In the early 1990s Michael Jordan fascinated the sports world when he attempted to extend his success from the basketball court onto the baseball diamond. It did not work out. Jordan returned to basketball, still the best player in the game, after a rather dismal attempt at baseball. He never made it out of baseball's Minor Leagues and did not do very well even there. Basketball and baseball, at least in Jordan's case, seemed to be almost mutually exclusive endeavors: baseball was a sport of compactness, and basketball was one of expansion. If nothing else, the six-foot-four-inch Jordan offered a strike zone to opposing pitchers that looked like the broad side of a barn. History reveals that others have tried, and fared much better, in this two-sport combination. Bill Sharman of the Celtics played a few seasons with the AAA St. Paul Saints; Gene Conley, also of the Celtics, won 91 games as a Major League pitcher; and Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton of the Knicks batted over .300 in each of his two seasons in the minors. (1)
While it may be difficult to select which athlete played most successfully in both sports, it is fairly easy to name the one whose experience was the most interesting. His name was Reese "Goose" Tatum, and during the 1940s, he hit a ball almost as well as he shot one. Not only was Tatum one the 1940s' great African-American sports stars, but he also embodied how many black celebrities came to serve the African-American community beyond the realm of sports.
Not long after Tatum was born on May 2, 1921, in Arkansas, his arms and hands seemed to outgrow the rest of his body, giving him a natural physique for basketball. However, it was on the baseball field that he first became a star athlete. In 1942, while playing center field for the Birmingham Black Barons, coincidentally a team that played in the same stadium where Michael Jordan's Minor League team played its games, Tatum was asked to join a basketball team that Barons owner Abe Saperstein also owned. Its name was the Harlem Globetrotters. Tatum accepted the offer but also continued to play baseball.
Saperstein made a fortune off the activities of segregated black athletes. The oldest of nine children, Saperstein was born in 1903 in London but grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. In late 1926 Saperstein took Walter "Toots" Wright, Byron "Fat" Long, Willis "Kid" Oliver, Andy Washington, and Al "Runt" Pullins, five former basketball players from Chicago's Wendell Phillips High School, and created the "Savoy Big Five." After failing to attract enough spectators, the "Big Five" was renamed the Harlem Globetrotters. Although the team had no affiliation with New York City, Saperstein named the team "Harlem" to clue--or perhaps warn--people into the fact that all of the players were black. On January 7, 1927, the Globetrotters played their first game, in Hinckley, Illinois. While Saperstein contended that he had created the Globetrotters as a touring team whose only goal was victory, after the team began to defeat its opponents so handily that fans became restless and fewer in number, he encouraged the players to "clown" with the opposing players in the manner that soon became their trademark--but only after the game was in hand. (2)
In the early 1930s the basketball Globetrotters were not financially successful enough for Saperstein to devote all of his time to its caretaking, and he had to maintain other business interests. Like his activities in basketball, Saperstein's other business ventures relied upon the entertainment value of black athletes, in this case baseball players. Saperstein's interests in Negro League baseball included promoting the annual East-West All-Star Game held at Comiskey Park and booking such Negro American League (NAL) teams as the Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Black Barons, Memphis Red Sox, and Kansas City Monarchs. However, it was one of the teams Saperstein owned that resembled his basketball "court jesters" the most. …