Storm clouds of war gathered over Europe in the 1930s as the country suffered through the Depression. Meanwhile, racial segregation was rampant. But in Tucson, for more than a decade, the four sons of Loretta and Ernest Batiste--Ernest, Joe, Frank and Fred--provided unprecedented athletic excitement that made local history.
Hailing from Lake Charles, La., the family moved to Arizona in 1926. The senior Ernest was only earning $44.50 a month years later while working at a farming job. Despite that, to develop the boys' talents, their home on north Stone Avenue had a jumping pit and homemade hurdle installed in the back yard.
It wasn't only sports, though, which were emphasized in the household. The value of education and religion also played a big role in the children's upbringing.
The oldest son, Ernest, graduated from Tucson High School and attended the University of Arizona. Abe Chanin, long-ago sports editor of the Arizona Daily Star, believed Ernest could have been the first African-American man to play football for the Wildcats except "restrictions for black athletics were just too tight" in the 1930s.
Second son Joe was an even better athlete, and was called "the greatest track star ever developed in Arizona." While still in junior high, he was described as a bird flying over the high jump bar, and by age 18, Joe had tied the national high school record for the 120-yard high hurdles.
Under the watchful eye of Tucson High School coach Don "Doc" Van Horne, by 1939, Joe had developed into a world-class hurdler. He won the national championship that year while beating the defending title holder, and then sailed off to Europe with an American track team, a trip cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Upon his homecoming, a downtown parade was held for Joe. Later, he was named to the honorary Olympic teams of 1940 and 1944, games not held because of the war. Even with his athletic success, though, Joe was a soft-spoken, low-key individual, recalls 1945 Tucson High alumni Morgan Maxwell Jr.
After attending a junior college in California and serving in the military, Joe was recruited by Arizona State College at Tempe, today's ASU. Chanin said he had to go north because coaches like "Pop" McKale at the University of Arizona "kept a firm hold on the color line at the university, refusing to consider Batiste for a scholarship."
In his book, They Fought Like Wildcats, Chanin writes that coaches McKale and Fred Enke "did nothing to encourage black athletes to enroll at the U of A." Elaborating on that point, Chanin says of the legendary men, "They held many of the prejudices that were commonplace in Tucson, a city that once flew the Confederate flag and also once segregated blacks in elementary and junior high schools."
Frank was the third brother, and while in junior high, he won numerous track awards. He also later played football at Tucson High during the early 1940s.
It was youngest brother Fred, however, who really starred on the gridiron during the war. Maxwell remembers that Fred lettered in three sports--football, basketball and track--for three consecutive years while in high school.
Fred's football exploits from November 1943 are told in a front-page column in the Star near a headline story concerning the allied campaign in Italy. To the cheers of a hometown crowd, Fred Batiste broke off a long touchdown run. "Taking the ball on his own 30," the article exclaimed, "the flashy back went off-tackle, reversed his field to elude the secondary, and with a clear field ahead sprinted to the goal line." For exploits such as that, Fred shared Arizona's high school football player-of-the-year award.
Making up a little for the injustice done earlier to his brothers, Fred played football and ran track for the UA, becoming the first African American to letter at the university. He received the honor once for track and twice for football under coach Bob Winslow, and during his last collegiate game in 1950, Fred broke up two desperation passes by Iowa State to preserve a one-point victory for his team.
Life led the brothers down different paths. After serving in the Army during the war, Ernest worked for the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department for 30 years. He retired in 1973 and passed away 15 years later.
Joe dropped out of college in Tempe and took a coaching job at a Phoenix high school. Eventually, he descended into alcoholism and drug abuse, and by 1958, he was dead at the age of 38.
Despite that sad ending for one of them, the four sons of Loretta and Ernest Batiste left a lasting legacy in Tucson. For their numerous athletic achievements, in 1979 Chanin called the brothers, "the greatest athletic family the state of Arizona has produced."