By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
No. 100 – Robert Daughtry
This is an obscure story, one that doesn’t seem to be publicized anywhere. Yet it may rank as a fascinating footnote in the history of basketball – especially here.
An African American basketball player by the name of Robert Daughtry played a role in ending racial barriers in his sport. What’s more, this “free agent” – who played high school basketball in Buffalo – did it within a few miles of his high school home.
A one-paragraph story was published in a Hartford newspaper, with a date of July 26, 1946: “Bob Daugherty (sic), former high-scorer on the Virginia Union University basketball team, signed with the Buffalo legion Club of the National Professional Basketball league, thus becoming the first Negro to crack the Jim Crow barriers of the 12-team circuit.”
The major-league team would be called the Buffalo Bisons, and it apparently had a close association with the legion club. The NPBL usually went by the name of NBL. General manager Leo Ferris did the honors of signing Daughtry to a contract several months before Jackie Robinson put on the uniform for the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947.
Please note that the news reporters of 1946 couldn’t spell his name right, adding an extra “E.”
One Bisons roster put him at 5-foot-9 3/4, the smallest player on the team; his inclusion would seem to indicate that Daughtry had a chance of playing for the NBL team.
A UPI story that day (shown below) pointed out that Daughtry scored 1,078 points in four years of college play. It continued, “While in the service, the Negro sharpshooter registered 314 points in 22 games with Indiantown Gap, Pa., court team and dunked in 294 counters in 18 contests for the post five at Staten Island Terminal.” A newspaper article from Harrisburg in that era lists him as a Corporal. (Thanks to the Twitter account @LeoFerrisNBA for information and the photo below.)
Robert Shannon Daughtry was born in Pennsylvania on Nov. 17, 1919. His father Doyle was born in Georgia in May 1894, and Doyle’s father Peter was born in Georgia in 1858 (before the Civil War). It’s uncertain when Robert moved to Buffalo, but directories have him here in 1935 and 1940.
There’s no sign of Doughtry’s high school basketball exploits on line. He played for Virginia Union from 1939 through 1942 and was part of three conference championship teams, including the so-called 1939 “Dream Team.” Daughtry was an all-conference pick in 1942. He was inducted into the university’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1988. When told about the original articles, Virginia Union’s sports information director Jim Junot (who was extremely helpful in this story) quickly added Daughtry to the university’s list of 1,000-point scorers.
The NBL had been formed in 1937, and had two integrated teams during World War II in an attempt to field competitive squads at a time when so many young men were in the military. But, if the news report is correct, African Americans were missing from pro ball through the summer of 1946 – thus making Daughtry’s signing significant. Alas, Daughtry never played in a game for the Bisons, playing for the Legion team that was something of an “opening act” for the Bisons. He went on to play for some barnstorming teams, including the Harlem Globetrotters.
Robert married Carolyn Woods on July 27, 1943. They had met at Virginia Union, and he had just graduated. They went on to have four children. Robert eventually worked as the assistant director of the University at Buffalo’s Educational Center. Carolyn was the first woman to serve as Erie County’s deputy social services commissioner. They both retired in 1979 and moved to Richmond, where they took positions with Virginia Union. He was the university’s associate dean of men until his death in Richmond in 1986.
The story of Buffalo’s role in integrating professional basketball doesn’t start or stop there.
It could be argued that the connection goes all the way back to 1935. Buffalo had a team in the Midwest Basketball Conference, the original name of the National Basketball League. One of its players was Hank Williams. He may have been the first African American to play in an integrated basketball league. Those Bisons, who played in the Broadway Auditorium, folded after a year.
Fast forward about a decade. According to a 2004 article on hoopshype.com by Ron Thomas, Les Harrison was the owner of the Rochester Royals at that time, and he had urged Buffalo owner Ben Kerner and Syracuse owner Danny Biasone to integrate their teams. William “Pop” Gates wound up with the Bisons, signing a contract on Sept. 28, 1946. He became one of two African Americans in the league that year; the other was Rochester’s William “Dolly” King. Gates, who began his career as a pro with the Harlem Renaissance in 1938, was the second-leading scorer for the team that season. He went into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.
The Bisons only lasted 13 games before moving on Christmas Day to become the Tri-Cities Blackhawks – a group of cities consisting of Molina and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. The best player on the team was Don Otten, who would be named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1948-49. Tri-Cities moved to St. Louis in 1951, and the franchise is now located in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, the Basketball Association of America merged with the NBL in 1949 to form the National Basketball Association. The BAA had teams in bigger cities, but the NBL probably had better players. The new NBA refused to call it a merger, sticking to the phrase “expansion,” and has never recognized the NBL’s statistics as professional – even though it was the older and more established of the two leagues.
Ferris played a large role in bringing the two leagues together. He later went to Syracuse as the Nationals general manager and worked with Biasone to utilize a 24-second clock in games starting in 1954. The Nats won the NBA Championship in 1955.
Several racial milestones for the league took place in 1950. Chuck Cooper was the first African American drafted, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first black to sign an NBA contract, and Earl Lloyd was the initial African American to play in a game.
Maybe they all owe a small debt to Buffalo’s Robert Daughtry.
Here’s more information on Pop Gates, who easily could have made this list of free agents who made a difference:
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)