The Original Nexus of Blacks and Jews in Basketball Pt.8-9

By
Updated: July 11, 2014
erc-188-weztler-clean

by Claude Johnson


On the one hand, the Amateur Athletic Union was quick to boast about the size, scope, relevance and success of New York City’s innovative and progressive Evening Recreation Center program as well as its offshoot, the Evening Recreational Center Athletic League, or E.R.C.A.L.

When the A.A.U., through its publications, promoted the fact that this basketball league was the largest in the country, they were implying too that its massive scale and vast levels of player participation proved its effectiveness in addressing the physical, civic, and moral needs of the communities they served.  Evening Recreation Center No. 188 was the largest of the program’s centers and served the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the section of the city that was most in need of this type of programming.

On the other hand, by the mid-1910s, there was something about E.R.C. 188 that had begun posing a threat to the A.A.U.’s vision to expand the sport at all levels. Its extraordinary success under the management and coaching of Augustus Edward “Jeff” Wetzler had made the center’s basketball program a menace of sorts.

The 1911-12 Evening Recreation Center No. 188 Senior Division basketball team, winners of the 1912 Evening Recreation Athletic League Championship, with Augustus Edward “Jeff” Wetzler (standing, second from left) and Eugene C. Gibney, Supervisor of Playgrounds for New York City (standing, third from right).

E.R.C. 188 had won the E.R.C.A.L. Senior Division basketball championship title in 1912, 1913, and 1914. The center also had won the Junior Division league championship title in 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, and 1914. This basketball program wasn’t just successful, it was dominant. Remember, we’re talking about the entire basketball-playing population of New York City, arguably the best pool of hoopsters in the world. Wetzler’s system of identifying, recruiting, training, motivating, and coaching his players and teams was exceptional by any measure.

Ironically, this very success was against the grain of the Evening Recreation Center’s original charter. From the A.A.U.’s perspective, Wetzler and his teams were just too good.

The reason the A.A.U. had this view was expressed in the article, Discouraging the Reign of “Stars,” which appeared in its official guide for 1914-15:

The novice and ordinary athletes have always been discouraged by the performances of stars. This is in a measure offset by handicapping in track and field athletics, but there can be no such solution of the problem in basket ball. This fact more than anything else retards the growth of the game and the organization of teams. A brilliant team that continually wins championships in the same league naturally will imbue the others with temerity. The less adept aggregations will inevitably demur at meeting opponents whom they believe they have no chance of defeating. In this way entries for tournaments are curtailed and the development of teams is minimized.

There’s no mistaking that this commentary was specifically about Coach Wetzler and his E.R.C. 188 basketball teams. The writing, in effect, was on the wall.

The St. Christopher Club

By the early 1910s, Harlem was still mostly Jewish, as it had been for decades. However, its population and complexion were changing rapidly as the result of a massive influx of African Americans who were migrating out of mid-Manhattan to seek better housing conditions uptown.

This migration began around 1910. That year, St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church, one of the nation’s most prestigious and wealthy black congregations, moved from its previous location on West 25th Street in the predominantly African American section of the city known as the Tenderloin District, to a new site on West 134th Street near Seventh Avenue in Harlem. The move was led by St. Philip’s pastor Reverend Dr. Hutchins Chew Bishop, who in 1896 had organized a community outreach program for youth called the St. Christopher Club.

As the club’s membership grew, what began as Tuesday night Bible study meetings in the church’s parish house expanded into social activities like dances, songfests, choir concerts, and theater productions. Within a decade, athletic teams were added–at first in boxing, then track and field, and in 1907, basketball. The St. Christopher Club even published a monthly magazine, The Red Raven, which was eventually linked to the daunting nickname of its hoops squad–The Red and Black Machine.

manhattan-casino-musicAt the time, the popularity of basketball was exploding among blacks in New York City, thanks to several reasons.

The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, by winning the Colored Basketball World’s Championship in 1908 and 1909, had elevated the game into the headlines of nationally distributed African American newspapers like the New York Age.

In addition, the Manhattan Casino in Harlem, a popular 6,000-capacity multi-purpose ballroom on the southeast corner of Eighth Avenue and West 155th Street, became available as a basketball venue for black teams and had quickly become a destination of choice even for the best out-of-town African American squads–Howard University, the Monticello Athletic AssociationHampton Institute, and others.

“That this game has taken a firm hold of our people has been demonstrated beyond a doubt.”

Because of the Manhattan Casino–which by the way was a Jewish-owned enterprise–the city’s black basketball fans also got to see the country’s best African American teams. “That this game has taken a firm hold of our people has been demonstrated beyond a doubt,” wrote pioneering basketball manager Major Aloysius Hart in 1910, the year he organized the New York All Stars as the first African American play-for-pay squad.[35] Hart, a former U.S. Army rifleman who had served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War in 1898, was correct in his assessment.

“Manhattan Casino: March & Two Step,” a tune by Everett J. Evans, ca. 1910s, celebrates the Harlem dancehall and illustrates its popularity. This sheet music is one of nearly 200 items on display in “The Black Fives,” an exhibition currently at the New-York Historical Society.

But along with being among the most enthusiastic and knowledgable fans in the sport, black basketball followers were also among the most demanding. This in turn rubbed off on the African American teams themselves, in the form of real pressure to stay on top, or improve, or both.

One of the teams on the cusp of success was the St. Christopher Club, which, though ever more competitive since its founding, had not yet brought home a Colored Basketball World’s Championship title. After most of their players joined Hart in defecting from the team to form the All Stars in 1910, the St. C’s, as they were known, took several years to rebuild.

 

Will Anthony Madden, ca. 1915.

When the organization welcomed back former defector Will Anthony Madden for the 1912-13 season, making him the manager of basketball operations and marketing—effectively the general manager—it was a key step for their program because Madden, well-liked and talkative, was able to induce several St. Christopher stars who had left to rejoin the team.madden-carnation

 

The new GM wasted no time. According to a 1931 retrospective account, Madden “almost immediately began to apply his own policies of operation with the result that due to his managerial ability, his unusual personality and his great accomplishment as an ad-writer, the St. Christopher teams rose to their greatest heights, eventually passing all the other clubs.”[36]

But not before their rival in Harlem, the Alpha Physical Culture Club, won the 1912-13 black national title. This raised the stakes even higher on Madden and the St. Christopher Club. It also set the table for Madden’s boldest move yet. Prior to the start of the 1913-14 season, he hired Augustus Edward “Jeff” Wetzler as the St. Christopher Club’s new head basketball coach.

Monopolizing of Prizes

If in 1913 the basketball teams of P.S. 188 and E.R.C. 188 were at the peak of their domination of New York City basketball, then why would “Jeff” Wetzler, so successful in his own Lower East Side community, leave such an apparently awesome situation to work for an organization with with far fewer resources on the opposite end of Manhattan in Harlem?

To answer this question, we have to go back to the A.A.U. and its efforts to prevent brilliant teams from continually winning the same championships in the same leagues. As mentioned, they weren’t just talking about exceptional hoops teams in general; they were talking specifically about Wetzler’s basketball programs. But merely speaking out against E.R.C.A.L. exceptionalism in its publications over the last several seasons had not worked—E.R.C. 188  kept winning championship trophies regardless. So the authorities had had to take additional steps during the 1912-13 season.

The Recreation Center Athletic League, already opposed to the monopolizing of prizes by expert teams, still further reduced the opportunities for “stars” by adopting the following stringent rules:

A player who has won a gold medal (first prize) in the Junior Division of the R.C.A.L. basket ball tournament may compete in the senior class until he has won a gold medal in that division. 

standard-oilA player who has won a gold medal (first prize) in the Senior Division of the R.C.A.L. basket ball tournament will be ineligible to compete in any R.C.A.L. tournament again.

Imagine being one of the best and most renowned basketball coaches in your domain and then having not one or two but all of your championship players declared ineligible so that you would win less.

At precisely the same moment in Harlem, Madden was looking to add more stars so that he could win more.

I wish I knew exactly how the St. C. manager first got to know his new coach. We know that Wetzler’s name was frequently in print and he was distinguished in basketball circles. We also know that, unlike Wetzler, a teacher by training who held official certification and a license from the Board of Education of the City of New York, Madden had no formal educational background beyond having attended DeWitt Clinton High School when it was still located in Greenwich Village.

Though he was the celebrated new basketball manager for the highly visible St. Christopher Club, which was controlled by one the nation’s most exclusive black churches, that wasn’t Madden’s day job. His “real” occupation had him working as a professional messenger in the executive suite of the nine-story Standard Oil Trust Building at 26 Broadway, site of the company’s general marketing headquarters. It was the floor where Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller kept his office.

Lumitone photo print postcard of the Standard Oil Building at 26 Broadway in New York City, ca. 1910s, on display in the Black Fives exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. The structure, in Lower Manhattan, was the headquarters of the Standard Oil Company, where several of New York City’s early black basketball pioneers were employed as messengers, including Will Anthony Madden.

Rockefeller had already retired from day-to-day leadership of the conglomerate by the time Madden was hired around 1905. But his methods continued to have a huge influence within the company and probably also on Madden. “To those who know anything of the way in which Mr. Rockefeller does business,” muckraker Ida Tarbell wrote of the firm’s New York office in her famous 1904 exposé of Standard Oil, “it will go without saying that this marketing department was conducted from the start with the greatest efficiency and economy.”

Madden and Wetzler were like a match made in heaven.

These attributes were perfectly aligned with Madden’s own strengths and sensibilities, which they helped shape and reinforce. He was relentless, detailed, picky, well-written, and unflinching, which eventually earned him the nickname “Little Napoleon.”

Madden sought those same qualities in a basketball coach. He was upgrading the St. C. program beyond where it had ever been. The general manager wanted Wetzler for his unmatched experience, his precise knowledge of the game, his tenacity, his coaching skills, and his style with players. Madden and Wetzler were like a match made in heaven.

By implementing a rigorous training program and introducing the latest techniques in “scientific basketball,” Wetzler produced rapid results with lasting value.  His strategies and game plans implemented with the St. Christopher Club became known as “the famous Wetzler system.”

The signing of the new coach also helped Madden attract several noteworthy young players into the St. Christopher Club’s junior talent pipeline. “Wetzler was responsible for the development of many famous athletes in Harlem,” the Amsterdam News reported. “He taught the great ‘Fat’ Jenkins basketball from the time ‘Fat’ was barely able to hold a basketball in his hands.”[37]

Clarence “Fats” Jenkins eventually would play the game during four different decades, become basketball’s first African American superstar, and captain the New York Renaissance for nearly two decades, leading them to win the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball in 1939.

The New York Age understood Wetzler’s significance[38]:

The St. Christophers have in Mr. Jeff Wetzler of E.R.C. 188 a good coach. Mr. Wetzler has turned out some of the best teams of the Evening Recreation Centers, winning the championship five years in succession. And the St. C. boys have certainly improved under his zealous coaching.

9

Irving Rose The St. Christopher Club basketball team, circa 1919.

Irving Rose with the St. Christopher Club ca. 1919, in the only photograph of him known to exist.

For the 1913-14 season, the St. Christopher Club had a strong roster that included former Hampton Institute center Charles “Charlie” Bradford, former Smart Set Athletic Club star Ferdinand Accooe, and a sensational young athlete from Chicago named Frederick “Fritz” Pollard who was a freshman at Brown University. Pollard, formerly a three-spot star at Lane Tech High School, would join Brown’s football team the following year and lead the school to a Rose Bowl appearance against Washington State University. The future Pro Football Hall of Fame member visited New York City on at least two occasions to play basketball for the St. Christopher Club as well as to compete in sprint and hurdle events at a major track meet staged by the Smart Set Athletic Club.[39] 

The St. Christophers also had a history-making new player named Irving Rose, who had been brought in by Wetzler from one of his Evening Recreation Center No. 188 teams. Rose was Jewish, and this was the first time ever that a white player had played for an African American basketball team.

Very little is known about Rose or his family background, but this much is clear: he quickly became a dominant force for the “Red and Black Machine.”

“It was during this season that the St. Christopher Club of St. Philip’s parish reached the highest point of efficiency and its teams swept everything before them,” the New York Age recalled later[40]. “Mr. Madden had a squad of players numbering about thirty under his charge and working in conjunction with him was “Jeff” Wetzler, the famous Recreation Center Coach, Mr. Madden securing Mr. Wetzler’s services after much hard effort.”

With his new coach from the Lower East Side at the helm, Will Anthony Madden and the “Red and Black Machine” won the 1913-14 Colored Basketball World’s Championship.

1913-14-stc-wetzler

This national title was huge not only for Madden and his team but also for the entire athletic organization, for St. Philip’s Church, and for black Harlem itself.

It was especially remarkable for Wetzler because all this time he had simultaneously continued to manage and coach his E.R.C. No. 188 basketball program, which, incredibly, won yet another E.R.C.A.L. title in both weight divisions!

The Wetzler Clause

Obviously, the A.A.U.’s new rules that it believed would restrict “the reign of stars” had absolutely no affect as far as preventing this particular coach and team from winning. So, at the end of the 1913-14 season, the Amateur Athletic Association reached the following conclusion[41]:

The enforcement of these rules did not, however, deter the two teams of E.R.C. No. 188 from capturing both junior and senior championships again. The phenomenal success of the teams of this center, both in our own and in other leagues, naturally dampened the ardor of the other teams. Perceiving that the extraordinary prowess of the teams of No. 188 was in a measure, discouraging competition, it was arranged to have the center temporarily withdraw from future tournaments conducted by this league.

To appreciate how phenomenal Wetzler’s success was, remember that New York City’s E.R.C.A.L. was the largest basketball league in the country. Each of its dozens of centers had hundreds of players from which to choose. 

Furthermore, Wetzler’s teams kept winning despite the A.A.U.’s special maneuverings and the imposition of what might as well have been called the Wetzler Clause. One could argue that E.R.C. No. 188 had a never-ending pool of amazing talent on the Lower East Side, which arguably had many of the city’s best players. But what if Wetzler’s system was so effective it did not matter who was on his roster? What if he didn’t need stars? Isn’t this what the A.A.U.’s vision was all about? It didn’t matter—he was kicked out of the league anyway.

But what if Wetzler’s system was so effective it did not matter who was on his roster? What if he didn’t need stars? Isn’t this what the A.A.U.’s vision was all about? It didn’t matter—he was kicked out of the league anyway.

Knowing that he would not be coming back to the Evening Recreation Center Athletic League, Wetzler went out in style.

The final game of the 1913-14 E.R.C.A.L. championship tournament, described as ”the most hair raising event ever held by the league,” pitted E.R.C. 84, the champions of Brooklyn and considered “the finest team that ever represented that borough,” against Wetzler and his Manhattan champion E.R.C. 188 team.[42]

Here is what happened:

The intricate floor formations used to score points by both sides kept the spectators constantly cheering. With only one minute and ten seconds to play the score showed that the team of E. R. C. No. 188, champions for three seasons, were five points behind their opponents, No. 84, and apparently hopelessly defeated. The well known spirit of “never quit,” however, turned the scales. A rapid and amazing interchange of players and positions in 188″s team gave it new life, and with three well worked signal plays from center and side-lines the team finally won by a score of 18-17.

The courage and tenacity engendered by years of good basket ball training enabled this remarkable team to snatch a seemingly impossible victory at the very last moment. The gratifying phase of the game was the fact that the play was not once interrupted by protest or by argument of any kind, and at the finish the members of both teams were warm friends.

This was Wetzler’s system of “scientific basket ball” at work. It would be his last game with Evening Recreation Center No. 188, well appreciated by Eugene C. Gibney, Supervisor of Playgrounds for New York City[43]:

It is a great tribute to the Recreation Center Athletic League to be able to claim the credit of developing two such magnificent teams, masters of the game, masters of the rules, and masters of themselves—good losers and complacent victors.

Now What?

Wetzler and his system were famous. He had appeared in several nationally distributed A.A.U. publications, both in photographs and in print, as well as in the sports sections of local newspapers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Moreover, the popularity of basketball was exploding. Now that Wetzler was free agent, would he test the market to determine his value as a coach? The coach, temporarily without a team, probably could have landed a position with any number of programs at any level—professional, collegiate, or interscholastic.

Wetzler did in fact get the coaching assignment with a newly organized club called the New York Post Office Basketball Team, which consisted of “five men who know the game to perfection and whose ‘team work’ cannot be duplicated.” Naturally, two of the N.Y.P.O. players were former E.R.C. No. 188 stars. Wetzler’s “years of experience in coaching have made him one of the foremost men in his line, and whose record of turning out championship teams is unequaled.”[44]

St. Christopher Club basketball team, ca. 1918

The basketball team of the St. Christopher Club, c. 1918, featuring a young Paul Robeson (second from left), Charles Bradford (fourth from left), Irving Rose (sixth from left), George “Georgie” Fiall (third from right), and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins (second from right).

But he didn’t stay long with the Post Office squad. Instead, Wetzler’s focus was now 100% with the St. Christopher Club.

Black Team, White Coach: A First

The racial integration of New York City’s public school system had progressed so well in the late 1890s that by 1900 only three African American schools remained—one in Manhattan and two in Brooklyn. “The colored people do not want separate schools and there seems to be very little opposition to their presence in the ordinary schools,” the city’s Board of Education observed. The real problem, they admitted, was with black teachers[45]:

While there is no objection to the presence of colored pupils in the schools, the parents of white children resent the appointment of colored teachers. There are about a dozen of such in the city and it is a great problem where to locate them. No school wants them.

This was definitely not the case when the tables were turned; it was commonplace for black schools to have white teachers. But would this translate into basketball? In other words, would a team of African American players appreciate a Caucasian coach?

For that matter, would black players accept a white player on their roster? How would African American basketball fans feel about that? Would white fans appreciate a white player on an African American team?

These questions probably seem strange today, but back then they were of real concern. It took courage even to imagine mixing it up like this.

Yet, press coverage of the St. Christopher Club in African American newspapers didn’t make a big deal out of their coach’s race. Neither did Madden himself[46]:

In my opinion, Mr. “Jeff” Edward Wetzler is the best basketball coach in the game to-day and his record is a wonderful one. I was after Mr. Wetzler for several seasons but I wasn’t successful in landing him until this season. I feel well repaid for my hard work and untiring efforts to give my squad the best of everything and as long as I handle them I shall see that my boys continue to get the best.

When the team traveled, local black sportswriters would mention Wetzler’s appearances as well as his nonappearances.  “One muddle after another indicated the absence of Jeff Wetzler from the coaching line,” the Baltimore Afro American reported after a particularly disappointing and unexpected St. Christopher Club loss to Hampton Institute in 1916.[47] “Basketball games are won these days in much the same fashion as modern warfare,” the astute Afro-American reporter continued.  “It is the brain behind the movement that counts.”

Though it was said that Madden was after Wetzler for a long time and only secured him “after much hard effort,” the young coach would stay with the St. Christopher Club for the long run, even after Madden himself left the organization at the beginning of the 1914-15 season to form the all-black New York Incorporators semi-pro team. In fact, the two remained close. Even more so after Madden became the basketball editor for the New York Age in October 1915[48].

The other night I met my erstwhile coworker and friend, “Jeff” Wetzler. After preliminaries, our conversation naturally reverted to basketball and we exchanged many views and opinions. “Jeff” is very optimistic about his teams for this season and expects great results. He mentioned one player on the St. Christopher squad in whom he puts a world of dependence. Rumor has it that this player is guarded very closely by St. Christopher and when we think of it, I don’t suppose we can blame them, as he is indeed worth his weight in gold.

The player in question was very likely a young man named Paul Robeson, who had just become the third African American student ever enrolled at Rutgers University, and who would become a four-sport superstar athlete for the school. Robeson, who played with the St. Christopher Club’s basketball team throughout his time at Rutgers, would earn first-team All-American honors in football during his junior and senior years there before becoming a world-renowned singer, actor, and human rights activist.

incorporators-e1395678458481

Madden’s new Incorporators team, with one of the strongest rosters ever seen, would win the 1915-16 Colored Basketball World Championship. Meanwhile, “Jeff” Wetzler continued coaching the St. Christopher Club. They had been weakened by the departure of Madden along with several key players, but this allowed the team to develop some of its younger talent, including Robeson, as mentioned, George “Headacheband” Capers, and the Jenkins brothers—Clarence or “Fats,” Harold “Legs” Jenkins, and James Jenkins.[49] The use of younger players was a particular blessing for Irving Rose, who rose to the occasion and became perhaps the team’s biggest talent.

After one St. Christopher loss to Hampton Institute, the New York Age wrote[50]:

Irving Rose was easily the star of the game. In fact, Rose is the only one of the old machine who has not gone back. Rose played his game as he alone can play it, and was all over the court playing guard as well as forward and bringing many of his accurate shots.

Following another loss, this time to the Alpha Physical Culture Club, the New York Age reported[51]:

Once again, Irving Rose was the mainstay of St. Christopher’s team. Although he was somewhat “off” in his foul shooting in one part of the game he soon steadied himself and registered shot after shot. Several times he caged sensational field goals that brought the score closer and closer to Alpha.

Rose’s play was so outstanding that Madden, also the New York Age basketball editor, had to say something about him when it came time to make the newspaper’s Black All American selections[52]:

The other player I wish to mention is Irving Rose. True, Rose is a white boy and couldn’t very well be on an All American colored team, but as he is a colored club member he comes in for the credit that is due to a hard, strong player with plenty of grit, and who is always in fine physical condition. Rose also is one of New York’s best shots.

That’s quite amazing, any way you look at it.

Wetzler’s Legacy

“Jeff” Wetzler would continue with the St. C.’s through the 1919-20 season, winning four Colored Basketball World’s Championship titles.

Inexplicably, he was “released” by the organization prior to the 1920-21 season, replaced by Charles Bradford as head coach. This coincided with the departure of St. Christopher Club athletic director Rev. Everard Daniel, the man who had headed the unique sports organization since 1905. “There was a sad note in the passing of Wetzler from the scene of basketball activities here, something that hurt him to the very core,” recalled his friend, the long time Amsterdam News sportswriter Romeo Dougherty.[53] After that, and with full professionalism on the horizon, the famous “Red and Black Machine” began to fade.

Irving Rose would stay attached to the St. Christopher Club, attending reunions such the one held in 1932 at the Alhambra Ballroom in Harlem, the account of which mentioned him in the same sentence as New York Renaissance basketball team owner Bob Douglas.[54] I wish I knew more about whatever became of him. He dropped out of the news with the decline of his old team.

In 1924, Wetzler married Estelle Pear, the daughter of Jewish immigrants Max Pear from Lithuania and Ida Marom from Germany. It was the bride’s second marriage. The couple had one daughter, Elenor. It appears that Wetzler retired from the court game after starting a family, and little else is known about his life after this point.[55]

Famed Coach of St. Christopher Succumbs
JEFF WETZLER IN HIS LAST BATTLE
Great Coach Played Game Against Death and Lost Battle

So read the headline on the front page of the sports section in one of America’s leading African American newspapers, the Amsterdam News, on Thursday, August 10, 1935.

“Athletic fans and basketball enthusiasts of former years were shocked to learn that Jeff Wetzler, famous coach of the many St. Christopher Club basketball teams in the years when basketball was at its zenith in Harlem, died in Lincoln Hospital Sunday,” the News reported that day.

Just a few months before his death, Wetzler had been the special guest of Charles Bradford for an evening of basketball at the Renaissance Casino, where New York City’s best high school club teams were playing in the annual Boys of Yesteryear inter-borough championship.  Bradford had since been elected to the City Council as an Alderman representing Harlem.

Wetzler spoke to the ballroom audience in support of Bradford’s reelection bid and “all about the old-timers and the present day balltossers.”

“On his deathbed his final words to his wife were, ‘Find Charlie Bradford and tell him to notify ‘Fat’ Jenkins and all the boys that Jeff is gone,’” Dougherty related to his readers, so many of whom were fans of the well loved coach. Bradford and several of Wetzler’s former managers and players did indeed attend his funeral, it was reported.[56]

jeff-wetzlerBut Was He Jewish?

One last question does remain of Wetzler: was he Jewish? On the one hand, historical records and newspaper accounts do not indicate Wetzler’s religion nor whether his players, his fans, or any newspapers cared about this one way or another. On the other hand, the dying coach seems to have wanted something made known.

“Contrary to popular belief here, Jeff was not Jewish,” Dougherty, the Amsterdam News reporter, deduced. “Before he died he requested Roman Catholic funeral rites and was buried in a Lutheran cemetery.”[57] However, although Wetzler is indeed buried at Lutheran Cemetery in Queens, New York, this does not by itself confirm his faith. That historic non-sectarian burial ground is known today as All Faiths Cemetery, which, as its name suggests, has been interring members of all religions, including the Jewish faith, since 1852.

Closer to the point, his descendants believe that Wetzler was Methodist. “He was one of my great-grandmother’s sixteen brothers and sisters,” says Jim Cusick, who has compiled his family’s genealogical history.[58] “That he chose Roman Catholic funeral rites is not surprising to me, as I know his older sister Julia was Roman Catholic so the religion was in the family.”

But some doubt remains. “The record from Lutheran Cemetery shows that the plot was purchased by his mother Eleanora in April of 1892,” Cusick continues, “but no mention is made of religion or funeral ceremonies for any of its occupants, only dates and places of death.”

Ultimately though, regardless of his religion, “Jeff” Wetzler, also known as Augustus Edward Wetzler, was an important pioneer of early black basketball and race relations in the game.

Ultimately though, regardless of his religion, “Jeff” Wetzler, also known as Augustus Edward Wetzler, was an important pioneer of early black basketball and race relations in the game. “Finding himself in an atmosphere equal to any he might have chosen in Great New York, the white boy pitched in and became the outstanding coach among the Negro teams,” Dougherty explained, two weeks after his death.[59] “Jeff was totally color blind,” Dougherty continued, speaking of the coach’s time in Harlem. “While it is true that a white man working along with Negroes at some time or other in his career would run up against the snags that would exasperate him to the point of feeling that he is a thing apart, it never happened in the case of Wetzler, and he never forgot the years he spent here,” Dougherty reminisced. “Some of the most pleasant of my life,” the coach had told him.

Wetzler played an instrumental role in the success of the famous all-black St. Christopher Club. As their head coach during the 1910s—originally hired by pioneering African American basketball manager, promoter, owner, and journalist Will Anthony Madden—he redefined the way coaches were utilized and viewed in the still-emerging world of African American basketball. 

Wetzler was the first professional coach among Black Fives Era teams, breaking the custom of selecting basketball coaches as volunteers from within club ranks, and was also the first white coach of an all-black basketball team.

Finally, he brought with him Irving Rose, not only the first white player to join an all-black basketball squad but also the first Jewish athlete to play alongside African Americans in the sport.

Last Word

Decades later, Paul Robeson would write that by being the only white Jewish player on an otherwise all-black team, his friend and St. Christopher teammate Irving Rose was simply “accenting the oneness of our American dream.”[60]

Amen.

Claude Johnson
President & Executive Director
The Black Fives Foundation
BlackFives.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>