“The Greatest Game They Never Played”

Originally posted: November 18, 2008

Easton, Pa., — Shaun Showell never met his great uncle, but that hasn’t stopped the 31-year-old from getting to know him.

Though David Showell ’51 passed away decades before Shaun was born, Shaun was often told the story of the greatest game Lafayette never played — its 60th anniversary occurring this year. It wasn’t until he sat down at his computer two years ago and decided to Google his great uncle’s name that he understood the magnitude of David Showell’s legacy.

“I was dumbfounded. You see things on the news about segregation, racism, but it doesn’t hit you until it fits into you,” Shaun said.

The year was 1948. Gas cost 16 cents per gallon, “Hamlet” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Lafayette was invited to play in the 14th annual Sun Bowl against Texas College of Mines in El Paso, Texas, on January 1, 1949, after compiling a 7-2 record — the program’s best record in eight years. It was the college’s first bowl invite in 25 years.

Lafayette President Ralph Cooper Hutchinson contacted the president of TCM, informed him that one of Lafayette’s players was black and asked if the Leopards could still play.

The reply was no.

Lafayette’s athletic council, the faculty and the football team each had a decision to make. Lafayette would not play in the bowl unless all three entities agreed to go to Texas without Showell.

Showell reportedly went to his teammates and told them they should go on without him because he was no stranger to prejudice. Before his time at Lafayette, Showell enlisted in the Army and went to flight school, becoming a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. They were an elite unit of black Army Air Corps pilots who distinguished themselves during World War II.

His friend and fellow pilot, Roland Brown ’49, talked openly in articles written in the Lafayette Alumni News about the treatment of blacks in the military in the 1940s.

In a September 1998 article, Brown recalled that when he was shipped to Jefferson Barracks, Mo., the troops were segregated. In fact, “segregation in the Army was so pervasive that when Joe Louis, the famous black boxer, came to Eglin Air Base in Florida for a boxing exhibition, (Brown said) `they let the white boys in first to see it,’ after which the black troops finally were allowed in.”

With Showell’s blessing, the team reportedly agreed to play. The athletic committee also gave the OK, but the faculty decided that the discrimination against Showell was too much to disregard.

According to Hutchinson, the invitation was declined without any further explanation in an attempt to save any embarrassment for El Paso. Upon hearing the news, the student body — with no knowledge of Showell’s situation — became incensed and decided to march to the president’s home, demanding a reason.

When Hutchinson explained that a Texas state law did not permit blacks to play in the Sun Bowl Stadium, the students pleaded with Hutchinson to send another telegram with the condition that Lafayette would accept as long as there was no discrimination based on a player’s skin color.

After the telegram was sent, Lafayette athletic director Bill Anderson called the chairman of the bowl committee about the proposal. Again he stressed the message, Lafayette would play if Showell could play.

The answer was still no.

The students were outraged. In an article by the El Paso Times on November 24, 1948, Lafayette students marched to downtown Easton and sent a telegram to U.S. President Harry Truman that read, “Denied Sun Bowl bid because Negro on team. Is that democracy? (Signed) Lafayette College students.”

Roughly 1,000 students met on campus the next morning in Pardee Auditorium and passed a formal resolution, part of which stated: “We protest the racial discrimination against one of our fellow students and declare without equivocation our firm resolve that all Americans have equal rights under the law.”

In a matter of days, El Paso suddenly found itself at the center of a civil rights storm. Some of the TCM players who were interviewed said they didn’t care who they played against.

In an article in the Easton Express on November 24, 1948, Jake Rhodes, a TCM tri-captain, said he “fought side by side with Negroes on the front lines in Europe and couldn’t understand why he shouldn’t play against them on the football field.”

The game selection committee, headed by C.D. Belding, insisted that a law prohibiting black players from participating in the Sun Bowl didn’t exist. It also denied that it had ever stipulated that Showell could not play.

But, according to a December 1948 article in The Lafayette Alumnus, Lafayette’s president made a statement following the denials in Texas.

“I must state emphatically that the acting president of the College of Mines and Metallurgy of the University of Texas and Mr. Belding each informed us repeatedly that David Showell could not play in this proposed game. …They attributed the situation to a state law or a state requirement emanating from the University of Texas.”

Regardless of the law’s validity, the incident brought racial issues to the forefront.

In the fall of 1997, an article was published in the Journal of Sport History entitled “Integrating New Year’s Day: The Racial Politics of College Bowl Games in the American South.” The author, Charles H. Martin, a University of Texas-El Paso history professor, writes, “the incident is historically significant because it widely exposed the exclusion of African American football players from most college bowl games and dramatically highlighted the Deep South’s fanatical insistence on maintaining segregation in all local sporting events.”

Three years later in 1952, College of the Pacific halfback Eddie Macon became the first African American to take the field in the Sun Bowl, officially integrating the event. Lafayette’s incident of 1948 was later formed into a song, “The Greatest Game They Never Played.”

Unfortunately, Showell wasn’t able to enjoy the progress that was set in motion by his experience. His life was tragically cut short in 1955 when he died in a car accident at the age of 31.

His story continued to be passed down by family members. Catherine Showell, his niece, first remembers hearing of her uncle’s story when she was a child. Her grandfather, Showell’s father, kept a shed in the back of his home filled with his children’s trophies and awards, including many of her uncle’s accolades.

She can only imagine his reaction to the events of November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president of the United States.

“I’m almost at a loss for words for how he would feel. From not being able to play a football game to…” Catherine trailed off, lost in thought. “He would be just speechless, probably like a lot of faces you saw the night of the election. From elation to disbelief.”

CollegeNews Story Archive

CollegeNews is now Liberal Arts Success

CollegeNews has brought you the latest information from over 125 liberal arts colleges for over ten years. Now it’s transforming into something even greater. Visit liberalartssuccess.org and learn more about the impact of liberal arts education on the individual and on society.

Visit the Liberal Arts Success website »

Search CollegeNews