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Failure to recognize proved costly
They sit like a pale, forgotten exhibit in a museum, an extinct species from another time:
The 1953 New York Yankees, the 1953 Detroit Lions, the 1958 St. Louis Hawks, the 1959 University of California basketball team and the 1969 University of Texas football team.They are the last all-white champion teams of their respective sports. And like the great beasts of old, these teams were slow to adapt when change buffeted their comfortable world.
Integration opened sports to all Americans but closed the minds of certain clubs and universities. Each team had its own motivation for staying white, but the end result was poorer performance.
Only the Yankees maintained a championship tradition, although they, too, had some learning to do. Yes, blacks such as Elston Howard, Al Downing and Hector Lopez helped the Yanks win American League pennants through 1964. But the team's failure to recognize additional African-American and Latino prospects left the cupboard bare when the great Mantle-Maris-Ford team of the early '60s crumbled with age and injury.
For 12 years, the Yankees wandered baseball's wilderness. When the team finally returned to postseason glory in the late 1970s the New York roster featured such black stars as Reggie Jackson, Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph, Mickey Rivers and Roy White.
The Detroit Lions seemed comfortable at first with black players. The 1949 Lions had three blacks, as many as any other team in the National Football League. But one year later, the Lions had just one black; and for five of the next six seasons, no African-American could call himself a Detroit Lion.
Some have suggested the Lions simply were following the lead of their landlord at Tiger Stadium, the Detroit Tigers, one of the last baseball teams to integrate. Whatever the reason, the Lions, who won three NFL championships in the 1950s, have won only one postseason game since their 1957 NFL title.
Professional basketball integrated with fewer fireworks than the NFL and baseball but some franchises were slower than others, most notably the St. Louis Hawks. Featuring such Southern-bred stars as Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, the Hawks didn't think they needed blacks to succeed. In the late 1950s, they were right.
The Hawks won the 1958 NBA crown, after barely missing a year earlier when they were beaten in double overtime of Game 7 in the 1957 NBA Finals by the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics. Russell, whose draft rights originally belonged to St. Louis, had been traded to Boston for Hagan and Easy Ed Macauley in 1956.
Of that era, former NBA referee Norm Drucker once said: "In 1956, St. Louis was an anti-black city. The black players who played there for other (NBA) teams--the fans called them such names."
Ultimately, the Hawks accepted integration, and black stars such as Lenny Wilkens, Zelmo Beaty and Bill Bridges became NBA stars. But the team lost both popularity and money, eventually moving to Atlanta in 1968. The Hawks have not been back to the finals since 1961.
It is odd that Berkeley-based California is the last all-white NCAA basketball champ, because the community is synonymous with liberal lifestyles. And in 1955 and 1956, Russell had led Bay Area rival University of San Francisco to consecutive titles with two black teammates--K.C. Jones and Hal Perry.
But the Golden Bears were slow to recognize the worth of black student-athletes. As the '60s dawned, another California university, UCLA, would attract blacks from all over the nation and build college basketball's greatest dynasty. Cal-Berkeley hasn't been back to the Final Four since 1960.
Texas' 1969 all-white team drew a presidential audience when Richard Nixon watched the Longhorns beat equally lily-white Arkansas in a showdown for No. 1 that December. More than two decades after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, and five years after the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Law, why did Texas stick with the old ways?
Possibly because in Texas, football is as much a social event as it is an athletic spectacle. In the '60s, it was unlikely that well-heeled Texas alumni and coach Darrell Royal would have wanted to invite black folks to their little football party.
Arkansas integrated its football team a year later and Texas soon followed, but the glory road was at an end for them and their beloved Southwest Conference. Neither Texas nor any other SWC school would finish No. 1 in football. The league disbanded in 1996.