Two Books on Baseball Show How Racial Change Came to the Teams

By Joseph Rosenberg
Updated: November 10, 2005

Praying For Gil Hodges: A Memoir of the 1955 World Series and One family’s Love of The Brooklyn Dodgers by Thomas Oliphant St. Martin’s Press, 2005

Cousy: His Life, Career, and the Birth of Big-Time Basketball by Bill Reynolds Simon & Schuster, 2005

Two new books released earlier this year deal with the post-war revolution in American sports. This revolution presaged a change in American society and the emergence of two major professional sports, basketball and football. Neither book is restricted to the immediate subject. The book on basketball icon Bob Cousy deals with the growth of the National Basketball Association; the Dodger book is a virtual tour of the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1941 forward.

With the advent of free agency and the megalomania of most owners, sports have become another item in the trivialization of entertainment venues. Cohesive teams like the Dodgers and Celtics are obsolete.

The subtext of both books is the emergence of African-American athletes into mainstream America. Bob Cousy entered the NBA just as it was emerging into public conscience. The NBA was started by a group of arena owners who relied on college basketball games, ice shows and circuses. After several leagues were formed in many East Coast and Midwest cities, the popular college game received most of the fan attention. It took the basketball scandals of early 1950’s to create interest in the professional version, as the college game was de-emphasized in the press. Also, the college game was banned from major arenas, making the spread of professional basketball a financial imperative for the arena owners.

Cousy, with his great ball-handling skills, was a major attraction. When the NBA integrated, with the Celtic’s signing of Chuck Cooper in 1950, Cousy did everything to make Cooper as comfortable as he made Bill Russell when he joined the Celtics. Cousy may not have been as good a ball-handler as Marcus Haynes of the Globetrotters, or as good a shooter as Oscar Robertson, but he was a gate attraction. Cousy never brought the Celtics a championship until Russell arrived, and he played at a time when only Russell, Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor played above the rim.

Just as Branch Rickey was criticized for exploiting African Americans in the name of the integration of baseball, the NBA owners’ only interest was getting people to go to their games.

That is why Cousy’s personal relationship with Cooper and Russell and other African Americans and his role in the forming of a Players Association were unique. Even though Boston was hostile to African Americans, the Celtics did little to ease the integration.

On the other hand, the Brooklyn Dodgers did their best to help African-Americans in their employ deal with the racism rampant throughout America. Even Walter O’Malley followed Branch Rickey’s lead in this regard, in comparison with the benign attitude of the NBA owners. This was why the Dodgers were so popular and became a cultural phenomenon worthy of books like Oliphant’s.

Bob Cousy was an intense competitor who coached and commented on basketball after he retired. Although he spent time with the same types of gamblers that corrupted college basketball, he handled the accusations with the same kind of class he showed as a Celtic.

1955 was the high-water mark for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Soon they were moved to Los Angeles, where they won championships and became heroes to a new city, but for Brooklyn Dodger fans it was never the same.

With the advent of free agency and the megalomania of most owners, sports have become another item in the trivialization of entertainment venues. Cohesive teams like the Dodgers and Celtics are obsolete, as are many of the attitudes of athletes like Bill Russell and Bob Cousy. If rooting for the New York Yankees was like rooting for US Steel, then the best a modern fan can root for is that a favorite team has no incidents of substance abuse and criminal behavior during the season. A far cry from a Dodger-Yankee or a Celtic-Warrior face off. How many of us would like to see, for one last time, Cousy make a behind-the-back pass or Robinson dance off first base, now that we’ve seen the impermanence of champions in the 21st century?