Breakthrough

By the middle of the first decade of the new century, teams that had exhausted the local opposition in their area began to venture farther away from their home base. The most famous touring team was the Buffalo Germans.  The team had begun in 1895 as a group of teenagers in a gym class of the German Y.M.C.A in Buffalo, New York. The team initially gained national prominence at the 1902 Pan American Games played in Buffalo when three of the Germans held the Paterson Five to 1-1 tie until the remainder of the squad arrived at halftime, and with the team intact easily won the contest 10-1.  Several of the Germans were still in high school at the time, and the extraordinary feat, combined with the players’ youth, brought the team considerable publicity.  In 1902, they gained further notoriety by defeating Hobart College 134-0.  They first promoted themselves as ‘national champions’ after winning the exhibition tournament at the 1904 Olympics in St.Louis. The next year they embarked on a long tour, reaching as west as Kansas City.  In the process they compiled a 69-18 mark, but lost two of three to the Kansas City Athletic Club coached and led by Phoog Allen who later became famous as coach of Kansas University.

Alfred Heerdt was the driving force behind the Germans’ team.  He served as business manager, coach and also starred as the club’s primary ball handler and shooter.  William Rhode teamed with Heerdt to create most of the Germans’ offense.  Other players included: George Schell, who was adept at controlling the center tap and played good defense; Ed Miller, along with Heerdt the only survivor from the original 1895 gym class, who was an excellent passer and tenacious defender; Harry Faust, a fine all-around player, and the fifth starter; and Harry Miller, Ed’s younger brother, who was the tallest man on the squad and served as the primary reserve.

Under Heerdt’s guidance, the Germans enjoyed a reputation for sportsmanship and clean play. Heerdt was also a tough-minded businessman who skillfully plotted the destiny of his team.  He astutely realized that creating a great record against less talented teams would generate greater interest than establishing a good, but not quite as impressive record against the best teams.  The Germans studiously avoided strong teams in the New York and Philadelphia area, and even avoided venturing downstate to the Hudson Valley area after the 1907-08 season when they were bloodied by a tough Gloversville team 51-33 and 56-13 in an afternoon-evening doubleheader. Under Heerdt’s direction the Germans won 111 straight games beginning in March of 1908, and then remained undefeated throughout the 1908-09 and 1909-10 seasons before suffering a loss in Herkimer, New York, in the middle of the 1910-11 campaign.  Overall, the Germans compiled an outstanding 792-86 record.

Although the Germans record-setting 111-game win streak was put together by avoiding some of the better teams of the day, it does not detract from the accomplishment or their place in the history of the game.  Many of the outstanding professional teams that followed could trace their lineage directly back to Heerdt’s concepts of organization and strategy.  The Germans were the first to display over an extended period the fundamental principles that would become the heart of the Eastern professional game. It combined a highly disciplined dedication to defense with a precision short passing game that could only be successfully operated by a team with a constant lineup and the luxury of ample practice time.  It was a simple, but elusive concept that would be successfully implemented by only a few teams over the next three decades.

The Herkimer, New York team that ended the Buffalo Germans 111-game streak, were known as the Oswego Indians. The brainchild of Herkimer promoter Frank Basloe. The “Indians” crisscrossed the Midwest every year from 1913-through 1923 with the exception of a one-year hiatus during WWI. The best teams in the Midwest were in small towns such as Fond du Lac, Wisconsin and Chasta, Minnesota.

Fond du Lac Company E was a regional powerhouse featuring George Fogarty, widely considered the best player in the Midwest. The 25-year-old Brooklyn-born Fogarty had first arrived in Wisconsin in 1908 as a member of the New York Tammany Hall squad, one of the first touring teams to venture into the Midwest. Fogarty was famed for his dribbling skills and pinpoint bounce passes.

Through the first dozen years of the game, with the exception of Bucky Lew, who had played in the New England League, black players had never been part of any organized basketball leagues and no black teams had gained any far-reaching recognition.  Three black teams in the metropolitan New York area, the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn and two Harlem-based teams, the St Christopher Club and the Alpha Physical Club were formed in 1907. Over the next decade they would take turns as “The Colored Basketball World Champions”, a title awarded by a group of African American newspapers that covered basketball. All three clubs were well-financed by members who were among the cities black business and social elite. Basketball games, with dances afterward, became very fashionable in black society in 1910s. Games at the Manhattan Casino on 155th street drew capacity crowds.

Within half dozen years, the club team atmosphere was gone and teams were battling to sign the best players. In 1914, Will Anthony Madden, the former manager of the St Christopher club, signed two of its best players, Walter Cooper and Edgar Perkinson, to form the nucleus for his new team, the New York Incorporators. By spending freely, the new team quickly became the strongest black team in the country. The same year, a lean 5’6” sixteen year old schoolboy, Clarence “Fats” Jenkins joined St. Christopher’s. During an incomparable 25-year career, Jenkins would establish himself as one of the very best players, black or white, of his generation.

Unlike The Buffalo Germans and other better known white teams, the best black teams, in the early years, did not barnstorm. The leading black New York teams, however, did travel occasionally to meet the best teams in nearby cities. The best black team in Pittsburgh, the Monticello Club, always provided fierce competition to the Metropolitan area teams. The star of the team was Cum Posey, who was widely considered the best black player in the country for many years.  In 1913, Posey resigned from the Monticello Club to form his own team, the Loendi Big Five. Posey passed off his new team as an amateur squad, but in fact he was paying his players. For the next decade, the Loendi Big Five remained among the elite black teams and beginning in 1920 were named “Colored World Champions” four consecutive years.