Oscar Givens

This article was written by Skip Nipper

The Newark Eagles’ May 5, 1946, season-opening game against the Philadelphia Stars, a 2-0 no-hit victory for Eagles pitcher Leon Day, soon spelled opportunity for a multi-talented college player named Oscar Givens. Shortstop Benny Felder made two errors in the game,1 and when the two teams moved from Ruppert Stadium to Delaware’s Wilmington Park the next day, the 19-year-old Felder made two more errors in the Eagles’ 14-6 win over the Stars.

Seeking Felder’s replacement, team owner Abe Manley and manager Biz Mackey turned their eyes to Givens, an outstanding athlete at Morgan State Teachers College in Baltimore.2 Aware of his maturity and athleticism, they had viewed him as a prospect for Newark prior to World War II, but that conflict had delayed his being signed to a contract. This time, Givens joined the Eagles as soon as his spring semester ended.3

The 6-foot-2, 190-pound all-around player was 23 years old and became the heir-apparent to Felder. His athletic ability was his calling card, but in his first professional game with Newark, on June 9, at Wilmington Park against Homestead, he was hitless in three plate appearances though he did not make an error.

During the season Givens appeared in only 17 games at shortstop and moved to third base in one of them. He collected 17 hits in 52 at-bats, including a double and home run, and had five RBIs, but his potential was overshadowed by his lack of production. The July 3 Brooklyn Eagle listed Givens as shortstop for that night’s game between Newark and the Brooklyn Bushwicks,4 but the published box score showed Calvin Irvin at that position.5 On July 5 Mackey gave Felder another chance at shortstop.6

It appears Mackey had given up completely on Givens by then, and was unsure about who his starting shortstop would be. Felder was named to the position on July 17 for two games the next day against the Cleveland Buckeyes in Rochester,7 but he was replaced by Monte Irvin, who was brought in from the outfield to finish the season at shortstop.8 Givens returned to Morgan State for the fall semester and resumed playing football, the sport that would give him his most fame.

Oscar Cornellnes (possibly Cornelius) Givens was born on July 5, 1922, and grew up in Linden, New Jersey,9 11 miles from Newark. His mother, Florida, a homemaker, and father, Jasper, an oil refinery worker, were born in Georgia. His siblings were Rosears (Rosie), the eldest, who was born in 1910, Nathaniel (Noonie), born in 1912, Freddie (1913), sister Mattie (1915), and Jackson (1919). When Oscar was 17 and in his third year of high school, there were 11 other family members living in the Givens home. Oscar followed in the footsteps of his older brothers at Linden High School, where every brother had played nearly every sport; he played multiple sports and starred in basketball and football.

Oscar, like his brothers, was destined to develop into a notable Linden High graduate. The school boasts a list that includes Tiffany Andrade, Miss New Jersey 2008; John Charles, a former cornerback and safety who played eight seasons in the National Football League; Eddie Kasko, an infielder, manager, scout, and front-office executive in major-league baseball; Vincent Obsitnik, an American diplomat of Slovak descent; Jon Rua, an actor, singer, and choreographer who appeared in the Broadway hit Hamilton; Troy Stradford, who played for six seasons in the NFL; Craig Taylor, a running back for three seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals; and Muhammad Wilkerson, a defensive end for the New York Jets.10

Linden’s football coach, Ted Cooper, noting that he may have been the first coach in the state to coach six brothers, said, “They were all great men.”11

Nine-year-old Oscar represented his hometown in a marbles tournament in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and went to the semifinals, where he was defeated and was awarded the bronze medal.12

Oscar began to excel at sports in junior high school, even as a reserve. When the Linden High junior varsity met the Plainfield reserves on October 8, 1934, it was Givens who led the way. With the score tied 0-0, he tossed two touchdown passes in a 13-0 triumph.13 In the fall of his sophomore year, he was a steady fullback.14

As a junior on his high-school basketball team, he was known for his ball-handling skills and teams were aware of his being a team leader. A sportswriter noted, “He is an extremely clever ball handler. He is remembered rather for his method of commanding the team and setting up plays than for his individual scoring prowess.”15 Linden’s basketball team finished 21-1 and captured the Union County championship.16

When the baseball season began, Givens held down third base and was a good hitter. Against North Plainfield High School on May 1, he had a single, double, and triple in his team’s 8-3 win.17 He added a single and another triple against Carteret on May 22,18 and hit another triple on May 30.19

A bruising fullback on the Linden football team his senior year, Givens was called “the spearhead of the Terriers attack and bulwark of the defense in every game.”20 He was named Honorable Mention on the Writers All-State Football Team.21

Once Linden’s basketball season began, his reputation on the court picked up where it had left off the previous year, but with an added dimension: scoring. With nine points against North Plainfield in a blowout, others took notice: “Givens, although not the high scorer, was the big gun of the visitors, making plays, setting up his teammates and then for a change scoring himself almost at will.”22 After a successful run during the regular season, Linden lost in the semifinals of the Group III state tournament to Bound Brook High School, 42-22. Both Givens and teammate Butch Woytowicz had 280, combining for 500 points during the year.23 Both made Honorable Mention on the Writers All-State Basketball Team.24

At Morgan State, Givens immediately established himself on the football team. In a 22-0 win over Virginia Union on October 12, 1940, he ran for a touchdown,25 and on November 9 he paced the team to its sixth straight victory in a win over North Carolina A&T, 34-0. He scored two touchdowns and kicked three extra points in the game.26

Named an All-American in football in 1941, Givens was almost as good on the court as he was on the football field. Elected captain of the basketball team, he was instrumental in getting his team to the top of the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association standings. But on March 2, 1942, before the season ended, Givens and six basketball teammates were called up to military service.27

In the fall of 1946 Givens returned to Morgan State and resumed his position on the football team as a passing fullback and punter. Memorably, he led the squad to a 13-12 win over West Virginia State in Baltimore, a team that included Linwood Greene, a 1945 All-American selection, who was tossed from the game for fighting.28

In the third game of the season, in Baltimore, Morgan State thumped Grambling 35-0. The Bears’ second touchdown was scored when Givens “whipped a perfect strike to Joe Black in the end zone.”29 Black, the future major-league pitcher, was on a football scholarship (there was no baseball program at Morgan State), and played the same position as Givens. When Black realized he would never beat out Givens for the position, he became an end.30

On Thanksgiving Day in Petersburg, Virginia, Morgan State won the CIAA championship by a 6-0 score when Givens “dug his cleats into the soft turf and then rammed his way through left guard from the one-foot line and over for the most precious touchdown Morgan has scored all season.”31

In 1947 the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference signed Givens, who had been named to the Negro All-American team in 1941 and 1942.32 When the Dons opened camp, there were 40 players, including eight blacks. Givens was one of them, listed at 6-feet-2 and 200 pounds.

In Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words, Andy Piascik quotes John Brown, one of the first black players to play pro football, on Givens’ abilities:

We had another black guy in camp, a quarterback from New Jersey, Oscar Givens, and he could throw with both arms. He went to Morgan State, and I played basketball against him in college. DeGroot wanted to keep him but somebody higher up made some decisions and they got rid of him. DeGroot was a fair-minded person. … [T]hey sent Givens to Hawaii to play and he played over there for a year, but he never came back to the pros. Oscar Givens was one hell of a football player.33

Givens could win neither the starting quarterback position nor the backup slot. When a team in Honolulu, the Hawaiian Warriors of the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, let it be known they were searching for backfield help, the Dons loaned Givens and Charles Price to the Warriors. Los Angeles wanted them to return to the Dons for the 1948 season.34

Givens impressed F.J. Brickner, general manager of the Warriors, in his first two workouts. “Givens has been particularly impressive in passing and he looks like a good bet to replace Joe Kaulukukui at the quarterback spot,” said Brickner.35

The unusual schedule against the San Francisco Clippers, Sacramento Nuggets, Salt Lake Seagulls, and Los Angeles Bulldogs allowed the Warriors to play all 10 of their games at home. Givens led his team to a 14-12 opening day win against the Clippers. When the team played Sacramento on October 30, Givens was not dressed.36 It was later revealed that he had a leg injury but that he would be in the lineup against Sacramento on November 7.37 The injury was more serious than first determined, as he did not return to action until November 14 against Salt Lake City, when he played as a backup.38

The team had a 7-2 record for the season. (Its final game of the season was canceled.) Givens’ finished with 38 rushing yards, and 549 passing yards on 36-for-59 passing.39

The season may have been successful for the Warriors, but there had been trouble looming. On December 13, 15 members of the team were fined in district court for betting on football games, though Givens was not one of them.40 On the 15th league Commissioner Rufus Klawans announced that four of the Hawaiian Warriors were suspended from professional football for life: halfbacks Melvin Abreau and Ray Scussel, guard Floyd M. Rhea, and center Jack Keenan.41 The two backs were the league’s leading ground gainers.

In February 1948 Effa Manley signed Givens to a second tryout with Newark. The Pittsburgh Courier, reporting the signing, said Givens had “showed considerable promise as a shortstop on the [1946] championship team. In fact, the Eagles started their pennant spirit as soon as Givens was placed into the lineup at shortstop in June of that year.”42

While noting that Givens would be heading south with the team to begin spring training, Manley also announced that he would marry Hazel J. Hill of Baltimore on February 20.

When the team bus pulled out of Newark on March 29, heading to Jacksonville for a month, Givens was on it.43 However, during the team’s Florida games, 22-year-old Willie “Curly” Williams appeared to be upstaging Givens. Wrote the Pittsburgh Courier, “Manager [William] Bell has especially been impressed with the playing of Curley [sic] Williams at shortstop. This rookie has been covering ground like a veteran and also packs a terrific punch at the plate.”44

At some point the entire Newark team was evaluated by New York Yankees scouts. The assessment probably took place during spring training, as both Williams and Givens are mentioned in their report. Neither was seen as of major-league caliber, with Williams noted as “only fair ability” and Givens as “can’t hit, fair fielder.”45

When the 1948 season began on May 2 in Baltimore against the Elite Giants, Givens was nowhere to be found. In fact, he is given credit for appearing in one game during the entire season, and on August 29, 1949, he signed with the Wilmington (Delaware) Clippers of the American Football League.46 According to the Wilmington News Journal, he was the team’s first black player.

The newspaper said of Givens, “He lives in Baltimore, working there for the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. He is married and his wife is a school teacher in the Maryland metropolis.”47

After a delay waiting for the steel plant in Baltimore to transfer him to daytime work so he could play football,48 he joined the Clippers and was on the practice field as the team prepared to visit the Erie Vets. Although he was “unfamiliar with some of the plays, Givens looked right at home in the key signal-calling slot and put on an impressive exhibition of ball-handling and passing control during dummy scrimmage,” the Morning News reported.49

At that point, the trail ends on Givens’ career, although he was inducted into the Morgan State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1974. The university’s website contains a glowing description of what type of athlete he had been:

Oscar “Gip” Givens, a quiet deadly efficient quarterback, became Morgan’s foremost triple-threat player. A master at T-formation, excelled as a left-handed passer and right-footed kicker. In addition to his many prowess’s [sic] on the football field, the deceased “Gip” Givens also played basketball with great skill and poise during his career at Morgan.50

Givens died on October 25, 1967, and was buried in Rosedale and Rosehill Cemetery in Linden.

Acknowledgment

The author wishes to thank Mike Cooney and Nick Diunte for providing reference materials.

 

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Ancestry.com, Baseball-Reference.com, Profootballarchives.com, Seamheads.com, and one book:

Ross, Charles K. Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League (New York: NYU Press, 2009.)

Notes

1 “Day Beats Stars in No-Hitter, 2-0,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 6, 1946: 22.

2 “Brief History of Morgan State University,” Morgan State website, morgan.edu/about/history.html, retrieved October 29, 2018.

3 James Overmyer, Effa Manley and the Newark Eagles (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1993): 200.

4 “Bushwicks Tackle Newark Eagles at Dexter Tonight,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 3, 1946: 14.

5 “Madison Faces Bushwicks Under Lights Tonight,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 5, 1946: 12.

6 “Lloyd Nips Newark Eagles in Seventh, 6-5,” Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania), July 6, 1946: 10.

7 “Newark Pilot Picks Infield, Outfield Trio,” Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, July 17, 1946: 20.

8 Ibid.

9 His middle name is rendered as Cornelius in “Dons Sign Negro Star Quarterback,” Honolulu Advertiser, April 24, 1947: 16.

10 “Famous Alumni Linden High School,” PeopleMaven Website, peoplemaven.com/l/X5wOn9/Famous-Alumni-Linden-High-School-(Linden%2C-NJ), retrieved October 28, 2018.

11 Lauren Pancurak Yeats, The Making of America Series: Linden, New Jersey (Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia, 2002).

12 “Marble Play Tourney Will Decide Champs,” Plainfield (New Jersey) Courier-News, April 17, 1931: 36; “Hillside Boy Wins County Marbles Title,” Courier-News, April 21, 1931: 20.

13 “NPS Junior Varsity Drops One to Linden,” Bridgewater (New Jersey) Courier-News, October 9, 1935: 17.

14 “30-Second Deadlock!,” Asbury Park (New Jersey) Press, September 26, 1937: 13.

15 “Card Cagers Meet Linden Five Tomorrow,” Bridgewater Courier-News, January 19, 1939: 12.

16 “Linden Five Tops Plainfield, 30-20,” Bridgewater Courier-News, March 2, 1939: 17.

17 “Bernardsville, Linden Supply Opposition for Borough Squads,” Bridgewater Courier-News, May 2, 1939: 14.

18 “Carteret Trips Linden, 5 to 3,” Central New Jersey Home News (New Brunswick, New Jersey), May 23, 1939: 12.

19 “Canucks Drop 2 of 3 Matches – Bears Nose Out Red Caps,” Bridgewater Courier-News, May 31, 1939: 14.

20 “Prisco Worried as Rain Keeps Squad Indoors,” Central New Jersey Home News, November 1, 1939: 12.

21 “Writer’s All-State Team,” Asbury Park Press, December 12, 1939: 12.

22 “Givens, Mulhall Lead Goodwin Quintet in 43-22 Victory,” Bridgewater Courier-News, January 4, 1940: 16.

23 “Bound Brook Gains Tourney Final, Owls Lose,” Central New Jersey Home News, March 15, 1940: 26.

24 “Champion Fives Fail to Place Man on Writers’ All-State Selections,” Bridgewater Courier-News, March 21, 1940: 20.

25 “Morgan Gridders Run Wild in Two Periods To Defeat Va. Union,” Baltimore Sun, October 13, 1940: 27.

26 “Morgan State Romps Over N.C. Gridmen, 34-0 for Sixth Triumph,” Baltimore Sun, November 19, 1940: 28.

27 Martha Joe Black and Chuck Shoffner, Joe Black: More Than a Dodger (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2015), 69. 

28 Ric Roberts, “Morgan Shades W.V. in 13-12 Thriller,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 19, 1946: 13.

29 “Younger Stars in Morgan Victory,” Pittsburgh Courier, October 26, 1946: 12.

30 Black and Shoffner.

31 Wendell Smith, “Morgan Beats Va. State, Unruly Crowd to Win CIAA Crown,” Pittsburgh Courier, December 7, 1946: 16.

32 “L.A. Dons Sign Oscar Givens, Ex-Morgan Star,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 26, 1947: 15.

33 Andy Piascik, Gridiron Gauntlet: The Story of the Men Who Integrated Pro Football in Their Own Words (Lanham, Maryland: Taylor Trade Publications, 2009), 23.

34 “Gridders Will Arrive This Week,” Honolulu Advertiser, August 24, 1947: 17.

35 “Ex-Don Quarterback Impressive in Drills,” Honolulu Advertiser, September 5, 1947: 15.

36 Wildred Rhinelander,“Rhiney’s Roundup,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 1, 1947: 3.

37 “Molesworth Expects Battle From Sacramento on Friday, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 5, 1947: 24.

38 “Warriors Find Stubborn Foe in Salt Lake City Gridders,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, November 15, 1947: 22.

39 “Statistics of Warriors Released,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 7, 1947: 26.

40 “15 Grid Players Fined for Pro Game Gambling,” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 14, 1947: 1.

41 “3 ‘Outsiders’ Charged With Betting on Football Here,” Honolulu Advertiser, December 16, 1947: 4.

42 “Givens Signed for Trial at Short,” Pittsburgh Courier, February 21, 1948: 16.

43 “Newark Eagles Winging Way to Sunny Jacksonville Camp,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 3, 1948: 15.

44 “Manning Signs, but Newark’s Pitcher Lewis Still a Holdout,” Pittsburgh Courier, April 17, 1948: 14.

45 National Baseball Hall of Fame, Manuscript Archives Collection, Integration correspondence and clippings, collection.baseballhall.org/PASTIME/new-york-yankees-memorandum-and-scouting-reports-circa-1948-0#page/1/mode/1up, retrieved November 1, 2018.

46 This was not the American Football League that eventually merged with the National Football League to form the current NFL. It was a post-World War II resurrection of the American Association, a minor professional league that was based in New York City.

47 “Clippers Sign Negro Star Who Played for L.A. Dons,” Wilmington (Delaware) Morning News, August 30, 1949: 22.

48 “Clippers’ Squad Cut to 35 for Game With Hawaiians,” Wilmington (Delaware) News Journal, August 31, 1949: 22.

49 “Quarterback Givens Excels as Clippers Prep for Erie,” Wilmington Morning News, September 6, 1949: 14.

50 Morgan State Athletics Hall of Fame, morganstatebears.com/hof.aspx?hof=34, retrieved November 1, 2018. Givens’ nickname may have changed over the years. Earlier, he was known as Gibby.

Full Name

Oscar Cornellnes Givens

Born

July 5, 1922 at Linden, NJ (US)

Died

October 25, 1967 at Linden, NJ (US)

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