Manhattan tour location: The east side of Sixth Avenue between West 43rd and West 44th Street
Learn about the lasting impact of New York’s Original Celtics basketball team in one of dozens of original tour documentary shorts accessible by New York Sports Experience members.
On our member playlist, the Original Celtics story follows one about the now-defunct Sixth Avenue venue the Hippodrome and one-time team owner Kate Smith. In the 1930s, the Original Celtics played home games at the arena.
In 2019, NBA all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presented New York Sports Experience (then known as New York Sports Tours) with a historic trophy he earned in his final high school basketball game.
The contest, to determine the 1965 Catholic High School Athletic Association champion, was staged in the Bronx when Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) played for Manhattan’s Power Memorial Academy.
When the New York Knickerbockers started their professional basketball journey in 1946, Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory became their primary home. The Knicks faced challenges in landing court time uptown at Madison Square Garden because college basketball doubleheaders at the Garden were already a proven magnet for big crowds.
Many sports fans regarded pro basketball as a novelty, so the Knicks adopted the two-game approach at the smaller armory. They launched the New York Knickerettes there to play before many Knicks home games.
National Girls and Women in Sports Day is celebrated annually. But the Knickerettes and another 1940s New York women’s basketball team are absent when women’s sports history is summarized.
In 1947 before Knicks games, the Knickerettes took on such women’s opponents as the New Jersey Amazons, Jersey City Flashes, and company teams. The Knickerettes’ play brought new audiences to women’s basketball.
Many of the Knickerettes were from local colleges, including Columbia. Knickerettes guard Eleanor Mullin would go on to serve as senior captain of Hunter College’s undefeated 1948-1949 women’s basketball team.
For the 1947-1948 season, Mullin joined the professional New York Cover Girls, a new team with eight players who competed exclusively against men.
As the team’s name implies, there was a lot of emphasis on looks. In January 1948, the Post-Star of Glen Falls, New York, reported of an upcoming Cover Girls game versus the Glen Falls Legion Fireballs, “The Cover Girls are easy on the eyes and best of all can play outstanding basketball that belies their beauty.”
In Barre, Vermont, the Barre Times Daily reported of a game there between “Audrey Erickson’s New York Cover Girls” and “Larry Killick’s Vermont Vulcans,” “The female visitors are expected to present an attraction in beauty as well as a stellar performance in basketball.”
The Cover Girls were founded by New York sportswriter Michael Strauss. In 1949, the team embarked on a playing tour against men’s teams in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Ohio. The Associated Press reported of the venture, “Dixie Belles, beware. A gang of New York cover girls is coming after your menfolk.”
Audrey Erickson, of Valley Stream, New York — “the successor in women’s amateur sports to [multi-sport star and Olympic gold medalist] Babe Didrikson,” the Post-Star raved — garnered a large share of the Cover Girls’ coverage. When she was with the Cover Girls in 1949, she was billed as “All-American Girl” in an advertisement for Camel cigarettes that included a depiction of her playing basketball.
In advance of a Cover Girls game in upstate New York versus the Oneonta Indians, The Oneonta Star reported that Erickson would perform in the game and at halftime. “America’s greatest and prettiest court aggregation, the New York Cover Girls… present a half-time exhibition said to be the greatest all-athletic performance ever shown on a basketball floor. It includes an exhibition by Audrey Erickson, the All-American Girl, who twirls the baton, tap dances while skipping rope, pitches baseball and punts and dropkicks footballs with and without shoes.”
In the Oneonta halftime show, Boston Red Sox minor league catcher Steve Salata caught Erickson pitches.
The 5-foot-5 Erickson would go on to play baseball for the Arthur Murray Girls team that had been started by Strauss on Long Island in 1947 and competed against men’s teams. For Adelphi University on Long Island in 1951, Erickson was a standout on the Panthers’ undefeated field hockey team. For two years starting in 1951, she wrote a weekly sports column for the newspaper now known as Newsday. She earned a doctorate in administration from St. John’s.
The NBA’s first black player joined the league on October 31, 1950. But months earlier, by January 1950, the Cover Girls had welcomed 5-foot-7 Ruby Perlotte of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to the team. Associated Press would report that Perlotte was “the only Negro professional girl basketball player in the country.”
In February 1951 in Housatonic, Massachusetts, Home Gas Corporation defeated the Cover Girls, 92-84, for the men’s team’s tenth straight win. The local Berkshire Eagle noted, “Perlotte, playing a backcourt post for the Cover Girls, put on a good exhibition of basketball. Her passing was superb and her deadeye shooting accounted for 21 points.”
Two weeks later in an armory in North Adams, Massachusetts, the Cover Girls led by eight points at the half against the St. Anthony Crusaders. The North Adams Transcript reported that in front of some 800 spectators, Perlotte “stole the show. She demonstrated that she is a very clever hoopster for, besides scoring with 17 points, her all-round work was most praiseworthy.” The Crusaders won, 69-63.
A focus on appearance remained. When New York syndicated columnist Edgar Durling wrote of the Cover Girls and Perlotte in 1951, he opined, “How tall professional girl basketball players are is a minor factor. The big thing is, how do they look in shorts?”