Elected to the Naismith Memorial
Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971
Inducted into the
International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame
International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the
National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame
Abraham "Abe" Michael Saperstein (July 4, 1902 – March 15, 1966) was
the founder, owner and earliest coach of the Harlem Globetrotters.
Saperstein was a leading figure in black basketball and baseball in
the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, primarily before those sports were
Saperstein revolutionized the game of basketball and took the
Globetrotters from an unknown team touring small farm towns in the
Midwestern United States
Midwestern United States during the height of the
Great Depression to
a powerhouse that went on to beat the best team in the all-white
Basketball Association. He also introduced the three-point
shot, which went on to become a mainstay of modern basketball.
Saperstein was elected to the
Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971 and, at
5 ft. 3 in (1.65 m), is its shortest male member. In 1979, he
was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and
2005 was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
1 Early life
2 Harlem Globetrotters' career
3 Ownership of other sports teams
5 Personal life
Saperstein was born in the East End of London, England, to a Jewish
family originally from Łomża, Poland. His family moved from London
Chicago in 1907, when Abe was five years old. They settled just
north of the city’s Jewish area, often called the “Poor Jews’
quarter” because of the many struggling immigrants living there.
Saperstein’s father, Louis, who had been an apprentice tailor in
Poland, saw an ad for a tailor on Chicago’s North Side in a
predominantly German, Irish, and Swedish neighborhood. The ad warned,
“No Jews allowed,” so Louis Saperstein changed his surname to the
more German-sounding Schneider, which is German for 'tailor'. After
buying the business from the owner several years later, Louis
Saperstein dropped the facade and changed the name of the store to
Louis Saperstein’s Tailor Shop.
At age 10,
Abe Saperstein discovered a lifelong love of sports,
playing basketball at the Wilson Avenue YMCA and second base for a
parochial school team, though he attended the public Ravenswood
Elementary School. At Lake View High School, he played nine different
sports, including baseball, basketball, football and boxing. He also
ran track. Saperstein attended the University of Illinois, but dropped
out to help support his family. He decided not to follow his father
into tailoring. Instead, his dream was to pursue a career in sports,
though he realized that his athletic abilities and height were not
going to take him far.
Saperstein eventually landed a position working for the Chicago
District Park as a playground supervisor at Welles Park, on
Chicago’s North Side. There, after hours of watching kids play
basketball, he decided to create his own team. The
Chicago Reds were a
semi-pro lightweight (135 lb limit) basketball team, and
Saperstein played point guard.
As player, manager, and coach of the
Chicago Reds, Saperstein met
Walter Thomas Ball, a legendary baseball player in the Negro leagues,
who had a black baseball team he wanted to send on tour in Illinois
and southern Wisconsin. He hired Saperstein as his booking agent.
Harlem Globetrotters' career
Saperstein went on to become booking agent for several basketball
teams as well, until branching out in the late 1920s to form his own
team with some of the members of the Savoy Big Five. He called
the team the New York Harlem Globetrotters. Although Saperstein’s
team had nothing to do with Harlem (they wouldn’t play there until
the 1960s), he chose the name to indicate that the players were black,
as Harlem was the epicenter of African-American culture. Many of the
towns where the Globetrotters played in their first few years were all
white, and Saperstein didn’t want other teams or spectators to be
surprised that his team was black.
The Globetrotters played their first game in Hinkley, Illinois. The
team netted a grand total of $8, which was split evenly between the
six members of the team, including Saperstein. Over the next several
years, in the midst of the Great Depression, Saperstein served as the
team’s manager, driver, booking agent, PR director, and occasional
substitute player. When a player was injured in a 1926 game, for
example, Saperstein substituted into the game, prompting the Winona
(Minnesota) News to report: "Four clean-limbed young colored men and a
squat bandy-legged chap of Jewish extraction ... styled the Harlem
Globetrotters, beat the Arcadia Military police...29 to 18.”
During the early seasons, the Globetrotters needed to play every night
just to make ends meet, because the team often netted less than $50 a
night. Accommodations on the road were sparse and hotels often
wouldn’t allow blacks. On one occasion, when the players couldn’t
find a hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, they snuck up the fire escape and
slept in Saperstein’s room. Saperstein was relentless in booking
games; in the team’s first seven years, the Globetrotters played
more than 1,000 games, with Saperstein driving the players to tiny
towns throughout the Midwest in his unheated Ford Model T.
From early on, the Globetrotters blended basketball with showmanship
and ball-handling wizardry. But they were also extremely talented
basketball players, winning most of their games. In 1940, the
Globetrotters beat the legendary black basketball team, the New York
An even bigger achievement came a few years later in the 1948
Globetrotters-Lakers game, when the Globetrotters defeated the
Minneapolis Lakers, the best team in the all-white NBA, a league that
had been formed two years earlier. The star of the Lakers was
six-foot-ten George Mikan, nicknamed “Mr. Basketball.” Despite the
Lakers’ significant height advantage and the team’s billing as the
best basketball team in the country, the underdog Globetrotters won
the game 61-59, thanks to a dramatic long shot at the buzzer by
Globetrotter Ermer Robinson. Afterward, in the locker room, the
players hoisted Saperstein triumphantly on their shoulders.
The Globetrotters-Lakers game had taken place amid a sharp racial
divide in sports. Many fans and team owners believed that black
athletes weren’t coachable or smart enough to learn complicated
plays, and lacked the competitive fire necessary for premier
athletes. The victory, which was just shy of the Globetrotters’
3000th victory in 21 seasons, proved that none of this was true and
that African-American players had the skill and ability to play in the
In 1950, within two years of the Globetrotters-Lakers’ game, the NBA
integrated. Chuck Cooper, who had been a Globetrotter briefly, became
the first black player to sign a contract with the NBA. Another two of
the first black NBA players also were Globetrotters – Nat
"Sweetwater" Clifton and Hank DeZonie.
Also in 1950, the Globetrotters played their first game in Madison
Square Garden, marking the first time the venue sold out for a
basketball game. Following these successes, interest in the
Globetrotters grew and Saperstein created two more teams in the United
States, as well as an international squad. The Globetrotters have now
played in more than 118 countries.
Even after the NBA integrated, top black players continued to play for
the Globetrotters. In 1958,
Wilt Chamberlain joined the Globetrotters
for a year before going to the NBA and becoming its most dominant
player. In a 1999 interview,
Wilt Chamberlain said, “The
fraternity of the Globetrotters was one of the most rewarding times of
my life. I almost did not go into the NBA.”
Two feature-length movies have been made about the Globetrotters, The
Harlem Globetrotters (1951) and Go, Man, Go (1954), the latter
starring Dane Clark and Sidney Poitier. Several documentaries have
also told the Globetrotters’ story, including The Harlem
Globetrotters: The Team That Changed the World (2005), which featured
Geese Ausbie, Larry Brown and Bill Bradley.
Ownership of other sports teams
Saperstein was a leading figure in the black baseball leagues as well.
At various times, he owned the
Chicago Brown Bombers, the Birmingham
Black Barons, and the
Cincinnati Crescents baseball teams. He
also created several new leagues, including the Negro Midwest League
and, in partnership with Olympic track and field star Jesse Owens, the
West Coast Negro
Baseball League. When Saperstein’s friend Bill
Veeck took ownership of the Cleveland Indians in the late 40s, he
hired Saperstein as his chief scout for African-American players. At
Saperstein’s suggestion, Veeck eventually signed Luke Easter, Minnie
Minoso, Suitcase Simpson, Satchel Paige, and Larry Doby, the American
Leagues's first black player.
Saperstein also founded the white New York Nationals baseball team and
the Boston Brownskins, a basketball team that served as a minor league
club for the Globetrotters. He also booked games for the Hong Wah
Kues, a basketball team of Chinese Americans from San Francisco.
Started in 1939 with six players, the
Hong Wah Kues became known for
their speed and quick passing. They played the Harlem Globetrotters
once, and lost.
He had ambitions of owning a team in the National Basketball
Association and hoped to start a team in California. That hope was
dashed when the NBA approved the move of the Lakers from Minneapolis
to L.A. The NBA also did not award the Warriors to Saperstein when the
team moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco. Instead of sitting
on the sidelines, Saperstein started the American
Basketball League in
1961 and served as its commissioner, as well as owner of the
Chicago Majors team. To differentiate the ABL from the NBA
– and to promote the new league – Saperstein introduced a widened
free throw lane and the three-point shot, both of which were later
adopted by the NBA, although the ABL lasted only a season and a
half. The NBA adopted the three-point shot in 1979.
In a time of racial segregation and bigotry in professional sports,
Saperstein proudly showcased the talents of the nation’s best black
basketball players. Four years after the all-white National
Basketball Association (originally called the
of America) was formed, black players were finally allowed into the
As the integrated NBA became recognized as the country’s highest
level of basketball, Saperstein focused the Globetrotters on
entertainment, creating a popular act that played to audiences
worldwide. In the years following World War II, the Globetrotters
embarked on a “goodwill tour.” Among the more memorable of those
games took place in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and featured Jesse
Owens, who was traveling with the team. Owens returned to the stadium
where he had won four gold medals 15 years earlier, after which Hitler
famously refused to shake his hand.
Although Saperstein worried about bringing the team into the racially
charged atmosphere of Berlin, Owens and the Globetrotters were greeted
by 75,000 cheering fans. The mayor of Berlin greeted Owens and
famously said, "In 1936, Hitler refused to shake your hand. Today, I
give you both of mine."
As the movement for civil rights progressed, some alleged that
Saperstein did not do enough to advance the equality of his black
players. In the 50s and 60s, some players resented that, due to the
prejudice of hotel owners, they continued to be housed in
“colored” hotels in black neighborhoods, while players on
Saperstein’s white teams supposedly stayed in first-class hotels.
There was also discontent among some Globetrotters that Saperstein
reportedly paid white players on his other teams higher
salaries. Others criticized the Globetrotters for their
on-court antics, saying they played into racial stereotypes. In
1978, however, Jesse Jackson said: “They did not show blacks as
stupid. On the contrary, they were shown as superior…they were able
to turn science into an art form.” Meadowlark Lemon, who played
with the Globetrotters from 1954 until 1979, also came to the
Globetrotters's defense, saying that the team had “done more for the
perception of black people, and the perception of America, than almost
anything you could think of.”
Abe Saperstein and Sylvia Franklin at their wedding in 1934
Saperstein was the eldest of nine children, several of whom were
involved with the Globetrotters. In the early years, Saperstein’s
then-teenage brother Harry worked as a typist and secretary, sending
out press releases and game schedules. His sister Fay, the youngest
sibling, helped Abe with paperwork for years and ran the New York
office in the 1950s. After Abe’s death in March 1966, his brother
Morry Saperstein assisted in running the business before it was sold
to a group of
Chicago businessmen for $3.7 million and eventually
Chicago to New York City.
On May 6, 1934, Saperstein married Sylvia Franklin from Wisconsin.
They had two children, Jerry and Eloise. Jerry ran the international
unit of the Globetrotters in the 1960s, founded the New York Sets, a
charter franchise of World Team Tennis, and owned the San Francisco
Shamrocks of the Pacific Hockey League. He then served as the
first vice president at Madison Square Garden Corporation, reporting
directly to the then-Chairman Sonny Werblin. Jerry has two sons, Adam
and Lanier Saperstein, who live in the New York area. Eloise, a
retired basketball agent, has three children, Lonni, Avi and Abra, who
live in the
Saperstein was a tireless worker, taking off just one day a year, Yom
Kippur. He continued to work right up until his death from a heart
attack in March 1966. “He had more energy than the Grand Coulee
Dam,” wrote Chuck Menville in The Harlem Globetrotters: An
Illustrated History. The news of Saperstein’s death came as a shock
to the Globetrotters. The team’s star, Meadowlark Lemon, was on the
road in Charlotte, North Carolina at the time. “My mouth went
dry,” Lemon said. “The boys cried. I had to force myself to be
funny. I did it only because Abe would have wanted the show to go
on.” Saperstein is buried in the
Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge,
Illinois, near Chicago.
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Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 1971
Members of the Naismith Memorial
Basketball Hall of Fame
1960 United States Olympic Team
1992 United States Olympic Team
All-American Red Heads
The First Team
New York Renaissance