It was a milestone that under different circumstances might have led every radio newscast and been plastered across the tops of newspapers from coast to coast. But war was raging and, besides, the nation was indifferent to pro basketball.
At least one major publication, the Chicago Daily Tribune, gave this groundbreaking event a tiny headline and 27 words at the bottom of Page 40. And the article failed to mention why the game was significant.
Admittedly, we have the luxury of reviewing this event through the high-definition lens of hindsight.
This event — the first full-scale racial integration of a major professional sports league — was not achieved by the NFL’s Kenny Washington in 1946 or by Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson in 1947, as the history books would lead us to believe. And it did not occur in a heavily populated market such as New York or Chicago.
The first and often overlooked breaking down of the big-league color barrier happened in 1942. It was done en masse, with six players. It occurred without fanfare or police escort.
And would you believe this landmark desegregation unfolded in a small-town bandbox known as the Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory?
“It’s an untold story that deserves acclaim,” said Bill Himmelman, who would know, as he is considered the authority on pro basketball history.
Few of the 3,000 locals in attendance on Nov. 25, 1942, knew the magnitude of the moment when Bernie Price, Hillary Brown, Duke Cumberland, Sonny Boswell, Tony Peyton and Roosie Hudson emerged from their locker room with four white teammates to play the Red Skins. What those fans cared about most was that Sheboygan opened the National Basketball League season on a positive note, 53-45, over the Chicago Studebakers.
Today, historians who recently finished observing Black History Month, and who are following the first months in office of the nation’s first black president, point to that Wednesday night on lower Pennsylvania Avenue as a watershed moment for inclusion.
“There had been token integrations before (in lesser leagues), but this was THE integration that marks the start for pro basketball and for major professional-league sports,” said Himmelman, who served as the NBA’s historian from 1985 to 2002. “About 30 years ago, I had the pleasure of spending time with the Studebaker players. They said they felt shortchanged as the ones who truly integrated pro sports, rather than Jackie Robinson and all the rest. The NBL was the trendsetter there.”
Integration was Sid Goldberg’s brainchild. The owner and coach of the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets broached the idea in an effort to save the league, as conscription had decimated rosters. The NBL’s Chicago entry, sponsored by the United Automobile Workers, piggybacked on the idea and recruited six former Harlem Globetrotter players who were working in the Studebaker defense plant and therefore exempt from the draft. The sprawling plant on Chicago’s South Side made military aircraft engines.
“They were always treated good because they made good money, working at the plant and playing for Studebaker,” said Al Price, whose late brother Bernie was Chicago’s second-leading scorer.
As luck would have it, the Studebakers’ season opener was played in Sheboygan. Some nights later, Toledo suited up four black players — Bill Jones, Shanty Barnett, Al Price and Casey Jones — for their opener. These dual events came eight years before Earl Lloyd was hailed as being the first black player to step onto an NBA court.
“Some of the towns we played in weren’t too cool,” said Price, 92, who still lives in Toledo. “That was just the way people were and how they felt. All across the country, discrimination was going on. Some cities and towns were very prejudiced and others were very receptive. Just like people are today, good and bad. I don’t remember how Sheboygan was.”
The last player remaining from that trailblazing Chicago-Sheboygan game is Red Skins forward Ken Buehler, who scored 14 points against the Studebakers and would be named the NBL’s rookie of the year that season.
“When I played at Milwaukee State Teachers College, we had a black player on the team, so it was nothing new,” said Buehler, 89, who lives in South Palm Beach, Fla. “As for the Studebakers having black players, nobody thought anything of it, as far as race relations go.”
To the city’s credit, the integration experiment appeared to go down without a hitch. The Sheboygan Press reported that “the colored boys looked classy and will undoubtedly do some upsetting before the season ends.”
Perhaps it wasn’t a big deal because for the better part of a decade Sheboygan had played black barnstorming teams and even hosted the Globetrotters’ first training camp, in November 1940.
However, it might be misleading to characterize all-white Sheboygan as an island of tolerance in a nation otherwise divided by Jim Crow-era legislation. For instance, a local announcement for a 1939 game against the all-black Jesse Owens Olympians promoted the Red Skins’ rematch with “these darkies” and used several stereotypes of the era.
Author Robert W. Peterson, in his book “Cages to Jump Shots,” wrote that Toledo found accommodations in Sheboygan only because Red Skins coach Carl Roth had implored Sheboygan Indians baseball manager Joe Hauser, an influential voice in town, to find rooms.
As for the Studebakers, for all we know they may have stayed at a ramshackle hotel near the railroad yard, sleepless and staring at cracked ceilings as an assembly of train whistles and slamming rail cars inhabited the night air.
Two years earlier, the famous Globetrotters, consisting of several of these same Studebaker players, were met with the glare of taciturn hotel managers.
“They were not welcome at the Foeste, which was the nicest hotel in town,” said Frank Zummach, 98, the Red Skins head coach from 1939-42. “They found a hit-and-miss place, the Park Hotel, which wasn’t much of a hotel. Sometimes, and more often than not, they’d go to eat and they wouldn’t (be served).”
So while it may be with pride that Sheboygan embraces its role in big-league sports integration, it must be tempered with the knowledge that the road was filled with potholes and the door was open only a crack. Timing allowed the Studebakers and Jim White Chevrolets to squeeze through, and dumb luck allowed Sheboygan to share in the moment.
(Published in The Sheboygan Press, March 9, 2009, as a staff member of The Des Moines Register)
GLENN “SPARKY” ADAMS, guard, 1938-40, Sheboygan Red Skins
Heartbreak, notoriety and responsibility come with learning you are the last man standing.
Ask Glenn “Sparky” Adams. Eighteen men played for the Sheboygan Red Skins’ first team in 1938-39. Seventy years later, only Adams remains, according to former NBA historian Bill Himmelman.
Only Adams can relay firsthand how the National Basketball League was overshadowed in a country smitten with baseball and football, struggling with the effects of a Great Depression and on the verge of a second world war.
Only Adams can describe the balancing act of holding a job during the day and playing pro basketball at night. He commuted with teammate/welder Ed Dancker from Milwaukee for every Red Skins game, navigating hazardous roads often coated with ice and snow. Then he would report to work the next morning at A&P Tea Co. in Milwaukee.
“Pro basketball was just getting started,” remembered Adams, who lives in Newberry, S.C. “College basketball was very popular, of course.”
Adams, who plans to turn 92 in April, is quick to point out the most glaring difference between pro basketball’s formative years and today.
“The salaries guys are getting now are astronomical,” he said. “I can’t believe it: $160 million for 10 years. Golly sakes. I got $110 a month. That’s all I got.”
In addition to being last survivor, Adams did not realize his other claim: He and two Marquette University teammates were among the first collegians signed by the pros before graduation. This practice soon became common across the country, noted the second edition of The Sports Encyclopedia, Pro Basketball.
The NBL had permitted Red Skins coach Edwin “Doc” Schutte to sign Adams, All-American Dave Quabius and Erwin “Moose” Graf in March 1939 because the final league standings already had been determined.
“We were still in school,” Adams said. “Moose, Dave Quabius and I, but we didn’t all sign at the same time.”
He joined Sheboygan for the season finale March 12, 1939, against the Cleveland White Horses. Adams scored eight points in Sheboygan’s 51-45 loss at the Eagle Auditorium, which seated 1,500 and was housed in the old Playdium Building at 711 New York Ave.
“The fans were very close to the action, but I don’t remember anyone tripping me, hitting me over the head or reaching out and grabbing me,” he said, laughing.
The first World Professional Tournament pitted the nation’s premier teams and was staged in late March 1939 in Chicago. Adams was Sheboygan’s offensive star with 12 points in a 36-29 victory over the famed New York Celtics and a team-best 10 points in a 36-33 loss to the Harlem Globetrotters in the consolation final. The Red Skins earned $200 as a team for the fourth-place finish.
“All I remember is that we played the tournament in an old, broken-down building, the Chicago Coliseum,” Adams said of the Red Skins, who also played a game at the Madison Street Armory. “We did pretty well, beating some good, well-known teams.”
Frank Zummach, who still lives in Sheboygan and plans to turn 98 on Jan. 28, was his coach during Adams’ second season with the Red Skins.
“Sparky was one part of a really good team,” Zummach said of the 6-foot-1, 185-pound forward. “He was a solid player, but he wasn’t outstanding in that group.”
In 1939-40, Sheboygan finished 15-13 and tied the Oshkosh All-Stars for first place in the NBL’s Western Division. Adams played in 26 games and scored 119 points, the Red Skins’ fourth-best output behind all-league forward Rube Lautenschlager, team captain Otto Kolar and offensive workhorse Paul Sokody.
“I thought I did very well,” Adams said. “I did as well as the next guy.”
The Red Skins were ousted by Oshkosh in the decisive Game 3 of the NBL semifinals at the Eagle Auditorium. Adams, a starter, could not remember anything about the game, but Zummach could.
“Somebody fouled (Oshkosh’s) Connie Mack Berry and the crowd began to boo,” Zummach said of the final seconds. “In the little arena we played in, the fans could almost lean over the rim of the basket from the balcony. It got very loud and (referee) Ike Craig called a technical on the house and that blew the game for us.”
Adams’ career in Sheboygan ended with the two-point defeat. He said he was released before the next season, one in which the Red Skins would advance to the NBL finals against Oshkosh.
Adams said that while he played for the Red Skins, he was taken under the wing of a local jeweler, Ed Imig, a team director and future Red Skins president who operated a store on Eighth Street.
“I drove back from my home in Chicago to pick up an engagement ring from him,” Adams recalled.
Adams left Wisconsin for good and was employed from 1942 to 1977 in Chicago and Miami and elsewhere by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“He kind of just dropped off the Earth,” said Zummach, who also coached Adams at Marquette.
Adams, obviously, is unhappy all of his teammates are gone, but he noted one benefit to being the last man standing.
“I can talk about anything I want,” he said. “There’s no one around to deny what I say.”
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MILT SCHOON, center, 1948-50, Sheboygan Red Skins
Milt Schoon is a stoop-shouldered, cane-waving 83-year-old who in his youth wrestled the lions.
In the winter of 1949-50, men wearing the Sheboygan Red Skins’ cardinal and white belonged to the world’s most powerful basketball league: the freshly minted National Basketball Association.
The Gary, Ind.-bred Schoon was the Red Skins’ self-described hatchet man. At 6 feet 7 and 235 pounds, the Sheboygan center mixed it up with 6-10 legend George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers and 6-8 bruiser Alex Groza of the Indianapolis Olympians.
He took on all comers, and, if the need arose, decked opponents into the thinly padded stage only 3 feet from the Armory end line.
“With old George, I’d like to rough him up early and agitate him,” Schoon said last month in the living room of his Janesville, Wis., home. “Then he’d concentrate more on you, and that would hurt his game.”
Schoon teamed with 6-9 Noble Jorgensen to hold Mikan to a then-career-low eight points on March 7, 1950, at the Minneapolis Armory.
“I would rather guard Mikan than Groza,” he said of the NBA’s two leading scorers in 1949-50. “That son of a buck (Groza) would go all over and make you follow him. Big George, you just got him under the rim and fought for position.”
Schoon is still vigorous and his longevity is rare, for the NBA’s pioneers are a vanishing lot. He is the last full-time member of the 1949-50 Red Skins after the deaths in the last year of starters Bobby Cook, Bob Brannum and Jack Burmaster. Schoon’s buddy and former teammate Jack Phelan lives in Sarasota, Fla., but Phelan joined the Red Skins two months into the season.
“Funny, I never considered myself real healthy,” Schoon said. “But I never drank a lot, never got all twisted up. (Wife) Marjorie and I have lived a conservative life.”
If his large figure does not command attention, his crushing handshake and public-address-system voice do. He uses the cane mainly outdoors; at home, he can “bounce off things from the living room to the kitchen.”
Shoot, Schoon is just thankful to be alive. Seven years ago, he cheated death “by five minutes.” He had an aneurysm of the aorta and drove himself to a hospital. It was the same ailment that killed fellow Red Skins pivot man “Jorgy” Jorgensen in 1982 at age 57. Schoon’s doctor told him that 98 percent of patients don’t survive this type of aneurysm.
“I was glad to learn that after it was all done,” he deadpanned.
A month ago, Schoon and his wife accepted an invitation to make a pilgrimage to Sheboygan. They had been back only a handful of times since 1950. Once here, they hopped in their car and searched for 1950 relics.
Tooling around a corner, Schoon spotted an ancient clothier and blurted, “Look, Ma. Art Imig’s. Son of a gun.”
The Schoons devoured bratwurst sandwiches at Charcoal Inn. They drove past old Red Skins watering holes at Eighth Street and Penn Avenue (The Inn was operated by Red Skins director Ted Ziebert) and at Water Street and Penn (where The Chicken Tavern once stood).
They passed their old apartment above a Laundromat at 1937 N. 8th St. and snapped photos along Cambridge Avenue, where they enjoyed living at 1525 with Eclipse Manufacturing Co. foreman Al Pfeiffer and his wife, Edna. Schoon and Pfeiffer loved to fish, and at times the pair found themselves cleaning smelt at 3 a.m.
The Schoons also toured the Municipal Auditorium and Armory, the smallest facility in NBA history, with seating for 3,500. Schoon even poked around the locker rooms and walked the second-level landing, pointing across the way to where WHBL radio announcer Hal O’Halloran sat.
“And the place was always packed,” he said.
Schoon played in all 62 games for the 1949-50 squad, which finished with a 22-40 record. That was good for fourth in the six-team Western Division and earned the team a playoff berth. The Red Skins made national headlines with an early-season, six-game winning streak.
“And no cookies; they were toughies right off the bat,” he said of the string of Armory wins. “Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Rochester Royals, Indianapolis. We’d knock off the big boys, but then the little guys, less effective, would beat us.”
In 1949-50, Schoon averaged 8 points per game on a team-best 41 percent field-goal shooting. The standard for good marksmanship was 33 percent, he said.
“It was the best basketball the people of Sheboygan could see,” Schoon said. “And, boy, were you idolized. Course, I was on the easy side, liked to joke a bit and talk to everybody.”
In summer 1949, Schoon took a job operating a heavy airhammer to supplement his $5,000, six-month basketball salary.
“Man, I was solid,” he said.
Red Skins fans walking down Eighth Street tried to engage the 6-foot-7 laborer with the familiar face.
“If I’d have paid attention to the people, I’d have been waving to them all day.”
Schoon said he valued “the closeness of the players to the town. In Sheboygan, for crying out loud, you got to know everyone and their brother. And it was a closer group of players in Sheboygan than anywhere else I played.”
The former Valparaiso star’s journey to the NBA began with the Detroit Falcons of the Basketball Association of America in 1946-47. Then Schoon played one season with the National Basketball League’s Dow Chemicals of Flint/Midland, Mich.
A year later, he hammered out a deal with Red Skins president Magnus Brinkman and arrived in Sheboygan on Oct. 1, 1948, for the first of two seasons with the Red Skins.
“Magnus Brinkman had Northern Furniture make two 7-foot beds, one for ‘Jorgy’ and one for me,” Schoon said. “And wouldn’t you know it, just last week I gave that bed to my son.”
Brinkman was president of De Land Cheese Co. and known as a tight-fisted contract negotiator.
“He said, ‘You’re going to get this much’ and that was it,” Schoon said. “You couldn’t deal with him. But he knew how to handle money. Man, he was a pistol.”
In the 1948-49 NBL season, Schoon quickly learned about the intense rivalry between the Red Skins and Oshkosh All-Stars and center Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, one of the greatest players of the 1940s. The All-Stars held a 43-39 edge over Sheboygan in an 11-season series.
“He was mean, and Oshkosh worshipped him,” Schoon said of the 6-4, 230-pounder also known as “Lefty.”
“He hit me with that left elbow and I swear my head fell off. That was just open war (with Oshkosh); that’s what that was.”
Schoon’s own rough style did not endear him to some. After one NBA game in 1949, he was approached by the wife of the league’s only 7-footer, a brute who manned the key for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks.
“Don Otten’s wife was going to hit me with her purse, but I put up my arm and blocked it,” Schoon said. “She thought I played dirty. Imagine that.”
Otten’s eight fouls in a 120-113 Red Skins win on Nov. 24, 1949, at the Armory stands as the NBA record.
Schoon finished his career with the Denver Frontier-Refiners of the National Professional Basketball League in 1950-51, a season that featured his pro-record, 64-point outburst against the Kansas City Hi-Spots.
Sitting on the Armory stage last month brought back a groundswell of memories for Schoon. He pointed to the area on the 63-year-old hardwood where Mikan liked to post up, and drew his finger in a semicircle to show how he chased Groza out high.
“And if you won, you were king for a day,” Schoon said, softly.
Then he wiggled down from the stage, gathered his hat and cane, and strolled toward the northwest exit. The sound his hard-soled shoes made pounding the maple bounced off the walls of the empty building.
“You know, I’m lucky to have had that great experience,” he said, opening the back door. “Course, you only recognize it after it’s gone.”
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KEN BUEHLER, forward, 1942-43, 1945-46, Sheboygan Red Skins
When he pedals his bicycle these days in South Palm Beach, Fla. — under palm trees and past Spanish stucco — Ken Buehler is reminded how far he has traveled from Sheboygan and the winter of 1942-43.
Distance aside, many layers of life have been recorded: World War II on an assault transport ship, dental school at Marquette, family, 35 years as a dentist in Menomonee Falls and 20 years of retirement in Florida.
But while Buehler, 88, says he rarely thinks of that winter, he acknowledges it is impossible to forget.
It was his only full season of professional basketball, when he was the third-leading scorer on a Sheboygan Red Skins team that won the city’s only major-league championship. He was named rookie of the year in the National Basketball League, a forerunner of today’s NBA.
“No one ever informed me of (the award),” Buehler said, chuckling. “I was too busy winning the war.”
In 1942, The Sheboygan Press dubbed the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Buehler one of the best “spring men” the Red Skins had ever had.
“I was particularly good at timing the jump,” said Buehler. “I had a way of figuring out how the ball was going to come off the rim and then doing something with it once it came off.”
The season also raised the curtain on a new arena with the NBL’s largest floor: 90 feet by 50 feet. The Red Skins, after occupying the 1,500-seat Eagle Auditorium downtown for their first four seasons, played their first NBL game in the 3,500-seat Sheboygan Armory 65 years ago Sunday. Buehler scored 14 points in the 53-45 win over the Chicago Studebaker Flyers.
“I thought the Armory was great compared to my high school facility,” Buehler said of his prep days in 665-person Edgar, in Marathon County. “We didn’t have any showers and we played in the fire station upstairs, which was set up as a theater. The floor was so short the center circle and free-throw circle overlapped.”
Buehler’s offensive punch with the Red Skins was no more apparent than during an exhibition win over the famed New York Renaissance on Dec. 11, 1942, at the Milwaukee Auditorium. The former Milwaukee State Teachers College star left to a standing ovation after scoring a season-high 30 points.
“Everything went right,” Buehler said. “I even batted in a rebound from the free-throw line with my back to the basket.”
Sheboygan started the 1942-43 season with a 5-2 mark, but lost eight of its next nine games. It appeared the season was slipping away.
Then head coach Carl Roth made an announcement on Jan. 30, 1943, that would alter Sheboygan’s direction. Efforts by the Red Skins Booster Club had enabled the team to sign former Detroit Eagles star Buddy Jeannette, who had been working in a defense plant in Rochester, N.Y.
“They wanted me bad,” Jeannette was quoted in the 1990 book, “Cages to Jump Shots.” “I hemmed and hawed and finally said, ‘Well, I’ll take $500 a game.’ They said, ‘Be here Saturday.’ ”
Jeannette, who arrived when the Red Skins had a 7-10 record, averaged 15.5 points per game playing in four of Sheboygan’s six remaining NBL contests.
“When Buddy Jeannette joined the team, that certainly elevated my hopes,” Buehler said of the 5-11 guard who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. “He was fast and could handle the ball well.”
Jeannette commuted from Rochester for each game and took home his rich earnings (Buehler said he made $200 a month, about the team norm.).
“They paid me in cash,” Jeannette, who died in 1998, told the author Robert W. Peterson. “And when I got on the train at 2 o’clock in the morning (at the Chicago & North Western depot on Pennsylvania Avenue), I’d keep my hand over my money in my inside pocket.”
With Jeannette on board, the team finished 5-1, including a crucial win Feb. 4 over the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons in which Buehler had 19 points. Buehler scored 165 points in 22 games for a productive 7.5 average.
“Where (center and leading scorer) Eddie Dancker was outstanding, Kenny Buehler was right under him,” said former Zollner Pistons coach Carl Bennett, nearly 92 and still in Fort Wayne, Ind. “A good jumper. Ken was just one of those fellas who showed up for work.”
Buehler also showed up for his country. A V-7 reserve, he was called to active duty in mid-February 1943, entered officers’ training school at Columbia University in New York and 90 days later was on a ship carrying troops to the Aleutian Islands. The Red Skins held a special ceremony for him after his last home game on Feb. 15.
“They gave me a black Onyx ring with a Navy emblem on it,” Buehler remembered. “I thanked the Sheboygan fans and said I looked forward to coming back after the war.”
Franchise bedrocks Dancker, No. 2 scorer Rube Lautenschlager and captain Kenny Suesens helped Sheboygan push aside the Oshkosh All-Stars in the first round of the playoffs. Then Suesens anchored a league-leading defense that kept the Red Skins nearly even with the Zollner Pistons in decisive Game 3 of the NBL finals at noisy Fort Wayne North High School.
In that game, on March 9, 1943, Sheboygan trailed 29-28 with 6 seconds left when the ball was pitched to Dancker, who lofted a hook shot from about 25 feet that banked off the board and went in and secured the inaugural Naismith Memorial Trophy.
“I’ll never forget it; that cost us a championship,” Bennett said. “I’m sitting on the bench and Dancker is right in front of me. I could have pulled the hair on his legs. He wasn’t really looking at the basket and just sort of threw it up.”
According to The United Press, there was “a near riot after the final whistle” and police were called.
“Fort Wayne, I think, had a better team, but apparently that wasn’t the case,” Buehler said of the Zollner Pistons, who finished five games ahead of the Red Skins with a 17-6 record.
Buehler kept his word and returned to Sheboygan after the war. He played in three NBL games for Red Skins coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Dutch Dehnert at the end of 1945-46. The next season, he signed with Bennett’s Fort Wayne club and played eight games before developing a knee problem.
“Nobody dunked; nobody ever tried,” said Buehler, recognizing the athletic gulf between eras. “I could get my wrist over the rim, but you’ve got to get up higher than that. I remember talking at length with Kenny Suesens at Pine Hills (country club) years later. He said, ‘We used to stumble over the lines on the floor compared to these guys today.’ ”
Buehler has two faulty knees these days, but he keeps his legs moving, riding his bicycle 30 miles a week under a canopy of palms. And during timeouts, he allows an occasional mental excursion back to his basketball youth when he was Sheboygan’s “spring man.”
(Published Dec. 26, 2008 (Adams); Nov. 20, 2005 (Schoon); and Nov. 26, 2007 (Buehler) in The Sheboygan Press as a staff member of The Des Moines Register)