HAPPY FRIDAY P.O.U.!
We continues our series on Early African American Basketball…
SAVOY BIG FIVE
The Savoy Big Five was an African American professional barnstorming team based in Chicago during the 1920s and 1930s. In conventional basketball history, they have been deemed as a precursor team to the Harlem Globetrotters, but that view is a mistaken one. The Savoy Big Five was in continuous existence from the fall of 1926 through the winter of 1934, and some of its players went on to join the Harlem Globetrotters, giving rise to the belief that the Globetrotters were simply the Savoy Big Five renamed.
The team started as a Negro American Legion team called Giles Post, under the management of Dick Hudson. He formed the team in the fall of 1926, and signed five Phillips High players, which included Tommy Brookins, Randolph Ramsey, Walter “Toots” Wright, and Lester Johnson, and sometime in 1927 Joe Lillard, who also played baseball and football. They were immediately booked for a tour of Wisconsin, which author Ben Green, in his Spinning the Globe asserts that while there is no proof that Saperstein booked the tour “his handiwork is all over it.” Through 1927 the Giles Post toured the Midwest.
Savoy Big Five are Born
Then on January 3, 1928, the team started playing in the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago, and adopted the name Savoy Big Five. The idea was to help bring in people to watch a game, after which they would stay and dance and spend more money. The original team members were leader Tommy Brookins, Randolph Ramsey, Hally Harding, Walter “Toots” Wright, Lester Johnson, Charley Fisher, Joe Higgins, and Inman Jackson. Dick Hudson became the manager and coach of the team. Other members who soon joined the Savoy Big Five were former Lane Tech star, William “Ham” Watson, Joe Lillard, and William Grant.
Some notable wins that season were a pair of wins over the Loendi Big Five, but losses came at the hands of Wilberforce University and the Chicago Bruins. The loss to the Bruins on March 10, 29-25, in which the winners actually coasted to victory despite the evidence of the score, sowed the seeds of rebellion. Hudson had brought in a new player, Lawrence “Rock” Anderson, to replace Wright in the starring lineup. Wright quit the team, and ferment was rising over issues of playing time and salary. with Captain Brookins being the ringleader.
Giving Rise to the Harlem Globetrotters
In April of 1928, the Savoy Big Five broke apart, with Brookins, Ramsey, Watson, and Inman quitting the team. The season was almost over though, and the next fall Brookins built a new team from Savoy Big Five defectors called Tommy Brookins’s Globe Trotters, with Hudson managing. Hudson brought in a booking agent, Abe Saperstein, who then helped book the Brookins team in a barnstorming tour of Wisconsin and Michigan. While the group was in Michigan, Brookins heard that Saperstein had formed another squad of Globe Trotters to tour Wisconsin. Saperstein called his team the Harlem Globetrotters, thus marking the founding date of that legendary team to be sometime in January 1929. (The Globetrotter team’s official history mentions the team as being founded in 1927, and as being known as the Savoy Big Five from 1926 to early 1927, but the history is completely bogus).
Brookins’s Globetrotters team did a tour of Southern Illinois and then played a few more games in Chicago during February, before Brookins confronted Saperstein. Brookins decided to pursue a career in show business, and got Saperstein to agree to take some members of his team into his Harlem Globetrotters squad.
Meanwhile, the Savoy Big Five, under the management of Al Monroe, continued with a line-up of Inman Jackson, William Watson (both had second thoughts about joining Brookins), Joe Lillard, Rock Anderson, Wu Tang Ward, Specs Moten, Georgie Fial, and Charley Fisher. The team had a terrific season, winning 33 out of 37 games. The four losses were as follows—two close games, to the Chicago Bruins, 32-28, and to the New York Rens 38-35, both in early February; and two humiliating games, to the Chicago Bruins a few weeks later, 37-21, and to the Chicago Nationals in March, 31-9.
Under New Management
The 1929-30 team came under new management, when Al Monroe left and was replaced by Sol Butler. Members that year included veterans Joe Lillard and Hally Harding, plus Georgie Fial, Virgil Blueitt, and Sol Butler, the latter who also put time on the floor besides coaching. They suffered some humiliating losses that season, notably to the Cincinnati Lion Tamers.
In the fall of 1931, Dick Hudson came back to the team, and took over management. The team was scheduled to join a new professional league that was planned to takeover from the defunct American Basketball League, but nothing came of it. There was a signature victory by the team, easily defeating the Chicago Nationals, 40-19, in December of 1931. Mainstay Charley Fisher was out of the team in December, Hudson’s team in early 1932 appeared to be made up of mostly players that had played for Bill Brock and His Famous Chicagoans the previous season, notably Hillary Brown, Theodore “Father” Miles, and Guy “Tug’ Ousley.
The 1932-33 season was a dismal one for Chicago basketball. The Savoy Big Five, now anchored by veteran player and Chicago Cardinals football star, Joe Lillard, rarely played in the city and according to the Chicago Defender, “were playing ‘hick towns’ and feeling lucky to be able to perform at all.”
Revitalized under the Policy Kings
Things grew more robust in the 1933-34 season, as Savoy Big Five continued to tour the Midwest, but began playing home games at the Eighth Regiment Armory. The team consisting of newcomers Jack Mann, Reece Jones, Stevens, and Kid Slocum, the latter whom they picked up from the New York Rens in February 1934; along with Harold Mayer, Bill Ford, Joe Mills, and old veteran Randolph Ramsey. The new prosperous season was partially due to that the fact that the team had new ownership, by the three Jones brothers–George, Edward, and McKissick–who were policy kings in the city, operators of the famous Harlem-Bronx policy wheel. The team’s position in the African American constellation was established by losses that season to the Olde Tymers and the New York Rens, but victories over Delhart Hubbard’s Cincinnati Lion Tamers and Wilberforce University. The loss to the Olde Tymers in April was particularly dishartening, as the Olde Tymers were an amateur team who were then hailed as the top African American team in Chicago.
Becoming the Crusaders
In April of 1935, the Jones brothers changed the name of the team to the Crusaders. The last game of the season was a rematch with the Olde Tymers, who had beaten them in March, and promptly beat them again. The following season the Crusaders were augmented with new talent, and by January 1935, when they were touring the East, they were being described as the city’s leading basketball team by the Chicago Defender. The team consisted of Jackie Bethard, Joe Mills, Al Johnson, Jack Mann, and others. The Crusaders stayed together until the winter of 1940, when it featured such players as Agis Bray, David “Big Dave” DeJernett, Al Johnson, ex-Ren Clarence Jenkins, and Hillary Brown. They beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in a game in February 1940.
In the 1940s, Saperstein revived the Savoy Big Five name to use for his second team of Globetrotters.
The Savoy Colts was an African American women’s team from Chicago that served as the sister team to the Savoy Big Five at the Savoy Ballroom, 47th and South Parkway, for one season, 1928-29. The team featured a stellar lineup, drawn from the best women’s team on the south side, namely the Roamer Girls, from whom they got four standouts–Virginia Willis, Carmaline Carmichael, Corrine Robinson, and Lula Porter. The team was powerfully augmented by the great tennis star and superlative basketball player, Ora Mae Washington (who came all the way from Philadelphia), and Blanche Wilson, who came out of Howard University. The team was filled out by two up and coming players, the Williams sisters (known only a H. Williams and A. Williams), and Helen Winston.
In the third week of December 1928, in their second game of the season, the Savoy Colts easily beat the Kasper Coeds of Dvorek Park 15-9, in a preliminary game between the Savoy Big Five-Wilberforce game. In January 1929, the Savoy Colts played two women’s teams, a white squad called the McMahon Brothers, whom they beat 6-4 in a “curtain raiser” prior to the Clark University-Savoy Big Five game; and the Green Boosters, whom they beat 29-11, prior to a Tuskegee Institute-Savoy Big Five game. Another contest involved a boys team, the South Side Boys Club, coached by William Watson, which they struggled to beat 12-11.
The Savoy Colts did not last long into the season, however, and sometime after January virtually all of them became a revitalized Olivet Baptist Church Cosmopolitans. Along with Virginia Willis rejoining her old team, there was Ora Mae Washington, Blanche Wilson, and the Williams sisters, and with this lineup the Cosmopolitans were finally able to defeat one of the big three white teams for the first time, upsetting the Jewish People’s Institute Girls, 20-13, in March of 1929.