THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: How labor and civil rights groups overturned exclusion of minorities in bowling

Professional sports have served as one of the most visible areas of society for promotion of civil rights. Surely the most famous example of this is Jackie Robinson, who broke professional baseball’s “unwritten law” of racial segregation when he took the field for the National League’s Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Not only did Robinson’s on-the-field heroics provide substantial proof that African American players could compete on an equal basis with whites, but his courage in enduring despite the tidal wave of racial attacks and hostility he faced earned him widespread respect. In the process, he helped push the larger society into opening up.

Other sports leagues soon imitated Robinson’s example. In July of 1947, Larry Doby became the first black player in baseball’s American League. Professional football and basketball also gradually lifted their color bar. Marion Motley and Bill Willis, who broke in with the Cleveland Browns in the All-America Football Conference in 1946, were absorbed with the rest of the team into the National Football League after the 1949 season. Wat Mikasa, a Nisei guard, became the first non-white player in professional basketball with the New York Knicks in 1947, while the first black players made their appearance three years later.

Even professional golf, long the most exclusive of sports, was forced to abandon its lily-white status. Following a determined campaign by black golfers, led by the celebrated boxing champion Joe Louis, the Professional Golfer’s Association gradually relaxed its rules, though it did not formally void the “whites-only” clause of its constitution until 1954.

Perhaps surprisingly, among sports associations the most entrenched opponent of racial integration, and the target of the most widespread legal and political campaign, was the American Bowling Congress (ABC). Founded in 1895, the ABC first enacted a “white men only” bylaw in 1916. Not only were all teams in league-approved city associations restricted to white males, but also the ABC would not even permit official matches to take place at any bowling alley that sponsored tournaments for mixed groups.

During World War II, bowling exploded in popularity nationwide (thanks in part to promotion by the U.S. Army), and the injustice of the segregation appeared more glaring. Thus, in the aftermath of the war, labor and civil rights groups launched a campaign to overturn the official exclusion of minorities.

In April of 1947, a coalition of groups, led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the United Auto Workers-Congress of Industrial Organizations, came together in Chicago to create the National Committee for Fair Play in Bowling. Hubert Humphrey, the future U.S. senator and vice president who was then mayor of Minneapolis, agreed to serve as NCFPB chairman, while pro golfer Betty Hicks was named vice chair.

Among the groups who sent representatives to the Chicago conference was the Japanese American Citizens League. National JACL President Hito Okada was named to the NCFPB steering committee. The JACL’s involvement reflected the grave importance of the campaign to Japanese Americans.

Long before World War II, bowling had been wildly popular among Nisei, both in Hawai‘i and on the mainland, who created their own leagues and held tournaments. In the aftermath of the wartime removal and resettlement, Nisei bowling enthusiasts spread across the country and formed teams — a JACL survey in late 1947 found more than 200 Japanese American bowling teams within the continental U.S., and an equal number in Hawai‘i.

The ABC’s exclusion rule hit these bowlers hard, both because of its undemocratic nature and because it restricted the number of bowling lanes open to them. (Non-whites in Hawai‘i were permitted to bowl in ABC-sponsored meets there, but could not participate on the continent). The JACL responded to the ban with a dual strategy. First, in September of 1946, the national organization sponsored a local bowling league of 12 teams in its home base of Salt Lake City, and invited them to compete in a tournament in March of 1947. The event was such a success that in the next years the JACL established a “national” bowling tournament, open to both men and women. Over the following years, the tournament blossomed into a multicity meet, in which Korean American and Chinese American bowlers also joined. Indeed, it was so successful that in 1950, Gish Endo of East Oakland was appointed national JACL bowling commissioner to run the sport.

Meanwhile, the JACL began working to overturn the ABC’s exclusion rule. In March of 1946, after protesters formed picket lines outside an ABC tournament in Buffalo, New York, JACL Secretary Mike Masaoka announced that the JACL would support the protests and organize its own.

In December of 1947, the JACL joined an unsuccessful NCFPB campaign to persuade Michigan Gov. Kim Sigler to deny the ABC use of the state fairgrounds for its annual meeting until its exclusion policy was lifted. Okada, Masaoka, and Sam Ishikawa attended the NCFPB conference in New York in February of 1948, where delegates planned to have allies introduce an amendment at the ABC meeting. However, when the ABC met in Detroit in April of 1948, the 500 delegates voted the measure down. Worse yet, when The Hawaii Ambassadors, a Hawai‘i-based ABC team made up of bowlers of Chinese and Japanese ancestry, traveled to the national tournament as dues-paying members, they were barred from competition — the team instead made a tour of the nation to promote racial harmony in bowling. Following the ABC vote, UAW activists briefly formed a rival league, the All-America Tournament.

In May of 1949, NCFPB organized a protest against the exclusion policy outside the ABC national tournament in Atlantic City. Richard Akagi of the New York JACL walked the NCFPB picket line and posed for photographs alongside representatives of the NAACP and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. However, the delegates to that meeting once again voted down an amendment to end the ABC’s exclusion policy.

In the fall of 1949, Congress of Industrial Organizations national counsel (and later Supreme Court justice) Arthur Goldberg announced that the union had petitioned state authorities in Illinois, where the ABC was chartered, to take action against the organization due to its discriminatory practices. Illinois Attorney General John S. Boyle proceeded to file suit to revoke the ABC’s charter because it “incited to racial discrimination.” As a result of the pressure, the ABC was forced to move its 1950 tournament from Indianapolis to Columbus, Ohio.

In January of 1950, New York state Attorney General Nathaniel Goldstein likewise brought legal proceedings to ban the ABC from the state. The NAACP and its allies filed suit in Wisconsin and Ohio. (For reasons that are not clear, the JACL did not join these lawsuits, though JACL Vice President Tom Hayashi announced that the organization offered its full cooperation). ABC Secretary Elmer Baumgarten, the most determined opponent of integration, dismissed the legal actions and claimed that the foundations of the “American way of life” would be threatened if the organization lost the right to select its members. While the cases proceeded slowly through court, they did raise public awareness of the exclusion policy.

Meanwhile, Japanese American bowlers in Seattle became the focus of widespread attention. In October of 1950, the ABC ordered the Boeing Bowling Association in Seattle, made up of teams of aircraft workers, to expel the Nisei Clippers team from the league on racial grounds. Boeing refused, and publicly defied the ABC by voting to formally admit the Nisei members (a temporary compromise was reached with the ABC under which the Nisei team remained in the league, but only the scores and averages of the seven other teams were reported to the ABC). The Seattle City Bowling Association backed Boeing by enacting a resolution calling on the ABC to strike the word “white” from its eligibility requirements. The JACL organ Pacific Citizen, which had devoted extensive coverage to the bowling ban, editorially praised the action and denounced the “Un-American Bowling Congress” for its exclusion policy. Several leagues in Spokane, Wash. and Portland, Ore. withdrew from the ABC over its exclusion of Asian American team members. The JACL launched a further protest in March 1950 when Kenneth Koji, a veteran of the 442nd Regimental Combat team who had settled in Sparta, Wis., was removed from the Wisconsin State Bowling Tournament on racial grounds. In response to the ouster, Wisconsin Attorney General Thomas E. Fairchild brought suit against the ABC.

The final turning point came on April 21, 1950, when Illinois Judge John B. Sbarbaro found the ABC guilty of having “abused its franchise” by its discrimination, and ordered the organization to drop its “white men only” clause and to pay a $2,500 fine, on pain of having its charter revoked.

According to one source, Sbarbaro was prepared to revoke the ABC’s charter immediately, but ABC counsel Floyd Thompson pleaded that the organization would be meeting two weeks later and would act on its own. Elmer Baumgarten countered by proposing that the ABC build its own lanes and become a completely private organization with freedom over membership.

It was clear, however, that the handwriting was on the wall. Thus, on May 12, 1950, Jack Bunsey, president of the Boeing league, who stated that he was acting on behalf of all the ethnic Japanese and Chinese bowlers on the West Coast, introduced a resolution at the ABC annual meeting to overturn the national exclusion policy (at the behest of Southern delegates, the resolution provided that members affiliate with local associations, a compromise that permitted chapters in the South to continue practicing racial discrimination).

After ABC General Counsel Michael Dunn reminded delegates that the organization’s “very life” was at stake as a result of the lawsuits and negative publicity, the motion was quickly passed by voice vote. JACL president Hito Okada immediately issued a statement hailing the move, and added that he was proud of the JACL’s role in bringing about democratic practices in bowling. National Secretary Masao Satow recommend-ed that all JACL leagues join their local ABC associations — ignoring the important fact that the organization still barred women! The ABC’s 1951 national tournament in St. Paul, MN was the first to include Nisei bowlers.

The full history of the National Committee for Fair Play in Bowling remains to be written. It was a rare example of a successful coalition between labor unions and civil rights organizations during the early postwar period. Perhaps because its target was an explicit, nationwide racial ban, and because the racial bar did not encompass sensitive areas such as jobs, education, or housing, its leaders (notably the dynamic young Hubert Humphrey) were able to bring together diverse public and private forces to support their campaign. The JACL’s role in the NCFPB was relatively minor, as compared to the CIO or the NAACP (or several Jewish groups, which provided extra funding and lobbying support). Still, the JACL was the only nonblack racial minority group to join the coalition, and its presence served as a reminder of the exclusion of Asian American bowlers. Indeed, given the continuing exclusion of African American bowlers in the South, it is conceivable that Nisei formed the largest nonwhite group to be admitted to the ABC once the national ban was overturned. In any case, bowling remained for many decades the Nisei sport of choice.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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