- Becoming Iron Men: The Story of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers by Lew Freedman
The history of race relations in American sport is complex. In some sports such as baseball or track and field, historians can point to landmark events that broke down thick barriers with one occurrence. Indeed, that is part of the reason that Jackie Robinson’s legacy carries on as strongly as it does today.
College basketball’s racial integration came about incrementally. Yet, since the premiere of the movie Glory Road, which depicts Texas Western’s improbable 1966 NCAA title run, one event has received popular acclaim as the moment when “the walls came tumbling down” (Frank Fitzpatrick, And The Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1999). In that memorable game, Texas Western utilized an all-black lineup to defeat all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA title game.
While this game’s legacy has grown, it remains one of many important baby steps in college basketball’s integration. In 1950, City College of New York won the NCAA title [End Page 248] with two black starters. In 1955 and 1956, the University of San Francisco won repeat titles with two black stars. In 1961 and 1962, Cincinnati won back-to-back NCAA titles with three and four black starters. In 1963, Loyola featured four black starters in its NCAA championship season.
Each of these programs knocked down another layer of racial segregation in sport, and each has a unique story. Loyola’s four African-American starters took a relatively unknown program to unprecedented heights. And in doing so, the team defeated the heralded Mississippi State team that snuck out of its home state and the strict segregation policies that would not have allowed it to compete against Loyola otherwise.
Within this context, Lew Freedman, a “veteran sports journalist” (inside flap), writes Becoming Iron Men: The Story of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers, his account of this special Loyola squad. While theirs was only one small step toward full integration of American sport, it is a story worth telling.
However, Freedman’s is not the only manuscript written about this extraordinary team. Michael Lenehan’s Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball came out in 2013 and chronicled the exact same story as Freedman’s. Yet there are differences between the two. Lenehan, also a life-long writer and editor, uses interviews, newspapers, articles, archives, and film to document his depiction of Loyola’s magical season. Freedman almost exclusively uses personal interviews. Thus, Lenehan’s breadth of sources might appease historiographers a bit more.
Yet Freedman’s book is not without merit. Indeed, the author spoke at length with each surviving member of the championship team and some of their kin to obtain information about the season. And his efforts deserve praise. Becoming Iron Men is just what Freedman set out for it to be—the story of the 1963 Loyola championship basketball team told through the memories of those who created the magical tale. Freedman’s journalistic skills produce a dramatic narrative through these memories.
The firsthand accounts of the team’s excursions into the segregated South and then into the national spotlight provide a detailed glimpse into the ambiguity of American race relations just prior to the Civil Rights Act. The former players’ memories of the emotions they felt during that season provide fascinating commentary on the difficulties facing integrated squads at the time.
However, basing almost an entire book on the memories of events that occurred fifty years ago is not an easy task. While the solidarity of emotions persist, Freedman notes a couple of inconsistencies among the players’ recollections involving dates, times, and personnel. The author navigates these dilemmas with transparency and healthy speculation.
Some of the main forces in this extraordinary season, though, were not around to tell their sides of the story, a difficulty that Freedman could not overcome. Indeed, Loyola coach...