By the final decade of the 19th-century, the men’s sporting club was a well-established part of the American scene. The socially prominent clubs usually focused on a single sport such as polo or fox hunting, while the workingmen’s organizations settled for the simpler pleasures of bicycle, rowing, or running competitions. By the turn of the century many of these clubs had added basketball to their agendas. These organizations soon discovered what the Y.M.C.A. had realized almost a decade earlier. It was virtually impossible to maintain a truly amateur rivalry for very long. A fierce competitiveness and creeping professionalism quickly corrupted the basic concept of members representing their club. It soon became apparent that the favorable newspaper publicity that accompanied sporting successes could be translated into financial gain for the club, either as a means of attracting new members or simply by charging admission to the event. A club seeking to enhance its prestige was quick to pad its membership with professional players, and members soon found themselves relegated to the sidelines or to the second or third squad. Many teams began bidding for the services of the better players, who then divided the game receipts among themselves. The better quality of play in turn stimulated attendance because the more easily recognizable performers made gauging the strengths of teams an easier task, an important factor in an era when betting on contests was a major part of the sport’s popularity.
The spiraling competition for players was not without its pitfalls. The evolution of the league play in Pittsburgh exemplified the problems. For four years, beginning with the 1898-1899 season, the clubs had competed in a truly amateur league featuring members as players. But by 1902-03, South Side and Manchester had upgraded their squads with some paid performers to a point where they were virtually unbeatable except in contests against each other. The following year, South Side upped the ante with more professionals, to a level where even Manchester could not compete with them. The South Siders went undefeated in twenty games, but in the process destroyed all interest in the Allegheny County Basketball League, which disbanded at the completion of the season. This inability to find a proper competitive balance would lead to the downfall of dozens of leagues over the following decades.
For the second season in a row, Massachusetts remained in the spotlight by signing the best available professional talent. The New England League shuffled franchises with last year’s champion South Framingham squad moving to Natick, while the players that had represented that city moved north to the coastal community of Newburyport. Additional new teams were placed in Portsmouth and Amesbury to join holdover clubs in Haverhill and Lowell.
The first half of the split season format was won by Haverhill, led by 21-year-old Ed Wachter. In the second half, the talent-laden Natick squad quickly established itself at the top of the standings. Winnie Kinkaide, Joe Fogarty, Eddie Ferat, and Harry Hough won 17 of 21 games and the second half title. Outstanding teamwork and superior physical conditioning were largely responsible for the team’s superiority. Haverhill declined to participate in a playoff to determine an overall champion. Instead, Natick faced Lowell, the third place finisher in both halves, in the postseason matchup. Toby Matthews performed brilliantly for Lowell, but overall it was a mismatch and Natick quickly took three of four games.
Despite most of the better-known pro stars playing in Massachusetts, in many ways Philadelphia remained the center of the professional game. The eight-team Philadelphia League expanded to a 40-game schedule featuring a league contest every night for twenty-one weeks. Eight other leagues and dozens of independent teams operated as well in the basketball-crazed city. Conshohocken, with 31 wins in 39 games, won the Philadelphia League title. Known as the “Wonder Workers,” the lineup featured scoring ace Steve White, all-star center Bill Keenan, and defensive whiz Charlie Bossert. Behind the work of high-scoring Jack Reynolds, North Philadelphia finished in second place. Defending champion Jasper, playing without the services of their top scorer, Whitey Schwer, dropped to third.