This is a reminder that March 28th is the anniversary of the date in 1939 when the all-black New York Renaissance (a.k.a. “Harlem Rens”) won the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball, an invitation-only tournament held in Chicago.
The tournament was sponsored by the Chicago Herald-American, a leading newspaper. It was the brainchild of its sports editor, a man named Edward W. Cochrane. He was with the paper from 1936 to 1943, before leaving to become the sports director for Hearst Newspapers.
“At the time there were no less than a score of professional basketball teams, all advertising themselves as world’s champions,” Cochrane remembered two years later. The tournament was born “out of the chaos of these conflicting claims,” he said.
To win the tournament title, the Rens had to defeat the powerful Oshkosh All Stars of the all-white National Basketball League, led by Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, in the championship game.
The tourney’s preliminary rounds were played at the Madison Street Armory and the “final four” games were staged at the old Chicago Coliseum, the same arena where Chicago Bulls star and Basketball Hall of Fame member Michael Jordan played.
Of the twelve teams entered in this tournament, two of them were African American squads — the Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters.
The set up of the brackets eliminated the possibility of two black teams in the championship, so the Rens had to defeat the Globetrotters in their bracket to make it to the final.
Nevertheless, Clarence “Puggy” Bell and Zachariah “Zach” Clayton of the Rens made the All-Tournament team, as did Louis “Babe” Pressley of the Globetrotters. Edwards of Oshkosh and Ed Dancker of the Sheboygan Redskins were also named to that All-Tourney team.
The rest of the Rens’ roster for the 1939 tournament — which was good for 122 wins, against only 7 defeats for the 1938-39 season — included future Basketball Hall of Fame members Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, William “Pop” Gates, and John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs as well as William “Wee Willie” Smith, Eyre Saitch, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins.
Although his name did not appear in the box score that night, the quiet leader of the Renaissance Five was “Fats” Jenkins, who had captained the team since its formation in 1923. This would be his final game with the Rens and in professional basketball, as fine a retiring moment as there ever was.
“Legacy was really big for him,” says his daughter, Ellen Jenkins Harris. “He never played for the applause,” she says. “The meaningfulness for him was that he was making a difference for people tomorrow.”
In fact, “Fats” gave his daughter some poignant instructions about the Rens’ accomplishments that she says she will never forget. “He told me, when I was still a little girl, ‘The day will come when you’re going to have to help people remember, because they’re going to need reminders, because they will have forgotten what we did.’”
In addition to the Rens, Globetrotters, All Stars, and Redskins, the other squads rounding out the tournament were the House of David All Stars from Benton Harbor, Michigan, the Chicago Harmons, the Clarksburg Oil Five of West Virginia, the Fort Wayne Harvesters, the Illinois Grads, the New York Celtics, and the New York Yankees.
We believe that anyone and everyone who is making money off of basketball today owes a debt of gratitude to the pioneering teams that participated in this inaugural tournament.
Remember, there had never been any event like this one in the prior history of basketball. Also remember that the idea of pay-for-play was a fairly new concept that many still frowned upon.
Maybe that is why James Naismith didn’t mention the World Pro Tournament nor any of its professional participants in his fascinating book, Basketball: Its Origins and Development, even though he finished the manuscript a few months after the final game of this breakthrough inaugural event.
Professional basketball was “proven” during this tournament, with record-breaking attendances as well as the beginning of “big-time” newspaper coverage for the pro game.
These developments gave rise to the ideas that spawned the National Basketball Association a little over a decade later.
It should be needless to say, but it is still worth the additional reminder, that the New York Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters “made” this tournament by giving it credibility in its infancy. Had either of these teams been omitted, the basketball-knowing public would have been suspicious. That also speaks to the clear-sightedness of its promoter, Edward W. Cochrane, and his newspaper, the Herald-American.
“In the first meet the New York Rens emerged from a field of twelve great basketball quintets to become the first officially recognized world’s championship basketball team,” Cochrane stated. “Naturally we are proud of the way the sports public has accepted this Herald-American event.”
Subsequently, the “World’s Pro Cage Tournament” as the event was nicknamed, grew bigger and bigger — as did attendance, gate receipts, and advertising revenues — until the tourney finally disbanded after its tenth annual staging, in 1948, due to the fact that the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League were merging to form the National Basketball Association.
By then, many of the big name teams in pro basketball were in either the B.A.A. or the N.B.L, so having a separate pro tournament no longer made sense.
Before the final tournament in 1948, a man named Leo Fischer, who was the publicity director for the 1939 inaugural tournament and was now on the event’s executive advisory board, would write, “Only the world series in baseball can match this Herald-American presentation for color, action and sheer human interest.”
In other words: “Only the world series in baseball can match championship basketball for color, action and sheer human interest.”
Thanks to the New York Rens, winners of the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball on this date in 1939, who helped make that level of excitement possible today.