EDITOR’S NOTE – This is the 14th installment in OSU basketball historian Lee Caryer’s series on the integration of OSU men’s basketball.
Mississippi State, 1963
The story of then Texas Western, now University of Texas- El Paso, starting five African-Americans and beating all-white Kentucky to win the 1966 NCAA tournament has become so mainstream that Disney made a movie about it, Glory Road. That game is often referenced as the tipping point in the desegregation of college basketball, and rightfully so. However, another event, three years earlier, may have been even more incredible.
In 1959, 1960 and 1962, Mississippi State had won the Southeastern Conference basketball title. However, despite ranking in the top four in the country two of those years, the Bulldog basketball team had never played in the NCAA tournament, due to an unwritten Mississippi law forbidding play against integrated programs.
Coach Babe McCarthy, desiring only the chance to see his team compete against the best players in the country, said, “Boys, if we win it (SEC title) again, we are going to play in that (NCAA) tournament, come hell or high water.”
In 1963, MSU won the SEC with a 12-2 record, and ranked sixth in the country. His players believed in their coach, but had learned not to question the power of racism. They wanted to compete, but did not know what to expect when the school accepted the NCAA invitation to play in the Mideast Region, which included teams with African-American athletes.
Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett had no intention of allowing the MSU team to play an integrated school. State Sen. Billy Mitts, former student body president and Bulldog cheerleader, obtained a court injunction prohibiting the team from leaving the state.
School officials put their plan into place. President Dean Colvard left for a speaking engagement in Alabama; athletic director Wade Walker and Coach McCarthy drove across the Tennessee line. There were no university officials available to be served.
The next morning, the trainer drove several team reserves to a private air field in Starkville, Miss. Seeing no resistance, they called the assistant coach, who brought the starting players. The plane took off without incident, stopped in Nashville for AD Walker and Coach McCarthy, and arrived in East Lansing, Mich., for the Mideast Region semifinal.
Loyola of Chicago, with four black starters, won that game 61-51, then went on to win the national championship by defeating Cincinnati in the 1963 finals. That game was another step in providing opportunities for African-American athletes, because coaches around the country noticed that eight of the 10 starters in the game were black. In 1959, four years prior, all 10 starters in the championship game were white.
Due to the courage of MSU administrators and players, Loyola had the opportunity to prove that they deserved to be champions, because they were able to compete against the best competition. But the biggest winner was the sport of college basketball, which made a contribution to the advancement of racial equality in America by offering more opportunity to more people.
In the 1972-73 season, Larry Fry and Jerry Jenkins were the first African-American basketball players at Mississippi State. Fry averaged 13.8 ppg and 8.1 rpg in three seasons. Jenkins, an All-SEC selection as a junior and senior when he was the Bulldogs' leading scorer each year, averaged 19.3 ppg and 7 rpg in three seasons.
Our story began with pioneers like Ray Tomlin, Cleo Vaughn, Vern Barkstall and Jim “Junior” Franklin, men often overlooked in the history of Ohio State basketball. It winds down with a famous African-American sports star who even devoted OSU hoop fans may not realize was nearly an important part of the history of athletics at their school.
Larry Hisle averaged 25 ppg as a Parade Magazine All-American at Portsmouth (Ohio) High School, and was “the best high school defensive guard I ever saw” according to then-OSU coach Fred Taylor years later. Hisle was set to play basketball and baseball at Ohio State in the summer of 1965.
“Playing basketball at Ohio State had been a dream of mine since seventh and eighth grade, when I was watching them battle Cincinnati in the NCAA Finals,” recalls Hisle. “Going there was the only thing that mattered to me; no greater joy could have come into my life. I visited there so often, talking with Fred Taylor and (assistant coach) Frank Truitt. At various times I met the governor (James A. Rhodes), Luke (Jerry Lucas), John (Havlicek) and Woody (Hayes).
“I remember one dinner with Fred, Frank and Bill Hosket. I had played against Bill in the 1964 season (when Hosket’s Dayton Belmont team won the state title). He was an outstanding player; it would have been a privilege to play with him in college.”
Sounds like a Buckeye, even for those who know it never happened. What did happen?
“The first major league draft was held in July 1965,” recalls Hisle. “When teams talked with me I told them not to draft me, because I was going to Ohio State to play basketball and baseball (as Taylor had). I was surprised when the Phillies drafted me in the second round, but I had warned them.
“They called every 10 days or so, and I always told them I was not changing my mind. I went to OSU for orientation. Then three weeks before school started the Phillies called and asked permission for the owner, the general manager and their attorney to come to Portsmouth to talk with me. I said, ‘OK, but I am not changing my mind.’
“They shared all the reasons to choose baseball, like ‘At 6-2 you would be small in basketball, but big in baseball … if successful, you could play the game longer … there would be less chance of injury.’ They offered a signing bonus of $80,000, bonuses for moving to AA, AAA and the majors, they would pay for college and allow me to miss spring training in 1966 so I could get a full year of college. I believed I was born to play basketball, I loved basketball, but I truly felt there was only one decision. I signed the contract.”
Hisle had lost his parents, and was adopted by a friend of his mother’s; the bonus was worth about $700,000 in today’s inflated currency; baseball really did seem to be a more likely career. The decision was logical, even if it cost an 18-year-old his dream.
“I have questioned my decision a million times,” Hisle said. “Finally, I decided to channel my efforts into baseball.”
Hisle played 14 seasons as he split time between the Phillies, Minnesota Twins and Milwaukee Brewers. In his career, he hit 166 home runs, twice making the American League All-Star team and, in 1978, finishing third in the league in Most Valuable Player voting. He was also hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993 when they won World Series titles.
Hisle is currently employed with the Brewers and holds the title of Manager of Youth Outreach, and is the President of Major League Mentoring, a youth mentoring program in Milwaukee.
Larry Hisle appears to have had a very good life, and to have made the right decision in choosing baseball, but adds, “One other thing,” he added. “I still bleed scarlet and gray. I have always felt like I was a Buckeye.”
Earlier this summer, Hisle stopped in Columbus and cultivated his Buckeye roots for a day. He had lunch and swapped stories with Hosket and 1965 freshman classmates Denny Meadors and Steve Howell; visited former OSU assistant coach Frank Truitt at his home; checked out Bill Davis Stadium; toured The Schottenstein Center with current OSU assistant Jeff Boals; met Satch Sullinger, Jared’s father, on the tour; saw The Athletic Hall of Fame; went into The Horseshoe; and bought some Buckeye gear.
Despite having played 14 seasons in the majors, he was awed. “How could an athlete go anywhere else?” he said at one point.
Next week we conclude the series, by disproving a myth about a Hall of Fame coach and by reviewing all the milestones by all the African-Americans who pioneered on the Ohio State hardwood.
Note: Newspaper archives from papers available at The Columbus Public Library, as well as personal interviews, in person and by phone, were the primary sources of information in this article. Thanks to The Call and Post newspaper as well.
Below are the 13 previous installments in the series.