The Mormon Yankees Hit the Court
The organization of a highly skilled, handpicked LDS missionary team called the Mormon Yankees ushered in a new era of accelerated interest in both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and basketball during the mid-twentieth century in Australia. It was a peak during the 1950s and the names of the players from that era are still recalled with affection by Australians to this day. This team consisted of tremendous talent, especially in their player-coach, Elder Loren C. Dunn. In June 1954, the LDS Mormon Australia periodical Austral Star announced:
In February and March, President C. V. Liljenquist visited Adelaide for the purpose of ascertaining possibilities of missionary participation in basketball play in the State [of South Australia], and after preliminary discussion with newspaper and radio officials the decision was made to send a group of top-flight basketball players to represent the Church in the sport, with the main objective being to gain publicity for the Church. Elder Loren C. Dunn was sent to prepare the way for the rest of the team, and is now coaching the group of Elders for tournament play.
Elder Ted Johnson, one of the Mormon Yankee was a former high school and college basketball player and a student sportswriter at Brigham Young University (BYU) prior to his mission, remembered that at the time the Mormon Yankees were being launched in Adelaide, the Harlem Globetrotters had just passed through the city and “lit everybody’s fire.” The Mormon Yankees copied the Globetrotters’ routine of warming up for their games to the song “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The Harlem players helped the Australians to see a much higher level of basketball skill, and thus when the American missionaries arrived on the Adelaide courts, the timing was right for an upgrade of performance.
The Mormon Yankees had ample experience playing both on the high school and collegiate levels before their missions, and these players caught the attention of many people. Johnson recalled, “[T]he thing which really lit the fire of the [local Church] members was that they had something to cheer about. It was a focus, and the focus was absolutely delightful.” The missionary team also brought pride to the local Saints, who had been pegged for decades as members of “the church that practiced polygamy.” Now they could hold their heads high as fans of a popular team with outstanding players.
Led by Dunn, the Mormon Yankees had phenomenal success throughout the year. Dunn, a native of Tooele, Utah, taught his teammates many of the same techniques and plays that he had learned while playing for the exceptional BYU basketball coach Stan Watts, prior to Dunn’s mission. What is most impressive is that the Mormon Yankees were also willing to pass on these same skills to the Australians.
In the sports world, newspaper writer Gunars Esins Berzzarins (better known as “GEB”) furthered the Mormon Yankees’ exposure by writing numerous positive articles about the Yankees in the Adelaide Advertiser in 1954. He remembered that at the time the Mormon Yankees came to Adelaide, it “was the greatest thing that could happen to Australian basketball, particularly Adelaide, of course, by extension to Australian basketball as well…. There were these great teams, the Lithuanians, the Latvians, the Mormon Yankees as they were called, and the best Australian teams. There was a great, great competition.” GEB took particular notice of the Mormon Yankees’ exemplary play and the impact they had both on and off the court: “The first thing that would impress us would be how disciplined they were. . . . They were gentlemen on and off the court.” 
The Mormon Yankees had great success for the 1954 season; not only did they win the annual basketball title in their region for the year, but they also claimed a victory over the Australian all-star team. Far more importantly, their South Australian District led the Australian Mission in number of baptisms. The Mormon Yankees’ success and popularity even led to an invitation by the Australian Tennis Association to have the Yankees put on an exhibition in Adelaide before a crowd of nearly 9,000 spectators, prior to matches played by world-champion tennis players.
In 1955, missionary work was significantly reorganized in Australia, and the changes facilitated expanded influence for the Mormon Yankees. In early February, Church president David O. McKay visited Australia, the first Church president to do so. Elder Loren C. Dunn recalled the visit of President McKay and the impact of his tour of the mission:
When he got to Adelaide, he held a press conference, as he did at each stop on his trip. One of the people in the press started asking him about the Mormon Yankees. This was unsolicited. The newspaper reporter praised the group of boys who were playing basketball. President McKay didn’t know anything about it and answered what questions he could. President Liljenquist answered a few other questions. After the press conference, President Liljenquist said to President McKay, It’s been a good program, but it’s too bad were going to have to end it.’ President McKay asked, Why?’ And President Liljenquist said, We don’t get enough missionaries who can play basketball. Elder Dunn and some of these others will be going home.’ President McKay said, “You keep the program going. We’ll see that the basketball players come.’ For years after that, some of the most talented basketball players who were on missions were assigned to Australia because of the attention the basketball program was getting there.
Mormon Yankees Play Olympic teams
Later issues of the Austral Star reveal that the Victorian Mormon Yankees won the Latvian “Riga” Basketball Championship and also beat the Australian Olympic team. The Bentleigh Branch of Victoria reported in the Star, “[M]ost of our branch attended the basketball game between the Elders[‘] Mormon Yankees’ team and the Australian Olympic Team.’ It was all worth the sore throats [the] next day to see them defeat the Aussie team.”
One of their greatest opportunities to be spotlighted by the sporting press occurred in the fall of 1956, when news spread that the Mormon Yankees would play in exhibition contests to help prepare the Australian national team for the Olympics.
Lindsay Gaze spoke of DeLyle Condie’s impressive coaching as a player coach: “His behavior and the way in which he was able to impose discipline on his team without an authoritarian approach was very, very impressive. The message of being able to teach by persuasion rather than by dogmatic demand was one of those characteristics that he displayed which I admired and I hoped that I might be able to achieve as well.”
Gaze also commented on how the Mormon Yankees would readily assist the Australian athletes in developing their skills on the court. He related how “their willingness to share with their opposition was so important to us.” Inga Freidenfelds, the then-twenty-one-year-old Latvian captain of the Australian Olympic team, noted, “[T]hey’d offer their help.” Geoff Heskett, who played with Freidenfeldsin the 1956 exhibition games against the elders, remembered that Condie “even assisted me.
.. [whereas] a normal thing[,] if you’re playing against somebody[,] you don’t tell them not what to do or what to do.” Heskett vividly recalled a time when Condie complimented him in a game by saying, “Gee, that was a good shot!” 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.” The Mormon Yankees’ sportsmanship did not go unnoticed. Moy remembered, “[T]hey’d be the first to put their hand down and pick you up.”
Near the end of 1956, the Austral Star reported the scores of the year’s exhibition games between the Mormon Yankees and the teams of various nations soon to be competing in the Olympics:
? 10 – Russia 101; Mormon Yankees 69.
? 14 – Mormon Yankees 61; France 59.
? 17 – Russia 87; Mormon Yankees 78.
? 19 – France 66; Mormon Yankees 63.
? 20 – Philippines 74; Mormon Yankees 60.
This showing was impressive: a group of missionaries practicing only one day a week could beat several Olympic teams and lose in one game by only nine points. Russia secured the silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics, with America clinching the gold.
But the Mormon Yankees’ success 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. Elder Mark J. Frodsham related, “[W]hen I went on a mission to Australia, I came to find out later that they had considered college players to go there for the specific reason that they had the Olympic team there.” Elder Paul Grant, a member of a Mormon Yankees team at this time, noted, “[T]here was Delyle [DeLyle H. Condie] and myself from the U. of U. [University of Utah], and there was Mark Frodsham from BYU, and Don Hull had played at Utah State, and then Neil [James Nyle] Garn had played Junior College up at Ricks.”
The Mormon Yankees were apparently in high demand that season inasmuch as the World Olympic Committee had ruled that the national teams could not play each other before the official Olympic Games began.
Mormon Yankees 1957-1958
The hard-won reputation of the Mormon Yankees also favorably impacted their proselyting activity for 1957. President Bingham reflected on the impact these young basketball-playing elders had on the Australians: “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.”
One noteworthy example of this effect is apparent in the coaching that Elder Harold Reeb did for 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.”
Mormon Yankees Basketball Tours, 1959-1960
In 1959, two elders ushered in a whole new era of Mormon Yankees basketball with the inception of traveling tours. This enterprise commenced when Weldon V. Moore, now the president of the Australian Mission (covering New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory) asked Elder Sherm Day to be in charge of the Mormon Yankees in Sydney, the city that was also home to mission headquarters.
Day said that while contemplating the financial costs relative to touring, he enlisted some help. “I went to my good friend and sometime companion Elder Bob [Robert G. Pedersen] and said, We need to raise some money if we’re going to do this tour for the Mormon Yankees and go to all these sites,’ and Bob said, I can do it.'” Pedersen had experience selling products as a student prior to his mission:
He’d been a pots and pans salesman, so he didn’t know that you couldn’t say no, he was very optimistic, he said, “We’ll do it.” So we set some goals… we asked… [a] company for three pairs of shoes for each player, we asked another company for basketballs, four new basketballs, and the big one was Bob asked Volkswagen to provide us a commie van that we could drive around, and also, they came in and said, “We’ll not only provide you the commie van, we’ll provide the publicity in each town. As you come we’ll advertise it in the papers.” So… really I’d have to say that my stroke of luck was finding good people to help who knew how to do that.
Pedersen remembered, “I said, Sherm, you get us the places to play, and I’ll get us there.[‘] And so I arranged with Volkswagen of Australia, and they furnished us a brand new, current 1959 Volkswagen, and then Stolks McGown… furnished us gear and clothes and basketballs, and shoes, so the Mormon Yankees looked as classy as… any professional team.”
Elder Pedersen did most of the driving on primitive roads and felt that the elders worked hard on the tours: “We had extra Books of Mormon we put under the seat, we put our gear in the back, and… on top of the Volkswagen,… but this was not a fraternity trip. This wasn’t a bunch of guys roaming around the country. We worked hard. We would travel, oftentimes after our game at night, if we did not stay there in the town, with members or locals.”
According to G. LaMont Christensen, who compiled statistics for the June 1959 tour, the Mormon Yankees passed through twelve county centers in New South Wales and traveled “2,087 miles, playing 19 games in 16 days, establishing all-time attendance and scoring records in more than a dozen cities, being mobbed by autograph hunters, selling 186 copies of the Book of Mormon and giving away dozens more and directly affecting approximately 200,000 persons.
Elder Bown Entertains
Another component of this very successful tour was the unique talent of Elder Roger L. Bown. Bown technically traveled with the team as one of the eight players. Bown’s primary responsibility was entertaining crowds, announcing the games, and doing halftime shows. These performances included professional and hysterical impersonations of such people as Billy Eckstine, Jerry Lewis, the Everly Brothers, and Winston Churchill. Pedersen and James Richard Rampton, fellow members of the traveling Sydney team, remembered that Bown also impersonated Jack Benny, Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), Elvis Presley, and Magoo. To add a bit of humor to the game, Bown would sometimes call out the plays for the Mormon Yankees before they actually occurred, so as to direct the team what to do next.
During the year, the elders played much and worked hard in their proselyting efforts off the court. The Australian Saints also donated hundreds of hours in planning for the development of the first Church stakes “down under.” These stakes, organized in the same areas in which the Mormon Yankees had opened so many hearts and doors (Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane), had a great impact on the development of the Church in Australia after 1960.
End of an Era
During the summer of 1961, a monumental decision was being made at the general level of the Church: no more using sports as a vehicle to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Apparently this policy change was first announced at the first general meeting for the training of mission presidents. At this time, a uniform system of preaching the gospel was introduced, a system that standardized proselyting throughout the world. During this period of transition, Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Church’s First Council of the Seventy was called to serve as the president of the South Australian Mission (he ultimately served from 1961 to 1964). Melbourne Stake Mission President Keith Stringer remembered:
When the Mormon Yankees were abolished by the order given by Bruce McConkie, I felt a little bit disappointed, because I thought it was a great promotional situation, where we could be seen not only as preachers of the gospel, but as preachers of the good rules in basketball…. He just said, “Oh, it’s got to stop.” [A]nd that’s all there was to it. It was explained to us that it was from Salt Lake, from the General Presidency, and so as we learned in the early stages of being totally obedient to everything that’s said from Salt Lake, we just accepted it and went on with life just the same.
When Stringer’s teenage daughter, Kay Watts, heard about the closure of the Mormon Yankees era, she, “was devastated.” Watts felt that the Mormon Yankees gave Church members “something to be proud of[;] they gave us an identity[;] they gave us a purpose, to be Latter-day Saints at school, to be proud of who we were.” She also recalled, “I remember President McConkie when he announced it, he didn’t want to stop it either, but he was teaching us to be obedient to the leaders and as a fledgling church and fledgling members.”
She later reflected that “obedience and sacrifice were part of growing up in the Church and that’s what the members needed to learn then.” Watts explained that one thing that helped ease this painful transition was the formation of local teams. She noted, “[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.”
Generally, Church members and the sports communities of various other faiths and cultures were disappointed by the dissolution of the Mormon Yankees teams. Gaze tried his best to wield his influence: “I still remember meeting with the president [Bruce R. McConkie] here in Victoria trying to convince him that we should be the exception.” Gaze told President McConkie that there were “still benefits for the Church to have their missionaries assembled here and participating and doing the things that have been done in the past.”
Although the era of the Mormon Yankees had come to a conclusion, the Church in Australia continued to progress. The missionaries had simply used basketball to lay the groundwork for greater Church acceptance and growth. At the time of transition in proselyting efforts, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley counseled the attendees of the 1961 mission presidents’ seminar that they should never disparage the methods used by earlier missionaries, which would certainly include the valuable work accomplished in Australia by the Mormon Yankees.
Bishop H. David Burton, a former Mormon Yankee and an emeritus presiding bishop for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reflected that for Australia, the Mormon Yankees “certainly opened a lot of doors in the formative years, of the growth of the Church. Many… individuals… came into the Church at that time.” Bishop Burton later reflected,
It help[ed] the Church come out of obscurity in that part to the world…. It wasn’t just a fling, it wasn’t just use of a gimmick. It was genuinely used to bring good publicity to the Church, and introduce individuals to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Between 1937 and 1961, basketball was used by many Mormon elders “down under” to build bridges and win friends for the Church and to teach countless Australians a higher level of the emerging American game. 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.
Although the Mormon Yankees basketball program was discontinued in 1961, it surely served a great purpose in early missionary work in Australia. In fact, since The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was introduced to Australia in 1840, the Church has never received as much positive publicity in one decade as it received from the Mormon Yankees in the 1950s. Much textual material from journals, magazines, newspapers, mission minutes, and oral history interviews demonstrates that the Church benefited greatly from the Mormon Yankees’ exemplary behavior, diligent proselyting labors, and athletic abilities.
It is remarkable that although it has been over fifty years since the Mormon Yankees played the game “down under,” hundreds of Australian sports fans, writers, athletes, and citizens from various regions still remember not only the name of the team but often the names of the players whom they have not seen since the mid-twentieth century.
Not only did the teams demonstrate superb skill on the court, but by their sportsmanship and Christ like behavior, the Mormon Yankees proved to be giants both on and off the court. It is therefore appropriate, as Lindsay Gaze has suggested, that they be remembered
 Ted Johnson recalled, “Stan Watts was one of the best basketball coaches that BYU had ever had and Loren learned the plays through Stan Watts and consequently he taught us and we taught them to the Australians.” Ted Johnson, interview by Fred E. Woods and Martin Andersen, Ted Johnson home, Boise, Idaho, July 7, 2010. An article published after the Mormon Yankees had made their mark in Adelaide, “Elder Dunn Appointed Mission Counselor,” Austral Star, November 1955, 5, notes, “Prior to his mission call to Australia, Elder Dunn attended Brigham Young University for four years, working on his composite major in Journalism and Economics, and while there also played basketball for the varsity team…. Since being on his mission, Elder Dunn has been an invaluable aid in publicizing the Church in Australia, serving respectively as Publicity Aid, Mission Editor, and Public Relations Aid to the mission president.” Newton, Southern Cross Saints, 67, adds, “Loren C. Dunn, later became a General Authority of the Church, Australia Sydney Mission president and Area Executive Administrator for the South Pacific.”
 Don Hull, interview by Martin Andersen, San Francisco, California, April 15, 2011. Hull was impressed when he went back to Australia in 2002 for the World Games. He further notes, “[T]he Mormon Yankees were remembered by those players that were our age, and I remember one of them said, Yes, I remember I used to play against Elder Condie and Elder Hull.’ And I said, Well, I’m Elder Hull.'”
 The “Australia Melbourne Mission General Minutes,” July 28, 1956 (unpublished manuscript), Church History Library, noted that the Mormon Yankees had beaten the Australian Olympic team earlier in the year. “It proved to be very colorful. It was a tough game, but the Yankees’ defeated them 72-62 – Remarkable sportsmanship was shown.”
 “Basketball Scores – Melbourne,” Austral Star, December 1956, 10. The point margin may actually have been wider in the second game against Russia; the “Australia Melbourne Mission General Minutes,” November 17, 1956, note, “Mormon Yankees played Russia today. Lost 60-81 Very close and good game. It got world publicity.”
 Paul Grant, interview by Martin Andersen, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, August 28, 2010. James Nyle Garn, in an interview with Martin Andersen, St. George, Utah, April 13, 2011, clarified that although Garn was athletic and played football at Ricks College, he did not play on the basketball team, though he did play a great deal of competitive church basketball.
 Don Pemberton, interview by Fred E. Woods and Martin Andersen, Pemberton home, Melbourne, Australia, December 14, 2009. Apparently Coach Reeb also influenced another University of Melbourne basketball player, Trevor Reid, who met with another set of elders to learn more about the Church. The journal of Harold Reeb, May 9, 1957, notes that Elders Lawlor and Blaizer had “met with Trevor Ried [Reid] & have a future appointment.”
 Newton, Southern Cross Saints, 191, notes the territories included in this mission. The 1959 Mormon Yankees program, 10, notes that Weldon V. Moore “arrived April 11, 1959, where he succeeded President Zelph Y. Erekson as mission president.”
 The 1959 Mormon Yankees program, 9, depicts Elder Roger L. Bown wearing a bow tie and with a microphone in his hand. Bown also wrote the explanation that appears under the caption “The True Life Story”: “My act consists of Singing and Impersonations of well-known movie and radio stars.”
 Keith Stringer, interview by Fred E. Woods and Martin Andersen, Keith Stringer home, Melbourne, Australia, December 12, 2009. Stringer also noted, “When the basketball was stopped, it didn’t have an impact really on the degree of conversions that were taking place.”
 Watts and other Australian LDS teenage girls found the Mormon Yankees quite attractive. Watts said, “[W]hen we first met the American missionaries, I was absolutely gob spanked, because I’d never met Americans before. Kay Watts, interview by Fred E. Woods and Martin Andersen, Keith Stringer home, Melbourne, Australia, December 12, 2009.
 This impact is unlike the negative one that resulted from the infamous “baseball baptisms” performed by some Mormon missionaries governed by ulterior motives. In the late 1950s some elders laboring in Great Britain required that young people be baptized in order to play on baseball teams.
 Lindsay Gaze, interview by Fred E. Woods and Martin Andersen, Lindsay Gaze home, Melbourne, Australia, December 10, 2009. The author has also written a book with the same name as this article which was published in 2012. The book also contains a DVD with a 30 minute documentary about this remarkable story.