The Savoy Big Five

The Savoy Big Five basketball team, circa 1927. Left to right, assistant coach Robert “Bobby” Anderson, Randolph Ramsey, Inman Jackson, William Watson, Tommy Brookins, Joe Lillard, William Grant, Walter “Toots” Wright, Lester Johnson, and manager/coach Dick Hudson.

Location: Chicago, Illinois
Home Court:
Eighth Regiment Armory, Savoy Ballroom (Chicago)
Nickname:
“Savoys”
Colors:
Black, White
Manager:
Dick Hudson, Al Monroe

Midway through the 1926-27 basketball season, on February 12, 1927, the dancehall development company Associated Ballrooms, Inc., builders and owners of mega-sized facilities including the Savoy (Harlem) and Roseland (midtown Manhattan) Ballrooms in New York City, made a big announcement.

They had signed a 30-year, one million dollar lease of an entire South Side of Chicago city block, on South Parkway Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Drive) at 47th Street, where within a month construction would begin on another “monster” ballroom also to be known as Savoy.[1]

The company’s owner, I. Jay Faggen, claimed that the Chicago Savoy would be bigger than any other ballroom in the country. Its façade would be built in a Moorish architectural style, while its interior space, to be decorated in Louis XIV period style, would measure 500 by 300 feet and would be able to accommodate up to 7,500 dancers.

With this news, enterprising African American nightclub promoter Dick “Baby Face” Hudson, who managed and coached an all-black basketball squad known as the Giles Post American Legion Five, approached Faggen with a deal to rename his team the Savoy Big Five.

The arrangement would benefit both parties. Hudson’s team needed a new home court and would have one upon the ballroom’s completion, scheduled for the beginning of the 1927-28 season. This would end criticism of Hudson by the Chicago Defender, which just weeks earlier had accused the promoter of using the Giles Post name without permission from the Eighth Regiment Armory’s commander.

Meanwhile, Faggen’s facility would get buzz from Hudson, the very popular promoter of a team stocked with black Chicago’s favorite basketball players.

The Giles Post Five were an improved continuation of the Eighth Regiment of Chicago team that had co-claimed the 1923-24 Colored Basketball World’s Championship title. They played home games at the Eighth Regiment Armory on South Giles Avenue, about 12 blocks north of the Savoy Ballroom site.

Hudson, a former star athlete at Creighton University who had played fullback for the Minnesota Marines and the Hammond Pros of the National Football League from 1923 through 1926, was a smooth-operating icon of South Side nightlife with a reputation as a great dancer.

In fact, everyone associated with the Savoy Big Five was well known and popular. Hudson’s assistant coach was Robert “Bobby” Anderson, who had played on the Wabash Outlaw and Chicago Forty Club basketball teams of the late 1910s and early 1920s. Those teams were forerunners of the Eighth Regiment Five. Anderson, just as savvy as Hudson, would soon form a sister team known as the Savoy Colts, which played preliminary games ahead of the men’s squad.

The official logo of the Savoy Big Five of Chicago

The official logo of the Savoy Big Five of Chicago.

The roster of the newly named Savoy Big Five included Tommy Brookins, Lester Johnson, Randolph Ramsey, and Walter “Toots” Wright, all former star players with Chicago city champion Wendell Phillips High School, as well as Joe Lillard, a future NFL halfback, and Inman Jackson, a future Harlem Globe Trotters star.

The Chicago Savoy Ballroom opened on Thanksgiving Eve, 1927, with great success, and the Savoy Big Five began playing there on January 3, 1928.

During that first 1927-28 season the Savoys beat several formidable opponents including Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, Wilberforce University, and the Loendi Big Five of Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, they picked up Lawrence “Rock” Anderson, a strong player formerly with the Cincinnati Comets all-black barnstorming team, while losing Toots Wright who left for another team.

Though this Savoy team was very talented, they still had not played against competition from an established professional basketball league team until they faced the Chicago Bruins of the National Basketball League and lost. The loss indicated that in order to compete at the next level, they had to build a better team. However, as the season ended and before any moves could be made, the Savoys broke up over an internal money squabble. Nearly the entire lineup deserted, including Hudson and assistant coach Bobby Anderson, leaving Joe Lillard as the only remaining member of the original Savoy Big Five.

Those who fled formed a new squad called the Harlem Globe Trotters. It was headed by Tommy Brookins, with Dick Hudson as manager. Soon afterward, Hudson hired Abe Saperstein, a young Chicago-area Jewish sports promoter, as the Globe Trotters’ booking agent. Saperstein soon persuaded Wendell Phillips star player Albert “Runt” Pullins to join the team. This was a pivotal move because Pullins had not only sensational talent but also a car. In fact, Pullins was so essential in the birth and stabilization of the early ‘Trotters that Saperstein put him at the very top of his own 1950 list of all-time greatest Globe Trotters, even ahead of eventual Basketball Hall of Fame members Reece “Goose” Tatum, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Marques Haynes.

The Savoy Ballroom

A postcard image of the Savoy Ballroom, which opened Thanksgiving eve in 1927 and was located on 47th Street at South Parkway Boulevard on the South Side of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the Savoy Big Five regrouped for the 1928-29 season when several new players joined and several original players rejoined the team. With a new manager, Al Monroe, the Savoys opened on December 3, 1928 with a decisive 29-21 win over their local NBL nemesis, the Chicago Bruins. This meant that they had arrived.

“I want you to know that this game was no fluke,” Savoy Ballroom owner I. Jay Faggen told the New York Age. “We’ll beat the Bruins every day of the week and if we haven’t got absolutely the best team in Chicago, somebody can make me go ragged.”

Faggen even suggested that his Savoys should represent the city in the NBL instead of the Bruins, which were owned by George Halas, an original founder of the NFL. “The best team Chicago can get up should represent this city, it does not matter what color the players are,” said Faggen.[2]

By the early 1930s, the Savoy Big Five included such stars as Hillary Brown, who would later break racial barriers with the Chicago Studebakers, Joe Lillard, by then an NFL star with the Chicago Cardinals, former Wabash Outlaws, Forty Club, Chicago Defender Five, and Commonwealth Big Five star Creed Hubbard, and former New York Rens players Harold Mayer, Hilton Slocum, and Joe “Red” Mills.

In December 1934, with Dick Hudson back at the helm and with new financial backing by brothers Ed, McKissick, and Mack Jones – the “Jones Boys” – the Savoy Big Five changed its name to the Chicago Crusaders.


[1] New York Age, 12 February 1927
[2] New York Age, 15 December, 1928.