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Breaking Barriers: College Basketball in the 1950ís

Mr. Wattenberg: Hello Iím Ben Wattenberg. In 1950 3 Jews and 2 blacks all local New Yorkers made college sports history and helped change Americaís attitudes about race and religion. They were the starting 5 of the Coty College of New York basketball team. They are the only team to win the NIT and NCAA tournament in the same year. The following season a gambling scandal would eclipse the teamís brilliant accomplishments and darken college basketball for years to come. Today in another of Think Tankís programs on sports and society we revisit this incredible moment in American culture. Think Tank is joined by Stanley Cohen a sports writer and author of several books including his stunning work, The Game They Played, and Mel Elfin, New York Sports savant, former Washington bureau chief of Newsweek and former Executive editor of US News and World Reportís ďAmericaís Best CollegesĒ. The topic before the house: Breaking Barriers, college basketball in the 1950ís. This week on Think Tank.

Mr. Wattenberg: Stanley Cohen, Mel Elfin, old friend, new friend, welcome to Think Tank. We have what I consider a fascinating story that I remember bits and pieces of because I went to high school at about that time. So Stanley, why donít you be our Sherpa and take us through the exercise and we will agree and disagree on a comment.
Mr. Cohen: In those years there were two major basketball tournaments, the NIT National Invitation Tournament and the NCAA which now is the principle tournament. In those days the NIT was most prestigious. The 1949, í50 City College basketball team was the only team ever to win both tournaments in the same season consecutively. What you need to understand to place this in perspective is that City College was at that time called the Harvard of New York. In that it was a very prestigious academic school. They turned out record numbers of Nobel Prize winners and had Supreme Court judges. And academically it was the ultimate meritocracy. You had to qualify to get in. No one cared who your father was, what your name was, where you came from. You took the exam and had the grades and either you got in or you didnít.
Mr. Elfin: One thing to remember, okay, there was no tuition.
Mr. Cohen: Oh yes, it was free.
Mr. Elfin: Thatís very importantÖ
Mr. Cohen: It certainly was.
Mr. Elfin: Öduring that time sociologically.
Mr. Cohen: Thatís right, there was no tuition. There is something else I think should be mentioned about City College. Tuition for private schools for most of us you know who had immigrant parents was out of the question. And if you wanted to get anywhere and get a college degree, you had to be able to get into City College. Every time I would bring home a not so terrific grade from junior high school or high school my father would say, 'You better get that up; you have to go to City College. You have to be able to get in.' And so City College to us was a life preserver. It was a way out of working in the garment district or you know the menial jobs you now tailors and so forth that our grandparents and parents went into from the old country. If you wanted to be professional in any sense of the word, you had to get a college degree and this was the only place that you knew would take you.
Mr. Wattenberg: Well you know, thereís an aspect of that that was true not only in New York, but across the country. I mean Abraham Lincoln setup the land grant colleges and while I guess most of them charged some tuition for in-state residents. Basically one of the unique hallmarks of American life has been that a kid who really wants to go to college can go to college. And thatís unique in the modern world, I mean not today, but for 100 years at least. Itís contributed greatly to the meritocracy of this country. But some of these guys who got in did not really pass the academic threshold. There was some hanky-panky going on.
Mr. Cohen: It turned out later that at least two of the players had their transcripts doctored.
Mr. Wattenberg: Ed Warner and...?
Mr. Cohen: Ed Warner and Al Roth.
Mr. Wattenberg: So there was already, it was a culture of hanky-panky, thatís the way the world works.
Mr. Cohen: Oh yeah, absolutely. But I mean, still in all, the rest of the team you talk about a 12, 15 man team.
Mr. Wattenberg: All right, so they start the season, this is the 19, the first year these freshmen are playing is what year?
Mr. Cohen: Well the freshmen, their freshmen season...
Mr. Wattenberg: No, no, no, but...
Mr. Cohen: The varsity was 1949.
Mr. Wattenberg: 1949 and they start winning and winning and winning?
Mr. Cohen: Yes, but it should be pointed out itís not that they had an enormously good record, they had a reasonable record. But, another interesting thing about it, the City College team was ranked 17th in the nation at the end of the season. They were invited to the NIT Tournament probably at least in part because they were a New York team and the entire NIT Tournament was played at Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Wattenberg: Right.
Mr. Cohen: They did not have an NCAA bid until they won the NIT tournament. They said, 'Well they won the NIT, you know we ought to give them the bid to the NCAA.' The NCAA in those years had only I think eight teams from four different sections of the country. And City College was not supposed to be one of them. When they won the NIT they included them. Now they went ahead and won the NCAA as well which nobody expected.
Mr. Wattenberg: And no one will ever do that again.
Mr. Cohen: No one will ever do it again because the tournaments are setup differently now. It canít happen again unless they change the rules. But, it hadnít been done then, and as you say probably will never be done again making it more interesting is the fact that it was done by a city college team as opposed to one of the basketball emporiums where they recruited players from all over the country. Everybody in City College was a citizen of City College and went to City College.
Mr. Wattenberg: Was a resident of New York City.
Mr. Cohen: They had to be a resident of New York City.
Mr. Wattenberg: Which at that time was for the basketball capital of the world, I mean for a while it was Indiana with Hank Lucetti and that kind stuff but basicallyÖ
Mr. Cohen: Previously it was basketball capital because of Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Wattenberg: Right.
Mr. Cohen: Was itís Mecca. Madison Square Garden was the place that everybody came to play the big games. The entire NIT was played there and the NCAA, the finals were played there. Madison Square Garden was you know the Tah Maha let us say of college basketball.
Mr. Wattenberg: Now, let me just back up a minute. Mel, perhaps you can put a flavor on it. That team, basketball generally was worshiped, and that team was in the stratosphere. Is that right? Is that how you recall it?
Mr. Elfin: Absolutely, it was a notion of a city team, but a city college team taking the national championship in two major tournaments. Social logically as well as educationally, it made an enormous difference to those of us who lived in New York and didnít go to the prestigious schools because one, we couldnít afford and two, we couldnít get in.
Mr. Wattenberg: In part because of racial and religious barriers?
Mr. Elfin: Thatís right.
Mr. Wattenberg: There were quota systems, but the other kind of quota system kept black and Jews out.
Mr. Elfin: The triumph of City College was political, social, and educational triumph as well as an athletic triumph.
Mr. Wattenberg: Okay.
Mr. Cohen: Thatís absolutely true you canít underestimate the sociological impact of that team on the city. Because to place things in historical perspective, this started in 1949, it was just a few years after World War II. The country was still largely segregated, enormous racism. Basically we growing up in the neighborhoods and the boroughs of New York felt with some justification we were looked down upon by those in the rest of the country. This was the refuge that Emma Lasserist wrote about that came to New York. You know a bunch of rag-tags Jews and blacks who came up, sons and grandsons of slaves.
Mr. Wattenberg: Italians and Hungarians.
Mr. Cohen: Italians. By the way Iím just talking about the basketball team here.
Mr. Wattenberg: Well, the Irish, there were a number of players, you know.
Mr. Cohen: Absolutely. Generally speaking the City College Team was made-up almost exclusively of Jews and blacks. And the stereotype then was that Jews are scholarly but have no real physical ability. And they wouldnít have the guts to play big time ball. And so you had coming from the mid-west, you had you know kind of Arian nation in quotes, you know coming here to take on this rag-tag root and teach them what real athletics in basketball is all about. And, we beat the hell out of them twice.
Mr. Elfin: But just think about blacks and Jews on one team beating the best of America or whatever. Maybe thereíre not all of them, but certainly the championship. That impact upon people who lived in New York, this was basketball, it was the sport that mixed people in a way that created so much interest. Basketball mattered and if you had a hook shot and you were six foot two, which was giant in those days, you could be walked down like the red carpet will walk down in any street in your neighborhood.
Mr. Wattenberg: The great Mythic game between the Kentucky Wildcats coached by Adolph Rupp and City College takes place where?
Mr. Cohen: Madison Square Garden.
Mr. Wattenberg: Kentucky goes in heavy favorites, right?
Mr. Cohen: Oh yeah.
Mr. Wattenberg: And the final score is?
Mr. Cohen: Eight nine, 50, City.
Mr. Wattenberg: Eighty nine, 50 and absolute blowout. Do you remember the game?
Mr. Elfin: Yes, I remember listening on the radio because we didnít have television where I was at the time and it was an extraordinary event.
Mr. Cohen: Nat Holden was the City College coach.
Mr. Wattenberg: Right, also mythic.
Mr. Cohen: Absolutely, back to the days of the original Celtics.
Mr. Wattenberg: Right.
Mr. Cohen: And grew up in the settlement houses of Manhattan. The Kentucky coach was Adolph Rupp an avowed racist and anti-Semite. They wouldnít let me write him the book at the time. Itís probably well known now that this is true. And Holden took a black player off the bench, substitute center by the name of Watkins and I canít think of his first name, to jump center against Bill Spivey who was about six-ten, which was huge, immense in those days and a blond, you know aryan type. Watkins put out his hand as the opposing player sometimes do and Spivey pulled it back. Either Spivey or Floyd Layne presumably said to, either Watkins, Iím sorry, either Watkins or Floyd Layne said to Spivey at the time, 'Boy, you going to be pickin cotton in the morning.' And City just blew them out of the building. It was the biggest loss in the history of Kentucky which was a fabled championship team; they were the NCAA champions the past few years.
Mr. Wattenberg: So Mel when this happens up in New York in the neighborhoods thereís joy and rapture.
Mr. Elfin: It was a moment of triumph. It was a moment of triumph for a school that as Iíve said, didnít charge tuition. It was a moment of triumph for a school that had the highest standards in the city and yet could still turn out a championship basketball team even with high grades required of everybody. It was a moment of triumph for the city of New York. It just wasnít a college thing. It was that every adolescent and postÖ
Mr. Wattenberg: And the Mayor had parades. So theyíve taken New York City goes way up, the whole mid-south, which is always reinventing itself. So it says you know weíve got Jews, blacks, itís kind of different from what we thought. Now Ed Warner who went to my high school, I actually went to his high school; Clinton in the Bronx. After that NIT win was the first black man to win the most valuable player in that tournament, is that right?
Mr. Cohen: For sure.
Mr. Wattenberg: And then of course you had this explosion of black players in college. You had the NBA and dominated the sport and still doing it anyways, the way the Latinos are now dominating baseball. And the way the people forget that the Jews in the early part of the century,
Mr. Cohen: Boxers
Mr. Wattenberg: terrific boxers, Benny Leonard and the Bear Brothers.
Mr. Cohen: Iíll tell you how unusual it was. When I researched the book I was reading the clips of the 1949, í50 season, there was never a time, this is the New York Times that I was dealing with for the most part that Warnerís name or Layneís name was mentioned where it didnít say the Negro forward or the Negro guard. It was still popular to identify a player as a Negro because it was so unusual.
Mr. Wattenberg: Ed Warner, he went to Clinton. He was one of the most remarkable basketball players Iíve ever seen. And people would hoot at him for show boating. Let me ask you a question. If Kentucky is one sort of a culture, or mid-south, one of the other teams that figured heavily in this was Bradley University and Peoria, is that right?
Mr. Cohen: Yes.
Mr. Wattenberg: What kind of a college, what kind of a community was that? I mean you had the whole American pastiche coming into the Garden?
Mr. Cohen: Right.
Mr. Wattenberg: It was the country?
Mr. Cohen: Thatís right. I would say Peoria at the time was typical Middle America. It was a small town. It was the kind of town where you had Friday night rallies for the high school football team. Everyone I guess celebrated at the bowling ally and the soda shop. It was very typical of Middle American small town as opposed to the big teaming metropolis, the urban centers like New York. And New York was looked down upon. I mean that was the real America.
Mr. Wattenberg: You have both been talking about the idea that New Yorkers felt then and still do that the rest of the country sort of looks down on them. Theyíre immigrants, theyíre Jews and theyíre blacks and thatís all true. But you know, in most areas of the country thatís how they feel also. I mean the Bradley University Team was farm boys and looked down upon. If you saw Hoosiers they were these kids from nowhere. I know in Oklahoma they have a professional inferiority complex. They think they are the end of the earth and when the team wins, boy thatís something really big and every state you go to, Hook íem Horns, Go Tar Heels, thereís this enormous chauvinistic, athletic experience that sort of defines people. And when their teams wins, they feel that way, so it wasnít just New York.
Mr. Elfin: Well, it wasnít just New York. But see most of the other schools they had some experience with winning.
Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, no, thatís true.
Mr. Elfin And they recruited from all over the country.
Mr. Wattenberg: Thatís correct.
Mr. Elfin: They were basketball factories. And they got them from all over the country and it is all aimed towards putting together a team that would win a championship. And in New York, you couldnít do that because you had to be a resident. You had to be living in New York City. You couldnít get anybody. The best player in the world could have been over the bridge in New Jersey and you couldnít get him. And the feeling was when City won it, is basically 'We did it!' Itís not they won it for us, they were us and they won it. And that was our America too. We didnít have to apologize for anything. This country belonged as much to us as it did to anybody else. So I think there was this element of underdog that existed that did not exist so much in Kentucky at Bradley and places like that.
Mr. Wattenberg: Do you buy that, Mel? That the feeling was everywhere but more acute in New York?
Mr. Elfin: Well more because New York residents for such a large proportion of them were immigrants, were second generation, were blacks and that made an enormous difference to the rest of the country so those of us who grew up in New York were aware of this and frankly, we hadnít been outside. Beware! Watch out! If you were going to take a train or go into the military as we all were, watch out when you get in a mix with 'them'.
Mr. Wattenberg: Oh, yeah.
Mr. Elfin: And watch out on the trains and watch out in all the other places youíre going to go because theyíre going to get you and that was part of what America was like in those days.
Mr. Wattenberg: Now let me ask you a question, Stanley. What happened to this? They were at the Pinnacle. They were heroes of an imaginable kind by the time they were 19, 20 or 21 and then what happened to them? What happened to Ed Warner, what happened to Ed Roman, what happened to these Greek gods?
Mr. Cohen: Scandal broke, February 18, 1951. It was learned that some of the City College players, they had just come back from Philadelphia on the train ride from playing Temple I think it was and there were police waiting for them at the other end and four of the players were taken into custody for shaving points, which is not dumping basketball games outright, controlling the point spread.
Its interesting that you use the expression ďgreek godsĒ. I just want to say this had the elements of Greek tragedy. You had kids come from nowhere and by the age, remember these kids were 19 years old for the most part or maybe 20, or 18, 19, 20 and they owned the city and a piece of the country. They were viewed as gods and less than a year later, like Icarus flying to close to the sun, they plummeted and they were down. They had to put things together. They tried to put their lives together. The story had the enormous content so far as classical drama is concerned is this rise from nowhere, then the precipitous fall and then you had these kids and these kids were broken before they were 21 years old, before in those days they could vote. And they had to start and put it all back together. They were banned from basketball for life.
Mr. Wattenberg: Is that right? They couldnít play pro ball?
Mr. Cohen: No, no, no, none of them every played pro ball. They were banned for life from playing professional basketball.
Mr. Wattenberg: Can you explain the points spread because not everybody understands.
Mr. Elfin: The point spread is that you go into a betting parlor and you want to bet on team 'A' which is the favorite or you have to quote give points to the underdog and the bookie. And if itís five points and they win by three, you lose. You lose your money. This is now setup.
Mr. Wattenberg: And as you pointed out in the book, that development of the point spread betting engendered an explosion of gambling in basketball because it was kind of unique. It canít give a point spread in baseball or football. I guess you can in football.
Mr. Cohen: You can in football.
Mr. Wattenberg: You can in football.
Mr. Cohen: Football wasnít that big of sport at the time, but basketball was heavily bet. Curiously enough the first point spreads quoted two points. So one team would be favored by five-seven which meant if you wanted the favored you had to lay seven. If you wanted the underdog you only got five. It was incredible how many points hit the middle so that everybody lost. And so they were wise enough to change it to make just one number, it would encourage even more betting. Jimmy Cannon who I think is the greatest sports writer ever described basketball at the time as the slots machines sports.
Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah, I used to worship him.
Mr. Elfin: But it also led to the, the points spread led to creation of Las Vegas as Americaís betting capital. I was around in Vegas and it was just a plain old town, but after the invention or the development of the points spread, it became the betting capital because it had all kinds of angles.
Mr. Wattenberg: Mel, Stanley mentions in his book, he says that 'Gambling is the dagger pointed at sportís heart but also the fuel that drives its engine'. Do you buy that?
Mr. Cohen: Yeah. I would buy that because even now you can go to Vegas now and you can get a line on an Ivy League game.
Mr. Wattenberg: Oh, of course.
Mr. Cohen: Okay. So there is gambling on the august highest level of American higher education. Of course itís possible.
Mr. Wattenberg: Now, just let me interrupt for just a minute. Yet, it was uncovered later or actually some before, this was widespread across the country and they sort of hid behind this idea that it wasnít really dumping a game. It was just shaving the points but it was criminal behavior. It was bribery.
Mr. Cohen: Thatís right.
Mr. Wattenberg: But it wasnít just true in New York because Bradley had it, everywhere.
Mr. Cohen: Bradley, Kentucky, Dayton, Ohio. It was all over. The interesting thing is there is a certain wisdom that grows out of the streets. And we, at the time, being 15 or 16 years old, we knew gangs were being dumped. When I say dumped I mean points were shaved
Mr. Wattenberg: Sure. But there was some actual dumping, wasnít there? It was less common.
Mr. Cohen: Itís possible. I donít know, but when I was researching the book I never found a single instance where somebody decided to lose the game outright. But like most neighborhoods back then in those days, you had a neighborhood bookmaker. And the bookmaker would sit there in the cafeteria alongside the beat cop and take book and the neighborhood booker, Joe Jallop, there were certain games that were off the board. You couldnít bet on an LIU game. Now we knew, I mean as kids we knew, LIU had to be doing business because the bookmakers were not going to be taking a chance on them. There were other games that were pulled. So we had a sense at the age of 15 and 16, that there was something going on throughout college basketball and the authorities didnít know yet.
Mr. Wattenberg: Did they know that in Brooklyn?
Mr. Elfin: Not basketball but just think of all the boxers who were bought before they went into the ring.
Mr. Cohen: Oh sure, oh sure.
Mr. Elfin: That was well known.
Mr. Cohen: Absolutely.
Mr. Elfin: The boxers themselves took a dump.
Mr. Wattenberg: Well and the classic one just seared into the American memory was the 1918 Chicago White Sox. The Black Sox say it ainít so Joe to this mythicÖ
Mr. Cohen: 1919.
Mr. Wattenberg: 1919? Pardon me. Shoeless Joe Jackson was this great hero and the movie ended and there was a kid when it was revealed that there was bribery and he says, 'Say it ainít so, Joe'. And I donít even think he was in on it. He hit .380 or something during the World Series.
Mr. Elfin: Why should sports as an industry be any different from politics?
Mr. Wattenberg: Or making shoes.
Mr. Elfin: In 2006, think about what went on at the Capital, the Congress of the United States, the number of Congressmen who lost their seats and some of them are now in jail for taking bribes.
Mr. Wattenberg: And some of Ken Layís subalternates with Enron are in jail and are going to be there for a very long time.
Mr. Cohen: We hold athletes to a higher standard than congressmen.
Mr. Wattenberg: Yeah. Stanley Cohen, Mel Elfin, thanks for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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