By James H. Burns
Meadowlark Lemon, the great athlete and entertainer who passed away this week at the age of 83, was a part of the CBS family.
Many of the obituaries of the famous basketball star have mentioned that he was featured in a cartoon series on CBS from 1970-72. Airing on Saturday mornings, it featured an animated version of his team, the Harlem Globetrotters. (Intriguingly, the cartoon was a co-venture between Hanna-Barbera and CBS Productions, one of the only times the corporation partnered for such a venture.)
But a cartoon version of Lemon also co-starred — along with his teammates — in three hour-long episodes of a later animated program. “The New Scooby-Doo Movies” aired on CBS in 1972 and 1973.
In fact, these illustrated versions of Lemon were voiced by actor Scatman Crothers. But Lemon and his cohorts themselves later starred in a live-action CBS Saturday morning variety series called “The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine.”
It’s easy to forget today, but Lemon and his associates could be considered real-world heroes, acting almost as ambassadors in a time when prejudice was still far too prevalent.
The Globetrotters began as the Savoy Big Five in Illinois in the mid-1920s (named for Chicago’s famed Savoy Ballroom, where they first played.) Under the coaching and leadership of legendary manager and promoter Abe Saperstein (elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971), the squad soon became known as the Harlem Globetrotters and developed into an international sports sensation.
Lemon played his first full season with the Globetrotters in 1954, just as the United States was beginning to change.
The concept of athletes as messengers of equality, however, may have had its limits. I can remember being shocked in the late 1970s while playing sandlot football during a school lunch hour. One of my schoolyard friends — in an almost entirely white, Long Island neighborhood — called Mets star left fielder Cleon Jones a n—er.
“But he’s your favorite player on the Mets,” I said.
“He may be my favorite player, but he’s still a n—er,” the kid said, smiling and laughing.
I’ve thought often through the past few decades how important and influential The Supremes must have been, along with other entertainers, in the 1960s. How could one maintain every degree of his prejudice when he saw such elegant women performing on national television?
Sammy Davis Jr., it must not be forgotten, was also a trailblazer in a similar fashion.
Lemon and the Globetrotters reached the height of their national success in the early 1970s, and their exhibition matches were often featured on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” (The CBS cartoon series also helped spawn a small merchandising boom of games and toys, and even a record album of the pop songs featured on the series. Lemon actually sang backup on some of the tracks.)
There was nary a youth across America in those days who didn’t attempt one of the Globetrotters’ famous tricks, spinning a basketball atop one’s finger.
And, the Globetrotters were always great in person.
As a small boy, I journeyed to behind the team’s bench when they were performing at the Nassau Coliseum. Curly Neal, another one of their stars, was absolutely kind and charming. He pleasantly asked all the kids who had gathered to wait until after “the game” for autographs. As I recall, all the players — including Lemon — were gracious.
Ultimately, there were those who grew uncomfortable with the Globetrotters’ “act,” claiming it smacked too much of another era’s minstrel shows.
It seemed a tough label to put on a group that had once braved playing in cities where lynchings — or the threat of such — were still on the horizon. As late as the mid-1960s, there were still hotels that would not welcome African-American guests.
The Globetrotters’ prevalence was eventually eclipsed when mainstream basketball players in the NBA began adopting, or at least echoing, some of the club’s most brilliant and flashy trademarks (dunks, aerial acrobatics and other acts of hardwood prestidigitation).
But the Globetrotters persist today. They’re part of Lemon’s legacy, which also encompasses so much more.