A Brush With History

By Claude Johnson
Updated: April 20, 2009

CONNECTICUT — Did one devastating punch thrown by a basketball player in an unrelated game threaten to derail Jackie Robinson’s baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers?

That’s what many believed, in February, 1947.

Robinson had won a spot on the Montreal Royals, the minor league farm team of the Dodgers, and was in spring training at the time. But although he was under consideration by Branch Rickey, Robinson had not yet been called up to the majors and was not yet on the Dodgers roster for Opening Day. No one was sure what would happen.

Therefore, all eyes were not only on Jackie’s conduct, but also on the behavior of all African American athletes.

Including those in basketball.

For the 1946-47 season, the National Basketball League had signed four black players: William “Dolly” King with the Rochester Royals, Willie King with the Detroit Gems, Bill Farrow with the Youngstown Bears, and future Basketball Hall of Fame member William “Pop” Gates with the Buffalo Bisons. (In January, the Bisons became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, representing Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa.)

Because they were on teams all over the N.B.L., these players were under constant scrutiny by league officials.

Therefore, the reaction to what happened next is really no surprise.

In February, during a crucial N.B.L. game between the Blackhawks and the Syracuse Nationals, Gates was involved in a highly publicized on-court fight with veteran Nationals player John “Chick” Meehan.

Meehan was the “Nats” best player. Moreover, in the words of John Christgau, author of “Tricksters In The Madhouse” , he was “a local boy who had made good,” and “as brash as he was handsome.” Meehan also had “a reputation as a pugnacious defender,” but he couldn’t stop Gates that day, and that’s what got him in trouble. Gates was considered by many to be one of the best player in the N.B.L.

The game was rough, and, according to witnesses, featured extra-curricular activity on both sides. Toward the end of regulation time, Meehan and Gates both found themselves going after a loose ball. But Gates got there first and Meehan went flying. “The left side of his face hit the floor hard and made a noise like a bowling ball striking a pin,” Christgau writes.

Meehan got up and squared off threateningly against Gates. But without missing a beat, Gates sent a crushing right cross to the side of Meehan’s face. The husky Syracuse player crumpled to the floor; he was out cold.

A near-riot ensued, with Meehan still on unconscious on the court surrounded by the melee. Gates was eventually escorted out of the arena by police and National Guard troops.

A few days later, Syracuse Post-Standard sportswriter Bill Reddy made the inevitable connection to Robinson:

It was an unfortunate affair, that flareup by Pop Gates of the Moline Blackhawks at the armory on Monday night, and there’s little doubt that nobody regrets it more than Gates. He’s a really good basketball player, one who’d help any club in the National league. He’s a “cutie,” as are most veterans of pro basketball play, and Pop had several years’ experience with the New York Renaissance team before moving in the NBL this season.

Because of officiating which was downright pitiful, players on both sides were getting away with most of the tricks in the book. Gates wasn’t more of an offender in that respect than many others on both clubs, but Gates’ experience helped him. He was cute enough to cover up so well that altho he committed fouls on nearly every play, only two personal fouls had been charged against him up to the time he lost his temper.

This wasn’t a pretty game to watch. It was a vital game for both clubs, and both went all-out to win. The result was that they played the old-time type of pro basketball, a knock-down-drag-out affair in which clever plays were at a minimum, in which the real finesse and thrilling deception of other games was replace to a great extent by brute strength.

The tough part of it for the Syracuse Nats is that Gates’ punch which ripped open Chick Meehan’s eye, means that Chick will be lost for some time to the team and the team needs Meehan. The big-shouldered Syracusan with the wide grin has become one of the most valuable team players in the league, for he can stop the high scorers and he sink ’em himself.

Chick won’t make the trip to Toledo tomorrow, when the Nats try to keep the Jeeps out of Syracuse’s hard-won third place spot. Moreover, it’s extremely unlikely that Chick will be ready for Saturday night’s big game in Rochester, a game which might be won with Meehan available, since the fearsome Royals have been skidding of late.

If Meehan were available for these two games, the Nats might have clinched a playoff spot this week. If they can come through to a win in either game without the CBA product, they’ll have done marvelously well on the road.

The tough part of it, for Gates, is that he happens to be a Negro, one of three Negroes in the league, which had none in the league prior to this season. Any other player might have punched an opponent, might have caused just as much furor. I doubt if any other player in the league could have thrown such a punch — Pop’s really beautiful wallop would have shamed most professional boxers but that’s beside the point.

Jackie Robinson is slated for a major league trial with the baseball Dodgers; the National Basketball league is placing no bar against Negro competitors, yet when something like this happens, it sets back the fight for equality which Negroes have been waging so hard. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so. Unfortunately, it is so.

Robinson was a model of behavior with the Royals last season; Dolly King, Negro player with the Rochester Royals, is as fine and intelligent a gentleman as you’ll find anywhere in sports. Gates himself isn’t ordinarily a wild-eyed rowdy, but rather a smooth slick player.

It’s a shame that, because of bad officiating, such a situation was permitted to develop.

“Meehan got chesty with me and I decked him,” Gates said later, insisting that Meehan had thrown him down twice earlier in the game. Still, Gates subsequently wrote a letter of apology to Meehan, who was hospitalized for weeks. The two had met many times before.

Meehan, for his part, acknowledged this. “He’s thrown everything in the book at me,” he said, “and the same goes for the way I’ve treated him.” More strikingly, Meehan went to considerable lengths to explain something. “This wasn’t one of those racial affairs,” he insisted, to reporters.

But the Blackhawks dropped Gates before the end of the season. The rest of the N.B.L. did the same with their black players. Many, like historian Christgau, felt that the league simply “purged” its African American players out of fear.

Gates rejoined the New York Rens after leaving the Blackhawks. Ironically, he came back to the N.B.L. a year later when the Rens team replaced the league’s financially disabled Detroit franchise as the Dayton Rens.

In Gates’ obituary, The New York Times called the Meehan punch a “nasty incident.” Nevertheless, Gates was eventually enshrined in Basketball Hall of Fame, although still not without significant lobbying by black journalists like Howie Evans of the Amsterdam News.

Robinson, as we all know, did make the Dodgers and his debut was on April 15, 1947 — 62 years ago.