I recently stumbled upon a chapter in the history of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), that begs for sunshine. Founded in 1888, the AAU set out to bring order and purity to amateur sports, to see that amateur athletes truly were amateurs and not “ringers” brought in to play in exchange for cash.
To achieve this goal, the AAU felt it needed to control amateur athletics, so that it could say which players and which teams could and could not play as amateurs. The main tool at the AAU’s disposal was ejection from the AAU, but that threat could only be effective if an athlete or team was already in the AAU. And so the AAU courted and punished with equal fervor.
The AAU’s passion peaked in 1902, when it turned its gaze upon The Silent Five, a basketball team made up of graduate students from the New York Institute for the Deaf and Dumb. The team was coached by Trevanion Cook, who taught the team to communicate on the court with hand signals, a heart-warming story, if you have a heart.
The Silent Five played well, taking on college teams like Columbia and Princeton, and winning. But on their annual mid-western tour in December of 1902, the Silent Five arrived by train in Chicago to learn that they had just been “disqualified for life” by the AAU. The teams they were to play, including three fielded by the Young Men’s Christian Association, “dared not keep their appointments.”
There was at least one noble exception. The Kenton Athletic Club of Kenton, Ohio, honored their commitment and played the visitors. The next day – Christmas Day as it happened – the Kenton Athletic Club was informed that it too had been “disqualified for life” by the AAU.
And who was dealing out lifetime banishment in defense of amateurism?
Behold, Walter Liginger of Milwaukee, the president of the AAU from 1902 to 1904, and chairman of the the committee that organized and managed the 1904 Summer Olympic Games in St. Louis, the very games where the Milwaukee Athletic Club took the gold medal in the Tug of War event with five ringers recruited from Chicago by the Milwaukee Athletic Club president, Walter Liginger.
Behold, the AAU’s founder and secretary/treasurer James E. Sullivan, an employee of the A.G. Spaulding sporting goods company, the manufacturer, by some bizarre coincidence, of the only sporting goods approved for use in official AAU contests. James E. Sullivan was, in fact, so concerned for the purity of sport, that he decreed the results of any game played or records set with equipment from any other manufacturer to be null and void.
And so amateur sport was saved from the taint of money.
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Sources: “Basket Ball Teams Out” in The New York Times, December 28, 1901; “Silent Five Basket Ball Trip” in The New York Times, December 22, 1902; “Silent Five Basket Ball Games Off” in The New York Times, December 30, 1902; “Deat Mutes as Athletes” in The New York Times, January 11, 1903; “The Silent Five Deaf and Dumb Basket-ball Team” in The Silent Worker, v.15, no.9, p.138; “Commercializing Amateur Athletics” by Charles J.P. Lucas in The World Today, January 1906; The Rise and Fall of American Sport (1994) by Ted Vincent; Making the American Team (1998) by Mark Dyreson; The Black Fives Blog