Thursday, May 17, 2018

Who was the first African-American to play in the state tournament? It's not who you think

It was in 2006, in the book Minnesota Hoops that I first asked, and attempted to answer the question, Who was the first African-American athlete to play in the state tournament. I thought at the time that it was Bob Wagner of Hopkins' 1952 state champions, and I repeated this assertion in an article for the MSHSL Bulletin on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the state tournament in 2012.

I quickly found out that this was inaccurate. Aaron Marciniak, writing in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, called me out by name and said, "Hugunin was wrong." He then tricked my friend Jimmy Robinson into saying. "We (African-Americans) are not a significant part of the population. That's the general feeling of people who are not of our color." This was the very next paragraph after "Hugunin was wrong," and the obvious implication was that I was wrong because of a "feeling" that blacks "are not significant." I flatter myself that my friend Jimmy Robinson would not have said that about me and would not have said it at all if he thought that Marciniak was going to present it as an attack on my character. But, who knows?

At least the article went on to present some useful information. It turns out that two African-American athletes, Leon Combs and Curtis Russell, played in the state tournament in 1947 with St. Paul Marshall. Now, I can tell you that I've read numerous descriptions of the 1947 state tournament, and nowhere in any of the reports was any mention that Combs and Russell were black. The incredible irony of the whole situation is that in 1947 St. Paul Marshall was coached by my mother's first cousin, Cody Hanzel.

The point of this article is to set the record straight and to tell you that Marciniak was wrong and...okay, we'll leave it there. But, yeah, I'm pissed at the way he portrayed this matter. If I hadn't cared enough to ask the question and to posit Bob Wagner as a possible answer in the first place, nobody would ever have known about Leon Combs and Curtis Russell.  But, as I said, we now know that Combs and Russell were not the first African-American athletes to play in the state tournament. This information in now wa diminishes their accomplishment, by the way. They were the first blacks to play in the tournament in 29 years, as far as we know. It is obvious to anyone who knows anything about American history that they must have faced a tremendous amount of racial prejudice along the way to that tournament. But, the fact is they were not the first.

Now, I don't know for an absolute fact that Eugene "Boots"Watts was the first. But as of today, he was the first that I know of, coming as he did 29 years before Combs and Russell. This information comes to me by way of Duluth Central basketball historian Larry Lobmell, who might be known to some of you as Mean Larry, and amazingly enough, he forwarded the information to me without calling me ignorant or a racist because I didn't already know about it. But, what I have to say is that Eugene "Boots" Watts is a freakin' hero. Who can even imagine the racial prejudice that he must have faced just living in Duluth, much less playing on the Duluth Central varsity basketball team in 1918! This was 2 years before the famous lynchings of 3 black carnival workers in Duluth after a white girl claimed that they had raped her. She of course recanted her claim a few days later, but this did not help to bring the falsely accused young black men back to life.

You may have heard the Bob Dylan lyric about this event. "They're selling postcards of the hanging," he sang in "Desolation Row," and so it was. Some enterprising soul printed up a bunch of postcards showing the three lifeless bodies hanging from a lamppost at First Street and Second Avenue East. Dylan's father, Abraham Zimmerman, is alleged to have witnessed the event.

"Boots" Watts

Well, all of this background aside, the point of this post is to honor "Boots" Watts. So let's get to it.

Duluth Central made news twice in 1918—by knocking off the pre-tournament favorites St. Paul Humboldt in what must have been a crazy 32-31 comeback in the tournament's first round and, secondly, by playing the first final to match two undefeated teams. That’s plenty of news from a team that didn’t even win the state title. But, wait! The big news out of Duluth Central in 1918 was their center, Eugene “Boots” Watts, Jr.

Rarely have news reports ever made things easy for those in the distant future by simply saying that a player, any player, was African-American. In the case of “Boots” Watts, well, thank goodness there’s a photo. It shows a strapping young African-American man—long and lean, but muscled—whose proportions suggest a fellow of about 6-3. The Central yearbook says, “’Boots’ had little trouble out-jumping all opposing centers. Although a new man, he played a hard, consistent game all season.” 

He became team captain the following year, and later he played college basketball and graduated from LaCrosse Teachers College in Wisconsin. Still later, he married, had a son, Eugene III, and moved with his family to Chicago. In 1932 came word of his death there at the age of 30. He was survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Watts, Duluth; a brother, Fieldon, of Brooklyn, NY; and a sister Frances, also of Duluth.

There is no evidence either way as to whether anyone at the MSHSL or any of the other schools objected to an African-American participating in the 1918 tournament. It would be surprising, frankly, if someone had not objected. But in Northfield in 1918, it was either assumed that he would play, or, if there was dissent, then someone with the MSHSL intervened to settle the matter. Either way, hats off to the new organization. But, then, one wonders, why did not one African-American play in the tournament from 1918 to 1947?

Waseca routed three state tournament opponents in 1918 by an average of 25 points, while narrowly escaping Albert Lea 18-14 in a semi-final game, to become the first undefeated state champion. Forward Lester Juhnke led all scorers in the tournament with 14 points per game. What was not previously known is that their opponent in the final, Duluth Central, was also undefeated. The Duluth News Tribune reported that they “won 15 consecutive victories this year, beating everything in the Wisconsin and Minnesota regions surrounding Lake Superior, the best of the Iron Range, and all but one at the state tourney.” And, yet, Waseca won the final easily, 29-10.

It has long been believed that the Class AA title game featuring Coon Rapids and Woodbury in 1983 was the first state championship between undefeateds, but we now know that Waseca and Duluth Central beat them to it in 1918.

The question remains, however, whether Watts played in the state tournament. Having read through several newspaper reports of the 1918 tournament, I have to say that nowhere does his name appear. On the other hand, the only Central game for which a box score or even a starting lineup was reported was the final against Waseca. Yet, the Central yearbook for 1918 reports that Watts broke his ankle in the first game of the state tournament and hat he did not play in any of the subsequent games, certainly not the finale against Waseca. 

So this, my friends, is the true story of the first and only African-American player of whom we are aware who played in the state tournament prior to 1947. If there proves to be a black athlete who played before 1918 or sometime between 1918 and 1947, we'd love to hear about it. But if such a person turns up, the fact that you haven't heard about him yet doesn't mean that you're a racist. 

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