"My goal in life is to make people laugh," once remarked Arkansan Reece "Goose" Tatum. As the "clown prince of basketball" and part of the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters, Tatum brought laughter to millions.
Tatum was born in El Dorado in May 1921, the fifth of seven children born to Ben and Alice Tatum. His father worked as a preacher and farmer while also working at local sawmills. He attended El Dorado schools, eventually attending what was then Booker T. Washington High School, playing football, baseball and basketball.
As a teenager, he worked in local sawmills for extra money and began playing baseball regularly. He showed a lot of talent, and by 1941, he was playing professionally for the Birmingham Black Barons, part of the segregated Negro League, as it was called at the time. At a height of 6 feet 6 inches and an armspan of 84 inches, he had a gangly appearance; but this helped make him an expert fielder at first base. His on-field antics of trick catches, joking with the crowds and bringing the children of fans onto the field to be part of the action made him a crowd favorite.
Seeing how crowds delighted in watching Tatum play, Harlem Globetrotters owner and founder Abe Saperstein invited him to join his squad later in 1941. Immediately, Tatum incorporated his act into the basketball routine. His trick shots, teasing the referees and fellow players, and jokes with the crowds helped make the Globetrotters a worldwide sensation.
When World War II erupted, Tatum, like many other athletes, was drafted into the military. Tatum served honorably in the U.S. Army Air Force during the war, though mostly as an entertainer for his fellow troops.
He continued to play baseball periodically after the war while not touring with the Globetrotters. He played first base with the Indianapolis Clowns from 1945 to 1949, even getting two hits in the 1947 East-West All-Star Game, the Negro League version of Major League Baseball's All-Star Game.
In 1948, Tatum and the Globetrotters defeated the champion Minneapolis Lakers in an exhibition game that thrilled basketball fans and brought many more to follow the game. Tatum continued to tour with the team until 1954.
During his years with the Globetrotters, he has often been credited for inventing the hook shot. While the hook shot appears almost routinely in modern professional games, it was considered something of a trick shot during the Globetrotters' exhibition games in the 1940s and 1950s.
After his career with the team ended, he turned his attention to a number of business opportunities. He started and briefly toured with his own exhibition basketball teams and, in 1958, started a new baseball team, the Detroit Stars. The team, however, folded quickly. Tatum also returned to El Dorado on a number of occasions to perform for local students, all on the condition that the crowds would be integrated.
Tragically, Tatum's son died in a car wreck in 1966. Devastated by the loss, Tatum's health rapidly declined, and he died in January 1967.
In spite of the tragedies that marked the end of his life, Tatum's legacy lived on in the joy he gave to millions of fans around the world and the work that transcended the racial barriers of the time. In honor of his efforts, he was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1974, and in 2011, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, for his work as a pioneer of basketball.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at [email protected] southark.edu.