Clair Bee: The Busiest Bee in Baltimore, 1954

[The 1951 college basketball scandals ruined several careers on the hardwood. Among the victims was Clair Bee, head basketball coach of the national powerhouse Long Island University. Bee soon retired to his farm in Roscoe, NY, presumably to milk cows and live unhappily ever grumbling. 

But by March 1953, Bee made a comeback in the NBA as the head coach and later part owner of the Baltimore Bullets. It didn’t end well. Though Bee, one of the master court tacticians of his day, threw his heart and soul into turning around the Bullets at first, the pressure caught up with him. “Clair was anything but stable,” said Paul Hoffman, one of the leaders on Bee’s unraveling team. “He was drinking heavily.”

Hoffman explained, “Clair’s secretary would call me before a trip to tell me he would meet us on the road. I’d go by the office and get the plane tickets, and I’d take the club on the road. We’d go for three or four games and, maybe for the first three, he wouldn’t show up. I coached the team. We’d just get waxed.” 

“Toward the end of that year, we lost two in one night in Milwaukee,” Hoffman said. “They’d gotten fogged out trying to come here for a game, and Clair said we’d just make it up the next time we went out there. Played a doubleheader. Lost both by almost the same damn score. We were tired. You try playing a doubleheader.”

The next season, 1954-55, the Bullets started out badly on the court and badly in debt. “The Bullets, looking very blank arrived for their game with the Knicks,” a New York paper wrote in mid-November 1954. “Clair Bee, coach and president . . . had made himself scarce . . . Meanwhile, the players have missed a payday . . . ‘We were supposed to get paid yesterday,’ said one Bullet, ‘but Bee is the one who signs the checks . . . They can’t find him.’”

Bee resurfaced on his Roscoe, New York farm. “I have taken a leave of absence, which can be extended indefinitely or considered as a resignation, depending entirely upon the wishes of the owners,” he explained. 

On November 25, 1954, or 14 games into the new season and Bee still back on the farm, NBA president Maurice Podoloff gave Baltimore, exactly 24 hours to put its financial house in order or face liquidation. The Bullets needed someone to step forward with $100,000 to settle the team’s existing debt ($50,000) and purchase the team (another $50,000). That night, the Bullets lost another road game in Fort Wayne. 

“We didn’t have enough money to get back to Baltimore,” said Hoffman. “We’d run out of meal money, didn’t even have enough to pay for the hotel. The hotel manager called and said, ‘Don’t leave until you pay.’ I called the airport and told them to hold the plane, and we hired a limo that came around to the back of the hotel. We slid the bags out, jumped in and took off. 

“The plane was waiting for us when we got to the airport. We went through a side gate of the terminal, took the baggage right onto the plane, as they closed the door and took off. We made it back, and I never paid for the limo or the hotel.”

With no new owners stepping forward, Podoloff pulled the plug on the franchise. Bee never coached again, college or pro. But he continued to write about basketball, including as part of his famous Chip Hilton sports series. When contacted in Roscoe in 1981, Bee, now legally blind, said, “I’m still writing basketball textbooks and adding to my Chip Hilton sports series for teenagers.” When Bee died two years later at age 87, the Hilton series had reached 24 novels. 

This article, published in SPORT Magazine in January 1954, catches up with Bee when things were still looking up for his Baltimore Bullets. As the Baltimore Evening Sun captured the enthusiasm in March 1953, “Bee is the most valuable asset of the Baltimore club and his acquisition to succeed [former coach] Chick Reiser was the smartest move the uncertain Bullets have made in several seasons. He turned the club into a close-knit, hustling squad which played the best basketball Baltimore has seen in some time.” The SPORT article, written by Irv Goodman, starts with its italicized text.]

****

It was a little more than a year ago that a friend, meeting Clair Bee by chance on a busy midtown street in New York City, invited the world-famous, but unemployed, coach to come along to a luncheon of local sportswriters. “The boys will be glad to see you.”

Bee, who had come down for the day from his farm in Roscoe, New York, declined the invitation. Apparently still hurt and confused by the year-old basketball scandal that had wiped out his “greatest team” at Long Island University and his own fabulous career, the gray-haired, slender Bee seemed awkward (a rare pose for this gregarious, polished, popular gentleman) and embarrassed (and even rarer pose). He stammered some excuse about having to hurry back to the farm to milk the cows and was gone in the crowded mass of the busy street. It seemed to the friend that Bee, almost as much a victim of the scandal as the young basketball players involved, had at that moment accepted—sadly but irrevocably—the descent into oblivion that was the final aftermath of the fix expose. Bee, the friend was sure, was gone from the sport he had loved and done so much for. The friend was wrong

To the casual visitor, Baltimore used to be a slow-moving, solid-citizen kind of town, best remembered for its white-washed stoops and the fact that John McGraw played baseball there. The impression of the town was that it wasn’t quite South enough to have the complete charm and weeping-willow serenity of Dixie, nor quite North enough to have the full-armed burst of enthusiasm and drive to get things done. It wasn’t Mason, and it wasn’t Dixon. 

But things have been happening in Baltimore lately. Pro Football came back for another try. Major league baseball returned after an absence of half a century. And a 53-year-old gentleman with squinting eyes and an athlete’s shuffle came to town.  

That was Clair Bee, and it was just a year ago that he bounced into Baltimore on the springboard of a burning personal desire to get back into the only business he loved. He took over as coach of the Bullets, local entry in the National Basketball Association. And he really took over. He bought the bankrupt franchise (with borrowed funds); he made wholesale trades with anyone who would stand still long enough to listen to a sales talk; he challenged the basic patterns of professional basketball play with a new and imaginative approach to the game: he has even succeeded in getting NBA rivals to worry about the Bullets. 

He probably won’t win the NBA championship this season (“We won’t even be close. We’re a good two years away,” he says), but Bee has Baltimore buzzing about a winner. Some of the furious enthusiasm of this hard-working, talented, exuberant coach rubbed off when he came to town. 

Baltimore just hasn’t been the same since. Neither have the Bullets. And neither has Bee.

Not that this is a story of love at first sight or a revelation that the coaching magic of Clair Bee made an overnight winner out of a chronic loser. The Bullets’ peak achievement last season, with Bee at the helm, was making the playoffs; only one team in the division doesn’t make it. But the town likes the coach with a big reputation and bigger ambition who, without campaign promises and without reaching for a crying towel, just rolled up his sleeves and went to work on a team in a pro sport that lay near death in their town. The man liked the town that was willing to wait and see, that pays money to watch the team play, that quietly has ignored his near-fatal involvement in the college basketball scandal. 

Between the town and the man were the Bullets, a disorganized and dissatisfied bunch of old pros who were going nowhere and didn’t care. “When I came here, I found more coaches than players,” Bee says. “Everyone wanted to be a coach, and no one wanted to be coached.”

When Clair Bee came to town, no one—not the people or the players—was prepared for the minor revolution he set off. “I didn’t worry about the past when I came here,” Bee said. “Baltimore is a good sports town. The fact that these people keep coming back to support a team after so many disappointments proves that. We can make pro ball go here, if we can give them a good team.”

Bee (right) strategizing with his Bullets.

Getting a good team is Coach Bee’s biggest problem. “This is a tough league, and you can’t build a club in one year, not in the pros,” Bee said at his training camp in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, prior to the opening of this season. 

“You must have the horses before you can go. You can’t coach yourself into a good team. This isn’t like college ball, where you can build a new team every season and still win. Other problems are involved.”

Pro basketball players, as any fan knows, are set in their ways. They have been playing ball for a long time when they reach the NBA. “You have to work hard to make a pro move or play in a new way,” Bee says. “But pros are coachable. They learn fast. Many of them need work on fundamentals because of bad habits they’ve developed, but you can teach them fundamentals as part of play movements. They can absorb both. 

“The trouble is there are so many good players. We’re starting almost from scratch and, even if these boys do learn some new tricks, if the opposition is working good, you have to worry about defense and forget all your offensive plans. That’s our problem. Tall men have been dominating this league, and, if you don’t have the big men, you’re in trouble, no matter how many good plays you learn.”

It was because of this that Bee instituted new play patterns for the Bullets this season. Almost all the pro teams use the so-called three-two offense (three men under the basket, two men on the outside working the ball in). Probably the success of the Minneapolis Lakers, with George Mikan, Jim Pollard, Vern Mikkelsen, and now Clyde Lovellette dominating the high ground, started the fashion. 

“But this blocks up the middle,” Bee explained, “and there is no room to move. It got so bad that there have been some recent rule changes pushing the big men further away from the basket. But they still jam up. Maybe these big men will prove I’m wrong, but I think the whole idea needs changing.”

Bee has made a change. His basic idea is a one-one-three offense, a basketball T-formation (“certainly nothing new,” he says), with three men on the outside, one on the foul line and the fifth under the boards. 

“I want to open up the game, to be able to use more passing plays and give-and-go patterns. From a formation like this, we can work many more combinations, get men out of position. We can force the other team’s big men outside when we keep only one of our own underneath. Of course, if they won’t come out, we must have backcourt men who can hit consistently.”

The many trades and new acquisitions of players that Bee has made in the past year have been predicated on following through with this idea. “The club I inherited last season just didn’t have the personnel to fit these plans,” he said. Not one of them is left. 

First, he went after backcourt men who knew how much to move the ball and shoot from the outside. He traded Jim Baechtold to the New York Knickerbockers for veteran Max Zaslofsky. “It wasn’t easy giving up such a good young player. Baechtold was just beginning to develop. He was our best player last year. But he isn’t the playmaker I need. Max is. He is fast, he can shoot quickly and accurately, he can pass, he works the give-and-go beautifully. With him on the outside, the opposition can’t lay back and jam up the middle. They’ll have to come out after him.”

Zaslofsky, who is the third-highest all-time scorer in the league, has been more than just a shooter for Bee. Troubled by personality conflicts in his last couple of years with the Knicks, Max has been a hustler and a leader for his new coach. At the preseason training camp in the West Virginia hills, Zaslofsky worked hard getting into shape after sitting out most of last season with a broken hand. When he wasn’t working on his own conditioning, Max would help out some of the many youngsters that Bee invited to camp. 

“You never know what you’ll find among these kids,” Bee said and explaining the many unknown players he had in camp. “It’s like baseball or football. The publicity can miss some good boys. Since basketball doesn’t have the scouting system of major-league baseball, a few days at camp can produce a good basketball player. A fellow like Max helps enormously in something like this. He knows the game, and he can tell a good one when he sees him.”

From the defunct Indianapolis team, Bee acquired Leo Barnhorst, high scorer for the Olympians the past two seasons. The Bullets gave him a raise in salary, paid him some back salary owed him by the Indianapolis club, and made Barnhorst feel happy to join the team. 

The former Notre Dame star is another backcourt man with good shots. “Leo has the right kind of spirit for this club,” Bee said. “He doesn’t have to be in a championship game to play all out. He and Max are my backcourt men, and they have to do a lot of work. Leo is willing. He doesn’t hold back. 

With Zaslofsky and Barnhorst set in his play patterns, Bee is worried about his big men, Don Hendricksen, who was his top rebounder last year, reported just before the team assembled in training camp, that he was quitting pro basketball to return to school. He wants to become a geologist. 

“I was counting on him as my No. 1 pivot man,” Bee said about the 23-year-old Hendricksen. “Now I have to stick with Ray Felix all the way.”

Felix, the seven-foot former student of his, is Coach Bee’s master experiment. At the preseason draft meetings, the ex-LIU coach went shopping for a big man. He wanted either Walter Dukes of Seton Hall, Bill Spivey of Kentucky (then listed as a free agent), or Felix, who as a sophomore who is the starting center on Bee’s last LIU team and who, after the scandal caused the sport to be dropped by the school, went into pro ball. The NBA ruled that Spivey, because of an alleged connection with the scandal, could not play in the league, even though his case had ended in a mistrial. Dukes went to the Knickerbockers, and Bee took Felix. The Knicks subsequently lost big Dukes to the Harlem Globetrotters. 

Felix played for Manchester, Connecticut in the American Basketball League last year. He wasn’t eligible for the NBA draft until this season because his class was graduated from school last spring and his name could not appear on the draft list before then. He was high scorer in the ABL with a 22-point average.

“Don’t let his scoring fool you,” Bee cautions. “There’s a big difference between the ABL and this league. There, Ray never played against men his own size. Here, he will. And he has an awful lot to learn. But fellows like Mikan and Macauley will teach him quickly enough. One thing about him is he’s a fighter. Maybe they’ll push him around, and maybe they won’t. He is only a youngster, and he can only improve. Meanwhile, we’ll have to go with him all season. We’ve no choice.” [Note: Felix went on to log an impressive rookie campaign, finishing as one of the NBA’s top scorers and rebounders.]

Bee’s other good big man is Ed Miller, a 6-foot-9 sophomore in the league. Miller is the holdover from last year’s squad, and he came to Baltimore in a midseason trade. “He was slow last season,” Bee said, “and he was green, but he is a fine boy. He always tries, always learns. He runs off the court when you send in a sub for him, and that’s a rare thing in the pros. 

“He is a much-improved player this season. He’s lost some weight, and he’s learned the things you can only get once you’re in a pro game. Now that he’s been around the league once, he’s seen the tricks and acquired the toughness that he never got in college. He’s our solid, dependable big man.”

It was after an evening practice session at the training camp that Coach Bee sat down to study what he had in camp. He talked about Zaslofsky and Barnhorst and Felix and Miller and all the other boys. At the time, there were about 30 players on the training roster, and in a rapid-fire voice, he ran down the list, not missing a man, having something to say about each. Some weren’t going to make it because they were woefully out of shape. 

“You wouldn’t have a chance keeping a fellow like that on a 10-man squad for a schedule that calls for 72 league games, three and four a week.”

Others were discounted because they didn’t have “good hands” or lacked the “instinctive moves of a basketball player.” “Do you think we can buy Grobosky?” he asked no one in particular. “That might give us someone behind Felix. How about Ed Mikan? Who would the Knicks trade? No one that could help us.”

He continued this monologue, off and on, throughout our interview, frequently interrupting to offer another name for consideration. It wasn’t until almost three in the morning that he concluded his speculations and was ready to retire for a fast sleep before he had to send the squad through a rigorous morning workout. 

Most of the people connected with the Bullets are amazed at the energy the man expends during a day. One of them recalled the trip he made last season between games on successive nights at New York and Boston. Bee had been working with the club for a month without a break and hadn’t seen his family, still back on the farm, in all that time. (The family now lives in Baltimore with Bee.) After the night game in New York, Clair drove all night to get to the farm about three in the morning, milked his cows, spent an hour with his wife and two children, and just before dawn was off again to meet the team in Boston for a Sunday afternoon game. 

“He’s doing things like that all the time,” a club official said. “He’ll stay up all night working out practice schedules and new plays for the next day, then be up in the morning working with the boys. He’s always available to speak to local groups. In fact, he goes out of his way to attend these local functions. He’s in this thing completely.”

This “killing schedule,” as one coworker called it, is part of the man. That’s the way his New York friends remember him during his coaching days at LIU and, to them, it is good news that he’s back at it. He is thriving on the hard work, the long sessions of plotting plays, teaching, coaching, scouting. He is back in the swing of things—in most ways, at least. 

In one aspect, though, he is a different man. He sticks close to Baltimore these days, hard at his job. He doesn’t make many quick trips to New York to visit with the old basketball crowd. He doesn’t appear as guest speaker at the sportswriters’ luncheons, where he used to be so popular. And, it seems, he doesn’t miss it. 

When the basketball scandal hit New York during the first months of 1951 and involved three of the players on Bee’s starting five (besides several former Blackbird players), the LIU administration decided to drop the sport. Bee, who had been director of athletics, chairman of the Commercial Department, and Dean of Men at the Brooklyn school, seemed content to stay on. He was at the time vice-president of the university and was made comptroller soon afterwards. Although basketball coaching was out, there were still books to write, lectures, and clinics. 

“For a while, I didn’t think I’d leave LIU, but I still wanted to coach basketball. You know, I’m a qualified teacher in several subjects, and I like to teach,”  he reminisced recently, “but more than anything else, I like to teach basketball. Finally, I left school and went up to my farm.” 

The New York papers called it “involuntary retirement,” but Bee denies that he was bowing out. “I still wanted to coach, and I was open to any offers. I didn’t expect, though, to join the pros. Truthfully, I would have preferred a college job because I like the academic life. But anything would have been good at the time.”

It would also seem that a regular paycheck coming in again might have been a factor. Bee was doing a television show when he got a call from Baltimore asking if he would be interested in telecasting the Bullets’ games. “I said it might be a good idea and began negotiations.”

This was at the beginning of the 1952-53 season, and the Bullets had no ideas about shopping for a coach. Chick Reiser, a veteran player of the pro leagues, had just been named coach, and the Bullets seemed set. 

But the club got off to a bad start, losing its first five games. Dissension was threatening to wreck the team, and the fans were saying that it was time for a change. Attendance was slumping, and there was doubt that the team would get through the season. The local brewery that owned the franchise was looking to unload it, and only some swift, headline-grabbing news might swing the pendulum up again.

Bee, meanwhile, had lost out on the television job. It went to a local announcer. But the name, Clair Bee, stuck in the minds of some Bullet officials. Far-fetched maybe, but it was worth a try, someone figured. Let’s hire Clair Bee. 

A long-distance call was made to Roscoe, New York, and Bee was offered the job. After some brief negotiations, he accepted, but wasn’t able to get to Baltimore to run the club that same night. “I had heard the talk about the trouble on the Bullets,” Bee says, “and I warned them that I didn’t want any player running the club that night. We had to start right out with the players knowing there was one coach, not a free-for-all. We got a local coach to sit on the bench and run the team for the night.”

For the remainder of the season—about 65 games—Bee worked with what he had. He made a few trades, unloaded some troublemakers, and finished out the season with an average attendance of about 2,000. (The club needs 2,500 to break even.) Bee was already making plans for the next season when the owners decided to quit. They were going to unload the franchise, one way or another. New money was needed. Few major-league basketball teams are moneymakers; most of them require an ownership with considerable resources and a willingness to let some of it go down the drain. 

“I didn’t want the club to fold,” Bee explained. “I felt Baltimore wanted a pro team and would support one if given a chance. So, we went shopping for local businessmen who would take over the financial commitments of the franchise.”

Bee and his assistant found many sympathetic ears. Promises of money were plentiful. But by early spring, with renewal time on the franchise fast running out, no money came in. No buyers were in sight. Bee made a quick trip to New York and got some old friends to put up enough money for him to purchase 50 percent of the club. Baltimore businessmen collected the rest of the needed amount, and the franchise was purchased from the brewery for $25,000 [today, about $260,000]. Bee was named president of the new corporation, and Lou Rosenbush, a Baltimore advertising man became executive vice-president. 

“I’m still no businessman, though,” says Bee. “I don’t bother the front office, and they don’t bother me. That’s the way we want to run our business, and things have been working out fine so far. If I want a ballplayer, they try to get him for me. Otherwise, I have nothing to do with them.”

What future success the Bullets will have depends on (1) a new arena, and (2) the baseball Orioles. The current homecourt seats about 4,000, not enough for a really profitable operation. The Bullets get four or five games this season in a local armory (capacity 7,000), but this number cannot be increased. 

If major-league baseball does to Baltimore this summer what it did to Milwaukee last summer, the prospects are, in Bee’s mind, for an increased sports audience in the city. A good share of that audience, he logically assumes, will attend pro basketball games during the winter. 

“Only trouble is,” Bee says, “that we cannot expect the new arena for two years, and the effects of major-league baseball should take almost as long to help us. Meanwhile, we have to keep going. We’re no brewery with excess revenue to cover the operating expenses. This is blood money, and it can’t hold out. We just have to win to keep going.”

An interesting angle to this financial problem is that the people behind Bee freely expressed the opinion that if he can’t make a success of pro basketball in Baltimore, no one can. With all the work and talent that he is pouring into the job, it is considered a maximum effort. If he fails, they say, pro ball will have to leave town. But as this NBA season started, people were betting Bee would make the sport pay off in Baltimore

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