Mormon Yankees

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The 1956 Mormon Yankee team Photo Courtesy Michelle Moore/Deseret News

The Mormon Yankee Basketball team comprised young men serving as missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Australia. From 1937 to 1961, these athletically gifted missionaries used basketball as a tool to share the gospel in Australia and became well-known as the “Mormon Yankees.”[1]

According to the Deseret News, “Starting in 1937, missionaries began playing basketball in Australia and generated positive publicity for the church. Mission president Thomas S. Bingham, who presided in 1957, said, “We know that basketball in and of itself does not convert people to the gospel, nor has it brought outstanding and immediate results, but in a country where Mormonism is not generally accepted[,] we feel it can do an immeasurable amount of good in breaking down prejudice and hatred against the Church.”[2]

Several positive articles were published that dispelled myths about the Church of Jesus Christ. During the peak of the Mormon Yankees’ popularity, 1955–1960, the Church of Jesus Christ in Australia tripled in size. The Yankees were especially influential among athletes as examples in living the Word of Wisdom.

The Mormon Yankees’ success at basketball was no coincidence. The players, who had a wealth of high school and collegiate basketball experience, were handpicked by the Missionary Department of the Church. Many of these missionaries also played college basketball, including Elder Loren C. Dunn and Bob Skousen (both played at Brigham Young University), and DeLyle H. Condie  and Paul Grant (both from the University of Utah), among others. Former Presiding Bishop H. David Burton also played on the team at one time.

According to the book, Mormon Yankees: Giants On and Off the Court by Fred E. Woods, in February 1955, President David O. McKay visited Australia and during a press conference he was asked questions about the Mormon Yankees, something he “didn’t know anything about.”

“After the press conference, President (Charles V.) Liljenquist said to President McKay, ‘It’s been a good program, but it’s too bad we’re going to have to end it.’ President McKay asked, ‘Why?’”
The mission president explained that the missionaries with basketball talents would soon be going home.
“You keep the program going,” President McKay said. “We’ll see that the basketball players come.”[3]

In 1956, the Mormon Yankees played exhibition games against teams preparing for the 1956 Olympics, especially the Australian national team. The World Olympic Committee had ruled that the national teams could not play each other before the official Olympic Games began.

The Mormon Yankees were also willing to pass on basketball skills to the Australians. Mormon Yankee Elder Don Hull remembered, “we would say to them [the Australian Olympic team], Look, when you get the ball, fake to the right and go to the left.’… [W]e really coached them as we went along. … We tried to help them, because we liked them.”[4]

Missionary Delmar Bjork remembers the missionaries’ games drawing crowds of 4,000-5,000 people and while their companions were playing in the games, the missionaries assigned to serve with them would be up in the stands, meeting people and scheduling missionary visits. “And they did. They set up many appointments. It was amazing.”[5]

Some of the elders ended up coaching other Australian teams. For example, Elder Harold Reeb coached the University of Melbourne basketball team from February 1957 to February 1958.

At the university’s invitation, Reeb came onto the court and successfully raised the basketball team’s level of play.
Don Pemberton, who played under Reeb for Reeb’s full year of coaching, recalled, “[W]e all called him Elder Reeb. No one was calling him by his first name[,] … that was a level of respect. He was the coach.” Pemberton recounted a memorable day after practice when Reeb spoke frankly to the team: “Look, playing basketball is one thing, but how you live your life is another. I’m just saying to you guys, if you’re smoking, if you’re drinking, if you’re wasting your bodies, you’re wasting your lives.” Pemberton concluded, “My sense of Harold Reeb… he was a guy I looked up to tremendously. He was so clean cut, he was so good at his basketball moves, but he was just an exemplary human being, and… I thought he was just a magnificent person.”[6]

Kay Stringer Watts recalled:

“[W]e were encouraged in the youth program to move out, get going into basketball teams.” She said that in her local ward, “We formed a basketball team…. We called ourselves the Blackburn MG’s, the Blackburn Mormon Girls[,] and we registered at Albert Park and we had a really smart uniform…. Elder [H. David] Burton… became our coach[,] and he is now the presiding bishop [of the Church,] and he had a huge impact on us girls.”[7]

Fred E. Woods, a professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, wrote Mormon Yankees: Giants On and Off the Court and produced a documentary. NBA player Shawn Bradley wrote the foreword for his book. Bradley served as a missionary in Australia and was occasionally asked if the Mormon Yankees were going to start up again. Woods converted to the Church of Jesus Christ as a young adult and served as a missionary in Australia from 1977 to 1979. He came across the Mormon Yankees when he was doing interviews and research for an unrelated project.

Woods wrote, “The Mormon Yankees’ successful playing sparked hundreds of positive newspaper articles and favorable radio broadcasts that reached millions of homes. This media coverage paved the way for missionaries to introduce the restored gospel, overcome negative stereotypes about polygamy and other issues, and gain entrance into homes. These opened doors in turn led to more converts, the construction of many chapels, and, in 1960, the organization of several stakes.”[8]

During the summer of 1961, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ decided that sports would no longer be a vehicle to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and a uniform system of preaching the gospel was introduced. Mission presidents in Australia immediately obeyed.

The 2016 film Spirit of the Game shared the story of the team and Condie’s drive to organize and coach the Mormon Yankees during 1956.