Jumpin’ Johnny Wilson refused to be defined by injustices in athletic career
The former star athlete, who dealt with the worst of racism, dies at 91
On a warm summer afternoon in 1938, a 10-year-old white boy held a basketball on a makeshift court in an alley and looked at a black child standing nearby and asked the most innocent and welcoming of questions: “Do you want to play?”
If you are a baseball fan, you likely have heard of the white boy, Carl Erskine, a relentlessly cheerful and outgoing child, with slick black hair and square shoulders, who would go on to become a star pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s and was lionized in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer.
You probably have not heard of the boy he asked to play that day, Johnny Wilson. But his is a story at least equally worth knowing. Like so many African-American athletes of his time, Wilson reached his prime before most of the insidious racial barriers had fallen. And his friendship with Erskine is worth studying at a time when racial divisions are escalating.
Wilson might well have been more famous than his friend, if he were allowed an equal chance to compete. The better athlete of the two — he was a state champion in track and field — Wilson went on to star for the Harlem Globetrotters when the team was playing against top college and professional competition to send a message about the skill and grace of black athletes. He even played a season for the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues, a two-sport professional long before we heard the name Bo Jackson. He died on Friday at the age of 91, in Richmond, Virginia, after being hospitalized since Christmas Day. Only months before, he had been playing golf.
The two men, from the days of their insouciant youth, were bound by their love of sports, meager economic circumstances and unfailing ability to see beyond race. Erskine has gone on to live a life of acceptance and adulation while Wilson’s was marked by racism and rejection.
But the power of Wilson’s story is that he refused to let himself be defined by the opportunities he was denied. He would not give those who held him back the satisfaction.
They grew up in Anderson, Indiana, a town 35 miles northeast of Indianapolis whose fortunes rose and fell with the success and failure of a General Motors plant there that once employed 20,000 people. I know the town well because I grew up there too. They were men of my parents’ generation, and I only came to know them late in their lives. I was struck by how Wilson carried himself, a gentlemanly bearing, an athlete’s gait, and a sense of kindness and compassion that I envied.
I asked him many times, and in many ways, how he could not be bitter or angry for all the times that he was denied simply because of his color. He never wavered. He looked at me with a knowing smile as if to say, you don’t understand, you can’t let those who hurt you see the pain. That way, they win.
Each man started in the same place, but they traveled decidedly unequal paths. As a child, Wilson could not swim in the same pool as Erskine (so Erskine joined him at the “colored” pool), he could not play Little League with him, he could not eat in the same restaurant. Named “Mr. Basketball,” the award given to the best high school basketball player in Indiana, after leading his high school to the state championship, Wilson was told he was not “good enough” to play at Indiana University, which like other Big Ten schools, had an unofficial practice of denying blacks an athletic scholarship. After college, he wanted to play in the nascent National Basketball Association, but the color barrier again stopped him. When his basketball career ended, he turned to coaching, with a dream of leading his old high school to another state title, only to be rejected in favor of a lesser white candidate.
Erskine was able to become a bank president without the benefit of a college degree.
That Erskine would extend a hand of friendship to Wilson would normally be unremarkable, but in the 1930s in central Indiana, where the Ku Klux Klan had gained a hateful and deadly beachhead, and in a town that was segregated by pernicious custom rather than Jim Crow law, a white child reaching out to a black child was rare. When they went to see Gene Autry movies at the Paramount Theater, Erskine left white friends to go sit with Wilson in the segregated section upstairs.
In the city-run park league baseball, blacks and whites played in separate places, but Erskine invited Wilson to play for his team. Wilson did, and they won the game 22-0. The next day the city made Erskine’s team forfeit for using a black player.
In high school, Erskine was an exceptional pitcher, while Wilson played football and center on the basketball team and set records in track and field. Wilson had another skill that made his opponents stop and look: He could dunk, when most players could not, and he became known as “Jumpin’ ” Johnny Wilson, a name that stuck with him for a lifetime.
In 1946, Wilson led Anderson to the state basketball championship, scoring 30 of his team’s 67 points before 10,000 fans in Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. No sporting event in Indiana was as closely followed as the state high school basketball tournament and few players had dominated it like Wilson did.
But it was hardly all glory. Wilson and other black teammates were refused service at a restaurant in Indianapolis during the tournament. Their coach, Charles Cummings, tried hard to put the players at ease, but Wilson felt the unmistakable sting.
There was no coverage of that incident in the Indianapolis Star, but the paper did take note of Wilson.
“There was no stopping the flying Negro,” the Star, the state’s largest newspaper, wrote. It would be the last year Anderson would win the state title.
In high school, Wilson said he was discouraged from taking college prep classes. He was told he could get a good job at the GM factory, as a janitor. Cummings insisted he take classes that would lead to college.
Wilson wanted to play for Indiana University, but its coach, Branch McCracken, said he didn’t think Wilson could make the team. At the smaller Indiana State University, Wilson was invited for a campus visit, but had to stay in a private home rather than be among the white students. “Don’t go where you aren’t wanted,” his mother, Hazel, said.
“He didn’t really talk about the struggle,” Wilson’s daughter, Sherri, told me. “I don’t doubt that my dad didn’t feel hurt and pain going through what he went through. I remember reading an article about one incident and it brought me to tears. He never showed that bitterness that he may feel. He had to feel some hurt and pain, but he never showed that to his family. So we didn’t grow up to be bitter or angry.
“He taught us by his actions, the type of person to be,” she said, “an inclusive person, a forgiving person, being kind. The importance of family. He was able to find a way to forgive and move on, because if he really had a lot of bitterness in him, I don’t think he would have lived as long as he did.”
Wilson ended up at tiny Anderson College, a small, religious-based school and led all college players in the state in scoring, even against big-time competition like North Carolina State, Dayton and Cincinnati.
He played four sports and continued to improve in his favorite, baseball, with the hope of one day maybe joining his friend Carl as a professional.
He attended a Yankees tryout in northwest Indiana, three hours from his home. Denied admission to a hotel, he slept in his car, and then was awakened early by a police officer. He was too tired to hit.
Then the St. Louis Cardinals held a two-day workout in Anderson and Wilson was ready. Over two games, he hit four home runs, two doubles and a triple. He also was the fastest player in the camp. But, Wilson said, when the Cardinals scout was asked what he thought of Wilson, the only black player at the tryout, he replied, “Which one is Wilson?”
At a third tryout, with the Chicago White Sox, Wilson hit the ball hard, but it was not enough to persuade the White Sox to join the Dodgers by integrating their team. An official with the Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues was there, too, though, and he signed Wilson to a contract.
Wilson also wanted to play professional basketball, but most early teams in the NBA did not have black players. So Wilson signed with the Harlem Globetrotters. They proved to sell-out crowds across the country that black players could beat white teams. The team also barnstormed the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, playing against college all-star and other professional teams. At night, players would go to clubs and mingle with white women, something they could not do at home.
While Wilson was flourishing with the Globetrotters, Erskine was becoming a mainstay for the Dodgers and not merely for his pitching. Erskine demonstrated an easy and close relationship with Jackie Robinson. One day, Robinson even thanked him for the way he treated him and his family in front of white fans. Erskine knew he had one person to thank for that: Johnny Wilson.
Wilson played only one season of professional baseball and another six for the Globetrotters, his career interrupted for two years in the army during the Korean War. The army was far more interested in having Wilson play on its basketball teams than it was serving in Seoul.
After his playing days, Wilson tried to make his way as a teacher and a coach. He landed a job at an integrated high school in Indianapolis, the first black coach in the city to hold such a job. But the coaching life took a personal toll. His marriage ended in divorce in 1968.
That same year, the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy had become attracted to Wilson too. As a basketball icon, and a teacher, the Kennedy campaign sought Wilson out to be the state chairman of Teachers for Kennedy. He met Ted and Ethel Kennedy, and talked with Robert Kennedy frequently. Wilson was with Kennedy when the candidate made his famous speech in Indianapolis about race relations on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.
Even then, Wilson said, he was concerned about safety for Kennedy, who was “always looking around” as though danger was constantly present. The Kennedy campaign thought so much of Wilson that they asked him to be the national chairman of Teachers for Kennedy, and to come to Los Angeles to help campaign for the California primary. But Wilson could not attend. He told them that he would meet them in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention.
By that time, he was coaching at Malcolm X College in Chicago, but always with an eye toward coming home. In 1970, his dream job, coaching his old high school team, opened up. Wilson sent his application and prepared for an interview. At the time Erskine was president of Madison County Bank and prominent in civic affairs. But Wilson did not enlist his friend for help persuading the board of education to select him as coach. Wilson said he simply didn’t want to do anything that would undermine his friendship.
Wilson wore his best suit and a white shirt. He wore an Afro and a mustache, and thought he was on his road to coming home. During his interview, he sat across the table from the all-white school board, including its chairman, Maurice “Red” Robinson. Robinson was a formal, sometimes imperious man. The other board members were pleasant enough, but it all seemed rather perfunctory. Wilson knew quickly what his real chances were when, he said, Robinson leaned toward him and asked “Do you think you could coach white players?”
Wilson was stunned. He scanned the faces across the table, several of whom he had known since high school, and called the question “asinine.” He had already done that, successfully, for years. But the door was closed. After the meeting, school board members started the rumor that Wilson wasn’t right for the job. “Too militant,” they said.
The job went to a journeyman coach. Wilson would be turned down two more times for the same job until he was allowed to be a volunteer assistant, and eventually, he coached the girls high school team while in his late 60s. Robinson had an elementary school named in his honor.
Wilson dealt with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s in his own way. He was certainly not an activist in the mold of Jackie Robinson. Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, came to visit, as did other prominent activists. Black Panthers walked the halls. Wilson talked to them, and he began to see the injustices of his life through a different lens, even if he stayed largely rooted to his mother’s turn-the-other-cheek admonitions.
After Chicago, Wilson spent many years as the assistant coach to his son, John Jr. But he continued to feel a pull to return to Anderson, and finally, he decided to move back at the age of 83, after coming back episodically for the previous 20 years.
“This was home, and to this day I am with the Indians,” Wilson said. When Wilson was awarded an honorary doctorate from Anderson College, his old friend introduced him. Erskine noted to the crowd that he never thought he would see a day when he and Wilson would stand together in academic robes, earning high honors. “Johnny and I were not good students,” Erskine said. “But I always say in high school, we carried a 4.0, he a 2 and I a 2.” Erskine was there too when Wilson was named a Sagamore of the Wabash, a top honor in Indiana, for his life’s accomplishments.
They met at Grandview Golf Course, a city-owned course that had once denied Wilson the right to play. In the summer of 2015, they were playing at another course and Erskine had a hole in one. Wilson was his witness.
In May 2016, it was finally Wilson’s day to stand apart, and a day for his town to honor him in a most fitting way. A 9-foot bronze sculpture of Wilson, wearing his Globetrotters uniform, was unveiled, to be displayed at Anderson High School. I was there to write a story for The New York Times.
When it was Erskine’s turn to speak, his eyes met with his childhood friend. Their lives had intersected in so many places, their friendship had endured, and now Erskine was finally seeing Wilson receive the acclaim he had so long deserved. After talking about their childhood, making light of their abilities as students, and telling stories from their golf outings, Erskine turned serious. He said of Wilson: “He is my brother without the blood.”
The town had begun to celebrate Wilson, if belatedly. He retained his sense of humility, driving to games in his van, playing golf, enjoying a small brush of renewed celebrity.
But he never acted like he was famous. He did things such as volunteering at his church downtown, making a weekly trip to spend several hours helping with a clothing drive, where he jokingly said he was “the security.” He folded used clothing and hung it neatly on racks. He handed out clothing, often to needy white families.
“He accepted his station in life and elevated himself,” Erskine told the Anderson Herald Bulletin.
We can all learn from his story.