The Bates Seven, gentlemen’s agreement – discrimination in sport

The phrase “gentlemen’s agreement” can refer to an unwritten agreement between members of an organization, such as a golf club, to prevent Jews from becoming members. The 1947 film Gentleman’s Agreement, starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McQuire, John Garfield, and Celeste Holm, shed light on how Jews were treated in too many places in America.

The film, based on the novel by Laura Hobson, won three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Holm), Best Director (Elia Kazan) and Best Picture. In the film, Peck played a journalist posing as a Jew who reveals a dislike for Jews in wealthy Connecticut and New York City.

This gentlemen’s agreement was used in 1890 by the National Association of Base Ball [sic] Players to prevent African American players from playing on white baseball teams. That agreement would last until 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

In the United States, a gentlemen’s agreement was exercised against Japanese immigrants at the beginning of the last century. Geopolitical tensions between Japan and the United States were growing over Korea, the Philippines and Hawaii, so President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to calm relations between the two nations. Therefore, in 1907 Japan and the US reached a gentlemen’s agreement: the Japanese government limited the number of Japanese who would be allowed to go to the US, in exchange for the US government Agree to protect Japanese immigrants and their families. Being a gentlemen’s agreement, it was not made public and was never formally ratified.

The gentlemen’s agreement would later rears its ugly head in sports other than baseball when it came to African Americans. When the National Football League was founded in 1920, African American soccer players Bobby Marshall and Fritz Pollard were allowed to play. However, in 1933 the NFL instituted a gentlemen’s agreement that prevented African Americans from playing.

New York University banner (credit: NYU PHOTO BUREAU)

That deal lasted until 1946, when Kenny Washington and Woody Strode signed with the Los Angeles Rams. In fact, Washington and Strode played soccer at UCLA with Jackie Robinson. Those three backfield players would integrate soccer and baseball.

In college athletics, gentlemen’s agreements prevented African Americans from playing basketball in the Big Ten. Other agreements also extended to other college basketball and soccer teams, many in the North such as Harvard, Rutgers, and the University of Michigan, under which northern colleges and universities would not bring their African-American players to play in the south. Which leads to the Bates Seven story.

IN 1940, the University of Missouri invoked the gentlemen’s agreement and requested that New York University star, fullback Leonard Bates, not travel with the NYU team for their game at the University of Missouri.

Outraged by this capitulation to Jim Crow laws by a university in the north, NYU students Anita Krieger Appleby, Jean Borstein Azulay, Mervyn Jones, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, Robert Schoenfeld, Argyle Stoute, and Evelyn Maisel Witkin launched a movement throughout the campus. Five of the seven were Jewish.

Reflecting on his actions, Witkin, now 100, recently said: “It was quite an adventure, but I never had to think about it. Some of the white soccer players came to student council and were upset that Bates was going to be prevented from playing in the game at the University of Missouri. It was completely wrong for a northern university to collude with this. “

Demonstrations were held, petitions were created and buttons were produced that read “Bates Must Play, NYU-MO. Game. “Those efforts, including a demonstration of 2,000 students chanting“ Bates Must Play, ”did not change the administration’s position. Without Bates, NYU was thrashed 33-0.

The following spring, NYU decided to retain three African-American members of its track team for a meeting with the Catholic University. The “Bates Seven” created new petitions imploring “NYU drop its Jim Crow policy!”

That was the final straw for the NYU administration. The “Bates Seven” were brought to disciplinary hearings and then suspended. Sixty years later, in 2001, NYU would recognize and honor the Bates Seven. Witkin still finds the belated recognition “rewarding”, and in today’s world, she says, what she and the other Bates Seven members did still “has relevance, as oppression is still everywhere.”

It is ironic to call these agreements “gentlemen’s agreements”, as if giving them such a dignified title covers their unworthy intentions.

The heroic actions of the Bates Seven signaled that a new tide was reaching the American shores: carrying away the despicable goals of any gentlemen’s agreement that sought to limit the full integration and participation of African Americans, Japanese, Jews, and others.

As you carry out this important work, that tide continues to rise.

The writer is a rabbi emeritus of the Congregation of Israel, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.

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