Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).
Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.
This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).
In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.
A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.
Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.
`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘
Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.
The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad. It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.
Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).
In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.
Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.
My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.
It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.
More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.
The above is Part 2 of a series about Chicago and Arkansas sports ties.
There have been quite a few famous faces affiliated with the Arkansas Travelers since the minor league baseball franchise was formed in 1901. Hall of Famers Tris Speaker, Travis Jackson, Bill Dickey, Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins – along with Angels superstar Mike Trout – top the list.
No roster addition, however, has caused as big a stir as the Travelers’ latest – Otey the Swamp Possum. The new mascot, designed by a California-based company and introduced this week, is meant to pay homage to one of the best second basemen in Traveler history* while appealing to children. So far, though, it has primarily sparked a firestorm of criticism.
One fan on social media sarcastically asked why a “toothless meth head” wasn’t used instead, since “were [sic] stereotyping Arkansas.” Others asked if the possum has to look as if it was “straight out of Deliverance” and wondered the possum was used only because “negotiations to get Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard fell through.”
Other fans are cool with the choice.
There’s more than new mascots and brand new logos to be excited/enraged about heading into the season. Here’s a preview, courtesy of Tiffany White:
In April this year, the Travelers – under an all-new coaching staff – will enter their 14th season as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels and 48th in the Texas League. The schedule for the 2014 season includes the Texas League All-Star Game, one of the highlights of the season, to be played at Dickey-Stephens Park on Tuesday, June 24. It is the first time that it is played at the team’s new field – the Dickey-Stephens Field, in North Little Rock – which opened in 2007 replacing the former Ray Winder Field (named after Ray Winder who worked as ticket taker in 1915 before rising to general manager) which had served the Travelers since 1932.
The opening of the new season might be the right opportunity to place your bets on the baseball teams playing in the League. If you need some assistance when shopping for the right place and safest website, you might as well check the Internet for bettingsports.com sportsbook comparison. During this new season, you will have plenty of games to choose from, as the format of the Texas League season remains unchanged with the Travs playing mainly against their North Division opponents.
Their most familiar ones are The Springfield Cardinals and Tulsa Drillers (Colorado Rockies), while there are 28 games scheduled with the in-state Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Moreover, the Travs will play all South Division teams (Midland, defending champion San Antonio, Frisco and Corpus Christi) 12 times each.
They will host their eighth Home Opener at Dickey-Stephens Park on April 10th against the Midland RockHounds (Oakland Athletics). During Memorial Day weekend, the Travs will host San Antonio for a 5:30 pm game that will coincide with the Riverfest Fireworks show afterwards, while on the Fourth of July the team is hosting the Frisco RoughRiders (Texas Rangers) at 5:30 pm with the Independence Day downtown fireworks show after the game.
If you are a Travelers fan, an inveterate swamp possum mascot aficionado, and/or simply want to enjoy a good game, remember that tickets and smart packs for the 2014 season are now on sale.
* The original Otey was R.C. Otey, who died at age 88 in 2011. A graduate of North Little Rock High School, Otey broke into pro baseball in 1942 with Amarillo, but was quickly nabbed for military service. “After three years in the Navy, including eight months on Okinawa, he met and married the love of his life, Ida Maxine Morton, who eventually was the director over the Arkansas State Board of Nursing and Superintendent of Missouri Pacific Hospital,” according to his obituary. “In 1949, the Arkansas Travelers bought Infielder Otey off the Pampa Club of the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League. He was the only player who had been with one Southern club for 10 consecutive seasons. He held many records in his tenure, including the most double plays by a second baseman. In 1958, Otey retired from playing baseball and became the Ray Winder Park Superintendent, a position he held for almost 30 years.” – via arkbaseball.com
The year before Otey retired, the Little Rock Travelers were named after the entire state and became the Arkansas Travelers. Throughout the years, they have been part of eight Major League farm Systems. After going through a dry decade for league titles, when Arkansas never climbed higher than second but still attracted 250,000 fans annually, they started to win again in 2001, when the new millennium and a new Major League affiliation with the Angels brought another Texas League title.
When Auburn barely fell 34-31 to Florida State on Monday night in a showdown for the national title, it didn’t just lose a game. It lost a shot at securing status as the greatest one-season turnaround in major American team sports history. Auburn was within three points of completing a U-turn which, in terms of winning percentage and postseason results, had never before been seen on this scale.
That said, these Tigers still went from 3-9 to 12-2 and a No. 2 ranking. That in itself is still historic and ranks at the top of all-time turnarounds in major college football. But, when it comes to all-time bounce backs, a few examples in pro basketball and football still take the cake. The St. Louis Rams, for instance, overcame 300-1 odds heading into the 1999 season to win the 2000 Super Bowl. In fact, looking at the official odds at the start of the season has provided fodder for some of the best “comebacks” and “turnarounds” recorded in recent time. One may click here for more on NFL betting this postseason and ask themselves if anything indicates a franchise turnaround.
Unquestionably, those ’99 Rams and these ’13 Tigers are all-timers. Here are eight more:
10. Hawaii (college football)
1998: 0-12 (12.4 points per game / 35.2 points against per game)
1999: 9-4 (28.5 points per game / 26.8 points against per game)
Like at Auburn, an offensive guru turned the Rainbow Warrior program around.
When June Jones arrived as Hawaii’s head coach, he faced a team which was suffering through an 18-game losing streak and could not pass the ball to the Pacific Ocean. Within a fall, he had the offense humming and led Hawaii to the Oahu Bowl, where it beat Oregon State 23-17.
“He actually came in and gave us a system,” former Hawaii quarterback Dan Robinson told the Montgomery Advisor. “We started the exact same players as the season before when we went 0-12. He gave us a system and taught us how to believe in that system. The season before, every week, we’d run a different offense.”
9. Kansas City Wizards (pro soccer)
1999: 8-24 (24 goals scored total / 53 goals scored against total)
2000: 16-9*-7 (47 goals scored total / 29 goals scored against total)
In 1999, the team had a talented roster – including two-time World Cup starters Tony Meola and Alexi Lalas – but could not put it together. Of course, it’s never a good sign when a defender (Lalas) is your third-leading scorer for a season. Putting points on the board was not a problem for KC the following season, thanks to the vastly improved play of midfielder Chris Henderson and his Danish friend and MLS newcomer Miklos Molnar. What’s now Sporting Kansas City won its first MLS Supporters’ Shield, beating the Chicago Fire 1-0.
*Eight draws, along with 16 wins and seven losses. This was the first season MLS games were allowed to finish in ties.
8. New England Patriots (pro football)
2000: 5-11 (17.2 points per game / 21.1 points against per game)
2001: 11-5 (23.2 points per game / 17.0 points against per game)
It’s hard to imagine the Patriots slogging through a losing season under Bill Belichick. That’s because it hasn’t happened since 2000, when he start reorganizing everything in his first season as head coach in Foxboro. He certainly laid a good foundation, which was unexpectedly helped in the second game of the following season when the Patriots were blessed by the “fortune” of having their 29-year-old franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, go down with a sheared blood vessel in his chest. Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, stepped in to replace him and proceeded to lead New England to an 11-3 record as starter. With the help of three clutch Adam Vinatieri field goals, the Patriots won the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
On June 8, 1963, Sheridan native Earl “Oil” Smith, a three-time World Series champion catcher, died. Smith played for minor league teams in Waxachachie (Texas), Fort Smith, Tulsa and Rochester (N.Y.) before breaking into the National League with the New York Giants in 1919. In 1921-22, Smith helped the Giants beat the Yankees in consecutive World Series and then headed to Pittsburgh where he help the Pirates win the 1925 World Series and batted a career-high .346 the next year. Four seasons in the majors, he batted over .300.
All the while, Smith developed a reputation as an extremely temperamental player.
“Smith probably was involved in as many fights as any player in the game,” according to a 1963 obituary in the Pine Bluff Commercial. Unfortunately, no reasons are provided as why, exactly, Msr. Smith was so angry but here’s a guess: He was frustrated as hell. You would be, too, if the people you were around all the time COULDN”T PRONOUNCE YOUR VERY EASY-TO-PRONOUNCE AND NOT-AT-ALL-COMPLICATED NAME.
According to the Commercial, Midwest sports columnist Westbrook Pegler nicknamed Smith Oil “because, Pegler said, easterners had a hard time saying Earl.”
Fortunately for Smith, he returned to friendlier phonetic climes when he went to St. Louis in 1928 and there played in another World Series.
After his playing career ended in 1930, Smith showed Easterners it wasn’t anything personal against them by choosing to start work as a minor league manager in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. He then retired to Hot Springs, Ark. with one brief exception: a one-year turn as coach of the Hot Springs Bathers in the Cotton States League.
Smith, who died at age 66 from a lengthy illness not specified in his obituary, is buried at Little Rock National Cemetery.
There has been a recent wellspring of news pieces extolling the benefits of a proposed regional sports complex east of Hot Springs.
The basic idea, espoused by the city’s advertising and promotion commission, is to buy at least 175 acres previously owned by a vanadium mining company (UMETCO) and turn the area off U.S. 270 into a gleaming citadel of youth sports.
How gleaming? Talk is it would be one of the finest sports complexes in the South.
Tentative plans, according to Hot Springs Sentinel Record, include “a signature youth baseball field with ‘spectacular views’ at the top of the site; two multipurpose fields that would accommodate four regulation fields; a ‘fourplex’ youth baseball area that would be the central focus of the complex, with four youth baseball fields; a group gathering area next to a heavily wooded area that could contain soft trails and accommodate mountain biking, interpretive stations, wildlife blinds, day camp activities, small pavilions and picnicking; and a high-point lookout.”
I agree: this sounds awesome. And – wait – it gets even more awesome/new fangle-y.
According to THV 11, this complex would include fields for flag football and lacrosse. Lacrosse? That sport which struggles to attract more than 31 Twitter followers in the state’s largest city? Expect any lacrosse fields to be used much more by lacrosse-saavy Tennesseans and Texans than Arkansans.
The complex would cater to visitors from out of state, after all. It would serve a conduit or these potential tourists to be funneled to nearby activities and sites such as the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, a collection of historic markers commemorating the city’s early role in spring training for professional baseball.
Let’s assume the Garland County powers that be get what they want and this regional sports mecca gets underway.
A major question looms: what does it portend for North Little Rock’s Burns Park?
The 1,700-acre park already includes a few sports complexes which host regional events.
Not to mention a 36-hole golf course, 36-hole disc golf course, soccer complex, tennis, trails, seasonal amusement park, archery range and a dog park.
The Burns Park baseball complex, just completed in 2012, includes nine fields. Its soccer complex includes 17 irrigated fields, 1,500 parking spaces, tournament lighting on one quadrant, pavilions, 135 acres of preserved wetland, a three-mile hike/bike trail and is home to the UALR women’s soccer team.
It has hosted the nation’s biggest events in youth soccer: the 2006 & 2002 US Youth Soccer Southern Regional Championships as well as the 2008 US Youth Soccer National Championships.
And let’s not forget about the softball complex, which throws some serious heat with:
- 20/30 regular play lighting
- 30/50 tournament play lighting
- Three window concession stand
- Five scorekeeper rooms
- Sports medicine room
- Over 1,000 lighted parking spaces with concrete walkways.
If the Hot Springs sports complex is built, will that town’s leaders start locking horns with their NLR counterparts in attempts to attract top regional youth sports tournaments?
Consider that in 2005 alone, more than 182,000 participants and spectators came to the Burns Park soccer complex. That’s a lot of tourist dollars – money that may soon go to Hot Springs instead of Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Arkansas has been home to quite a few all-world caliber baseball players who swoop into the state for a year or two before jumping off to far bigger stages – and achievements – in the major leagues.
Without a doubt, Mike Trout is the poster boy for this kind of star in the 21st century. Big boy starred with the Arkansas Travelers in 2011 before breaking out as an All-Star rookie outfielder with the Los Angeles Angels last season.
A hundred years before Trout, the 5’7″, 150-pound pitcher Dickey Kerr was tearing it up in Paragould in the ol’ Northeast Arkansas League. His ascent into major league stardom wasn’t as fast as Trout’s, but at one point in the 1919 World Series Kerr was the most celebrated athlete in the United States. His unstained hands during the biggest scandal in baseball history would make him an even more revered figure.
Who, though, were the best non-Arkies* to play with an Arkansas team besides Kerr and Trout?
After conferring with sportswriters Jim Harris and Jeff Reed, as well as the Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia‘s Caleb Hardwick, here are some top candidates, in no particular order:
*Although Bill Dickey was born in Louisiana, I consider him an Arkie.
1. Ferguson Jenkins – pitcher
Played in Arkansas 1963, 64, 65 before heading to Philadelphia, Chicago, Texas and Boston. A three-time All-Star and the 1971 Cy Young Award winner. In 1991, Jenkins became the first Canadian to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
2. Ray Lankford – centerfielder
Played in Arkansas in 1989 before heading to St. Louis for a 14-year career with the Cardinals. A one-time All-Star, Lankford posted five seasons of 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases with the Cardinals (1992, 1995-1998) - the only player in franchise history to accomplish the feat more than once, according to Wikipedia.
3. Richie Allen – third baseman
Played in Arkansas in 1963 before absolutely blowing the ceiling off what rookies were thought to be able to accomplish in Philadelphia. Led the league in runs (125), triples (13), extra base hits (80) and total bases (352); he finished in the top five in batting average (.318), slugging average (.557), hits (201), and doubles (38), says Wikipedia. A seven-time All-Star, winner of the 1972 AL MVP.
4. Tris Speaker
Played in Arkansas in 1908 a year after making his major league debut for the Red Sox.
“Compiled a career batting average of .345 (sixth all-time), and still holds the record of 792 career doubles. Defensively, his career records for assists, double plays, and unassisted double plays by an outfielder still stand,” says Wikipedia. Was a three-time World Series champion with Boston (as a player) and Cleveland (as a manager).
Ten years ago, on May 1st, President George W. Bush stood on board of the USS Abraham Lincoln 30 miles off the coast of San Diego and declared “major combat operations in Iraq have ended” and that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” It was a bold, impressive claim, given the war had officially begun only 43 days before. But, at the time, G.W. seemed like a pretty impressive man. Before the speech, he’d reportedly become the first sitting president to make an arrested landing on an aircraft carrier.
Bush’s Top Gun moment turned out to be astoundingly premature, of course. U.S. combat involvement in Iraq went on, and on; thousands more Americans died there. The speech, meanwhile, quickly became a cornerstone moment of the Bush era. Images from its broadcast – the nearby “Mission Accomplished” sign, Bush’s olive flight jacket and the ejection harness between his legs – in time accrued a farcical touch and made Bush’s words seem boastful.
For sure, we’ve seen some pretty outlandish claims and bad and/or off-base boasts made by influential sports figures.
Mostly, they’re predictions gone awry. And, mostly, they’re pretty laughable in hindsight. Which is the great thing separating sports and entertainment from more serious aspects of society.
Here are some of the worst sports boasts of all time:
It swept nation in 1981 but took a decade to hit Arkansas with the force of a screwball-throwing tsunami. In June 1991, Cy Young winner Fernando Valenzuela played at Ray Winder Field in Little Rock. Thanks to a preposterous overflow crowd, the game has likely secured a spot as the most phenomenal sporting event in Arkansas history in terms of sheer attendance.
Ray Winder Field, used as the home as the Arkansas Travelers from 1932 to 2007, sat 6,622 in 1991 but more than 12,000 watched Valenzuela pitch. To deal with the overflow, former Travelers GM Bill Valentine had fans stand in the right and left-field bullpens and the warning track in the right and left field.
Almost everybody was there to see Valenzuela, the Mexican pitcher who’d starred for most of the previous decade for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers had released him in March, 1991, and the Angels signed him that May. They sent him to their minor league affiliates in Palm Springs and Midland (in the Travelers’ Texas League) to rehab.
Valenzuela played three games in the minors that summer, the last and best being in Arkansas. He allowed two hits, but struck out five and led Midland to a 4-0 win.
Were you there?
If so, I’d love to hear your memories of the game and Fernandomania. I’m writing a feature on the game for “Baseball on Broadway,” the Travelers’ annual magazine. Leave a comment that you wouldn’t mind seeing in print, or reach me at 501 588 1396 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Without exception, there are and always will be exceptions.
We all (hopefully) learn this at some time or another, and my most recent lesson came via the expansive readership of the New York Times.
I wrote a piece for the paper’s college sports blog about how college football is the only major American team sport in which there hasn’t been a freshman/rookie to win that sport’s most prestigious individual award. In college football’s case, it’s the Heisman.
In pro sports, there has been a lot more opportunities for first-year player to win such honors because rookies have played on the same teams as veterans since the major leagues’ inceptions. In the college ranks, I knew freshmen played on their own teams, apart from upperclassmen, until 1972. I assumed that was the year the NCAA first allowed freshmen to play with upperclassman, and so naturally I assumed there could not have been a freshmen Heisman finalist before that year.
I was wrong, as “Todd D” from Tampa Bay, Florida pointed out in my blog post’s comments.
Turns out that during World War II, Georgia Tech freshmen played because there was the shortage of able-bodied men who’d left to fight overseas. And in 1942, a scatback named Clint Castleberry injected life into a Yellow Jackets program which had had only two winning seasons since 1930:
Standing only five-foot-nine, a hundred and fifty-five pounds, Castleberry did not allow his diminutive stature to overshadow his talent and immense heart. Upon entering Tech, he had never played in a game in which his team had lost—and the string continued in the fall of 1942. In essence, Castleberry became Seabiscuit in football pads, revitalizing Tech with incredible touchdown runs—that inspired at least one sportswriter to marvel that he “ran like a crazed jackrabbit,” defensive gems, and a Chip Hilton too-good-to-be-true personality.
Before a late-season knee injury, Castleberry led Georgia Tech to a 9-0 record and into the national Top 5. He played only that one season before heading off to war himself, but impressed everyone and finished third in the Heisman voting. There wouldn’t be another freshman Heisman finalist until another Georgian – Herschel Walker – finished third in 1980. According to football historian Bill Chastain, Castleberry is the only Georgia Tech player with his number retired.
If the program decided to enshrine two jerseys, who would be a top candidate? How about a 19-year-old from Decatur who arrived on campus the next season and developed into a two-time All-SEC QB, as well as a star in baseball and football?
Frank Broyles wouldn’t be a bad choice at all.
“I’ve seen baseball change—I hate to say it like this—to a middle-class white-man’s sport over the years that I don’t think is fair across the board.” – Norm DeBriyn
Arkansas eked out a 5-4 win against Baylor on Sunday to set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday at 6:05 PM on ESPNU (or ESPN2, depending on the cable gods’ whims). If Arkansas wins, it heads out to Omaha for its second College World Series in four years. Despite a recent stretch of weak hitting, despite UA’s horrendous showing at the SEC Tournament and in Game 1 vs. Baylor, the Razorbacks’ season would gain instant salvation. With the increased media attention paid to Arkansas since its last CWS appearance (2009), it would be safe to say “Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.”
Lost in the glare, though, would be some startling statistics: Five African-Americans started on the Hogs’ 1985 CWS team, but the numbers have dropped precipitously since then. In the last 14 years, there have been at most four black Hog baseball players. Moreover, in the SEC West in 2010, 2.3% of baseball players were black; that number was 72% in football, 80% in baseball.
Why has African-American participation in baseball nosedived in recent decades? I spent a few months exploring this question by talking with the likes of long-time UA baseball coach Norm DeBriyn, pitcher D.J. Baxendale, Democrat-Gazette writer Rick Fires, former Razorback Arvis Harper and Fitz Hill, a former UA football coach, and D’Vone McClure, one the first African-American Hog baseball signees in years.
My result is an article, which can be accessed in three ways:
1) Grab a Sunday copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (June 10th) and flip to the Perspective section (Section H)
2) The original version published in Arkansas Life magazine a few weeks ago. In the lower left corner, click on “Vanishing Point: The [changing] face of baseball in our urban centers and colleges.”
3) For those with Democrat-Gazette subscriptions, here’s an updated version.