February 19, 1937 was a big night in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. That’s because the local basketball team, the all-white Oshkosh All Stars, was on the eve of playing in a “World Series of Basketball” that would put the small city and the state of Wisconsin on the national professional basketball map.
Their opponent: the all-black New York Renaissance Big Five. One would think that during the Jim Crow Era and especially in the Midwest during the Great Depression that the appearance of an African American team would be of concern. But actually, the “Rens” were universally considered the champions of basketball, and Wisconsin residents were some of the country’s most passionate basketball fans.
Formed in 1931, the Oshkosh All Stars played the Rens for the first time in February, 1936 in a 2-game series. The series drew so many spectators eager to see the Rens that local promoter and team manager Lon Darling decided to do it again in 1937. This time the two teams staged a 5-game series. Darling declared that the winner of the series, which the papers dubbed the “World Series Of Basketball,” would be considered world’s champions of basketball.
The 5-game series was played in Oshkosh, Racine, Green Bay, Ripon, and Madison. Each venue saw huge attendance. In local newspapers, race as a point of difference was rarely mentioned. It seemed to matter only as a descriptive term. Any hostilities were reserved for on the court.
The All Stars were also building a case to join the National Basketball League, which was still only just an idea at the time. The All Stars lost the 5-game series, 3 games to 2. But Rens owner Robert Douglas agreed to a return engagement, a 2-game series in March.
Ever the shrewd promoter, Darling declared that those 2 extra games would extend their previous “World Series” to 7 games. In other words, if the All Stars won these 2 games they would be the new world’s basketball champions, winning 4 games to 3. They won, and the following season the N.B.L. added Oshkosh as a founding member.
Furthermore, the basketball fans around the country realized the potential of a pro basketball tournament that could determine which top notch team was truly the best. Previously, any team could claim they were “world champions,” and often the public was understandably confused.
Behind the scenes, promoters took notice. Within two years, the Chicago Herald-American staged a giant event called the World Championship of Professional Basketball, an invitational for the top 12 pro teams in the country. The winner of this title would have an undisputed world champions. The tournament field included the New York Rens, and they won the tournament by defeating none other than their familiar rival, the Oshkosh All Stars, in the final.
What can one take away from this? Can prejudice be mitigated, if not trumped, by money, by shared vision, and by sports commonality? In the case of Wisconsin during the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps it was all of the above.