Did A Punch By A Basketball Hall Of Famer Threaten Jackie Robinson’s MLB Debut?

On April 15, 2009, in Culture, History, Race, by Black Fives Foundation

Did one devastating punch thrown by a future Basketball Hall of Fame player in an unrelated game threaten to derail Jackie Robinson’s baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Did one devastating punch thrown by a basketball player in an unrelated game threaten to derail Jackie Robinson’s baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers?

That’s what many believed, in February, 1947.

Basketball player Jackie Robinson

Robinson was no stranger to basketball but was not involved
in the incident.

Robinson had won a spot on the Montreal Royals, the minor league farm team of the Dodgers, and was in spring training at the time.  But although he was under consideration by Branch Rickey, Robinson had not yet been called up to the majors and was not yet on the Dodgers roster for Opening Day. No one was sure what would happen.

Therefore, all eyes were not only on Jackie’s conduct, but also on the behavior of all African American athletes.

Including those in basketball.

For the 1946-47 season, the National Basketball League had signed four black players: William “Dolly” King with the Rochester Royals, Willie King with the Detroit Gems, Bill Farrow with the Youngstown Bears, and future Basketball Hall of Fame member William “Pop” Gates with the Buffalo Bisons.  (In January, the Bisons became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, representing Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa.)

Because they were on teams all over the N.B.L., these players were under constant scrutiny by league officials.

Therefore, the reaction to what happened next is really no surprise.

New York Renaissance player William 'Pop' Gates

New York Renaissance player William 'Pop' Gates, who crushed 'Chick' Meehan's face with a punch during an N.B.L. game in 1947 and still made it
into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In February, during a crucial N.B.L. game between the Blackhawks and the Syracuse Nationals, Gates was involved in a highly publicized on-court fight with veteran Nationals player John “Chick” Meehan.

Meehan was the “Nats” best player.  Moreover, in the words of John Christgau, author of the book “Tricksters in the Madhouse,” he was “a local boy who had made good,” and “as brash as he was handsome.” Meehan also had “a reputation as a pugnacious defender,” but he couldn’t stop Gates that day, and that’s what got him in trouble.  Gates was considered by many to be one of the best player in the N.B.L.

The game was rough, and, according to witnesses, featured extra-curricular activity on both sides.  Toward the end of regulation time, Meehan and Gates both found themselves going after a loose ball.  But Gates got there first and Meehan went flying.  “The left side of his face hit the floor hard and made a noise like a bowling ball striking a pin,” Christgau writes.

Meehan got up and squared off threateningly against Gates. But without missing a beat, Gates sent a crushing right cross to the side of Meehan’s face. The husky Syracuse player crumpled to the floor; he was out cold.

A near-riot ensued, with Meehan still laying unconscious on the court, surrounded by the melee.  Gates was eventually escorted out of the arena by police and National Guard troops.

A few days later, Syracuse Post-Standard sportswriter Bill Reddy made the inevitable connection to Robinson:

It was an unfortunate affair, that flareup by Pop Gates of the Moline Blackhawks at the armory on Monday night, and there’s little doubt that nobody regrets it more than Gates.  He’s a really good basketball player, one who’d help any club in the National league.  He’s a “cutie,” as are most veterans of pro basketball play, and Pop had several years’ experience with the New York Renaissance team before moving in the NBL this season.

Because of officiating which was downright pitiful, players on both sides were getting away with most of the tricks in the book.  Gates wasn’t more of an offender in that respect than many others on both clubs, but Gates’ experience helped him.  He was cute enough to cover up so well that altho he committed fouls on nearly every play, only two personal fouls had been charged against him up to the time he lost his temper.

This wasn’t a pretty game to watch.  It was a vital game for both clubs, and both went all-out to win.  The result was that they played the old-time type of pro basketball, a knock-down-drag-out affair in which clever plays were at a minimum, in which the real finesse and thrilling deception of other games was replace to a great extent by brute strength.

The tough part of it for the Syracuse Nats is that Gates’ punch which ripped open Chick Meehan’s eye, means that Chick will be lost for some time to the team and the team needs Meehan.  The big-shouldered Syracusan with the wide grin has become one of the most valuable team players in the league, for he can stop the high scorers and he sink ‘em himself.

Chick won’t make the trip to Toledo tomorrow, when the Nats try to keep the Jeeps out of Syracuse’s hard-won third place spot.  Moreover, it’s extremely unlikely that Chick will be ready for Saturday night’s big game in Rochester, a game which might be won with Meehan available, since the fearsome Royals have been skidding of late.

If Meehan were available for these two games, the Nats might have clinched a playoff spot this week.  If they can come through to a win in either game without the CBA product, they’ll have done marvelously well on the road.

The tough part of it, for Gates, is that he happens to be a Negro, one of three Negroes in the league, which had none in the league prior to this season.  Any other player might have punched an opponent, might have caused just as much furor.  I doubt if any other player in the league could have thrown such a punch — Pop’s really beautiful wallop would have shamed most professional boxers — but that’s beside the point.

Jackie Robinson is slated for a major league trial with the baseball Dodgers; the National Basketball league is placing no bar against Negro competitors, yet when something like this happens, it sets back the fight for equality which Negroes have been waging so hard.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be so.  Unfortunately, it is so.

Robinson was a model of behavior with the Royals last season; Dolly King, Negro player with the Rochester Royals, is as fine and intelligent a gentleman as you’ll find anywhere in sports.  Gates himself isn’t ordinarily a wild-eyed rowdy, but rather a smooth slick player.

It’s a shame that, because of bad officiating, such a situation was permitted to develop.

“Meehan got chesty with me and I decked him,” Gates said later, insisting that Meehan had thrown him down twice earlier in the game. Still, Gates subsequently wrote a letter of apology to Meehan, who was hospitalized for weeks.  The two had met many times before.

Meehan, for his part, acknowledged this. “He’s thrown everything in the book at me,” he said, “and the same goes for the way I’ve treated him.”  More strikingly, Meehan went to considerable lengths to explain something. “This wasn’t one of those racial affairs,” he insisted, to reporters.

But the Blackhawks dropped Gates before the end of the season. The rest of the N.B.L. did the same with their black players.  Many, like historian Christgau, felt that the league simply “purged” its African American players out of fear.

Gates rejoined the New York Rens after leaving the Blackhawks. Ironically, he came back to the N.B.L. a year later when the Rens team replaced the league’s financially disabled Detroit franchise as the Dayton Rens.

In Gates’ obituary, The New York Times called the Meehan punch a “nasty incident.” Nevertheless, Gates was eventually enshrined in Basketball Hall of Fame, although still not without significant lobbying by black journalists like Howie Evans of the Amsterdam News.

Robinson, as we all know, did make the Dodgers. His debut was about two months later, on April 15, 1947.

11 Responses to Did A Punch By A Basketball Hall Of Famer Threaten Jackie Robinson’s MLB Debut?

  1. Tony McClean says:

    Great stuff as usual, Claude

  2. Keith Ellis says:

    Pop is part of lots of goings-on in that winter-into-spring 1947. In January George Crowe & Jackie were Red Devils capable of handing the mighty Rens a beating or two. In February Crowe returned to Indiana & hooked up with the Rens on a swing thru the MidWest, echoing similar signings of MidWestern stars a decade earlier. In March Jackie & Joe Louis huddled in Brooklyn to discuss what Jackie was getting himself into. That same month the Rens played the first game by a pro black five in Madison Square Garden in nearly two decades. Crowe led NY to a win over the Philadelphia Sphas, & Joe Louis was there in the Garden cheering him on. Wonder whether Jackie was, too?

  3. martez jerome says:

    I can see how this may have affected the perception of Mr. Robinson playing in the majors. This a very insightful aricle. Thanks for bringing this to light.

    martez jerome

  4. rod drake says:

    I really enjoy this stuff,thanks.

  5. dedan s ali says:

    there were many instances of white baseball players fighting long before jackie or anyone else was “let into the major leagues’. this notion that whites perform/act in exemplary ways is/was promoted by their own media. and, some African /negro media bought into this idea of Us having to not respond to insults by either players,officials, or fans. so it is constantly said/talked about how”jackie robinson took all the verbal ,psychological,physical,emotional abuse those early years without responding in kind.” this was and has been the idea pushed by mainstream and other media for years and years.
    truth is there is nothing wrong with responding/addressing immediately when they occur. of course, all this has been addressed many, many times(in many, many ways) over the years. humans react to situations all the time. to say that people of color should /do react any different than caucasians is a ludicrous and borderline racist statement/idea. again, all this has been throughly discussed by many over many years.
    i do hope that those not aware (of all these writings,books,etc.) do take the time to do some research. after all, we certainly have more than enough technology to do it. thanks for allowing me to say a bit.
    peace in our time,
    dedan sunni ali

  6. carl campbell says:

    all the stories that pop gates told never related to things related to this article he would talk to us explain how the should be played–talk about the rens and when he coached the globetrotters with carl green- charlie hoxie-herman taylor-roman turman=and the rest of that crew==

  7. scott woodruff says:

    Great article. It’s fun to read how they used to write/speak in those days.

  8. P.L. says:

    Once again I gathered some important info. I had never heard/read about this potential derailment anywhere. Jackie was my favorite growing up so this insight into his career is valuable.
    Thanks again.

  9. Katherine Miles says:

    I was doing research of Ben Franklin HS alum Pop Gates and came across this article. Loved it, I’m sure the punch was much deserved. You can believe this article is going onto our alumni website for everyone’s entertainment and education. Am also looking for info on another Franklin alum Eddie Younger, know he was with Gates with the Rens but the trail gets cold, if you have info and can post would be greatful. Can’t seem to get much info on Charlie Hoxie or Helicopter Knowles (also BFHS). Why don’t you do an article on this HS that sent out such good players into college, league play, and streetball history

  10. […] pioneers weren’t re-signed for the 1947-48 season after an ugly riot broke out in Syracuse as fans tried to mob “Pop” Gates, a black player for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. This was clearly a case of one step forward, two […]

  11. Hi Katherine, thank you for your comment! That’s a great idea! Yes, this is just the tip of the iceberg, as you well know! Some of our readers like “carl campbell” above knew Eddie “The Eel” Younger so I would encourage you to keep snooping around in here for more info. I’ll keep an eye out too.

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