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Documents on deceased N.E. sports figures include letter threatening Auerbach

Graphic: Excerpts from Auerbach letter (Globe Illustration)"IF IT WAS ME, I WOULD HAVE GRABBED A TIRE IRON OR PIPE AND CRACKED AUERBACH'S BALD SKULL INTO ABOUT A THOUSAND PIECES." Left: Excerpt of 12-page letter from FBI files; Right: Red Auerbach in 1950 with Chuck Cooper, the NBA's first black draftee.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / July 8, 2008

A seemingly nondescript letter arrived at a Manhattan postal facility in 1982, bound for Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight. The letter, however, contained the ravings of a racist extortionist, including a death threat targeting Boston Celtics legend Red Auerbach.

For 26 years, the anonymous letter's existence remained secret to the public, the stuff of an unsolved mystery stashed in the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

No one revealed that a disturbed segregationist scrawled a hateful diatribe in which he wished unspeakable harm upon Auerbach, a civil rights pioneer who drafted the NBA's first African-American (Chuck Cooper in 1950), became the first NBA coach to start five black players in a game (in the 1963-64 season), and appointed the league's first black coach (Bill Russell in 1966).

No one disclosed that the letter implored Knight to invite Auerbach to a Big Ten basketball game so the writer could attack the Celtics president. Or that the author described a scenario in which he "would have grabbed a tire iron or pipe and cracked Auerbach's bald skull into about a thousand pieces."

The vulgar, 12-page letter, obtained by the Globe from the FBI under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act, had been archived since the bureau's pursuit of the writer quietly ended in vain 26 years ago.

The letter represents the latest example of the FBI's involvement in incidents related to New England sports figures and teams - a legacy that dates to 1945 when agents monitoring a meeting in Boston of the Communist Party of the United States filed an internal memo that cited a participant advocating racially integrating Major League Baseball with Negro leagues stars such as Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige.

The bureau also had an interest this week in a letter, reportedly postmarked in Memphis, that threatened black and Latino members of the Red Sox.

The Globe sought documents on a number of deceased New England sports figures after it became clear from previously released material that the FBI had archived information on more than two dozen famous athletes, from Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe to Walter Payton and Arthur Ashe. (The FBI requires the consent of a living person before it releases information about the subject to a third party, but documents about individuals who have died are available upon request.)

The bureau's connection to New England sports also is reflected in files related to Patriots founder Billy Sullivan, boxers Rocky Marciano and Willie Pep, baseball's Mickey Mantle, basketball's Wilt Chamberlain, and broadcaster Howard Cosell.

The documents related to Auerbach, Sullivan, and Pep were released to the Globe over the last 17 months in response to requests by the newspaper. Information about the other sports figures previously was released to other researchers.

In some cases, the material sheds light on the policies and priorities of the late J. Edgar Hoover, one of the nation's most powerful unelected figures in his 48 years of running the FBI until 1972. Some of the documents also provide insight into the subjects of the bureau's interest.

In the cases of baseball greats Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, and Robinson, for example, records show the FBI declined Cobb's offer to provide Hoover information about major leaguers who may have been communist sympathizers; investigated hate mail DiMaggio received after the death of his former wife, Marilyn Monroe; and monitored whether African-American athletes such as Robinson were linked to black nationalist groups, which Hoover considered threats to US security.

FBI officials, in response to inquiries from the Globe, said they found no archival information on New England sports figures such as Ted Williams, Tony Conigliaro, and Reggie Lewis; former Red Sox owners Thomas and Jean Yawkey; and Sam Jethroe, who became the first African-American major leaguer to play for a Boston team when he joined the Braves in 1950.

Letter sent to Knight

In the letter related to Auerbach, who died in 2006, the FBI redacted the names of nearly every other individual, including Knight's, citing privacy or law enforcement concerns. But John C. McGinley, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Indianapolis office when it investigated the case in 1982, said in an interview that the letter was sent to Knight, then in the 11th year of his 29-year tenure as Indiana's basketball coach.

McGinley, who since has retired from the FBI, said he recently spoke with former agents who investigated the letter and confirmed both that the document was intended for Knight and that its author never was apprehended.

McGinley said he and his fellow retired agents recalled little else about the case and were unable to locate any additional records about it. FBI officials also said they had no additional information, other than 38 pages of partially redacted investigative records they released to the Globe.

Though much of the letter's wrath was directed at Auerbach, the author asserted that Knight should have been "hog-tied" and assaulted for recruiting black players. The writer also demanded $75 million, though the letter provides no details on how, when, or where the extortion money would have been delivered.

Knight said through a spokesman that he did not recall the letter and declined to be interviewed.

As for Auerbach, several individuals who were close to him, including his daughters Randy and Nancy, said they do not believe he was aware of the letter. Much of it contains vile racist humor and sexual references too offensive to be published by the newspaper.

"If he knew about the letter, he certainly kept it from everyone, but I don't think he would have done that," Randy Auerbach said.

There is no indication in the FBI's investigative material that agents interviewed Knight, Auerbach, or anyone else cited in the letter.

Knight was a longtime friend of Auerbach, their relationship dating to 1962, when Auerbach drafted John Havlicek, Knight's teammate at Ohio State, to play for the Celtics. Though Knight's politics were not as liberal as Auerbach's, he was considered generally supportive of African-American athletes. After one of his most talented black players, Landon Turner, was paralyzed in a 1981 car accident, for example, Knight asked Auerbach to select Turner in the 1982 NBA draft as an act of kindness.

Auerbach chose Turner in the final round of the draft.

"That says all anybody ever needs to know about Red Auerbach," Knight told CNN in 2000.

The '82 draft occurred five months after the racist letter was written to Knight on stationery from the New York Hilton at Rockefeller Center. The letter was processed at the Morgan General Mail Facility in Manhattan, but investigative documents give no indication how the FBI became involved in the case.

More are targets

Several individuals whose names were redacted in the letter - and whose identities were verified by the Globe - said Auerbach and others who helped to racially integrate American sports became targets of hatred. In addition to Auerbach, the letter's author expressed a desire to harm C.M. Newton, who as basketball coach at the University of Alabama in 1969 recruited the program's first black scholarship athlete, Wendell Hudson.

The letter's author states he "alerted white folks and innocent shopkeeps in Alabama" about Newton integrating the basketball team so "indignant townfolk" would attack the coach. No such assault occurred.

Newton also integrated the basketball team at Transylvania College in Kentucky in 1965.

"I got quite a bit of hate mail, very crude, very racist letters," Newton said in an interview. "I knew Coach Auerbach, and I'm sure he experienced some of that as well."

Newton said he resigned as Alabama's coach in 1980 partly because of the hatred reflected in the letter to Knight. He said segregationists vandalized his property and expressed a desire for African-Americans to harm his daughters, among other disturbing acts.

"I hardly ever talk about it," Newton said, "but frankly that's one of the reasons I left Alabama after 12 years: the racism."

Newton said Auerbach shared his commitment to judging players on talent rather than race.

"He didn't care if you were green, red, or polka-dot," Newton said. "If you could play, you could play."

Auerbach: Race no issue

Randy Auerbach said her father strongly supported the civil rights movement, though he rarely engaged in political activism, choosing instead to apply his beliefs in practical terms, like evaluating people without regard to their color.

"Where I grew up in Brooklyn, race was never an issue," Red Auerbach was quoted as saying in John Feinstein's book, "Let Me Tell You a Story: A Lifetime in the Game."

"Jews, blacks, Catholics - no one ever paid attention to what you were when you played ball," Auerbach said. "The only thing that mattered was if you could play. That's one of the great things about sports. When you're choosing a team - whether it's in the schoolyard or in the NBA - no one asks what color you are or what religion you are. Those who do are doomed to fail on every level anyway, so who cares what they think?"

The letter writer railed against Auerbach for purportedly advocating benching an unidentified - presumably white - Celtics player for several games to gauge his reaction. If Auerbach had done that to him, the letter writer stated, he would have assaulted him with a tire iron or pipe.

Bill Fitch, the Celtics coach at the time, said in an interview that it was absurd to suggest that Auerbach would favor any player because of his race.

"The guy had to be crazy," Fitch said of the letter writer. "Red was as color blind as you can get."

Some fan protests

The letter also assails "two black [players]" at Vanderbilt who purportedly broke team rules in 1981 by ordering $18 worth of hotel room service before a game. When coach Richard Schmidt disciplined the players, the letter states, some Vanderbilt fans accused Schmidt of racism, leading to his ouster after the season.

Schmidt, now the head coach at the University of Tampa, said in an interview that only one player, an African-American named Charles Davis, was involved in the room service incident. But Schmidt said he benched both Davis and a star white player, Mike Rhodes, "because they didn't play the way I wanted them to play and did things they shouldn't do."

Schmidt said he never received any hate mail for the benchings, but he recalled many fans protesting.

"Nashville can be a tough area like that," he said. "I resigned after the season because there was a lot of turmoil."

Arrest never made

The investigative documents released to the Globe indicate the FBI examined similar extortion letters written by the same author to unspecified individuals in the early 1980s. One of the other letters was mailed from Columbus, Ohio.

"The contents [of the letter to Knight] are synonymous to letters previously submitted depicting the writer's dislike for blacks, love of sex and bodily harm, with additional demand for money," stated a memo from the FBI's Indianapolis office requesting assistance from the bureau's forensic lab.

Records show that FBI specialists in forensic linguistics, fingerprints, and psychological profiling analyzed the letter to Knight. Although agents in the Indianapolis office concluded on April 30, 1982, that an unspecified individual was "most likely" the letter's author, McGinley said they lacked enough evidence to arrest the person, whose name McGinley and the other agents did not recall.

"That's not a very strong identification," McGinley said of the "most likely" finding. "They would have needed to be a lot more definitive."

The letter may reflect little more than the 26-year-old insidious musings of a mentally unstable figure on the fringe of American society, but Newton viewed it as a reminder of a lingering racial divide.

"The thing that really bothers me is not so much the racism and hate mail back in those days," Newton said. "It's that I still see so much racism in sports and society today. I don't know how long it takes to change attitudes and prejudices."

Auerbach's family, friends, and former colleagues suggested that if Auerbach knew about the letter, he would have treated it with disdain rather than dismay, steadfast in his commitment to equal rights.

"The only thing Red would have done with that letter," Fitch said, "is light a cigar with it."

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

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