories 5-piece orchestra." Below, there is a promotion for "Basket Ball---Friday January 7, Sandwich H.S. vs. Hinckley H.S. --- 2 games, 7:30p.m." Giving the most generous benefit-of-the-doubt, the citation of "2 games" could very well mean that there was one game between the Sandwich High School team against the Hinckley High School team and a second game between undisclosed combatants. Those teams certainly could have been the "future Globetrotters" against the Hinckley Merchants (the team often cited as the Globetrotters first opponent).

So where exactly was the Giles team in January of 1927? The Chicago Defender reported the following in their January 15, 1927 issue:

"After a successful tour of the state of Wisconsin, where they hung up an enviable record, the American Legion Giles post No. 87 basket tossers have returned home to engage in several games before starting on the road again.

"The team is composed of Thomas Brookins and Randolph Ramsey, former Wendell Phillips high school stars; "Big" Fisher, Lester Johnson, All-American guard from Howard University; Joe Lillard of the University of Iowa and Troutman, formerly of Hyde Park High School."

So, this establishes that the team was, in fact, on the road in early January of 1927. Their "successful tour" of Wisconsin certainly could have started with a jaunt to Hinckley before traveling north of the Illinois border.

Can I prove that the Giles Post American Legion team (soon to be the Savoy Big Five, soon to be the Harlem Globetrotters) played in Hinckley, Illinois on January 7, 1927? No, I can't. But unlike the references to the Savoy Big Five playing in 1926, I can't disprove it either.

So here is the history, as rewritten by Chicago Stories, much of which is presented in our television program:

Globetrotter founder Abe Saperstein graduated Lake View High School in 1920. He went to the University of Illinois for a very short time, and in late 1920 or early 1921 began working for the Chicago Park District. He took on a variety of jobs, everything from tree trimmer to athletic director. He coached the Welles Park basketball team in the Lake View neighborhood.

A group composed mainly of former Wendell Phillips High School basketball players formed a semi-pro basketball team, and played under the banner of the South Side Giles Post of the American Legion. We know they were playing in late 1926, though they may have been together earlier than that. Their promoter and coach was a man named Dick Hudson, who was a former University of Minnesota sports star and a former professional football player. Exactly how Abe Saperstein and the team got together is open for debate. Some say the team was doing poorly and asked him to coach. Others say they needed a white man to book games around the Midwest. In any case, Saperstein likely joined them in late 1926, the group now ready to hit the road and try to make a living as barnstorming basketball pros.

On January 7, 1927, Saperstein and his team piled into Abe's jalopy. They were ready for their first road trip. For their first game they drove 50 miles west to the small town of Hinckley, Illinois, and took on the Hinckley Merchants team.

Most written histories about the Globetrotters claim that Saperstein's team won that first game. But that's not how former Hinckley resident Marvel Loring remembers it. She was at that first game. "Of course, Hinckley won that first game, 43 to 34," she recalls.

In any case, the team split $75 in Hinckley. It was much more than they would make most nights, often satisfied if they could afford a sandwich on the way to the next town. The team would play anywhere it could find a willing opponent and a paying crowd; not an easy combination to put together in those days.

On January 3, 1928, the Giles team began play at the newly constructed Savoy Ballroom on Chicago's South Side. They took a new name, the "Savoy Big Five." The Savoy was an upper-middle class Mecca for black entertainment. Stars including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington graced the stage. Club management hired the basketball team as an added attraction. In the spring of 1928, after a dispute over money, Saperstein and some of the players left the Savoy and went back to barnstorming.

Some of this jibes with the Globetrotters "official" history, some of it does not. We only revised their history when we were fairly certain we had information to directly contradict the "official" story. When we couldn't prove the story wrong, we went with the widely reported version.

So in the end, does it really matter? Is it important that scores of sources say that the Harlem Globetrotters started play in 1926 as the Savoy Big Five when, in fact, there was no "Savoy" until late 1927? I guess that's up to the individual reader of history. For our program, I simply stumbled upon this information while looking for some newspaper articles about the Savoy Big Five. At some point, either by mistake or for some other unknown reason, the story of the origins of the Harlem Globetrotters was told incorrectly. Then it was repeated and repeated until, as the newspaperman in John Ford's classic western "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" said, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." All we hope to do here is to get the facts straight.

About the Program Producer
Jay Smith, a life-long Chicago-area resident, has been with WTTW since 1989. He spent 8 years as a producer on the Chicago Tonight program, as well as 6 years producing Chicago Week in Review. He then moved on to produce WTTW's national PBS series HandyMa'am with Beverly DeJulio, which will begin production for its fifth season late this summer. In the meantime, he is back producing programs for Chicago Tonight. Smith is the recipient of four Chicago Emmy Awards, a Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club and recognition from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association.

"Chicago's Harlem Globetrotters" is Smith's first writing and producing assignment for the Chicago Stories series.

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