How two extraordinary teams at Columbus' East High School in 1968-69 set out to show the world that nothing could keep them down—not poverty, discrimination, fractured families or the social turmoil of their times.
The following is a Columbus Monthly exclusive excerpt from author Wil Haygood's upcoming book, “Tigerland,” subtitled “1968–1969: A City Divided, a Nation Torn Apart and a Magical Season of Healing” It's an inspiring true story about a group of talented Columbus East High School athletes and their pursuit of state championships in both basketball and baseball, set against the backdrop of the civil, racial and social unrest of their times. “Tigerland” is scheduled to be published nationwide Sept. 18.
They were poor boys wedged into the turmoil of a nation at war and unrest. They were the sons of maids and dishwashers and cafeteria workers, poor as pennies and too proud to beg, but not to ask or borrow. Their mothers were among the large waves of those who had come from the Deep South, a sojourn begun in 1945 known as the Great Migration. The Pacific Coast and the Midwest were favored destinations. Families had fled by train or bus, escaping all those cotton fields and blades of injustice. Columbus, Ohio, was a stop on the above-ground railroad where families had come praying for new opportunities. The boys' fathers were mostly absent. Garnett Davis, the gifted third baseman on the baseball team, had a father, but he was stuck down in South Carolina, on a damn chain gang. Nick Conner, the pogo-jumping basketball player, had a father too, but one who had abandoned the family for another life in Cleveland. Basketball player Robert Wright's father had murdered a man. Kenny Mizelle, who played second base, sometimes dreamed about his dead father. At least that's what he had been told all these years, that his dad was dead. But he wasn't. Boys will be boys, and blood rolls thick, and when it comes to fathers, it often rolls backwards. Their mothers could only implore them to look ahead, especially so because it was a tricky and dangerous time.
The year 1968 began convulsing and fire-balling its way toward 1969. There was deep tumult on the streets of America. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had tried to do something about it all, the poverty, the absence of fathers that cut into a bone of despair, the pitiful condition of black men and the uneven social fabric of America. But these boys were athletes—sinewy, quick and agile basketball and baseball players—blessed with a unique talent that, with the start of 1968, they were hoping could ward off the darkness. They were the Tigers of East High School.
Some of them lived in single-family homes that fronted a fertilizer plant—and the obligatory railroad tracks—just off Leonard Avenue. Some lived in Poindexter Village, the government-funded public housing project, one of the first of its kind in the nation. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt had even come to the city for the dedication.) Still others lived in old apartment buildings behind Mount Vernon Avenue, where the bars and speakeasies were, where the gamblers sauntered about like roosters. Laws and boundaries had been drawn against their families long before they were born, consigning them to a segregated world on the east side of this Midwestern city. They were black boys in a white world, running, jumping and excelling inside that world.
They played most of their basketball games through that cold winter in a converted rodeo cow palace on the Ohio State Fairgrounds, where you could still get whiffs of the horse manure, but no one seemed to mind as the East High Tigers couldn't stop winning. The gym at the high school couldn't accommodate the thousands who wanted to see them play. Their games were often broadcast on radio, an uncommon occurrence at the time for any high school basketball team. Come baseball season the crowds vanished. At the away baseball games, there would sometimes be only one fan in the bleachers rooting for the Tigers, and that was the coach's wife. The boys actually didn't mind playing their baseball games away, in and around rural Ohio, because the diamonds were better at the other schools. They simply set about swinging their bats and blasting the ball into the cornfields. They looked like figures out of the Negro Baseball Leagues, which were by now two decades removed from existence. The umpires—white men raised in the natural flow of segregation—sometimes would gawk at them with awe. They were so proud at game's end, tired and smiling as the farmland receded into view on the ride back home. The proud black boys never complained about the well-to-do schools, and all their fancy equipment. They realized they didn't have the comfort of escaping the crazy and murderous times. They were in the center of it.
Martin Luther King Jr.'s presence hovers over that season. Rev. Phale Hale was the unofficial minister of the East High basketball and baseball teams. He had known King from his own Georgia days and was the first to bring the prophet of black America to Columbus. The gunning down of King in Memphis on April 4, 1968, was an awful deed that unleashed riot and rebellion from Los Angeles to Columbus itself. In nearby Indianapolis, Bobby Kennedy spoke movingly of King's death, blacks and whites weeping around him like a gospel chorus. Then, like King, Kennedy also fell from the bullets of a crazed assassin. Hale had counseled these East High athletes with King-like optimism. He had told them to hold on. He had told them change was going to come. Now, with King's death, Hale, who had given the citywide eulogy, was himself emotionally spent. King and his wife, Coretta, had slept in Rev. Hale's home. It seemed, at ground level, that a nation was unraveling. It was a year of endless apocalypse. King and Kennedy had warned that black and white must come together, though King long before and with much more passion than Kennedy. But now the question loomed: What integration? East High, in the 1968–69 school year, and in spite of integration laws, remained an all-black school. In the fall of 1968 when Jack Gibbs—the first black principal at East High—opened the doors to the cavernous school, he did not know what to expect. The air was uneasy and unpredictable.
Gibbs had his own tortured story: He had escaped Harlan, Kentucky, a dangerous coal mining town where he had seen murderous deeds on the dirt streets there. In Columbus he worked nights, finished high school and got into Ohio State University, where he played football. He was a scrub, but had come off the bench in a very important game (Michigan, of course) and made the play that turned the game around. In time he found himself on East Broad Street, at East High School, on the fault lines of rise or ruin, depending on which side of the street you stood.
The basketball- and baseball-playing athletes at East High that year had their own narrative arc to create. They would brush away the fires of discontent and neighborhood pain, replacing it all with a far more glorious timepiece: They would become champions amidst the upheaval. They had two white coaches, Bob Hart in basketball and Paul Pennell in baseball, bighearted men who had a social conscience. Hart was a product of rural Ohio and had survived the landing at Normandy during World War II. He came home from the war with medals. And also with a sickening feeling about all he had seen in the military when it came to how blacks were treated. In the mid-1950s he took a job at all-black East High. Other white teachers cried their way out of assignments there; he exulted in the posting. “Basketball in the '60s became a place where the black kid could show off his talent,” is how he would put it regarding the social and political forces at play. “And there was a different breed of kid. They were hungry.” Pennell, the baseball coach, hailed from the West Side of Columbus, known as the most inhospitable part of town when it came to integration. He was in his early 20s and given the job almost as an afterthought. What he aimed to do was prove to the outside world—anyone beyond this segregated neighborhood—that black boys could play baseball. Because there were so many who needed reminding.
Amidst all the pain—the martyred deaths, the glass-strewn streets, the military tanks patrolling the neighborhoods, the city's intermittent juvenile curfew—change was indeed coming. And some of it came in the form of two statewide athletic championships—erupting just 60 days apart—in a time of ceaseless turmoil in a city situated on the banks of the Scioto River. It was here, through the fall, winter, and spring of 1968 and 1969, that a season of glory took place in a nation's history. It was here, in the storefronts up and down Mount Vernon Avenue, that the salesmen and saleswomen began, at first, pinning those portraits of the slain Martin Luther King Jr. to the storefront windows. Then a short while later—to the same walls and windows—they began pinning portraits of those basketball and baseball-playing boys from the neighborhood.
A dreamer was shot down, but the prophet had left more than just anguish behind. Twenty-seven limber black boys across two sports would rise up through the smoke. They had something to prove to the world.***
And so it would be—11 months after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.—the black kids from East High would be going to the state basketball championship game. It gave King's old friend, Rev. Phale Hale, a reason to smile. They gave Jack Gibbs a reason to smile. As he left the arena, Gibbs thought to himself how beautiful it would be if the mothers of the East High players could all come to the state championship game the next night. These were the mothers who had feared so much for these boys. These were the mothers who couldn't get to the games because they were working, on hands and knees. They were fixing meals and ironing clothes for white kids. They were emptying trash cans for white families. They were the mothers who had left thank-you notes for the white families they worked for when they had been given hand-me-down clothes for their own children to wear. These were the mothers who hadn't gotten to many of the games because they didn't have cars. Jack Gibbs knew some of the mothers worked on weekends out there in Bexley and Upper Arlington. He couldn't stop thinking about Lucy Lamar, how she had uprooted herself just so her son could keep his Afro, his pride, and play basketball.
Jack Gibbs got home that night and told his wife, Ruth, that he was going to start making phone calls right away. He was going to get the mothers of the boys to the state championship game.
They came in slowly, and they were dressed beautifully, and some of them seemed in awe of the huge surroundings and the attendant pageantry. Not all of them were sure they were going to make it, fussing with nervousness up to the last minute. It was a combination of things that had gotten the mothers of the Tiger players to the coliseum: The game fell on a Saturday and those who worked domestic jobs—as most did—often had Saturdays off. Jack Gibbs had made absolutely sure they'd have transportation to the game if they needed it. They could be forgiven if they were dressed as if they were going to church on Easter Sunday, because they were. They wore hats and silks and tweeds and precious jewelry. They led hard lives, living from paycheck to paycheck. Time and time again, America had baffled them. They had been grieving about the loss of Dr. King for months now. They needed something wonderful to grasp onto. They were so very proud of what their sons had already accomplished. Inside St. John Arena, they took their seats. They were all but anonymous save to a few Tiger fans who knew them from their neighborhood.
The thousands and thousands of Tiger fans began leaning forward in their seats, then rising up, as if they were ready to bolt onto the floor, past the state troopers who were the last line of defense between the court and fans. Eddie “Rat” Ratleff's East High teammates had tired of the talk floating all week trumpeting Canton McKinley's Nick Weatherspoon as the best player in the state. So they started passing Eddie Rat the ball as often as they could, imploring him to score, and he did—lovely jump shots, dropping into the net like a bartender dropping an olive into a martini. The East High lead grew to 11. The clock was ticking now toward game's end. Here's to you Mr. Weatherspoon. The lead grew to 13. Tigers coach Bob Hart started clearing his bench players, allowing his stars to exit to standing ovations. Hart's daughters began making their way toward their dad down on the floor. Mayor Sensenbrenner was doing his awkward Tiger Rag jig again in the stands, drawing guffaws from all around. Jack Gibbs, a man both tough and emotional, was smiling. Down on the court, the McKinley players looked dejected. On the Tiger bench, Eddie Rat was trying to say something to Nick Conner, and Roy Hickman was trying to say something to Larry Walker. Everyone's words got drowned out by the noise. When the final seconds vanished from the clock, Bob Hart and his band of Tigers had achieved something historic, something no other Columbus high school had ever done: They had won back to back state basketball titles. But this one was different, and everyone knew it. This one had come in the aftermath of Dr. King's assassination. This one had come with the school feeling its very soul was on the line. This one had come amidst so much pain.
The players from both teams walked toward one another for the traditional handshakes. The Tiger cheerleaders were sashaying. Athletic officials made their way to the center of the court to present the winning trophy. Mayor Sensenbrenner was excitedly looking for the City Hall photographer to make sure he got lots and lots of pictures! Flashbulbs were popping. Bo-Pete Lamar—the rebel, the transfer who left North High a year earlier rather than heed his coach's order to trim his Afro—had stood his ground and was now on a state championship team. His mother, Lucy, up in the stands, had forgotten all about her pounding migraines. Eddie Rat—the golden boy of the golden moment—had dropped in 31 defiant points against McKinley. He was clipping down the nets and raising them above his head for everyone to see.
The Tiger players began circling their trophy to get a better look.
Bob Rupert, the McKinley coach, had his own opinion about what Bob Hart's Tigers had just accomplished inside St. John Arena: “This team is of a different era,” he said.
When the big gleaming trophy was finally handed over to the Tiger assemblage, another round of roaring erupted inside the arena.
Someone handed Eddie Rat the microphone. He talked about sportsmanship and thanked the McKinley players for theirs. He thanked the fans of East High. Then he instructed his teammates to go find their mothers in the stands and escort them onto the court. And a short while later there they were, the Tiger mothers: Mildred Mizelle, escorted by her son, Kenny; Erma Wright, escorted by her son, Robert; Barbara Crump, escorted by her son, Eddie Rat; Lucy Lamar—in a beautifully printed hat—escorted by her son, Bo-Pete; Beatrice Conner, escorted by her son, Nick; Barbara Sawyer, escorted by her son, Kevin Smith; and on and on they came, until all the players and their mothers were at center court.
Anticipating victory, Jack Gibbs had hatched a plan utilizing the help of Kirk Bishop, the East High student and youngest deejay in the city. James Brown, the messianic soul singer, was appearing in Columbus at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium that very night. Brown had been riding a crest of favorable publicity for months because of his actions in Boston the day after the King assassination. Boston was one of the few big American cities that didn't explode when King had been murdered, and Brown received much of the credit. He did not cancel a planned Boston Garden concert in the city, telling city officials he certainly believed—as they imagined—his charisma and stage presence could keep the city calm. (Brown's song “Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud” had been released just as the school doors were about to open at East High in the fall of 1968, and it had resonated as a kind of black anthem throughout the country.) Brown spoke from the stage in Boston that night in tones both defiant and soothing. Even when some aggrieved youths tried to storm the stage to disrupt the event, he kept them back, sounding like a cross between a storefront preacher and a high school principal.
As soon as the game ended, Gibbs and Bishop hurriedly made phone calls from inside the arena to Brown's Downtown venue. They sent word for the players to shower quickly and hustle along. The players and cheerleaders couldn't believe it. They were going to a James Brown concert! Upon arrival, they were escorted into a side door. Brown had just finished his concert—though not the encore. Brown had a notorious reputation for being moody and unpredictable. But when an aide told him that local East High had just won the state basketball championship game less than 90 minutes ago and wanted to meet him, Brown nodded his approval. In his juvenile delinquent days, Brown had been crazy about sports. He had even dreamed about playing professional baseball. In his presence, the Tigers all but stood agog. “James had on a blanket,” remembers basketball player Kevin Smith. “He was soaking wet. Our mouths were wide open.” There was something that really impressed basketball player Larry Walker: “I finally met someone shorter than me.” Cynthia Chapman, the cheerleader, looked down at Brown's footwear. “He was wearing lifts in his shoes,” she says.
Kirk Bishop rushed out to the stage area and got permission to bring the victorious team on stage and introduce them. Brown had congratulated the team and was going to leave. But when he started hearing Bishop's commentary—about the long hard year it had been, and how the school had stuck together—he couldn't resist. He walked back out on stage; the audience erupted. He took the microphone. “Look at them,” he said, his voice gravelly and sweet with respect. “They champions.”***
Columbus native Wil Haygood is an award-winning journalist, author and cultural historian and has published eight books, including the upcoming “Tigerland” as well as “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination that Changed America,” “Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson,” “In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.” and “The Haygoods of Columbus.” His 2008 Washington Post story about White House butler Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, was adapted into the major motion picture “The Butler,” directed by Lee Daniels, and Haygood's book “The Butler: A Witness to History” has been translated into more than a dozen languages.