The First Black Rambler

Ben Bluitt, Loyola’s first African-American player, became head coach at Cornell in 1974.

According to Arthur Ashe’s book A Hard Road to Glory, the history of blacks playing basketball for predominantly white colleges goes back at least as far as 1904, when Samuel Ransom, a four-sport athlete from Chicago, starred for Beloit College in southern Wisconsin. Over the next 40 years, however, the list is short and studded with the names of exceptional figures like Paul Robeson (Rutgers, 1915-1918), Ralph Bunche (UCLA, 1921-22), and Jackie Robinson (UCLA, 1939-41). As with so many aspects of modern American life, the big changes began at the end of World War II, when military service prompted blacks to seek their due in mainstream society.

Loyola’s first black player (as best we can determine) was Ben Bluitt, who starred at Englewood High School and served in the Army Air Force before enrolling at Loyola in 1946. He later coached at DuSable and Farragut high schools in Chicago, as an assistant at the University of Detroit (another Jesuit institution), and at Cornell, where he was the first black head coach (and second, by a season, in the Ivy League).

Chicago’s black newspaper, the Defender, watched closely as Bluitt and Loyola stumbled through unfamiliar territory. Early in Bluitt’s first season, when he was the second-string center, the paper announced a misstep: “Loyola Coach Meekly Bows to Texas Jim Crow,” the headline charged. Coach Tom Haggerty had decided to leave Bluitt home as the team made a three-game swing through Texas to play SMU and Texas Christian.

Earlier the Defender had cheered the University of Nevada for better dealing with a similar problem. Before a football game that Nevada had scheduled at Mississippi State College, Mississippi State’s athletic director, C.R. “Dudy” Noble (whom we will meet again), wrote to Nevada suggesting that they might want to travel without two of their star players, both veterans of the war who happened to be black. Their presence in his state would “cause unfortunate commotion,”  Noble explained. Nevada rebuffed the suggestion and canceled the game.

Just a few days later, a similar controversy kieboshed a football game between Penn State and Miami of Florida.  The Defender reported that this game had been arranged about a year before, after several years of trying byMiami officials. But when they realized that Penn State’s roster would include two blacks, they objected that it would be “difficult to carry out arrangements.”Penn State’s dean of athletics advised Miami that the two players were “regular members of the Penn State football squad” and would not be left home. Instead, Penn State canceled the game.

Compared to these righteous acts, the Defender found Loyola’s treatment of Ben Bluitt wanting. Coach Haggerty tried to soften the insult by insisting that Bluitt would play when the Texas teams came to Chicago later in the season, but the Defender wasn’t satisfied. “Loyola had a chance to stand out and prove to the world that it stood for equality of opportunity and equality of justice. It failed.” When the Texas teams came north, a Defender headline jeered “Hurrah! Haggerty uses Ben Bluitt Against Crackers.”

Unfortunately, having defeated SMU in Texas without Bluitt, Loyola lost on their home court with him.