The new Jackie Robinson biopic “42” serves to remind us that there was a time not long ago when black athletes faced the most horrific, demeaning experiences in their determination to overcome the senseless prejudice that pervaded American sports at nearly all levels.
For youngsters today used to African-American superstars, it must be hard to believe decisions once were made to exclude some of the greatest talent available based simply on their race. Fortunately, there were among those who run baseball, and for that matter other sports, people who regarded this travesty as not only an injustice but also a stupid business model.
Branch Rickey, general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, certainly was preeminent among those, gambling that the pervasive racism that had marred his sport — which, by the way, had been aided and abetted by baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis — could be overcome quickly with the inevitable success of the right player.
Nothing trumps base motives quicker than winning. Rickey decided on Robinson, an educated young man who was multitalented in several sports and who had the character and toughness to survive.
But the same commitments were making their way to the forefront of other sports about the same time. Major college basketball in 1947, when Rickey and Robinson were assaulting the unfair policies of the national pastime, was nearly as white as baseball.
The Big Ten, a citadel of basketball, had not one a single black payer on its teams. No one among the league’s athletics directors or coaches or presidents was willing to challenge an unspoken agreement to keep it that way. That is, until a bright young man with many of the same qualities as Robinson appeared on the scene.
William Leon Garrett had led his central Indiana high school to the coveted state basketball championship, become Mr. Basketball of Indiana (one of the first) and was a talented high hurdler and baseball player.
Most important, perhaps, Garrett was an excellent student who had shown the capacity to deal with the racial taunts, slurs and injustices that often greeted him by just making opponents pay with losses. Indiana University President Herman Wells and his noted coach, Branch McCracken, encouraged by insurance genius Nate Kaufman, decided the time had come to break the barrier.
So at the beginning of the 1948-49 season, Garrett trotted onto the floor of the IU fieldhouse to become the “Jackie Robinson” of Big Ten basketball and about the only player of his race among the major conferences.
He was greeted by catcalls and other forms of derision, and some fans threw corn on the floor as a sign of their feelings. That was followed by Southern schools’ refusal to play the Hoosiers and slights up and down the basketball landscape, including hotel and other accommodations when traveling — all handled by Garrett with a grace his detractors didn’t possess.
But Rickey’s predictions had been correct about the impact of success. Three years after Garrett’s first game — and after he’d been recognized with all-Big Ten and the ultimate all-American honors — the shortest center in the league had become the biggest man on the floor wherever he played.
The most important recognition came in his final game at home. He received a standing ovation that lasted a full 12 minutes. The officiating team halted the game because the din was so thunderous the whistle couldn’t be heard. He was the third black drafted by the NBA, but Uncle Sam’s draft interfered.
It took very little time after Garrett for African-American youngsters to begin playing for the Big Ten schools. Other major leagues and schools were slower to react. But just as in baseball, the wall had been breached. You can read about this in Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody’s 2006 book, “Getting Open.”
All this is hard to imagine, given the nature of today’s athletics, especially basketball, which African-Americans so thoroughly dominate. But the games and players we admire are not truly the thing. It’s the legacy the pioneers like Garrett and Robinson left us all — the sense of rightness.
During the recent NCAA tournament, a new class was named for the national Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Once again, Garrett has been overlooked. It seems 1948 has come full circle. Indiana University should do something about that.
Dan K. Thomasson, a Hoosier native and Franklin College trustee, is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.