They were tall, athletic, and African American. Him, small, fat and white. How could you be more against it than the Harlem Globetrotters and their owner, Abe Saperstein? However, this set of contradictions, of differences, has resulted in a singular success that still marks the basketball planet to the sound of Sweet Georgia Brown. For better, but also sometimes for worse, this success is this little round man with a well-hung tongue who put on one of the biggest shows in history.
Before he became a true sports entertainment mogul, Abe Saperstein sought out himself. It is difficult to find your way when you are an immigrant who wanders from relocation to relocation, and integration is far from working at full speed for the young Jew. As often in these situations, sport plays a big role in changing the situation. Even if it is ultimately off the pitch that Saperstein makes his mark.
Foreshadowing his future professional life of traveling with the Harlem Globetrotters, Abe Saperstein’s youth is marked by the seal of perpetual motion. It all starts in London for this son of Polish Jewish immigrants. After five months, he landed in Chicago with his mother and three brothers and sisters. They join their father, who arrived a year earlier to settle down and find a job as a tailor. If this is a first change for Abraham, his parents are not on their first try. Louis and Anna Saperstein have actually left Poland to avoid conscription in the Russian army, using their honeymoon in England to never return.
Once you’re in Illinois, the fiddling doesn’t stop. The family continues to move as it grows. The siblings have up to nine young children and it is not easy to find an apartment big enough to accommodate them all. Louis Saperstein cheats the owners by only showing up with three or four children. The trick works for a while, but never more than a few months. So much so that the eviction notice drops quickly, meaning such a carousel resumes to find a new place to squat. Thus, even before he spent his life on the road with the Globetrotters, Abraham Saperstein is already in the habit of packing, unpacking and repacking his bags regularly. So of course the distances covered are not the same. All this family restlessness, far from the great American spaces, is concentrated in a radius of two small kilometers around Ravenswood, a Catholic district located a good distance from the Jewish ghetto of Chicago.
Sport, a haven for Abe Saperstein
A situation that is not without difficulties for children. In the elementary school on the corner, they are the only ones of Jewish obedience, and their peers do not hesitate to remind them of this difference.. Abe hears more than reason the insults against his religion. Especially with his unimpressive physique – smaller than average – the young Abraham is an easy target. To defend himself, he tries to box. Before finally finding a place where neither its size nor its religion calls into question its integration.
In 1912 he discovered the orange ball and also began to brand the bat. Like many immigrants, sport plays its role as integration, to undermine stereotypes. After the initiation on the playgrounds and within the YMCA, he continued his love affair with sports in high school. Not enough to make him a star, far from it, but enough to earn his spot on the first team of both activities during his senior year.
Abe Saperstein finds his calling
At the same time, Abe Saperstein finds another passion. That of words, of communication. He realizes that he is able to discuss anything, with anyone. That his conversation is appreciated. The foundation for its future is there, but it remains to be seen what to do with it. When he graduated from high school – with his diploma in his pocket, the first in his family – there was a semblance of stability. Not from a professional point of view, as Abraham refuses to go to work in his tailor’s shop despite his father’s proposal. It is on the property side that things change for the Sapersteins. After another eviction, the family has no choice but to buy a house after 14 years of wandering. With four bedrooms to share among the eleven family members, Abe finds himself on the couch. That he won’t be leaving – or only occasionally – over the next ten years.
He worked at a florist, then in various companies, and always dreamed of sports. If he suspects it’s not because he wants to make his mark, it’s in this universe that he really wants to work. He fulfills this desire in part by pressuring his employers to sponsor basketball teams. Then he finally found a job with the municipality in 1926. Among his responsibilities at Welles Park – the playground of his youth – is the position of coach for the Chicago Reds. Admittedly, the team he once participated in is only at the amateur level. But she offers him this experience in the sport that he wants so badly. Of course, there is no need to become a millionaire or leave the family living room. Don’t even think of being at the top of the poster yourself, but your finger is in the gears.
Thanks to his new job, he meets other coaches, promoters, managers… Including Walter Ball, former player in the Negro Baseball Leagues. The latter wants to send an African-American baseball team on tour in Illinois and Wisconsin. For this he needs an agent who will book the dates. Preferably white, to make it easier for local teams and organizers. Abe Saperstein seizes the chance, he persuades Ball to trust him. And it will not disappoint him. So much so that behind it is the beginning of a great story between Abraham and the African American baseball leagues. But above all, word of mouth is having an effect and other sports entities are approaching him.
So when Dick Hudson, who had just formed a top-flight Black Five to go on tour, approached Walter Ball for some barnstorming advice, the former baseball player offered to go through Saperstein to book the games. Which he seems to have realized, because after this tour, if Abe doesn’t make a connection with the formation of Giles American Legion Post – which then becomes the Savoy Big Five – led by Hudson, the tour clearly bears his stamp with a controversy surrounding the players’ academic lineage. While most have not even attended college, they are presented as coming from prestigious schools. The kind of false advertising or embellishment that Saperstein would use regularly throughout his career.
Heist at Globe Trotters
If he continues to manage other meetings for traveling baseball teams from time to time, his business is not taking off and he does not seem to be able to do his job full time. He still gravitates around the Chicagoan sports world, but without much perspective. A new opportunity presented itself when, during the 1928-29 season, Tommy Brookins – a former Savoy Big Five who had set up his own team after a financial dispute – knocked on his door to organize a tour of Michigan and Wisconsin. To cover his expenses and go directly to the location to book the dates, Abe Saperstein requires an advance of one hundred dollars. The players accept. If they don’t regret this choice at first, they end up disillusioned.
In fact, during their trip, Tommy Brookins’ Globe Trotters discover that another team is playing in the same halls as them, on slightly different dates. Brookins is furious and returns to Saperstein for an explanation. The latter doesn’t even try to deny, replying that he thought it was a good idea and that there was nothing he could do now that the trip was set in motion. While the situation could have escalated, Brookins finally put an end to his Globe Trotters adventure. Already on his way to be closer to his sick mother, this betrayal coupled with an interesting offer as a singer at the Savoy Ballroom pushed him to move away from basketball.
After mounting this side trip, Abe Saperstein assembled a team. Or rather reclaimed players from an existing formation, the Savoy Big Five, that Brookins had parted with. He therefore has a group that he associates with. It takes the name Globe Trotters – which later becomes the Globetrotters – mainly composed of former children of Wendell Phillips, a local African-American high school that is a hit on the floors. Small change anyway, as the team is now called the New York Harlem Globe Trotters. With this new blaze, Abe Saperstein has several goals. The term Globe Trotters allows him to capitalize on the first trips made by the old version of the formation. New York provides a more distant, more legitimate side when the trips stay a reasonable distance from Chitown. People travel more for a team from the Big Apple than from Chicago when the game is played in Illinois. Harlem, the African-American capital, warns the public: It is indeed a Black Five appearing in the city. By announcing himself in this way, he avoids possible problems.
In addition to managing this communication and PR, Saperstein takes on the role of agent, manager, driver and sole backup for the team.. Thus, he keeps his match outfit under his costume during meetings in case of a physical problem. Land he treads unusually, in a dishonorable manner, but the superiority of his people is such that the handicap goes unnoticed. Fortunately, because the increase in his waistline exceeds the decrease in his poor athletic qualities seen in his youth. So sometimes the trotters do better outnumbered than with his help.
Finally, the only cap that escapes him is the owner’s. For now. In this partnership, the five balls get a share of the revenue, while Abraham gets a double. To cover travel and booking costs.
From rejected Jewish immigrant to member of a barnstorming basketball team—though he hardly ever steps on the court—Abe Saperstein has found his place. But above all his calling. Able to confuse people with his eloquence, he combines his talents as an organizer with his passion for sports. A difficult beginning, which will soon open new perspectives.