They were tall, athletic, and African American. Him, small, fat and white. How could you be more opposed than the Harlem Globetrotters and their owner, Abe Saperstein? However, this set of antagonisms, of differences about an exceptional success, which still punctuates the planet basket to the son of Sweet Georgia Brown. For the better, but also for the worse, this success is sometimes that of this little round man with the loose tongue who put together one of the greatest shows in history.
Before becoming a true sports entertainment mogul, Abe Saperstein researched himself. It’s hard to find your way when you’re an immigrant wandering from move to move and integration is far from working at full speed for the young Jew. As often in these situations, sport plays a major role in changing the situation. Even if it is ultimately outside the field that Saperstein makes his mark.
Like a harbinger of his future professional life made 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, 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 at their first attempt. Louis and Anna Saperstein have indeed left Poland to avoid forced conscription into the Russian army, taking advantage of their honeymoon in England to never return.
Once in Illinois, the fidgeting doesn’t stop. The family continues to move to measure as it grows. The siblings have up to nine toddlers and finding an apartment big enough to accommodate everyone is not easy. Louis Saperstein is cheating on 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 falls quickly, synonymous with such a carousel resuming to find a new place to squat. Thus, even before spending 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 traveled 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 refuge for Abe Saperstein
A situation that is not without difficulty for children. In the elementary school on the corner, they are the only ones of Judaic obedience and their comrades do not hesitate to remind them of this difference.. Abe hears more than reason the insults on his religion. Especially with his unimposing physique – smaller than average – the young Abraham is an easy target. To defend himself, he tries boxing. Before finally finding a place where neither its size nor its religion call into question its integration.
In 1912, he discovered the orange ball and also began to feel the bat. Like many immigrants, sport plays its role of integration, of undermining stereotypes. After the initiation on the playgrounds and within the YMCAs, he continued his love affair with sport in high school. Not enough to make him a star, far from it, but enough to have his place in the first team of both activities during his last 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 everything, with everyone. That his conversation is appreciated. The foundations of its future are present, but it remains to be seen what to do with it. When he left high school – with his diploma in his pocket, the first in the family – a semblance of stability showed up. Not from a professional point of view since despite his father’s proposal, Abraham refuses to go to work in his tailor’s shop. It is on the real estate side that things change for the Sapersteins. Following another eviction, the family has no choice but to buy a house after 14 years of wandering. With four bedrooms to distribute for the eleven family members, Abe finds himself on the couch. That he’s not going to quit – or so episodically – for the next ten years.
He worked at a florist, then in different companies, always dreaming of sport. If he suspects that it is not on the ground that he will make his mark, it is in this universe that he really wants to work. He fulfills this desire, in part, by encouraging his employers to sponsor basketball teams. Then finally leading to a job with the municipality in 1926. Among his responsibilities at Welles Park – the playground of his youth – is the position of coach of the Chicago Reds. The team he has already mentioned is certainly only at the amateur level. But she offers him this experience in the sport that he wants so much. Of course, there’s no need to become a millionaire or leave the family living room. Nor even imagine being at the top of the poster, but the finger is put in the gears.
Thanks to his new job, he meets other coaches, promoters, managers… Including Walter Ball, former player of the Negro Baseball Leagues. The latter wishes 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, for greater ease with local teams and organizers. Abe Saperstein seized the opportunity, he persuades Ball to trust him. And it won’t 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 turning to him.
So when Dick Hudson, who had just set up a top-flight Black Five to go on tour, turned to Walter Ball for some barnstorming advice, the former baseball player offered him to go through Saperstein to book the matches. What he seems to have achieved, because if after this tour Abe does not keep a link with the formation of the Giles American Legion Post – which then becomes the Savoy Big Five – led by Hudson, the trip clearly bears his mark with a limited controversy the academic pedigree of the players. While most have not even gone to college, they are presented as coming from prestigious schools. The kind of false advertising or embellishment that Saperstein would regularly use during his career.
Heist on the Globe Trotters
If he continues from time to time to manage other meetings for traveling baseball teams, his business does not take off and he does not seem 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 following a financial dispute – knocked on his door to organize a tour of Michigan and Wisconsin. In order to cover his costs and to go directly on site to reserve the dates, Abe Saperstein asks for an advance of one hundred dollars. The players agree. If they do not regret this choice at first, they end up disillusioned.
Indeed, the Tommy Brookins’ Globe Trotters discover during their trip that another team is playing in the same halls as them, on slightly different dates. Furious, Brookins contacts Saperstein for an explanation. The latter does not even try to deny, answering that it had to be a good idea and that he could not do anything now that the tour was produced. While the situation could have escalated, Brookins finally met an end to his Globe Trotters adventure. Already on the move to be closer to his sick mother, this betrayal associated with an interesting offer as a singer at the Savoy Ballroom push him to move away from the basket.
Having mounted this side tour, Abe Saperstein has put together a team. Or rather recover players from an existing formation, the Savoy Big Five from which Brookins had separated. He therefore has a group with which he associates. It takes the name of Globe Trotters – which later becomes Globetrotters – composed mainly of former kids from Wendell Phillips, a local African-American high school that is a hit on the floors. Small change all the same, since the team is now called the New York Harlem Globe Trotters. With this new blase, Abe Saperstein has several objectives. The term Globe Trotters allows him to capitalize on the first tours carried out by the old version of the formation. New York gives a more distant, more legitimate side when the journeys remain at 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 that shows up in town. 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 only backup for the team.. Thus, he keeps his match outfit under his costume during meetings in the event of a physical problem. Land he treads exceptionally, in an inglorious way, but the superiority of the senses is such that the handicap comes into view. Fortunately, because the increase in his waistline exceeds the decline in his poor athletic qualities seen during his youth. So sometimes the Trotters do better outnumbered than with his help.
Finally, the only cap that escapes him is that of owner. For the moment. In this partnership, the five balls receive a share of the revenue while Abraham recovers a double. To cover travel and reservation costs.
From rejected Jewish immigrant to member of a barnstorming basketball team – even if he hardly ever steps on the court – Abe Saperstein has found his place. But above all his vocation. Able to bamboozle people with his eloquence, he combines his talents as an organizer with his passion for sport. Difficult beginnings which will soon open up new perspectives.