A shorter version of this article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of the Journal of the Ephemera Society of America (Volume 18, Number 3).

By Claude Johnson

t first glance this unusual item housed in the Black Fives Foundation Archives seems like an “ordinary” rare piece of ephemera. It is an unused ticket for a basketball event that features four teams playing in celebration of the birthday of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to benefit the Infantile Paralysis Fund. Actually though, this is an extraordinary artifact, for several reasons.

Rens FDR Fundraiser Game Ticket

Unused, numbered ticket for basketball games (New York Rens vs Philadelphia SPHAs and Akron Firestones vs Toledo White Huts) in celebration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday and as a fundraiser for the Infantile Paralysis Fund, Sunday, January 26, 1941, at the University of Toledo Field House. 2 inches by 3.5 inches, printed on medium weight cardboard stock with a background image of the President, and hand-stamped for the seat, row, and section. (The Black Fives Foundation Archives)

First, though doubleheader games were common – meaning that two games were played instead of just one – this event involved four of the country’s greatest professional basketball teams and more of the country’s best collegiate players than anyone had ever seen before. It wasn’t easy pulling together such talent for non-prize games but the promoters succeeded because of the appeal of the cause.

“Probably never in the history of basketball have more All-American stars appeared on one program than are contracted to display their talents in the Toledo University Field House on this occasion,” wrote the Sandusky Register.[1] There were reportedly 3,300 reserved seats available at $1.00 each, and 4,700 unreserved seats at 65 cents apiece.

But what makes this event so unique is the racial and ethnic diversity of the organizations involved.

The first squad listed is an African American barnstorming team from Harlem called the New York Renaissance Big Five, whose nickname was the “Rens.” Formed in 1923, they were America’s first all-black, black-owned, fully professional basketball team and were arguably last century’s most dominant hoops squad, regardless of race. Through 1948, the Rens won 2,588 of 3,117 games – a staggering winning percentage of 83% sustained over a 25-year period. This was all the more remarkable considering that during that time, Jim Crow racial segregation policies barring them from most hotels meant they had to find private residences in which to stay, which required a huge logistical city-by-city pre-planning effort as an added burden over the course of 150+ games a season.

rens-1941

The 1941 New York Renaissance Big Five, featuring future Basketball Hall of Fame player William “Pop” Gates, third from right. (The Black Fives Foundation Archives)

“To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball,” said legendary coach and Hall of Fame member John Wooden – who faced the barnstorming Rens often during the mid-1930s while a player with the Indianapolis Kautskys and other all-white pro basketball teams in Indiana – in a USA Today interview in 2000. “They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today.”

The Rens ushered in the Harlem Renaissance period, smashed the color barrier in pro basketball, and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement. Two years earlier, in 1939, they had won the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball, an invitation-only tournament, defeating the country’s ten best white teams. So the New York Rens, who played most of their games on the road, were without question the marquee participant on this vintage ticket.

The Philadelphia SPHAs (short for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) were America’s greatest all-Jewish basketball team. Organized in 1918 and sometimes known as the Hebrews, they were considered one of the best squads in the country and were a leading attraction.

1934-35-hebrews-sphas

The 1935-36 American Basketball League champion Philadelphia SPHAs. (The Andy Sandler Collection)

The SPHAs had dominated the Eastern Basketball League during the late 1920s and early 1930s as well as the American Basketball League from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s, capturing 10 championship titles in all. They traveled throughout the Midwest during breaks in their schedule and in the off-season.

Even during the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism during the 1930s and into the 1940s, the SPHAs wore Star of David patches prominently displayed on their jerseys, especially into German-American cities like Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “We got into fights, but we always got out of it,” said SPHAs player Jerry Fleishman, who played with the team during World War II. “We were proud to represent the Jews,” he said. “We became life friends with the basketball players who played with us and against us.”[2]

Akron Firestones, 1939

The 1939 Akron- Firestones (Courtesy of the Dick Triptow Collection)

The Akron Firestones, also known as the Non-Skids, were an all-white industrial basketball team organized in the early 1930s by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company to promote the company’s brand and its newest road-gripping tire.

Their early rosters comprised of company employees, who were actually ringers that were given jobs that were secondary to their promotional role.

Based in Akron, Ohio, the firm’s headquarters, the Firestones were one of the founding members of the Midwest Basketball Conference. That league was later reorganized into the National Basketball League, a predecessor to the National Basketball Association.

Coming into this doubleheader, the Firestones had won the previous two NBL championship titles, in 1939 and 1940. Unfortunately, the 1940-41 season during which this benefit event took place would be the team’s last.

The Toledo White Huts debuted in 1939 and were run by a local businessman and sports promoter named Sidney Goldberg. Goldberg partnered with a Toledo-area chain of hamburger restaurants called White Hut to acquire financial backing for the team, seeking to join the National Basketball League. They traveled and played throughout the Midwest against barnstorming pro and semi-pro squads.

Toledo White Huts

The 1941 Toledo White Huts. (The Black Fives Foundation Archives.)

The team’s biggest attractions were local heroes and University of Toledo graduates Chuck Chuckovits and Bill Jones, who brought basketball fame to the city by starring on the college’s first-ever nationally ranked teams.

Chuckovits, a 1938 and 1939 All-American, was an early innovator of the one-handed set shot, which, though highly effective, was considered unorthodox at the time. “Some of the high school coaches around here wouldn’t let their kids come out to watch us play,” Chuckovits remembered later, “because I was throwing one-handers.”[3]

Jones was an African American player who had led local all-black Woodward High School to back-to-back city championships in 1929 and 1930. Though his inclusion on the White Huts was a racial breakthrough at the time, Jones took it in stride. “I did not have any problems with fans, teammates or opponents,” he said in a 2001 interview. “Integration was not a big deal because I had already gone through it at the University of Toledo.”[4]

This was an electrifying period for basketball in America. But there was another reason why this amazing doubleheader was so amazing. This event was scheduled in celebration of the birthday of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Its stated purpose was to raise money for the Infantile Paralysis Fund, a predecessor to today’s March of Dimes, which was founded in 1938 by FDR to combat polio. FDR himself was a well-known victim of the disease, having been diagnosed in 1921, which left him confined to a wheelchair.

The staging of fundraising events during the week preceding FDR’s birthday (January 30) became a tradition during the year the Infantile Paralysis Fund was originally organized. It began as a nationwide charity campaign that included the sale of merchandise, special features in motion pictures and on radio, and a variety of events where a portion of the ticket revenues were contributed to the cause. A glamorous, celebrity-filled annual President’s Birthday Ball capped the week off.

1941 Roosevelt Birthday Ball Ticket

A ticket to the 1941 President’s Ball, also in our collection, celebrating the birthday of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was held a few days after the basketball doubleheader described above, at five different Washington D.C. hotels on January 30th, 1941 to support the prevention of Infantile Paralysis. The punches in the ticket mean that the ticket holder visited three of the venues. (The Black Fives Foundation Archives)

The campaign was so successful that, during its inaugural year, thousands of individuals sent letters to the White House, many of which included small amounts of money. “Yesterday between forty and fifty thousand letters came to the mail room of the White House,” Roosevelt said, in a weekly radio address. “Today an even greater number — how many I cannot tell you — for we can only estimate the actual count by counting the mail bags; in all the envelopes are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills — gifts from grown-ups and children — mostly from children who want to help other children get well.”[5]

By the way, the Renaissance lost to the SPHAs on that Sunday afternoon (score unknown) but then both teams drove about 60 miles to Detroit for a 9:00 PM rematch at the Naval Armory there. This time, the Rens won, 48-39. In the other game, the White Huts defeated the Firestones, 56-49, behind Chuckovitz’s 28 points.

Which brings me to the final reason why this vintage ticket is so special. It is not only believed to be the first basketball-related fundraiser associated with the FDR’s famous charity efforts but also the first formal basketball-related event associated – even indirectly – with any President of the United States of America.


[1] Sandusky (Ohio) Register, 22 January 1941.
[2] As cited by Douglas Stark in The SPHAs (2011, Temple University Press: Philadelphia)
[3] Peterson, Robert W. Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years (1992, Oxford University Press: New York City)
[4] Toledo Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/Opinion/2001/02/23/Woodward-UT-star-Jones-earns-special-honors.html
[5] Roosevelt, Franklin D. (January 30, 1938). “The President’s Birthday Message.” Disability History Museum. National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.