Start Your Aircraft Engines!: Aviation Accomplishments in Speedway During World War II

Note: For those interested in learning more about aviation in the Speedway area during World War I, see “Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I.”

This weekend, some 300,000 fans are expected to descend upon the Town of Speedway to watch the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. The Speedway area has been home to the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since 1911. The race attracted drivers and fans from all over the world. It has only been cancelled on two occasions: during World War I (1917-1918) and World War II (1942-1945). While there was no roar of race cars, the area was by no means quiet. Instead, the Speedway area became a hub for wartime production, with aircraft engines taking center stage.

James A. Allison, photo courtesy of Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Entrepreneur and Indianapolis Motor Speedway co-founder James Allison quite literally shifted gears when he devoted his precision machine shop’s resources on Main Street, just south of the track, to the war effort in 1917. Allison originally built the shop to redesign and rebuild foreign and domestic racecars. By mid-1918, the War Department awarded government contracts to Allison Experimental Company to build parts for the Liberty aircraft engine. According to the National Museum of the United States Air Force, the Liberty represented “America’s major technological contribution to World War I.” The United States’ auto industry produced over 20,000 of these engines during the war and Allison’s Speedway company played its part in this endeavor. The Speedway area also saw the development of an aviation repair depot where workers helped repair, modify, and test hundreds of airplanes and aircraft engines.

Allison Engineering Company Main Street Building and Employees, 1921, photo courtesy of Indiana Memory.

Just one month after the war’s end, in December 1918, the owners of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that the Indianapolis 500 would resume in May 1919. The focus in the Speedway area quickly shifted back to automobiles and racing, but interest in aviation there had just begun. During the 1920s, Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921) worked on rebuilding and inverting Liberty engines.

Liberty 12-A Inverted Engine on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

Following James Allison’s death in 1928, General Motors Corp. filed an appropriation request to buy the company the following year. According to the request, General Motors planned to continue Allison’s work in the aviation industry. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce promoted the acquisition, stating that with General Motors’ purchase of the company:

Development of this city as a center for the nation’s aviation industry seems assured.

General Motors Corporation Appropriation Request to Purchase Allison Engineering Company. Courtesy of Rolls Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch Archival Collection.

The Chamber of Commerce was not far off the mark. During the 1930s, Allison Engineering Co. focused its efforts on developing a 1,000 horsepower liquid-cooled aircraft engine in the Speedway area. Known as the V-1710, it would become the primary engine that powered Allied fighter aircraft during World War II. Norman Gilman, chief engineer and general manager for the company, reasoned that a liquid-cooled engine could be placed inside the fuselage, where a radial type engine could not and therefore developed high wind resistance or drag, particularly at higher speeds. Despite initial hesitation from both the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army, the Navy placed an order with Allison Engineering Co. for a liquid-cooled airplane engine of 750 horsepower in June 1930. The company designed, built, and delivered this engine to the Navy in March 1932. After completing a 50-hour development test, the Navy accepted the engine in September of that year. The Army Air Corps followed suit and soon after placed an order for the engine with the company.

Throughout the mid-1930s, Allison Engineering Co. worked to improve the engine, with the goal of making it 1,000 horsepower. After several tests and improvements to the design, the company delivered the engine to the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in March 1937. One month later, the V-1710 passed the 150-hour acceptance test.

AllisoNews, March 31, 1942, vol. 1, no. 18, photo courtesy IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

By 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Allison Engineering (renamed Allison Division of General Motors in January 1941) committed itself to mass production of the V-1710 aircraft engine in Speedway. At the time, Allison employed 600 people, but this number grew exponentially as orders for the V-1710 came pouring in. In April 1939, newspapers reported that the company would soon triple its facilities with construction of a new plant that would span 200,000 sq. ft. By the end of the year, employment figures had almost doubled to 1,200. Allison Division constructed additional plants in Speedway and the Indianapolis area throughout the war years and with these plants came thousands of additional employees.

V-1710 engine, photo courtesy Allison Transmission: History and Heritage.

Demand for the V-1710 engine made Allison Division one of the three principal manufacturers of aircraft engines in the country during the war, alongside Pratt & Whitney and Wright Aeronautical. In January 1941, Life magazine ran a feature on the engine, highlighting it as the “plane motor on which the Army puts its biggest bet.” By July 1941, the War Department awarded Allison a new contract for the engines. With this contract, total orders for Allison engines since the beginning of the defense emergency program totaled approximately $242,000,000.

America has bet heavily on the Allison engine in its aircraft defense plans, just as the war industries board in 1917 bet everything on the Liberty engine . . . the Allison engine has been delivering regularly for the R.A.F. [Royal Air Force]. Allison is now producing 400 aviation engines a month, where a year ago it was delivering only 150, and expects to approach 1,000 engines a month by the end of 1941. – “More Air Power,” Mason City [Iowa] Globe Gazette, August 13, 1941, 4.

Curtiss P-40, photo courtesy AllisoNews, July 18, 1941, 4.,

Orders and output for the V-1710 engine continued to grow, particularly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. By this point, employment at Allison Division surpassed 12,000. It swelled to 23,019 in October 1943. The company’s growth impacted the Town of Speedway as well. As early as 1940, Indianapolis newspapers commented on Speedway’s growing pains, reporting that officials from the town were seeking state aid to address problems that had come about from the influx of workers to the plants. These problems included the need to improve streets, sanitary conditions, and the need for a better water system. The Indianapolis Times noted that with more employees at the Allison plants came “more money, more home buying, more eating, etc.” School enrollment in the area doubled, church attendance rose greatly, and many new homes were built.

Bell Airacobra P-39, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 1, 1941, 6.

Meanwhile, Allison Division continued to impress. By March 1944, it built and delivered its 50,000th liquid-cooled engine. By the war’s end, the total figure reached 70,000. These engines powered many of the United States’ fighter planes during the war, including the P-38 Lightning, the P-39 Airacobra, and the P-40 Warhawk. The engine was also used in several fighter planes flown by the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom.

Lockheed P-38, photo courtesy AllisoNews, August 15, 1941, 4.
Program for the Presentation of the Army-Navy Production Award to Allison Division, General Motors Corporation, November 5, 1942.

Allison Division received high praise for the fine precision, workmanship, and durability of the V-1710. It won the Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in production four times during the war: in October 1942, March 1944, October 1944, and June 1945. By the spring of 1945, Allison Division reduced production schedules of the V-1710 to focus more of its time on building jet engines, which could power planes at much higher speeds. The U.S Army Air Forces had awarded Allison a contract for the production of jet propulsion units in the fall of 1944. The Navy followed the Army’s lead and placed their own order with Allison in the summer of 1945, citing Allison’s “well established reputation for delivering the goods on time.” This reputation would continue through the end of the war in August 1945 and through the post-war years.

As had happened following the conclusion of World War I, racing returned to the Speedway area in 1946 to much fanfare. Left abandoned for nearly five years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had fallen into disrepair during World War II. Tony Hulman purchased the track in November 1945 and worked to restore it in preparation for the May 1946 500-mile race. Fans came in droves to witness the 30th running of the Indianapolis 500 that year, as racing returned to center stage in the Speedway area.

AllisoNews, March 1944, 1, accessed IUPUI Digital Collections, Allison Transmission.

Allison’s work in Speedway and its commitment to technological advancements did not end with World War II, but rather continues through today. In addition to continuing its investment and development in the aviation industry following the war, Allison also organized a new department for the design and development of transmissions. The transmissions were manufactured for commercial and military use, with many powering tanks during the Korean War. Their production ushered in a new chapter in the company’s history. Today, James Allison’s experimental company in Speedway , now known around the globe as Allison Transmission, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of fully automatic transmissions.

Speedway: An Aviation Hub During World War I

Speedway’s aviation repair depot was bordered by Main St. on the west, 14th St. on the north, Polco St. on the east, and roughly contemporary Ford St. and 10th St. on the south. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

May is finally here and with it racing fans from around the world will soon begin flocking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to attend practices and qualifying races in preparation for the Indianapolis 500. For the past century, the Speedway ─ both the track and the adjacent areas of the town ─ have become synonymous with motorsports and racing.

Fort Wayne Sentinel, March 23, 1917, sec. 2, p. 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

In addition to racing though, the area holds another important place in Indiana and U.S. history ─ as an innovative aviation hub during both world wars. During World War I, the track was used as a landing and flight test field and hangars built on site helped house aircraft. Just south of the track, the Allison Experimental Company manufactured parts for the Liberty Engine, arguably one of America’s greatest contributions to the war. And at Speedway’s aviation repair depot, workers restored 313 planes, 350 engines, and numerous aircraft parts. Their work helped keep our nation’s pilots in the air and made the Speedway area a center for military aviation during the war.

The United States lagged far behind the British, French, and Germans in military aviation when it entered World War I in April 1917. Those countries had been fighting  for three years and in that time had understood and capitalized on the value of military aircraft for combat and reconnaissance. American entry in the war spurred rapid expansion of the industry in the country. Although time constraints forced the U.S. to purchase much of its military aircraft from the British and French during this period, the country made great strides in preparing pilots for air service abroad and in the production and repair of engines and training aircraft.

Liberty 12 Model A V-12 Engine. Photo courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum.

Indianapolis’ central location made it a prime site for aviation repairs and flight testing. Nearby flying fields included Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois and Scott Field in Belleville, Illinois, McCook Field and Wilbur Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, and Selfridge Field in Mt. Clemens, Michigan, among others. Additionally, the proximity of railroad lines in the city and automobile centers in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois made it easier to access raw materials such as steel, aluminum, and lumber, as well as supplies and spare parts used in repairing wrecked aircraft. Perhaps even more importantly though was the leadership of men like Carl Fisher and James Allison, co-founders of the Speedway, who dedicated their manufacturing resources in the area and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the war effort.

Airplanes waiting to be placed in “roundhouse” at Speedway. “Aviation Repair Depot at Speedway City May Become Permanent When Aerial Mail Service is Extended to Midwestern Country,” Indianapolis News, August 10, 1918, accessed Newspapers.com.

The U.S. Army established the aviation repair depot in Speedway on February 4, 1918 with the arrival of the 810th Aero Squadron from Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas. According to William Menkel, former captain in the U.S. Air Service and commanding officer of the depot, it was the first of the repair depots to get under way and begin repairs in the U.S. Other repair depots later opened in Dallas, Texas and in Montgomery, Alabama. In addition to the 810th Aero Squadron, the Speedway depot was also home to the 809th, 811th, and 821st squadrons. 150 men served in each squadron.

821st Aero Squadron. Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection.

In October 1918, the Speedway Dope, the newsletter of the aviation repair depot, reported that “the commissioned and enlisted personnel [at the depot] constitutes a cosmopolitan community. Mechanicians, [sic] clerks, cooks, and chauffeurs have come from all parts of the Union, and at the Speedway there is no East or West or North or South.” The majority of the civilian mechanics at the repair depot had little knowledge of aircraft before American entry in the war, but within a short time they became experts in the industry and in repair work. The U.S. Air Service established training schools for these men across the country and provided classes in engine assembly and wing and fuselage construction, while also teaching skills such as making and fastening metal parts to the aircraft, sewing fabric on wings, and applying dope varnish to the aircraft. The first wrecked aircraft arrived in April 1918.

Small Parts and Welding Department at the aviation repair depot. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

Damaged planes were unloaded and often sent to the Dismantling Department where the engine, landing gear, tail surfaces, and other parts were removed, cleaned, and worked on separately before reassembly began. While some of the planes that arrived only needed minor repairs before being shipped back out, others were total wrecks that needed to be completely rebuilt and tested.

By July, output reached three completed planes a day. Perhaps even more impressive though were the modifications made to the aircraft to help increase pilot safety. Workers at the repair depot analyzed incoming wrecks in order to find patterns in destruction. They then used this information to make improvements in design of the aircraft. For example, in his 1919 report on repair depots, Captain Menkel noted that many damaged planes that arrived in Speedway had smashed instrument boards. The instrument board was located so close to the pilot that in the case of a crash their head was likely to hit it. Workers at the depot moved the instrument boards farther away from the pilot’s seat during their repairs. This extra space reduced the chance that the pilot would hit it in a crash, thereby improving the pilot’s safety and lowering the chance of damage to the instrument board.

Propeller Room. Photo courtesy of William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129, accessed Google Books.

The information learned from wrecked aircraft that arrived at the depot also resulted in other modifications, including the reinforcement of longerons and other parts of the plane to lower the chances of damage or fatal injury of the pilot and cutting out sections of the cowl frame to provide more distance between it and the pilot.

In a post report to Washington in January 1919, the Speedway Dope reported 313 airplanes repaired at the depot during 1918, representing a total value of $1,195,550.00 and 350 airplane motors valued at $638,699.00. In addition to these figures, the report noted repairs of wings, ailerons, elevators, rudders, and other miscellaneous parts valued at approximately $300,000.00. Added together, repairs at the depot well exceeded $2,000,000.00. Beyond the economic benefits and savings to the government was the fact that those working at the repair depot helped keep pilots in the air, reducing their chance of injury or death and ultimately giving the U.S. a better opportunity to win the war.

Articles in the Speedway Dope reiterated these sentiments, noting that those who trained or repaired airplanes in the Speedway area might be inclined to downplay the role they played in the war because they were not in the trenches abroad or flying in France. The repair and reconstruction of airplanes was a vital part of the war effort though.

Speedway Dope newsletter letterhead.

The third side of aviation has not only been neglected, but the public generally does not know that it even exists. The repair and reconstruction of damaged planes and motors, constitutes a bit part of the game of aviation. It is that part of the game that must be done and done right, or the other parts would fail to accomplish anything. True it does not carry any of the romance or glamour that follows the course of the pilot and his plane, and neither does it require the enormous financial outlay that goes with production . . . Yet this third side of aviation has been well taken care of and thousands of men who enlisted for service in France have remained at home repair depots and made it possible for others to enjoy foreign service and win international fame.

“The Third Side of Aviation-Rebuilding,” Speedway Dope, November 30, 1918, 1, accessed Indiana State Library Collections.

In the days immediately following the armistice on November 11, 1918, the Speedway Dope wrote that even though the war had ended, production at the depot should continue, as there was still plenty of work to do before completion of the final peace terms. Major Guy L. Gearhart, former commanding officer of the depot agreed. Maj. Gearhart recognized the important role the airplane would play in transportation after the war and believed the repair depot would become a permanent fixture in the Speedway.

A group of the Aviation Repair Depot Officers at the Flying Field, Speedway Motor Track. Left to right – Lt. A. D. McIlvaine, Sen. Instructor Frank Mills, Lt. James Wallace, Lt. William Groom, Lt. Col. A. W. Robins, Capt. Edward Laughlin, Lt. A. L. Maurer, Lt. Ralph M. Snyder, Lt. H. A. Knudson, Lt. R. J. Brandi, Lt. R. A. Ballard, Lt. Kincaid. Photo courtesy of the Speedway Dope, November 16, 1918, 1, accessed Indiana State Library.

The depot’s future remained unclear though. With the war over, immediate aviation interests in the area took a backseat to racing and motorsports. The Indianapolis 500, which had been cancelled in 1917 and 1918, recommenced in May 1919. The resumption of the annual race led to questions and concerns about the track and infield being used for aircraft. Despite initial orders calling for the closing of the depot in March 1919 though, the South Bend News-Times reported that recruitment for men for the U.S. Air Service at the Speedway aviation repair depot continued as of July. By the following year, however, the status of the aviation repair depot was again called into question. Some speculated that it would be removed from the Speedway area and relocated to Fairfield, Ohio. The government officially ordered the abandonment of the repair depot in September 1920 and publicized the sale of buildings and utilities in November of that year.

Although work in the Speedway area shifted back to racing and motorsports, aviation interests did not disappear completely. The Allison Experimental Company (Allison Engineering Company by 1921), located just west of the repair depot, continued to work to improve the Liberty aircraft engine into the 1920s. When General Motors purchased the company in 1929, it expressed a commitment to expanding its work in the aviation field. It was this commitment that made the Speedway area an aviation hub once again during World War II.

Be sure to check back in a few weeks when we examine the vital role the Speedway area played in military aviation in World War II!

Sources Used and Research Note:

William Menkel, “‘New Plans for Old’: The Work of the Aviation Repair Depots,” Aerial Age Weekly, September 1, 1919, 1129-1133, 1144, accessed Google Books.

Much of the information about the aviation repair depot came from articles in the Speedway Dope. The publication ran from September 28, 1918 until February 1, 1919. Copies of the paper can be located at the Indiana State Library.

The Indiana Historical Bureau installed a new state historical marker commemorating the aviation repair depot in Speedway on April 24, 2018. Marker sponsors included Rolls-Royce North America, Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust – Allison Branch, and the Town of Speedway. For more information on the aviation repair depot and additional sources, see: https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4406.htm

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Justice for a G-Man: The FBI in College Corner

In August 1935, Special Agents Nelson B. Klein and Donald C. McGovern from the Cincinnati office of the FBI began investigating convicted criminal George W. Barrett, the “Diamond King,” for his suspected involvement in a number of motor vehicle scams in Ohio and elsewhere across the country. The Department of Justice had Barrett under surveillance since 1931 for dealing in stolen automobiles. In “Barrett v. United States,” in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, heard on March 17, 1936, the court provided details on Barrett’s criminal activities, stating:

His method was to buy an automobile, obtain title papers for it, steal an automobile of similar description, change its motor numbers to correspond with those on the purchased car, obtain duplicate title papers, and then sell the stolen car to some dealer.

In each instance, Barrett sold the stolen vehicles with papers purporting to show that the sales were legitimate.

Special Agent Nelson B. Klein. Courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigation at “History – Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Special Agents Klein and McGovern learned that Barrett was in Hamilton, Ohio after a recent car deal there with the Central Motor Company, but neither they nor the local police were able to question him before he left the area. Acting on a tip, the G-Men – a term used to describe government men, particularly the federal agents working under J. Edgar Hoover – suspected Barrett might travel to College Corner at the Ohio-Indiana border, where Barrett’s brother lived. They drove there on August 16, 1935 and spotted Barrett near the residence of his brother’s home, along with a vehicle matching the motor number of an automobile involved in one of Barrett’s recent schemes. Klein telephoned the sheriff’s office in Hamilton for assistance in arresting Barrett, and he and McGovern parked their car and waited. Before Sheriff John Schumacher and Deputy Charles Walke arrived, Barrett returned to his car with a package in which he had hidden a gun.

Special Agent Donald C. McGovern. Courtesy William Plunkett, The G-Man and the Diamond King, page 37.

Barrett went to unlock his car door, but as Klein and McGovern started their vehicle and began to approach, he abruptly turned and started walking away. Fearful that he was trying to flee and would elude them again, Klein jumped out of the FBI vehicle and called out to him to stop. Barrett ignored the calls and continued walking down a nearby alley with Klein in pursuit.

Once back in the open, the “Diamond King” opened fire, striking Klein numerous times. Klein returned fire and succeeded in hitting Barrett in the legs, but the federal agent succumbed to his gunshot wounds and died at the scene.

In the days following, newspapers across the country reported on the gun battle that had ensued in College Corner. On August 18, 1935, just two days after the shooting, the Indianapolis Star reported that Barrett would stand trial in Indianapolis and would be taken there as soon as his wounds allowed. Although College Corner falls right along the Indiana-Ohio line, agents confirmed that Klein had fallen dead on the Indiana side. The Richmond Item reported: “the trial, to be held in the Indianapolis Federal Courtroom, will be the first murder trial ever conducted in the Southern Indiana District Court.”

[Zanesville, Ohio] Times Recorder, August 17, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Sheboygan [Wisconsin] Press, August 17, 1935, page 2. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The Richmond Item, August 31, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Federal officers transferred Barrett from the Hamilton, Ohio hospital to the City Hospital in Indianapolis on August 21. On August 26, the [Hamilton] Journal News reported on the recovery of one of the automobiles Barrett reportedly stole and transported over state lines from San Diego to Hamilton. Barrett allegedly changed the motor and serial numbers of the car before selling it to a garage in Hamilton. Jurors wasted no time in indicting Barrett for the murder of Special Agent Klein and for violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act.

George W. Barrett. Courtesy Find a Grave.

Passed in 1919, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act – also known as the Dyer Act – helped supplement individual states’ efforts to combat automobile theft in the country. In the fall of 1919, newspapers reported that the practice of stealing automobiles was on the rise throughout the U.S., especially in some midwestern cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. The Indianapolis News claimed that over 22,000 automobiles were stolen in eighteen western and midwestern cities in 1918. Other articles put the number closer to 30,000. Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, who introduced the legislation, argued that the losses amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, while also causing hefty increases in automobile theft insurance.

Stolen vehicles reported by Representative Dyer. Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1919, section 2, page 13. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

The act sought “to punish the transportation of stolen motor vehicles in interstate or foreign commerce.” In accordance with the law, anyone who knowingly transported or caused to be transported a stolen motor vehicle in interstate or foreign commerce could be fined up to $5,000, imprisoned for up to five years, or both. Those found guilty of violating the law could also be punished in any district through which the guilty party transported the vehicle. According to former Special Agent William Plunkett in The G-Man and the Diamond King:

The BOI (later the FBI) gained more influence in 1919 with the passage of the Dyer Act . . . now it could prosecute criminals who’d previously evaded the Bureau by driving across a state line. More than any other law, the Dyer Act sealed the FBI’s reputation as a national investigative crime-fighting organization.

Federal officers arrested many professional automobile thieves in the 1920s and 1930s after the law went into effect. In many instances, these criminals were wanted for other offenses, including murder. Prior to the passage of the act, federal agents did not have the authority to pursue such criminals and had to let local and state authorities try to handle the rising number of cases. In some instances, local authorities caught and successfully imprisoned criminals and gangsters of the period, only to see their prison sentences expire or have them escape and commit more dangerous crimes. This was particularly true in the case of notorious gangster John Dillinger. In the early 1930s, Dillinger and his gang robbed several banks, plundered police arsenals, killed a police detective in Chicago, and fled the county jail in Crown Point, Indiana in March 1934 after being held to await trial. The FBI’s website states:

It was then that Dillinger made the mistake that would cost him his life. He stole the sheriff’s car and drove across the Indiana-Illinois line, heading for Chicago. By doing that, he violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, which made it a federal offense to transport a stolen motor vehicle across a state line.

After Dillinger violated the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act, the FBI became actively involved in his capture.

Indianapolis Star, December 4, 1935, page 3. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

Both the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act and a recently passed 1934 law making the killing or assault of a United States officer a federal offense punishable by death sealed George Barrett’s fate. His trial began on December 2. According to The Tennessean, he was only the second man to be tried under the new law providing for capital punishment in the killing of a federal officer. Edward Rice, defense counsel for Barrett, argued that Barrett had been warned days before Special Agent Klein’s killing that Kentucky outlaws were after him and might pose as officers. As such, Barrett maintained that he acted in self-defense out of fear for his life. However, during his time on the witness stand, Special Agent Donald McGovern testified that Klein called out to Barrett and clearly identified himself and McGovern as federal officers.

On December 8, the Indianapolis Star reported that the jury only took fifty minutes to return with a guilty verdict. With no qualification calling for life imprisonment, Barrett was to be hanged. District Attorney Val Nolan stated “I think this is the greatest victory for law and order ever achieved in the state of Indiana.” Electrocution replaced hanging in Indiana several years earlier, but because Barrett’s sentence would be carried out under federal law, U.S. criminal code specified death by hanging.

Indianapolis Star, December 8, 1935, page 1. Courtesy Newspapers.com.

On March 18, the Indianapolis News noted that George “Phil” Hanna, an expert hangman, would lead the execution. Known as the “Humane Hangman,” Hanna had participated in close to seventy previous hangings in an interest to see them done correctly, without additional pain or suffering to the condemned. Barrett hanged at 12:02 am on March 24, 1936 in the Marion County jail yard, and was pronounced dead ten minutes later. Despite the late hour, fifty people reportedly traveled to the jail yard to witness the hanging.

Nelson B. Klein gravestone. Courtesy Find a Grave.

Reeling in the Legend: A Quick Dive into the Creek Chub Bait Company

The Wiggler. The Pikie. The Darter. The Injured Minnow. These are just a few of the popular lures crafted by the Creek Chub Bait Company during the twentieth century. Established in Garrett, DeKalb County, Indiana in 1916, the Creek Chub Bait Company became one of the country’s leading manufacturers of artificial fishing lures.

Creek Chub Wiggler. Courtesy Fin & Flame Vintage Fishing Tackle.
#2009 Creek Chub Darter in Greenback. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 73.

Each lure was a work of art, featuring the finest craftsmanship and attention to detail. From the company’s onset, owners Henry Dills, Carl Heinzerling, and George Schulthess placed an emphasis on quality for their products. Dills wanted the lures to be attractive to fishermen and fish alike, and worked alongside others within the company to ensure that they had a lifelike appearance and motion to help attract fish.

Creek Chub’s famous #700 Pikie, first introduced in 1920. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 65.

As early as December 1915, before the company officially began producing lures, Dills filed an application to patent new improvements in fish baits by adding a metal lip, or mouthpiece, attached to the front of the lure. According to the patent, the addition would help produce ripples, throw spray, wriggle, and dive similar to the way a minnow would, thereby attracting fish. The patent (1,352,054) was approved September 7, 1920.

Dills’ 1915 patent application featuring the addition of a metal lip to fishing lures. Courtesy United States Patent Office via Google Patents.

Creek Chub’s Wiggler, introduced in 1916, was among the first to feature the metal lip. According to Dr. Harold E. Smith in his Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, the company’s 1922 catalog advertised the Wiggler as “‘three baits in one.’ With the lip in the standard position, it was a diving, wiggling bait. In the reversed position, it became a water-splashing surface lure. Take the lip off and it was a darting surface lure.” Dixie Carroll also described the added movement to the lure in “Fishing, Tackle and Kits” in 1919, noting: “A small metal plate in the mouth of the chub gives a fine bunch of wiggles and wobbles and by moving the plate and reversing it you have a surface splatter lure . . .”

Dills’ 1918 patent application for the addition of imitation scales to improve the appearance of artificial lures. Courtesy United States Patent Office via Google Patents.

In July 1918, Dills filed another patent application to improve the lures by adding a scale-like appearance on their surface that would imitate a natural minnow. According to the patent (Patent 1,323,458), the lures would feature “a cigar-shaped wooden body, to which various coatings of coloring material are applied.” Employees used a non-lustrous color for the background body of the lure and then proceeded to wrap a cloth netting around it and spray a lustrous coloring material through the netting to form the scale-like pattern.

The scale finish evolved over time and helped revolutionize the industry by resembling natural food for fish. Advertisements in popular publications like Outing praised the lures, noting: “Accurately represents a minnow down to the silvery scales. Wonderful lifelike movements. Convertible.” Fishermen from around the country agreed, often writing to the company to boast of the record-size fish they caught using these lures.

Image: Dr. Harold E. Smith’s Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 279. In 1932, George Perry caught the world record largemouth bass in Lake Montgomery, Georgia using Creek Chub’s Perch Scale Wigglefish. The record stood for over seventy-five years. On July 2, 2009, Manabu Kurita caught a largemouth bass in Lake Biwa (Japan) tying Perry’s record of 22 lbs. 4 oz. According to articles in the Indianapolis Star in 2014, the International Game Fish Association took six months to verify the record. It became official on January 8, 2010.
Hunter Trader Trapper, June 1922, page 123. Courtesy Google Books.
Zoomed in letter from George McWilliams submitted to Hunter Trader Trapper, June 1922, page 123.

By the time a Creek Chub lure was completed and ready to ship to a customer, it often featured as many as fourteen or fifteen coats of primer, paint, and lacquer. Even the wood used early on for the bodies – white cedar – was of the highest quality. Over time, the designs and range of colors expanded greatly. The company also made specialty colors and custom orders upon request. In 1936, the Garrett Clipper noted that the patents for the natural scale finish and the mouthpiece were among the most important patents ever issued in the tackle industry.

Employees apply a scale finish to the lure bodies by spray painting through netting. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith,  Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 27.

From its earliest years, Creek Chub featured a largely female workforce. Some attributed this to the delicate nature of the lures and the work they entailed, which they believed women were better suited to perform. Dr. Harold E. Smith writes that “women were selected preferentially over men because management felt they were . . . ‘endowed with a better appreciation of color and detail.’”

Wanted ads in the Garrett Clipper frequently promoted jobs for girls and young ladies at the company, and articles often referenced the “girls” employed in the finishing departments, and sanding and dipping rooms.

Painting eyes on Creek Chub lures. Courtesy Dr. Harold E. Smith, Collector’s Encyclopedia of Creek Chub Lures & Collectibles, 2002, page 28.

By the 1920s, Creek Chub was shipping its lures all over the United States and Europe. Between January and July 1925, the Garrett Clipper published several pieces on international sales. For example, on March 19, 1925, it reported that Creek Chub had recently received orders for 180 dozen bait from Stockholm, Sweden, 178 dozen from Finland, and 31 dozen from Toronto, Canada. In April, the paper recorded orders from Waines, Hawaii (Hawaii did not become a U.S. state until 1959) and Bombay, India, and in July, it reported that the company had shipped 24 dozen lures to Reddich, England.

Creek Chub Bait Company in Garrett, Indiana. Courtesy the Garrett Historical Society.

On January 20, 1936, the Garrett Clipper provided a summary of the company and described its continued growth since its founding in 1916:

Since then sales have increased from year to year and are made not only in this country and Canada, but lures are sent to 48 foreign countries, France and Sweden receiving the largest shipments. The sales demand in Canada is so large that a Canadian branch has been established, the work being conducted by Allcock, Laight & Westwood company, Toronto, Ont. Although in its infancy, the plant has been doing a large business and the prospects for its growth are fine.

1931 Creek Chub catalog. Courtesy Old Fishing Lure.

In 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, business at Creek Chub Bait Co. reached a new peak. Production and sales were up and employment remained steady. Despite its success though, the company was already beginning to feel the effects of the conflict abroad. Finland and England had been Creek Chub’s top buyers prior to the war, but both markets quickly closed as each country became engaged in the conflict. The company also purchased many of its treble hooks, which it used on its lures, from Norway and England.

By August 1941, Creek Chub experienced great difficulty acquiring the necessary hooks and other supplies for its famous lures, as materials were reserved for defense industries. Supply markets from Norway were shut off and an embargo on trade between the United States and Japan stopped the shipments of hooks from that country as well. On August 21, 1941, the Clipper warned about the future of Creek Chub, writing:

. . . unless there is some early change in the world situation the business of the company will be greatly restricted, if not entirely stopped.

Creek Chub Victory Bomber lure introduced in 1942. Courtesy Fin and Flame Vintage Fishing Tackle.

The outlook for the company became bleaker throughout 1942 following orders from the War Production Board curtailing the manufacture of fishing lures. On May 8, 1942, the Angola Herald reported that Creek Chub would cease production on May 31, in accordance with government orders. In response, Creek Chub petitioned the War Production

Board to allow it to use the metal it had on hand, which it estimated at approximately six months’ supply. By early June, the War Production Board gave the company permission to continue manufacturing lures during the month, and throughout the summer it granted temporary extensions that allowed Creek Chub to continue production, albeit at a much reduced rate. On January 28, 1943, the Garrett Clipper noted that Creek Chub employed thirty people, two to three times less than it had before the war. Employment decreased again slightly the following year, but the company remained open, using the limited materials it had on hand to produce lures.

Popular Mechanics, May 1962, p. 204. Courtesy Google Books.

By January 1945, employment began to increase as more materials became available and in September 1945, Creek Chub received its first shipment of steel hooks from Norway since the beginning of the war. Business was slowly getting back on track. Wanted ads for female employees began populating the local newspaper’s pages once again as the company sought additional employees to meet production goals and fill the backlog of orders that had accumulated during the war. By late December 1946, Creek Chub announced that it had leased a hotel building in nearby Ashley, north of Garrett, and it soon established a branch factory there to expand operations. The added facilities allowed business to double from 1947 to 1948, and within the next two years the company caught up on its backlog of orders.

Courtesy Russell Lewis, Classic Fishing Lures: Identification and Price Guide, 2005, page 38, via Google Books.

Creek Chub continued to look for ways to improve and diversify its product line in the 1950s and 1960s. This included entering the plastic bait field, developing new saltwater lures, and offering new color combinations. The company’s future looked bright, but by the late 1970s declining sales and questions regarding future leadership of the company began to weigh on Creek Chub.

[Muncie] Star Press, April 6, 1979. Courtesy Newspaper.com.
On December 24, 1978, the Des Moines [Iowa] Register reported that Lazy Ike Corp. of Des Moines had purchased the Creek Chub Bait Company. Reporter Bob Barnet confirmed the sale in the [Muncie] Star Press in April 1979, writing “. . . Hoosier-owned Creek Chub Bait Co., one of the nation’s oldest and most respected manufacturers of artificial lures, has been sold.” Lazy Ike, which was also in the lure industry, would continue to manufacture and market Creek Chub lures.

[Des Moines] Register, September 16, 1979. Courtesy Newspapers.com.
Unfortunately, within just a few months of the purchase, Lazy Ike filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Dura-Pak Corp. of South Sioux City, Nebraska acquired Lazy Ike Corp. and another fishing tackle manufacturer out of Vancouver, Washington in the early 1980s. Today, PRADCO owns the Creek Chub name.

Although the company closed in the late 1970s, Creek Chub lures continue to remain popular among collectors, a testament to their enduring quality.

Courtesy Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History (Summer 2002), page 20.

Indiana’s Daredevil Racer: Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker and his 1914 Record-Breaking Transcontinental Motorcycle Run

Baker riding atop his Indian motorcycle. Photo courtesy of the IUPUI Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

On May 14, 1914, Hoosier speedster Erwin G. Baker arrived in New York City after driving over 3,000 miles across the country on his Indian motorcycle. Baker’s run from San Diego to New York City in eleven and a half days not only broke the previous transcontinental record set by Volney E. Davis in 1911, it shattered it by almost nine days (Davis’s record was 20 days, 9 hours, and 1 minute). Baker’s feat, coupled with several other speed and distance records he set during this period, quickly earned him the nickname “Cannon Ball;” a moniker he would proudly carry with him for the rest of his life.

Indianapolis Star, January 28, 1909, 8, accessed Newspapers.com

Erwin G. Baker was born in southeastern Indiana in 1882 and moved to Indianapolis with his family sometime between 1893 and 1894. In the early 1900s, he worked as a machinist in the city and performed a bag punching routine on vaudeville stages throughout the country. The act required Baker to try and keep a certain number of punching bags going at the same time. In January 1909, the Indianapolis Star lauded him as a “champion bag puncher” and noted that he was “regarded as one of the best in the country.” According to the article, Baker was preparing to compete against Harry Seeback for the national title, contending that he could keep twelve bags going at once, as opposed to Seeback’s eight.

Indianapolis News, July 13, 1909, 10, accessed Newspapers.com

While Baker may have gained some recognition for his bag punching routine, it was his interest and skill riding motorcycles that earned him early fame and jump started his career. In the summer of 1909, Baker was one of many drivers to compete at the newly opened Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The first motorcycle races – which predated automobile races at the famous track – were held in mid-August under the sanction of the Federation of American Motorcyclists (F.A.M.). Baker competed in the ten-mile amateur championship. According to the Indianapolis Star, the event lacked a large number of entries due to racer Jake DeRosier’s recent accident on the unpaved gravel track and fear on the part of some of the drivers about being badly injured themselves. Baker, already regarded as a daredevil racer and “rider of great skill and nerve,” took home first place in the event in a time of 11:31 1-5. Just two months later, he claimed two more first place wins, one second place win, and two third place wins at a series of races in Dayton, Ohio.

Starting line of a motorcycle race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, August 14, 1909. Photo courtesy of IUPUI Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection
Motorcyclists Erwin Baker and John Sink compete in a 100-mile race on November 27, 1909. Photo courtesy of IUPUI Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

Over the next few years, Baker traveled all over the country, competing in a wide variety of motorcycle races and setting many new track records.

President Taft congratulates Baker at the Indiana Sate Fair Grounds after he defeated Johnnie Sink in a five-mile race in a time of 6 minutes and 2-5 seconds. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Star, July 5, 1911, 6, accessed Newspapers.com

In early 1913, the Indianapolis Star reported that he had departed on a motorcycle tour of the southern United States, as well as Cuba, Jamaica, Panama, and Mexico. The trip was said to cover some 12,000 miles. Baker was constantly testing out the limits of his Indian motorcycle and other vehicles he drove, challenging how far he could make it on a tank of gas or how long he could go without experiencing mechanical problems. Companies frequently hired him or sought his help to test and promote their brands. For instance, during Baker’s motorcycle tour of the South, he served as an experimenter for the U.S. Tire Company and tested the durability of the company’s tires over the course of his journey. Later in life, many motorsport companies would seek his endorsements as the public came to associate him with professional integrity and a sense of nostalgia for early racing.

In 1914, Baker set out to test himself once again. This time, his goal was to break the transcontinental record set by Volney Davis a few years earlier. Rather than departing from San Francisco as Davis had, Baker made San Diego his starting point. In a post card from Baker to William Waking of Waking and Company mailed May 1, 1914, he wrote:

Dear Friend Waking:

Am leaving San Diego, Cal., May 3. Will wire you just before my arrival at Richmond and ask you to assist in guiding me through your city. I’m making an effort to break transcontinental record which stands 20 days, 9 hours, one minute. Such assistance would keep me from losing time.

Yours truly,
E.G. Baker

The trek required the Hoosier speedster to travel through twelve states and across all manner of roads. In the early twentieth century, few roads were paved and the standard highway numbering system we are so accustomed to today was not yet established. While Baker often intentionally sought out demanding, primitive mountain roads or desert paths in order to prove the efficiency of the vehicle he was promoting, even the roads of his mostly flat home state of Indiana would have presented a challenge in these years. Baker also had to battle the weather in his transcontinental run, as his route took him from the scorching desert heat to colder mountain temperatures. The Indianapolis News said it best in a May 5, 1914 article, noting “the ride will not be a picnic.”

Baker was undeterred and well prepared. Newspaper accounts report that he laid out his route ahead of time, planning what roads and towns to travel through and even planting tanks of gas ahead of him in remote areas so as to avoid fuel trouble. Working with a weather expert, he also considered weather conditions for the past decade to determine what month would be best for his trip. He traveled light. According to the Indianapolis News, Baker carried two extra inner tubes, a short and long chain, a small Graflex camera, a half-gallon canteen, and a .48 caliber revolver for protection. His Indian motorcycle was a “two-speed model, equipped with electric lights and speedometer.”

Indianapolis News, May 13, 1914, 12, accessed Newspapers.com

The F.A.M. sanctioned the ride and, as a result, Baker wrote nightly reports updating the organization on his progress and offering details about his journey. Newspapers across the country also covered the story and helped track his route. The first leg of his trip, one which Baker would describe as one of the worst due to the sandy desert and high temperatures, took him from San Diego, California to Phoenix, Arizona. On May 7, the Albuquerque Journal reported that he passed through Albuquerque, New Mexico the previous afternoon and, after a short stay, continued on to Santa Fe, bringing his total mileage that day to just over 350. From Santa Fe, Baker traveled through Las Vegas, New Mexico on to La Junta, Colorado before making it into Kansas. He reached Topeka, Kansas seven days and six hours after starting his journey in San Diego and was well on his way to breaking Davis’s previous transcontinental record.

Men help pull “Cannon Ball” Baker’s Stutz Bearcat across a river during a transcontinental trip, circa 1915. Photo courtesy of the IUPUI Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

However, Baker encountered some trouble at this point in his trip. According to the Topeka Daily Capital, while road conditions in Kansas surpassed those of the desert, Baker had to contend with seven nail punctures along this leg and hit a dog that had crossed his path, causing him to topple from his motorcycle and the machine to fall. Baker injured his elbow and knee, but did not allow the incident to discourage him. He made it to Indianapolis on May 12 and even stopped for a quick dinner at home before continuing on. He had been on the road a little over nine days when he made it to his home state and had already covered 2,600 miles. It’s no wonder that the Indianapolis News referred to him as “Here-He-Comes-There-He-Goes Baker.”

Philadelphia Inquirer, May 17, 1914, 27, accessed Newspapers.com

Baker arrived in New York City on May 14, having driven well over 3,000 miles. The 11 day trip effectively shattered Volney Davis’s record by almost nine full days. The Indianapolis News rightly wrote on May 15 that the trek represented “not only the sturdy qualities of [Baker’s] machine, but the endurance of the rider.”

Reflecting on his record-breaking run in the days and weeks following, Baker credited his preparation and calculation before the trip as a large factor contributing to his success. He also praised his Indian motorcycle, noting that throughout the entire journey, which included fording streams and riding on railroad ties, he experienced no mechanical troubles. He noted that his batteries needed no recharging and that the original light bulb on the machine still burned brightly. According to Baker:

Four mountain ranges were negotiated. At one point at the northern end of Arizona, I climbed from 200 feet below sea level to an altitude of 9,647 feet into the mountain snows. It was in this mountain work that the two-speed showed its supreme qualities. My [brake] power, too, in making the precipitous descents of the winding mountain trails, never failed me for a moment. If it had I might not be able to tell this story.

Reno [Nevada] Gazette Journal, May 30, 1914, 2, accessed Newspapers.com
Baker even reported that when he arrived in Indiana, the authorities raised the speed limit for one day so he could travel through at a faster pace.

I am a Hoosier, and the welcome and encouragement my home state gave me as I passed from town to town was a generous and appreciated demonstration.

“Cannon Ball” Baker on a transcontinental run in 1923. Photo courtesy of the IUPUI Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection

The 1914 transcontinental run was just one of numerous record-setting trips Baker would make in a variety of vehicles from the early 1900s through the early 1940s. In 1915, he set the “Three Flags record” for “touching three countries” during a run from Canada to Mexico on an Indian motorcycle.  According to the Wichita Daily Eagle, he “crashed down the Pacific Coast . . . at a speed faster than any man ever rode before on a motorcycle on any long journey.” It took him three days, nine hours, and fifteen minutes despite facing mountainous terrain and even passing through forest fires. It is not surprising that reporters christened him “Cannon Ball” Baker, as he barreled through towns and states at ever-increasing speeds. Baker died in 1960, but his legacy and contributions to motorsports continue to live on.

Photo courtesy of “Enthusiasts Recreate Cannonball Baker’s Legendary Cross Country Ride” and Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated, July 5, 1917, 24-25, accessed Google Books

In the fall of 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau will help commemorate “Cannon Ball” with a historical marker near his former home across from Garfield Park in Indianapolis. The marker celebrates the pioneer racer and test driver, while also paying tribute to his 1922 Indianapolis 500 run, in which he finished in 11th place, and his role as the first commissioner of NASCAR. Follow IHB’s Facebook page and Twitter for information about the marker dedication.

Branch McCracken: A Hoosier Hardwood Hero

Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection. For more on the state historical marker dedication commemorating McCracken see the Indiana Historical Bureau’s press release.

On April 8, 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau, working alongside historical marker applicants Tom Graham and Bob Hammel, members of the Bill Garrett family, staff from Indiana University, and a host of others, helped unveil a new state marker honoring Hoosier basketball star Bill Garrett. The timing of the dedication and commemoration of this important athlete in IU and Big Ten history was most fitting, coming just days after the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship game and two weeks after Crispus Attucks won the 2017 Indiana high school basketball state tournament. It was Attucks’ first state basketball title since Garrett coached the team to victory in 1959.

Bill Garrett’s children pose with the new historical marker commemorating their father after the unveiling ceremony on April 8. Photo courtesy Bloomington Herald Times Online.

The marker celebrates Garrett’s accomplishments as a player and coach, while also commemorating some of the men who helped him break the longstanding “gentleman’s agreement,” which barred African Americans from playing on Big Ten varsity basketball teams into the late 1940s.

On April 19, 2017, IHB is honored to dedicate a new state historical marker to commemorate another Hoosier hardwood hero, IU basketball player and coach Branch McCracken, who also had the distinction of coaching Garrett at IU from 1948-1951.

Coach Branch McCracken with Bill Garrett. Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

Emmett Branch McCracken was born in Monrovia in Morgan County, Indiana on June 9, 1908 to Charles and Ida McCracken. He attended Monrovia schools and became a star on his high school basketball team, leading the small town school to consecutive Tri-State Tournament championships in 1925 and 1926. The Tri-State Tournament was an annual basketball tournament played in Cincinnati between high school teams from Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. In 1925, the Muncie Star Press reported that fourteen of the fifty-three teams entered in the tournament that year were from Indiana, with Anderson, Columbus, and Logansport considered favorites. Not surprisingly, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune favored Logansport High School, coached by Cliff Wells, as “a leading contender for the title.” However, Logansport would lose in the semifinal game to Aurora High School, which McCracken’s Monrovia team would then defeat in the final, 29-21. After six consecutive victories, Monrovia had earned the title of Tri-State Tournament champion. Tournament officials selected McCracken on the mythical All Tri-State Team, a testament to the skills he exhibited during the tournament.

Logansport Pharos Tribune, February 16, 1925, accessed Newspapers.com

Monrovia returned to the tournament the following year as one of twelve Indiana teams to compete. The team won for the second year in a row, defeating Summitville High School (Indiana) in the final game, 19-17. In a December 1927 article, the Richmond Item reported that Monrovia’s high ranking during the 1926 tournament “was largely due to the playing of McCracken,” captain of Monrovia’s team. McCracken won highest individual honors for a player during the 1925 and 1926 Tri-State Tournaments when he received the medal for most valuable player both years. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune praised McCracken’s play in its February 27, 1926 issue, reporting that he had not only led the offense, but that he was also “the bulwark of the Monrovia defense.” According to the paper, “The star pivot player gave one of the best exhibitions of basketball displayed by any individual player here this season.”

Indianapolis News, March 3, 1926, accessed Newspapers.com

After completing his senior year at Monrovia, McCracken entered Indiana University in the fall of 1926. In early November 1927, the Indianapolis Star reported that he was one of the chief candidates for the center position on IU’s basketball team for the upcoming season. His position on the varsity football team prevented him from joining basketball practice though until after November 19. After just a few games, the Star reported on December 18: “The first new man to come through with promise is Branch McCracken of Monrovia.”

McCracken may not have had much Big Ten basketball experience at the time, but he was already beginning to excel under Coach Everett Dean. On New Year’s Eve 1927, IU played the University of Cincinnati and defeated them, 56-41. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer the following day noted that McCracken “was high point man along with [Dale] Wells, the two accounting for 28 of Indiana’s points by virtue of their accurate shooting from various angles of the court.” The following game, IU defeated fellow Big Ten member the University of Chicago, 32-13. In this game, McCracken showed his true potential. According to IU yearbook, The Arbutus, he “became at once a hero and a marked man,” having scored 24 of the team’s 32 points. The Star also took note, writing: “With the Hoosier victory came a new Indiana star on the horizon in Branch McCracken . . . The Indiana sophomore scored eleven more points than the entire Chicago team.”

IU varsity basketball team, 1927-1928. Photo courtesy The Arbutus, IU Yearbook, 1928, p. 106, accessed Ancestry.com.

McCracken continued to be a strong presence on the court throughout the 1927-1928 season. Despite his youth, he was the high scorer for the Hoosiers and led the Big Ten Conference in scoring during most of the year, only losing the lead to Bennie Oosterbaan of Michigan in the last few weeks of the season. McCracken finished the season tied for second place in conference scoring. In late November, he again turned in his football jersey to join the basketball squad for the 1928-1929 season. He returned as center and continued to put up big points, again finishing second in Big Ten scoring as a sophomore.

1927-1928 scoring totals and standings. Photo courtesy The Arbutus, IU Yearbook, 1928, p. 112, accessed Ancestry.com

McCracken’s junior season in 1929-1930 would prove to be his best. According to IU’s yearbook The Arbutus:

After three years of hard struggle Capt. Branch McCracken plowed his way through the Conference foes to score a total of 147 points to top all other players and to break the all-time record set last year by [Charles ‘Stretch’] Murphy of Purdue. McCracken was one of the best pilots ever in charge of an Indiana basketball team and was named on nearly every all-conference team.

McCracken graduated from IU in 1930 and soon after accepted a position as head basketball coach at Ball State Teachers College (now Ball State University). An article in the Columbus Republic in 1938 noted that during his time coaching the Ball State Cardinals, he made them “a constant threat in Indiana collegiate conference competition,” leading them to an 86-57 record over eight seasons.

Coach Everett Dean with Joe Platt and Jim Birr, November 30, 1937. Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

In late spring 1938, newspapers began reporting that IU basketball and baseball coach Everett Dean was close to accepting a basketball coaching position at Stanford University. McCracken, who had played under Dean at IU, was among those considered to replace the future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer. By June, IU hired McCracken as the school’s head basketball coach.

McCracken coached the Hoosiers to a 17-3 record in his first year with the team. It was a strong season, but one that would be eclipsed quickly the following year. McCracken’s squad finished the 1939-1940 regular season 20-3. Despite finishing second in the Big Ten, one game behind Purdue, IU was invited to represent the Midwest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Eastern tournament. IU had won all of its non-conference games and beat Purdue twice, while the Boilermakers had lost two non-conference games, bringing their total losses to four on the season.

On March 22, IU defeated Springfield College (Massachusetts), 48-24 in the first round of the Eastern tournament. The following day, the team topped Duquesne University, 39-30, earning the opportunity to play the “Phog” Allen coached University of Kansas team for the national college basketball championship. McCracken’s Hoosiers defeated Kansas 60-42 to claim IU’s first national basketball championship. In expressing his pride and congratulations to the team, IU President Herman B Wells told the squad “the game which you played at Kansas City was to the glory of yourselves, to Indiana basketball, and to Indiana University.”

Indianapolis Star, April 2, 1940, accessed Newspapers.com

In just his second season at the helm, McCracken led IU to their first national title, setting the bar high for the seasons to come. He would not let the school nor the state down. After a three-year break (1943-1946) to serve in the United States Navy, McCracken returned to his alma mater ready to resume his coaching responsibilities and again lead the Hoosiers to victory.

After starting the 1952-1953 season with a 1-2 record, McCracken’s team would go on to win its next seventeen straight games. By mid-January the United Press board of coaches ranked them fifth in the country. On February 23, 1953, IU trampled Purdue 113-78. According to the Indianapolis Star, IU’s 113 points in the game broke the previous Big Ten record of 103 set by the University of Iowa in 1944. By March 1, the Hoosiers were guaranteed sole claim to the Big Ten title after defeating Illinois, 91-79.

Albuquerque Journal, March 3, 1953, accessed Newspapers.com.

By the end of the regular season, Indiana’s record was 19-3, with seventeen conference wins to one loss. The team defeated DePaul University, the University of Notre Dame, and Louisiana State University, in the postseason, earning the chance to play Kansas once again for the national championship on March 18. With thirty seconds remaining in the title game, Bob Leonard of the Hoosiers made his second of two free throws to give IU a 69-68 lead and their second national basketball title.

McCracken’s team won the Big Ten conference again the following year and twice more under him in 1957 and 1958. In 1960, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player. The Indianapolis Star reported on the induction on April 27, 1960, noting that “Purdue and Indiana had hit the jackpot.” Three of the five men inducted as players were from the two universities: Charles (Stretch) Murphy and Johnny Wooden from Purdue, and McCracken from IU. Ward (Piggy) Lambert of Purdue was also one of the three coaches inducted that year.

Coach Branch McCracken celebrates with his team after winning the 1953 NCAA basketball championship. Photo courtesy Indiana University Archives Photograph Collection.

In 1965, after twenty-four seasons, McCracken retired as head coach of IU’s varsity basketball team. Between his thirty-two years at Ball State and IU, his teams had amassed a 450-231 record (66% win percentage), complete with two NCAA titles, and four Big Ten titles. Reflecting on his experiences as coach, McCracken stated:

I’ve never regretted my profession. Taking kids and helping to make something out of them is the most rewarding part of my job. Basketball has been good to me. It’s made me lots of friends and I owe the game more than I can ever repay.

A Challenge to Integration: The Froebel School Strikes of 1945

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1. See Hoosier State Chronicles for complete article.

On September 18, 1945, hundreds of white students at Froebel School walked out of their classes to protest African American students at the institution. According to the Gary Post-Tribune, the striking students “urged that Froebel school be reserved for whites only” or that they be transferred to other schools themselves.

While the conflict between segregation and integration was far from new, the student strike in Gary would call into question the very values the United States fought to uphold during World War II, which had formally ended just two weeks before the “hate strike.” The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, composed of black ministers, made this point clear when it issued its “appeal to reason” to the citizens of Gary, Indiana:

It is indeed regrettable to note that after the nation has spent approximately 190 billion dollars, the colored citizens of Gary have sent about 4,000 of their sons, brothers, and husbands to battlefields around the world and have supported every war effort that our government has called upon us to support, in a united effort to destroy nazism and to banish from the face of the earth all that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo stood for; to find in our midst those who are endeavoring to spread disunity, race-hatred, and Hitlerism in our community.

Gary Post-Tribune, September 20, 1945, 3

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, sec. 2, p. 2.

Integration was not a recent development at Froebel when much of the white student body went on strike in the fall of 1945. In fact, Froebel was Gary’s only “integrated” school throughout the first half of the 20th century, though the term warrants further explanation. When the K-12 school opened in 1912, Gary school officials recognized that African American students should not be denied the opportunities available to white students at the new school and established two separate rooms at Froebel for black students. By 1914, a report published by the United States Bureau of Education indicated that there were approximately seventy black students attending the school, but that “the other patrons of the school, most of whom are foreigners, strenuously object to mixing colored children with the others; so they are placed in separate classes in charge of two colored teachers. . .” Thus, despite integration, Froebel remained internally segregated.

Image courtesy of Randolph S. Bourne, The Gary Schools (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1916), accessed Archive.org.

A 1944 study conducted by the National Urban League showed that Froebel’s black students were “welcomed as athletes, but not as participants in cultural and social affairs.” They could not use the swimming pools on the same days as white students, were barred from the school band, and were discriminated against in many other extracurricular activities.

Conditions at Froebel improved slightly during the 1940s, due in part to Principal Richard Nuzum. He created a biracial Parent-Teachers’ Association, integrated the student council and boys’ swimming pool, and enabled black students to try out for the orchestra. Unfortunately, his efforts towards further integration angered many of Froebel’s white students and their parents, who would later criticize Nuzum of giving preferential treatment to African American students. These feelings, paired with a rising fear among many of Gary’s white, foreign-born inhabitants about increases in the black population in the city, largely contributed to the 1945 school strike.

Table courtesy of the “Report of Technical Advisers to the Special Investigating Committee Appointed by the Gary Board of Education,” October 21, 1945, 7.

Newspapers across the state covered the strike(s) extensively throughout the fall, and the story quickly made national headlines. By September 20, the strike spread to Gary’s Tolleston School, where approximately 200 additional students skipped classes. On September 21, 1945, the Gary Post-Tribune reported that between the two schools, well over 1,000 students had participated in the walkouts up to this point.

Eager to see an end to the strike, to avoid potential violence, and to get students back to school, Superintendent Charles D. Lutz and the board of education issued a formal statement on Friday, September 21, demanding that students return to classes on Monday. The school board threatened to take legal action against parents of students under age sixteen if they continued to strike, while those over age sixteen risked expulsion.

Indianapolis Recorder, September 29, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The school board was not alone in its hopes of ending the strike. Gary Mayor Joseph E. Finerty, the Gary Council of Churches, and the school PTA all issued appeals hoping to bring an end to the walkouts. Other opponents of the strike included the NAACP and CIO United Steel Workers Union. Many blamed parents of the striking students for the racial tension existent in the school, stating that racial hatred was not inherent, but learned at home. A September 26, 1945 editorial in the Gary Post-Tribune also noted:

Fundamentally this is not a school problem. It has developed out of the changing population in the Froebel area. . . As a result of this influx of Negro families some white property owners feel their homes and churches have depreciated in value.

While students at Tolleston agreed to return to classes by the school board’s stated deadline, those leading the strike at Froebel refused to return until Wednesday, and only on the condition that the school board meet with them beforehand and comply with their demands.

These demands, which the Gary Post-Tribune published on September 21, were three-fold: 1) the removal of all 800 black students from Froebel; 2) the ousting of Principal Richard Nuzum, whom they believed gave preferential treatment to black students; and 3) that school officials stop using Froebel students as “guinea pigs” in race relation experiments (Froebel was the only high school in Gary with a racially mixed attendance at the time).

Horace Manual, Horace Mann High School Yearbook, 1942. Courtesy of Ancestry.com

The Gary school board met with the striking committee on September 25, and when it refused to give in to the students’ demands, the strike continued. Leonard Levenda, spokesman for the striking committee, was quoted in the Gary Post-Tribune on September 26, stating that the walkout was the result of “a long series of episodes provoked by the behavior of Negro students.” Levenda continued by blaming Nuzum for not taking action against African American students after these reported “episodes.” The strike continued until October 1, when students finally returned to classes after the school board agreed to formally investigate the charges against Principal Nuzum.

Walter White to Charles Lutz, letter, September 24, 1945, Papers of the NAACP.

In response to the incidents at Froebel, Mayor Finerty urged the formation of an inter-organization racial unity committee to help improve race relations in the “Steel City.” Finerty, as quoted in the Indianapolis Recorder on October 20, stated “we in Gary must take positive steps in learning to live together in unity in our own city. Now, more than ever, there is need for unity within our city and the nation.”

Another article in the Recorder that day examined the reaction of white leaders in Chicago, who did little to conceal their disgust for the strike and criticism of the strikers:

These racist demonstrations have been an insult to democracy and to the hundreds of thousands of whites and Negroes who deplore this American form of Hitlerism. . .  We further pledge not to walk out on democracy and on this problem which has its roots principally in the attitude and actions of the white man, not the colored.

In early October, the Gary school board appointed a special investigating committee and temporarily relieved Nuzum of his duties as principal. By October 21, the investigation came to a close and a report regarding conditions at Froebel was issued. Nuzum was exonerated and returned as principal and the report called for the school to return to the status it had before the strike. Angered by these results, students staged another walkout on October 29. Levenda and other striking students argued that they were not going on strike, but rather “being forced out by the actions of Mr. Nuzum.”

Chicago Tribune, November 1, 1945, 31, accessed Newspapers.com

Searching for a way to bring a final end to the strike, Anselm Forum, a Gary-based community organization dedicated to social harmony, helped bring Frank Sinatra to the school to perform and talk with the students about racial tension in the city. While many students appeared attentive and understanding of Sinatra’s calls for peace and an end to racial discrimination, the striking committee refused to back down.

Frank Sinatra meets with members of Anselm Youth Forum, Gary ROTC, and Froebel students, 1945. Photo courtesy of Associated Press, via Hoboken Historical Museum Online Collections Database.

It was not until November 12, when State Superintendent of Public Instruction Clement T. Malan agreed to study conditions at Froebel that the striking students returned to classes. Even then, some mothers of the parents’ committee continued to oppose the students’ return.

Racial tension continued even after the strikes ended in November 1945. By the spring of 1946, students at Froebel threatened to go on strike again, but were stopped by the Gary school board and Froebel student council. Newspapers reported that the leaders of the previous strikes, in union with Froebel’s black students, issued an anti-strike statement in March 1946. In this statement, they encouraged the Gary school board to issue a policy to end discrimination in all of Gary’s public schools.

Due in large part to the “hate strikes” at Froebel, the Gary Board of Education adopted a policy on August 27, 1946, to end segregation and discrimination in the city’s public schools. Scheduled to go into full effect by September 1, 1947, the policy read:

Children under the jurisdiction of the Gary public schools shall not be discriminated against in the school districts in which they live, or within the school which they attend, because of race, color or religion.

Courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society

In accordance with the policy, Gary’s public schoolchildren would attend the school nearest them and would be given equal opportunity “in the classroom and in all other school activities.” According to historian Ronald Cohen, the decision made Gary “one of the first northern cities to officially integrate its schools.” In 1949, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law to abolish segregation in the state’s public schools. The law required that schools discontinue enrollment on the basis of race, creed, or color of students.

Despite these measures however, discrimination in the Gary public school system did not disappear. Because of segregated residential patterns, few black students transferred to previously all-white institutions. The 1950s saw a resurgence in de facto segregation in the city as the black population there continued to grow and fill already overcrowded black schools.

Froebel School state historical marker. Installed in Gary in 2014 at 15th Avenue and Madison St.

Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part II

Check out Part I to learn about Bill Garrett’s time on the Shelbyville High School basketball team, the “gentleman’s agreement,” and Garrett’s entry in Big Ten basketball. Or check out our podcast!

Bill Garrett celebrates with his teammates after scoring IU's game-winning basket against Wisconsin in January 1950. Image credit: Bloomington Daily Herald, January 9, 1950, 1
Bill Garrett celebrates with his teammates after scoring IU’s game-winning basket against Wisconsin in January 1950. Image credit: Bloomington Daily Herald, January 9, 1950, 1

In an oral history interview in June 1970, Bill Garrett reflected on his early experiences at IU and on the school’s varsity basketball team. Garrett noted that “it was somewhat of an adjustment as far as the team players were concerned” and that it made things “rough at the start.” Despite encountering discrimination from some of the squad’s older players and while on the road for away games, Garrett quickly made a name for himself on IU’s team. In a February 1949 article, the Bloomington Daily Herald commended Garrett on his talent, and noted the positive impact that he and other young players were having on the team. By the end of the season, Garrett had tallied 220 points, the highest total on the squad that season. This success continued into his junior and senior years, with newspapers commenting on his speed and play-making ability. In a January 5, 1950 article, the Wisconsin State Journal reported:

Indiana’s attack is built around William Garrett, a lithe Negro who stands only 6-2 1/2 but plays offensive center. He is quick as a cat and has a devastating one-handed shot.

The following month, the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading African-American newspaper, referred to him as “the most spectacular member on the team coached by Branch McCracken.”

Image credit: Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame
Image credit: Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame

During Garrett’s time on the varsity basketball squad, the team’s record improved greatly. According to the Indiana Basketball Men’s Database, in the 1947-1948 season, the year before Garrett joined the team, IU won only eight games and lost twelve. The following season, Garrett’s first with the varsity squad, they improved to fourteen wins, and by his senior year (1950-1951), they went 19-3 and were ranked seventh in the nation.

Much of the team’s success during this period stemmed from Garrett’s talent on the court. On March 6, 1951, the Jasper Daily Herald reported that Garrett had broken IU’s four-year career scoring record with a total of 792 points in only three seasons of play. His 193 Big Ten points during the 1950-1951 season also broke the old record set in the 1946-1947 season.

Image credit: Indiana University News Room
Image credit: Indiana University News Room

On February 24, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder announced that Sporting News, a well-respected sports publication in the country, named Garrett to its All-American team. The Recorder quoted sportswriter Cy Kritzer in its February 24, 1951 issue regarding the selection. Kritzer remarked:

“Above all, he [Garrett] was a playmaker. The game has none better than the Hoosier star on the fast break.”

Just a few weeks later, the United Press named Garrett a second-team All-American. The All-American team was selected by a poll of the nation’s leading sportswriters and radio broadcasters. Garrett’s teammates also voted him Most Valuable Player of the season.

While at IU, Garrett was the only African American to play on a Big Ten varsity basketball team. On March 11, 1950, the Indianapolis Recorder published an article entitled “Bill Garrett Needs Company” in which it reported that Garrett was disappointed about being the only black basketball player in the conference. The article noted that in addition to Indiana University, DePauw, Earlham, and Anderson College all had African American students on their teams that season, and it encouraged Big Ten schools to follow their lead. However, by the following year, as Garrett’s final college basketball season was coming to an end, some feared that the Big Ten might revert to an all-white status again.

In their book Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody note that African Americans John Codwell at the University of Michigan and Rickey Ayala at Michigan State were playing freshman basketball during Garrett’s senior year. At this time, freshman could not play on varsity teams except for the 1951-1952 season, which included an exception because the Korean War made it difficult to field a team.

Image credit: Indiana Daily Student, January 25, 1951
Image credit: Indiana Daily Student, January 25, 1951

Although no African American players joined him at the varsity level before he graduated, Garrett’s example on and off the court helped create opportunities for others in the future. On March 6, 1951, with his college career winding down, the Indiana Daily Student ran an article on Garrett, noting the school body’s pride in him and how much he would be missed the next year. According to the paper, Garrett was “one fine model for a young athlete to pattern himself after.” At a time when segregation was still practiced in many areas of the state, and black athletes were still scarce in certain sports, this was saying a lot. It was a testament to both his talent and character, and again called into question why blacks should not be permitted to play Big Ten basketball.

Garrett graduated from IU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education in June 1951. In the season immediately following his graduation, at least seven black basketball players made Big Ten teams. On November 17, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Ernie Hall had become the first African American basketball player at Purdue, and that Bob Jewell, who played at Crispus Attucks, made the University of Michigan’s team. In January 1952, the Recorder noted that in addition to Jewell, Michigan had two other African American players that season: Don Eaddy and Jonn Codwell. The paper traced this progress back to Bill Garrett, stating:

Following the path opened by Bill Garrett at Indiana University, sepia cagers are now making Big 10 and other leading teams in increasing numbers.

Likewise, the Capitol Times of Madison, Wisconsin also credited Garrett, noting that he was “the Jackie Robinson of the cage court” and that he had “blazed the way for others of his race in the college game this season.” Other African American players during the 1951-1952 year included Rickey Ayala at Michigan State, Walt Moore at Illinois, and Deacon Davis at Iowa. Notre Dame also challenged the color barrier at the school during this period, with African Americans Joe Bertrand and Entee Shine joining the Irish squad.

Though racial prejudice in sports did not end, black players continued to find success on Big Ten and other Midwest basketball teams.

On May 5, 1951, Bill Garrett was drafted by the Boston Celtics to play in the NBA. Though the league was still in its infancy, it was already attracting some of the best players from around the country. Again Garrett’s selection was a testament to his talent on the court. According to the Indianapolis Recorder, Garrett “found himself the only Negro among 86 stars who were drafted” to play professional basketball that year. However, Garrett would never get his opportunity to join the team. On August 25, 1951, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that he had been drafted into the U.S. Army. The Korean War (1950-1953) was already in full swing by this time, and Garrett was ordered to report for induction into the Army by September 7.

Image credit: Indianapolis Recorder, September 26, 1953, 14
Image credit: Indianapolis Recorder, September 26, 1953, 14

It is unclear when the Celtics released Garrett. According to a March 29, 1952 article in the Indianapolis Recorder, Garrett took his regular Army furlough with the Harlem Globetrotters in April of that year. One year later, on September 26, 1953, the Recorder reported that he was discharged from the Army and signed a contract to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. According to Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, NBA teams limited the number of African American players on their rosters during this period and the Celtics already had two others.
Garrett played with the Globetrotters until 1955, when he decided to leave the team. According to his wife, Betty Garrett Inskeep, “he wasn’t happy playing for them. He was a very easygoing person, but he was competitive when you’re supposed to be competitive, so what the Globetrotters did did not suit him at all.”

Two years later, on July 13, 1957, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that Garrett had been hired to succeed Ray Crowe as head basketball coach at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Garrett had his work cut out for him. Crowe had led the all-black high school to the state basketball title in 1955 and 1956.

Garrett coaches Crispus Attucks to the 1959 Indiana high school state championship. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, 1959
Garrett coaches Crispus Attucks to the 1959 Indiana high school basketball state championship. Image credit: Indiana Historical Society Digital Collections, 1959

In his first year on the job, Garrett helped the team win its sixth straight sectional crown. Just one year later, he coached Attucks to the state championship, again bringing glory to the school. The Indiana Sportswriters and Broadcasters Association named Garrett Coach of the Year soon after the tournament.

Garrett coached Attucks for ten years before assuming the position of athletic director at the school in 1968. In 1974, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. Sadly, Garrett died of a heart attack just a few months later, on August 7, 1974, at the age of 45. He was assistant dean for student services at IUPUI at the time of his death.

Though his name is not as widely recognized as Jackie Robinson’s or other pioneers in race relations, Garrett’s influence and contributions in helping to diminish racial discrimination in both high school and college basketball in the mid-1900s should not be forgotten.

Be sure to follow IHB’s Facebook page for information on the upcoming dedication of a new state historical marker to commemorate Garrett and the integration of Big Ten basketball later this year.

Bill Garrett and the Integration of Big Ten Basketball, Part 1

Editor’s note: Read this, but don’t forget to check out our podcast about Garrett too!

Bill Garrett shoots a lay-up in a game against the University of Illinois on February 27, 1950. Courtesy of Indiana University Archives

In 1947, Jackie Robinson made history when he broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Robinson set the precedent, and in the years following, many African American players would follow his lead to join big league teams. In 1948, just one year after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, Indiana witnessed its own trailblazer in sports, as Shelbyville’s Bill Garrett broke the ironically named “gentleman’s agreement” that had barred African Americans from playing Big Ten college basketball (the Big Ten became the Big Nine in 1946 when the University of Chicago withdrew its membership. In 1949, Michigan State College – now Michigan State University – joined the conference, and it again assumed the name the Big Ten).

Bill Garrett was born in 1929, at a time when segregation and racial discrimination were rampant in Indiana. The Indianapolis Times had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s influence in state politics the year before, and just one year later the state would experience the horrific lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion. In their thoroughly researched book Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, authors Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody note that Shelbyville avoided much of the racial violence that other Indiana communities experienced at this time, but that segregation was nevertheless commonplace. Garrett, like other African Americans there, attended the segregated Booker T. Washington Elementary School, and when he entered Shelbyville High School in the 1940s, he was one of only a few black students in his class.

Garrett and a portion of his junior class, 1946. Image source: Shelbyville High School 1946 Yearbook
Garrett and a portion of his junior class, 1946. Image source: Shelbyville High School 1946 Yearbook

Despite this, Garrett became widely recognized for his skills on the basketball court, and by his senior year in high school (1946-1947), he was one of the star players on Shelbyville’s varsity basketball team. Newspapers across the state praised him for his play. On January 9, 1947, one day after Garrett helped lead the Shelbyville Golden Bears to a decisive 59-40 victory over Greencastle, the Greencastle Daily Banner recognized him as “one of the smoothest performers and best shots” to appear on the Greencastle court over the years. He was quick, clever, and had a “natural talent” for the game. Many regarded him as the second Johnny Wilson. Wilson, also African American, had graduated the year before from Anderson High School, where he led the team to the state basketball title and was named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball.” The Indianapolis Recorder noted the similarities between the two in a March 22, 1947 article, stating that the resemblance in their play was “uncanny.”

The mark of greatness, however, in Garrett as in Wilson, is the ability to sweep through the opposition and turn a stalemated contest into a rout. It is that extra speed and split-second timing which stamps an all-state player as distinguished from a good player. It is cool floor-generalship and flawless ball-handling – and Garrett has them all.

When the 1947 Indiana high school basketball tournament kicked off in late February that year, 781 teams competed for a shot at the title. Despite the odds, Garrett, along with starters Emerson Johnson, Marshall Murray, Hank Hemingway, and Bill Breck, helped lead Shelbyville to the school’s first basketball championship. On March 22, Shelbyville defeated the East Chicago Washington Senators 54-46 and advanced to the title game where they beat undefeated Terre Haute Garfield 68-58.

Garrett Cuts Down Net
Logansport Press, March 25, 1947, p. 6

At a time when segregation was prevalent in the state, Shelbyville’s team featured three African American starters: Murray, Johnson, and Garrett, each of whom had captured the hearts of Shelbyville fans.

Garrett had set a new individual state tournament scoring record during the competition. His 91 points in the final four games broke the 85-point record set by Johnny Wilson the year before. And like Wilson, he too was named “Mr. Basketball” for the season.

After the 1947 title game, many wondered where Garrett would continue his basketball career. Despite the fact that he, Wilson, and other African American players were leading their teams to high school titles and were considered some of the best players in the state, the “gentleman’s agreement” barred them from playing college basketball on Big Ten varsity teams into the late 1940s. Reports out of Indiana University at this time note that there was “no written rule in the Big Ten regarding participation in athletics. The unwritten rule subscribed to by all schools precludes colored boys from participating in basketball, swimming, and wrestling.”

In the years following, many would question the inconsistency of this rule, as blacks participated in football and other Big Ten sports during this period. Some speculated that the reason for the discrepancy was that basketball was played in more intimate settings with briefer uniforms, thus increasing the chance of contact between white players’ and black players’ skin.

Referred to as the” gentleman’s agreement,” the “unwritten rule,” or the “lily-white rule,” the color line in basketball came under increasing attack throughout the 1940s as more and more talented black players were being overlooked solely because of their race. In 1944, African American Richard (Dick) Culbertson played varsity at the University of Iowa, but coaches largely regarded his participation as an exception rather than the rule. Culbertson was a substitute rather than a starter, and wartime conditions had made it more difficult to field a team, leading to slightly relaxed rules.

On March 25, 1947, after watching Bill Garrett, Emerson Johnson, and Marshall Murray help Shelbyville win the state championship, John Whitaker of the Hammond Times wrote an open letter to the commissioner of the Big Ten in which he asked why the “unwritten agreement” existed:

If the biggest, braggingest athletic conference in the middle of the greatest country in the world can use Negroes like Buddy Young, Ike Owen, Dallas Ward, Duke Slater, George Taliaferro and the like to draw $200,000 crowds for football . . . and Negroes like Jesse Owen[s] and Eddie Tolan to win Olympic crowns . . . why can’t it use them in basketball.

In June 1947, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that despite Garrett’s hopes to play Big Ten basketball at IU or Purdue, the “gentleman’s agreement” might force him to continue his career in California. The news disappointed many who had hoped to see Garrett stay in state, and prompted Recorder writer Charles S. Preston to call out the state and the Big Ten conference in hopes of bringing an end to the ban:

Indianapolis Recorder, June 7, 1947, p. 11
Indianapolis Recorder, June 7, 1947, p. 11

What in Hades is the matter with the Hoosier state, when we are going to let one of our best basketball players of all time get away from us, and go out to California to play! And all because of a ridiculous ‘unwritten law’ that doesn’t begin to make sense!

Though some denied that such an agreement barring blacks from Big Ten basketball existed, the continued absence of African Americans on these teams indicated otherwise.

Fearful that Garrett would be bypassed by Big Ten teams like others before him, black leaders in Indianapolis banded together in order to persuade IU to give him an opportunity to make the school’s team. Faburn DeFrantz, Executive Director of the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis, spearheaded the effort, and in the months following the 1947 state high school tournament, he and other black leaders drove down to Bloomington to meet with IU President Herman B Wells on Garrett’s behalf.

Faburn DeFrantz Image source: Indianapolis Monthly http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/the-tipoff/iu-honors-barrier-breaker-garrett-at-game/
Faburn DeFrantz, image courtesy of Indianapolis Monthly.

President Wells was eager to end racial discrimination and segregation at IU, and had already been doing so quietly in other parts of the campus at this time. After meeting with DeFrantz and the others, Wells asked IU basketball coach Branch McCracken to give Garrett a chance to make the team, noting that he would handle any potential backlash from other Big Ten coaches.

In DeFrantz’s unpublished autobiography, excerpts of which were obtained by Graham and Cody during their research, DeFrantz acknowledges Wells’ role in helping to break down racial barriers at IU:

In Indiana University’s President Herman B Wells democracy found an ally. No overhaul of policy such as that accomplished at Indiana University could have been possible without the cooperation he gave.

In an October 4, 1947 article, the Indianapolis Recorder praised DeFrantz and others for their efforts to get Garrett to IU and recognized them as “key figures in the victory for democracy.” In January 1949, during Garrett’s first season on the varsity team, the Recorder named DeFrantz to its 1948 Race Relations Honor Roll, noting his unremitting campaign to help end racial discrimination in sports. Two years later, Garrett would also be named to this Honor Roll.

Herman B Wells, 1947 Image source: Indiana Daily Student http://www.idsnews.com/article/2014/07/the-wells-effect-how-herman-b-wells-shaped-iu
Herman B Wells, 1947, image courtesy of Indiana Daily Student.

Garrett was admitted to IU in the fall of 1947 and played one year on the freshman basketball squad. He made his regular-season varsity debut in December 1948 as IU beat DePauw 61-48. In doing so, he became the first African American player on an IU varsity basketball team. More importantly, the Recorder recognized on December 11, 1948, that “Garrett’s entry into the Big Nine ranks may prove to be the beginning of the end for an anti-Negro ‘gentleman’s agreement’. . .”

Integration in basketball, both at the high school and eventually the college level went a long way in improving race relations in the state, as fans cheered their teams to victory regardless of the color of their players’ skin. On February 18, 1950, the Recorder reported on the influence that sports had on blurring the color line, stating:

Race prejudice, too, has generally been given the bum’s rush by the fans who lose sight of everything but the fortunes of OUR TEAM. The performances of such athletes as Bill Garrett, Johnny Wilson, and a host of others have probably done as much as anything else to kill the Ku Klux Klan spirit in Indiana. A quick field goal by a Negro player will do more to “convert” the ordinary Hoosier than all the Race Relations Days in a century.

Garrett helped “convert” thousands in Shelbyville and across the state during his high school years and he would work to do the same while playing at IU.

Check out Part II coming later this week to learn about Garrett’s achievements while on IU’s squad, his impact on other African-American players, and his career after graduating.