Thursday, May 27, 2021

No. 422: An Excellent Book about How Bill Garrett Broke the Color Line in Big Ten Basketball

Many people know Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color line in major league baseball. However, few people know Bill Garrett of Indiana University (IU) broke the color line in Big Ten basketball.

The Book
In 2006, a friend sent me a just-published book entitled Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball. I read the book and found it excellent. Recently I reread the book and decided to prepare this blog post.

The Authors
Getting Open was written by the father-daughter team of Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody. Tom grew up in Garrett's home town of Shelbyville, Indiana, graduated from Harvard Law School, and became an international trade lawyer. He was on the freshman basketball team at IU and knew many of Garrett's coaches, teammates, and fans. Rachel is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Divinity School, where she focused on African American studies.

The Book's Structure
The first part of the book ends with Shelbyville High School's victory in the 1947 Indiana state high school basketball championship. The Shelbyville starting lineup that year consisted of five seniors, including Garrett and two other outstanding black players. The second part of the book describes the "gentleman's agreement" that had prevented blacks from playing basketball in the Big Ten conference, and how the agreement was breached.

The Garrett Story
After Shelbyville won the Indiana high school championship in 1947, and after Garrett was named Mr. Indiana Basketball, many people wanted Garrett to enroll in the fall at IU. Great black athletes had been playing football at IU for years. But Garrett decided to enroll at Tennessee State University in Nashville.

Garrett transferred to IU in 1947 from Tennessee State during the legendary tenures of IU president Herman B Wells and IU head basketball coach Branch McCracken. When I arrived at IU in 1962, I began getting my hair cut in the men's barber shop in IU's Indiana Memorial Union. I learned from my barber there that Wells years earlier had fired the barber shop's manager, because he had refused to cut the hair of blacks. Wells had taken many other steps to open up IU, and he also was a staunch defender of academic freedom. Garrett became an outstanding basketball player at IU.

The Robinson Story
The book includes extensive material about Robinson. On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers broke the color line in major league baseball when Robinson started at first base on opening day at Ebbets Field. Branch Rickey, then the president of the Dodgers, often told a story that had haunted him for many years. In 1910, when Rickey was the baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, his team had a black catcher named Charles Thomas. A hotel in South Bend, Indiana, where Rickey's team was to play Notre Dame, refused to give Thomas a room. The hotel, when pressed, agreed to put an extra cot in Rickey's room. When Rickey got to the room, he found Thomas sitting on the cot in tears, pulling at the skin on his hands, and saying, "It's my skin, Mr. Rickey. If I could pull it off, I'd be just like everybody else."

In World War II, blacks served in the military to defend our country, and many died. After the war, there was much talk about the absence of blacks in major league baseball. Rickey asked his scouts to find an outstanding black player. They located Robinson, who had been a four-sport college athlete in California, and who was playing for a black professional baseball team. When Rickey and Robinson met, Rickey asked: "Have you got the guts to play the game no matter what happens?" Robinson asked: "Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?" Rickey replied: "I'm looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!"

In 1946, when I was a high school junior, I played second base for Nottingham High School in my home town of Syracuse, New York. That year I got an early look at Robinson. I attended a game between the Syracuse Chiefs, then a farm team for the Cincinnati Reds, and the Montreal Royals, then a farm team for the Dodgers. Robinson played in the game, and I could tell he was very talented.

General Observations
Getting Open remains in print, and is incredibly interesting. I strongly recommend the book, especially for readers interested in the history of race relations in America.