This Day in Jewish History, 1966

The Short Jew Who Invented the Harlem Globetrotters Passes On

Abe Saperstein was a businessman, not a civil rights activist, but the Globetrotters (and their shtick) did a lot to advance equality in sports.

We hope / Wikimedia Commons

On March 15, 1966, Abe Saperstein, the extraordinary sports entrepreneur who founded and owned basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters, died, at age 63. Saperstein was a showman with a great sense of humor, but he didn’t set out to organize a team that would perform comic routines on the court. Rather, the shticks became a part of the show only more than a decade after the Globetrotters began dribbling and shooting.

Abe Saperstein was born in London on July 4, 1902, to parents who had both immigrated to England from Eastern Europe before deciding to move again, to the United States. his father Louis traveled first and was joined by his wife, Anna, and their children, in 1907.

The family settled in Chicago, where Abe, the oldest of eight children, participated in basketball, baseball and track at Lake View High School. He also served as the promoter of a youth basketball team, lining up a local florist as a sponsor.

At one game, a key player was out sick, and Abe, who was all of five feet, five inches (1.65 meters) tall, had no choice to replace him on the court, where he was dwarfed by his fellow players. At one point, he dribbled the ball through the open legs of an unusually tall teammate, a move that elicited howls of laughter from the crowd. It was a lesson that came in handy years later.

From Giles Quintet to Globetrotters

Sports Magazine Archives / Wikimedia Commons

In 1924, Saperstein took over coaching a semi-pro team in Illinois called the Giles Post American Legion Quintet. Its players, all black, were alumni of Wendell Phillips High School in Chiago. Within two years, the team had gone pro and was working for Saperstein.

The Globetrotters, as he called them, played their first game, in Hinckley, Illinois, on January 7, 1927. During their first year in action, they racked up a record of 101 victories in 117 games played.

In 1930, the team added “Harlem” to its name -- not because it had moved to New York, but because, Saperstein, employing the royal “us,” explained years later, “Harlem was to the fellows what Jerusalem is to us.”

These were the days before the National Basketball Association, when teams had to fend for themselves, rustling up the competition and the audiences. Saperstein bought a used Model-T, and barnstormed with his players around the country, sleeping in transient hotels, when the hotels admitted black guests, or sleeping in the car.

It was only in 1940, the year that they won the World Basketball Championship, that the ‘Trotters began to turn a profit, and that was a year after they began introducing comic elements into their game.

Superb athletes

But that didn’t mean they weren’t all superb athletes: Globetrotter veterans who went on to play in the NBA – helping to integrate it as they did so – included Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. In 1948 and ’49, for example, the team twice beat what was then the country’s top professional team, the Minneapolis Lakers.

Saperstein was a businessman, not a civil rights activist, but his efforts did a lot to advance the status of non-whites in sports.

After World War II, the Globetrotters began visiting other countries (eventually, they had three five-man teams traveling at any time), serving as goodwill ambassadors for America as well as entertainers. According to Saperstein’s daughter, Eloise, his proudest moment came in 1951 in Berlin, when a crowd of 75,000 showed up to watch the team play in the same stadium where in 1936, African-American sprinter Jesse Owens had infuriated Adolf Hitler by winning four Olympic Gold Medals.

After repeated failed efforts to buy his own NBA team, Saperstein founded the American Basketball League in 1961. It folded in less than two years, but it did bequeath the three-point shot, a Saperstein brainchild, to the NBA – 18 years later.

After Saperstein’s death, the team was bought by the Metromedia communications conglomerate, and entered a decline. In 1993, a businessman and a former Globetrotter, Mannie Jackson, bought the team for $6 million, and set about reviving its fortunes. Today it is owned by Herschend Family Entertainment, an amusement park conglomerate.