Ball Hawks: The Arrival and Departure of the NBA in Iowa

Ball Hawks: The Arrival and Departure of the NBA in Iowa

by Tim Harwood


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Believe it or not, Waterloo, Iowa, had an NBA team during the league’s first season, 1949 to 1950. Broadcaster and independent sports historian Tim Harwood uncovers the fascinating story of the Waterloo Hawks and the Midwest’s influence on professional basketball. Beginning with the professional leagues that led up to the creation of the National Basketball Association, Harwood recounts big games and dramatic buzzer-beaters, and the players who made them. 

The first season of the NBA was far from a success. Teams had a hard time attracting fans, with games often played in half-empty arenas. When Waterloo residents learned that the team was struggling financially, they rallied behind the Hawks and purchased shares of the team in a bid to keep it afloat. Unfortunately, that community-based effort was not enough; owners of teams in larger markets pressured the league to push Waterloo—and other smaller towns like Anderson, Indiana, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin—out of the league. 

Though the Hawks disappeared after their lone NBA campaign, Waterloo and other midwestern teams were nonetheless integral to getting the NBA off the ground, and their legacy continues today through some of the current franchises that relocated to larger markets. Combining newspaper accounts and personal interviews with surviving players, Harwood weaves a fascinating story of the underdog team, in the unlikeliest of places, that helped make professional basketball the worldwide success it is today. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609385880
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Edition description: 1
Pages: 234
Sales rank: 442,755
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Tim Harwood is a broadcaster and writer who has covered sports in northeast Iowa since 2005. He lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa. 

Read an Excerpt



In the summer of 1947, when Bob Calihan stepped off a train in Waterloo, he could see right away that the town was crazy about its local sports. The Waterloo White Hawks baseball team was in the middle of an unlikely championship year. That summer, the Class B affiliate of the Chicago White Sox would barely qualify for the playoffs before thrilling Waterloo by taking the league pennant.

But Calihan wasn't there for baseball; he was there for professional basketball, on a scouting trip for the Chicago American Gears. He wasn't looking for players. Gears owner Maurice White had sent him in search of a city that could field a team in the new Professional Basketball League of America (PBLA).

With former DePaul standout George Mikan under contract for White's squad, the Chicago businessman already had a player who, a couple of years later, would be described as basketball's version of Babe Ruth. The Gears had won the National Basketball League championship months earlier, which meant that White could also boast of having the league's best team. Yet despite building a championship organization over just three seasons in the NBL, his American Gears were not making money.

After first making millions of dollars as a military contractor, then enjoying nearly immediate on-court basketball success, White was dissatisfied with league leadership. Having built a business manufacturing parts for naval ships, he believed he deserved a chance at the NBL's helm. He wanted to grow professional basketball into a game worthy of the national attention that baseball, football, and hockey received. Unfortunately, he may have been his own biggest obstacle. White's often abrasive personality strained relationships with other owners and made his ambitions to be league president impossible, as explained by former American Gears player Dick Triptow:

[White] seemed to be a constant thorn in their sides and they let him know in no uncertain terms, this would not be possible. Even under ordinary circumstances, the League owners had difficulty operating smoothly, and White's presence did not make it any easier.

When he was not chosen as president, White became disenchanted.

White's interpersonal difficulties were not confined to NBL owners. The American Gears' boss routinely attracted talented individuals, then put them in awkward positions. He drove Mikan into a six-week holdout in the middle of the 1946–47 schedule by asking him to take a 50 percent pay cut and releasing the star player's brother from the team. In another instance, White suggested that team adviser Ray Meyer — head coach at DePaul University — be dangled in a cage above the basketball floor to gain a different view of on-court tactics. White even designed, then scrapped, a bonus structure that would have paid players a few dollars for every field goal, free throw, and assist they contributed during Gears games.

Many of White's eccentricities could be traced to alcoholism. It was well known that he was a heavy drinker and would act carelessly while bingeing. Players told stories about him coming to practices drunk and betting heavily on team scrimmages or, during games, ordering his coaches to make lineup changes as he watched from the stands.

Meanwhile, White publicly blamed the NBL's other owners for their supposed greed, positioning himself as an altruist with basketball's best interests at heart as he set out to form his own league, the Professional Basketball League of America. "There is no reason why pro basketball cannot take rank with hockey as a top professional indoor sports attraction, but to achieve this goal the club owners and sponsors must have purely unselfish motives," he explained, adding that "the Professional Basketball League of America will strive for the triple goal of attracting the highest type of athlete into the sport, presenting the athletes with the opportunity to enter an attractive graduate career, and having assembled these high type athletes, to present professional basketball of the highest caliber."

The specific reason Bob Calihan was dispatched to northeast Iowa is lost, but there are several possibilities. Waterloo's population had multiplied by a factor of five from the turn of the century and, during the 1940s, no city in the state added more new residents on a percentage basis. Good industrial jobs attracted the newcomers. Approximately 17,000 workers earned $40 million annually from the city's factories, making enough disposable income to support local entertainment options during the final years before television saturation. The city also had an almost ideal venue, missing only a basketball court. The National Dairy Cattle Congress Hippodrome on Waterloo's west side could seat more than 8,000 people, a capacity larger than many of the active professional basketball arenas in the Midwest at that time.

Perhaps Waterloo came to White's attention through the Chicago White Sox, who were not only affiliated with the local White Hawks but had owned and managed the minor league team since 1939. By the end of the 1947 baseball season, White Sox management was impressed enough with the city's support for the team that it backed a major expansion of the White Hawks' Municipal Stadium, providing the community with a $25,000 interest-free loan so 2,000 seats could be added for the following spring.

In other words, Waterloo was a viable PBLA outpost for a number of reasons, especially considering that White wanted to create a league that would have been the largest confederation of teams in any professional sport at the time. The ambitious industrialist and would-be league builder envisioned a circuit with thirty-two clubs during its inaugural season. By August 1947, when Waterloo was officially awarded a franchise, the anticipated roster of cities had been cut to twenty-four. When the season began in October, the numberhad been reduced even further to a still-ambitious sixteen teams. The league footprint stretched toward St. Paul and Grand Rapids to the north, Birmingham and Atlanta to the southeast, and Houston, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans to the south and west.

Initially, the PBLA — and by extension White — was to own each of the sixteen member teams. Eventually, as the league prospered and local owners surfaced, the PBLA office hoped to divest each franchise. In the meantime, several of White's associates were installed in the league's executive positions. Harry Wilson, a writer for the Chicago Herald-American and one of the promoters of the annual World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago, was also brought on staff. Although White was behind all significant decisions, lawyer and banker Holland Pile was named figurehead commissioner. Pile had attended the University of Kansas when James Naismith was still part of the faculty, but a wire service article about the new commissioner and his responsibilities described him as "a white-haired giant of a man whose acquaintance with basketball never passed the nodding stage."

In the same story, Pile unwittingly expressed one of the PBLA's greatest challenges while praising the enthusiasm for sports in each of the league's member towns, remarking, "All are ready for professional basketball of the highest major league caliber. Oddly enough, all except Chicago are entering major organized professional basketball for the first time."

* * *

Basketball was played in Waterloo as early as the mid-1890s, just a few years after it was invented. One of the earliest teams in the community, organized to represent the First Presbyterian Church, traveled twenty-five miles from the city's east side for a game against a church team from nearby Independence. At the turn of the twentieth century, the sport came to Waterloo's two public high schools: Waterloo East was the first to reach a boys high school state championship game in 1922, but Waterloo West was the first to win a title in 1925.

The city's most notable basketball success had come at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) level during the Great Depression. A company team of Rath Packing employees consistently earned distinction among the state's leading industrial league clubs, winning five state championships, including four straight from 1931–32 to 1934–35, and appearing at the AAU National Tournament twice. Clarence Iba, later the head coach at the University of Tulsa, played for the Rath team in 1932–33.

In the years after World War II, more than 65,000 people lived in the northeast Iowa community straddling the Cedar River. The seat of Black Hawk County, Waterloo had been established nearly a century earlier. During World War II, the town became well known throughout the country thanks to the service and sacrifice of the Sullivan family. In 1942, the "Fighting Sullivans" — five brothers raised on the city's east side — had died together aboard the USS Juneau during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Their parents, Thomas and Alleta, and sister, Genevieve, became powerful speakers in the drive to support the military with funding from war bonds. Rationed foods like meat and dairy products had been limited for public sale during the war so that adequate quantities could be shipped to soldiers and sailors. Americans were also asked to conserve other resources, like gasoline, for the war effort. They could find inspiration to persevere through these relatively modest inconveniences compared to the ultimate sacrifice made by Waterloo's Sullivan brothers.

Before and after the war, Waterloo was also important to the Midwest thanks to its two largest industries: meat packing and tractor manufacturing. Rath Packing's Black Hawk meats were distributed across the continent — including Canada and Mexico — from the company's east side headquarters; its business volume placed it among the largest packers in the nation. On the opposite side of the river, John Deere's agricultural machinery rolled off assembly lines to farms across the country. Workers could produce three hundred tractors a day. More than a hundred other companies also manufactured their products in the city.

Following the war years, factories throughout the United States could not easily meet the swell of demand for goods. As a result, many products and services were hard to find. Home construction in Waterloo and elsewhere, which had virtually stopped during the war, exemplified the shortages of the era, which persisted into peacetime. "Every able local carpenter who is willing to work has a job and with a statewide shortage of carpenters, it will be necessary to go outside the state to secure these craftsmen," wrote the Waterloo Courier in 1947, continuing:

Ironically enough, one large general contractor pointed out yesterday, workers do not come to Waterloo, even though employers are begging them to, because there is no place for them to live.

Yes, these very workers are needed by the home building contractors to erect the homes they would be living in eventually, to say nothing of other new homes generally on demand.

... The demand is heavy now for all essential construction work, both heavy (industrial) and light (homes and small business places), [and] the available [labor] supply is drastically short ... and is getting tighter than ever daily.

Yet the problems of an overheated economy in postwar America were relatively minor compared with the previous fifteen years of depression and world war. Waterloo's transition back to postwar normalcy was exemplified by the city's pride in its White Hawks. The club, like all teams in the Three-I League, had suspended operations during the war. When the White Hawks returned to the diamond for a second season during the summer of 1947, Waterloo was captivated by their dramatic pennant run. Led by the strong pitching of Johnny Perkovich and Howie Judson, the team stole the league pennant in September. More than 200,000 fans attended games at Municipal Stadium during the regular season and the playoffs, one of the best figures in minor league baseball. The large number of fans represented a point of racial and ethnic unity as Waterloo residents from all backgrounds supported their team.

However, the community had never fielded a professional basketball team. As a result, there was only limited interest in the sport at the pro level. The Chicago American Gears' NBL championship in 1947 had been described in just two sentences and a total of forty-five words by the local paper. Residents were cautious about embracing their new and initially unnamed basketball team. Waterloo Courier sports editor Al Ney noted this sentiment in an October 1, 1947, column: "While many are taking the 'we won't believe it until we see it' attitude, the league office in Chicago insists there is no doubt that a team will operate here."

Waterloo sports fans had reason to be optimistic about the man chosen to serve as the team's head coach: Harry "Swede" Roos, a thirty-four-year-old player with professional basketball experience stretching back to the 1930s. Roos had played industrial league basketball and softball on Chicago's South Side during the early 1940s; he eventually went to work for the American Gear and Manufacturing Company, where he met Maurice White. Roos served as captain of the last amateur American Gears team, which qualified for the AAU National Tournament in Denver, Colorado, during the spring of 1944.

With White's basketball ambitions turning toward the NBL for the 1944–45 season, Roos was put in charge of building the first Gears professional roster. After recruiting many of his eventual teammates and opening the season as player-coach, he transitioned to a full-time coaching role in the middle of the 1944–45 campaign. He remained in a similar capacity for 1945–46, although DePaul's Ray Meyer directed many of the Gears' practices, leaving Roos in more of a managerial position. After a year away in Los Angeles, he returned to White's service, tasked with assembling a basketball team in Waterloo.

To help generate interest in the new PBLA, clubs were encouraged to fill out their rosters with local stars. In Waterloo's case, Roos urged local baseball heroes Johnny Perkovich and Howie Judson to join the team. Both had healthy basketball credentials: Judson was a former guard at the University of Illinois, while Perkovich had been a successful prep player at Chicago's Tilden Tech High School.

Unfortunately, both baseball players turned down the offer to play professional basketball for fear of injuring themselves or otherwise hurting their chances of advancing within the White Sox organization. Undeterred, Roos eventually found his "local" star by signing 6-foot-9-inch center Noble Jorgensen, who had spent two seasons at the University of Iowa. Jorgensen had transferred to the Hawkeye program from Westminster College in Pennsylvania, where he had been an All-American in 1943. As Iowa's starting center in 1946–47, he averaged 9.4 points per game, using an accurate hook shot to good advantage. Standing taller than many of his contemporaries also made him a formidable defender. After college, he played briefly for the Pittsburgh Ironmen of the Basketball Association of America.

The PBLA's emphasis on local players also led to the acquisition of Dick "Looper" Lynch and Emil Lussow. The 6-foot-4-inch Lynch had led Loras College in Dubuque to a string of small-school successes; Lussow, meanwhile, was a solid basketball player and an even bigger football star across town at the University of Dubuque.

However, Waterloo's best player wasn't from Iowa; he came to town straight from the Chicago American Gears, a member of their 1946–47 championship team. Balding and displaying a toothy smile, 6-foot-3-inch Price Brookfield had actually been the first player on the new organization's roster. The twenty-six-year-old's relocation to the Cedar Valley was inspired in part by his hope to play basketball and simultaneously attend Iowa State Teachers College (today the University of Northern Iowa) in nearby Cedar Falls to pursue his master's degree.

Brookfield was a native of Dalhart, Texas. As an undergraduate, he started college at West Texas State, averaging more than 14 points per game in three years of varsity play. In 1942, he earned All-American honors and helped the small school earn a bid to the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden. The war provided an extension of Brookfield's college basketball career. He joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned to train at Iowa State University in Ames. Wartime eligibility rules allowed him to play for the Cyclones, whom he led in scoring during the winter of 1943–44, when the team won the Big Six Championship and reached the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Final Four.

Brookfield's wartime service experience was common to athletes of his generation. Waterloo's PBLA roster also included navy sailor Nick Vodick, former airman Otto Kerber, and Jack Spehn, who had gone to the Philippines with the Army Signal Corps. Dick Lynch had served in the army, too. Like Brookfield, many athletes were enrolled at new colleges after enlistment. The military relied on these institutions to provide training for its exponentially expanding forces, and athletics provided a means to promote fitness and morale.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction 1

1 Organized Professional Basketball 8

1 The Real Major League Thing 23

3 For the Sake of League Prestige 43

4 Everybody's Ball Club 61

5 I Want to Play Basketball 81

6 The Band Did Not Stop Playing 107

7 Cold-Blooded, Cut-Throat Business 126

8 An Even Greater Challenge 147

9 I Don't Want to Go Out with a Bad Showing 167

Epilogue 180

Appendix A Individual Statistics 185

Appendix B League Standings 193

Appendix C Game-by-Game Results 197

Notes 205

Index 213

What People are Saying About This

Fred Hoiberg

“Professional basketball has always been a huge part of my life. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to compete as an NBA player, work in a front office, and now serve as a head coach. Growing up in Ames, Iowa, I’ve always been interested in the history of professional basketball. More of these stories are uncovered in Ball Hawks, which brings to life the forgotten history of our state’s link to pro hoops.”

Dan Gable

“I really enjoyed Ball Hawks. It was interesting to read about the history of sports in my hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, and learn about both the formation of the NBA and about what it was like to play professional basketball when it was just beginning. A book both sports history fans and Iowans will enjoy.”

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