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Crawfordsville’s Contribution to the History of Basketball

by William B. Pickett

For the past nine months I have been conducting research to determine the importance of Crawfordsville, Indiana in the history of basketball. This work is in support of a proposal by the Crawfordsville High School class of 1958 to create a basketball heritage memorial of some sort. The record is clear and well documented that Crawfordsville High School was in 1911 the first IHSAA tournament champion and that the next seven state champions after that year were from towns within a 30-mile radius of Crawfordsville. If, in addition, Crawfordsville was both, as some accounts have suggested, the location of the first game of basketball outside the state of Massachusetts and the birthplace of Hoosier basketball, the historical basis for a memorial of some sort would seem warranted. This research reviewed and confirmed that Crawfordsville was the first IHSAA champion and then focused on the latter two claims. It found, first, that Crawfordsville was not, I repeat, not the location of the first game of basketball outside the state of Massachusetts and, second, that despite weak evidence to the contrary, the Crawfordsville YMCA was probably the location where basketball was first played in Indiana.

The largest claim: Indiana basketball historian, Herb Schwomeyer, in his book, Hoosier Hysteria, 9th edition (Greenfield, Indiana: Mitchell-Fleming Printing, 1997, p. 11) cites a Crawfordsville Journal-Review article of March 22, 1944 asserting, quoting an interview with one of the men who said he played in it, that the first basketball game in the United States outside of Massachusetts, where it originated in 1891, was in Crawfordsville in the spring of 1893. Without further qualification, he lets that statement stand in his historical narrative. (Interestingly, just four days after the above-mentioned Journal-Review article appeared, on March 26, 1944, the Indianapolis Star published an article entitled: “Three Crawfordsville Men Recall First Basketball Contest in Indiana” using the same information but without attribution asserting: “The first basketball game played in the United States outside of Massachusetts where it originated in 1891 was in Crawfordsville in the spring of 1893.”) The first edition of Schwomeyer’s book was published in 1970. The March 1971 issue of the Indiana History Bulletin published by the Indiana Historical Bureau devoted its entire issue to the history of Hoosier basketball. It includes the same Journal-Review citation as follows: “according to an article in the Crawfordsville Journal and Review (sic), the first basketball game played in the United States outside of Massachusetts, where it originated in 1891, was in Crawfordsville, Indiana in the spring of 1893.” [“Basketball in Indiana,” Indiana History Bulletin for March, 1971 (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1971), p. 38.] The piece appears well researched and by most criteria authoritative, as would be expected from a state agency.

Examining the Journal-Review article itself, however, causes the researcher to pause. The reporter is basing his story on an interview with a Crawfordsville physician, Dr. James B. Griffith, who played in what he describes as the first game outside Massachusetts fifty-one years earlier, what he called as “just a practice affair, staged in the gymnasium in the old Y.M.C.A. building erected in 1888 in west Main Street.” The reporter precedes his introduction of Griffith with the assertion: “As has been stated before, first basketball played in the United States outside of Massachusetts, where it originated in 1891, was in Crawfordsville, in the spring of 1893.” He follows the introduction by saying the game was “first introduced in the Middle West by the Rev. Nicholas C. McKay (sic), Presbyterian minister, a native of England, who became ‘Y’ secretary in Crawfordsville in the early 1890s.” In the passages that follow, Griffith apparently recalls details of that first game but not the date. Nor can he recall (although there is no indication that he played in it) a game that occurred on March 16 of the following year, 1894, that another newspaper article reported as perhaps the first scheduled basketball game played in the Crawfordsville Y.M.C.A. gymnasium (and perhaps in Indiana), this between Crawfordsville and Lafayette. [“It’s Far Cry Back to 1893 When Basketball Came Here,” Crawfordsville Journal-Review, March 22, 1944; “Crawfordsville Victorious,” Crawfordsville Daily Journal, March 17, 1894, p. 4.]

The first problem with the Journal-Review article is the reporter’s off-handed way of putting the claim forward: “As has been stated before, first basketball played in the United States outside of Massachusetts . . . .”

The second problem is the fact that Dr. Griffith, who considered himself part of the state’s basketball history, could recall neither the date of that first, practice game, which he claimed was in 1893, nor the scheduled game between Crawfordsville and Lafayette in that same gymnasium just one year later, this despite the fact that two individuals who played in that game remained alive in Crawfordsville in 1944 and were interviewed for the same article. (And, for their part, neither of them, apparently, mentioned the earlier practice game to which Griffith referred.)

The third problem is perhaps minor but its repetition by later writers may reveal that they drew upon this same Journal-Review article (probably as repeated by Schwomeyer) for their information. The Journal-Review reporter spells the last name of the YMCA official who brought the game to Crawfordsville as “McKay.” This is incorrect. The correct spelling as revealed in both the YMCA archives at the University of Minnesota and the Crawfordsville Census is “McCay.” [Kautz Family Archives, box 37, file: Indiana YMCA’s Weekly Secretarial Newsletter, 1891-1897, Note by N.C. McCay, August 9, 1893; Jeff to Bill: Tue 8/26/2008 3:12 PM e-mail from Springfield College archives; Twelfth Census of the United States, Crawfordsville, Indiana, Schedule No. 1, Population, June 4, 1900.]

I have found no evidence, however, to contradict the Journal-Review article’s assertion that a Rev. Nicholas McCay introduced (or during his tenure as general secretary at least encouraged or approved) basketball to the Crawfordsville YMCA. McCay graduated from the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1890, before Naismith invented the game, but documentation exists of McCay’s continuing relationship with the school after arriving in Crawfordsville. [Jeff to Bill, e-mail from Springfield College Archives, Tues. 8/26/2008 3:12 p.m.] It makes sense that he would have heard about the game’s invention and no doubt even read the first rules of the game promulgated by Naismith in the YMCA newsletter in early 1892. McCay remained general secretary in Crawfordsville from sometime in 1890 until August 9, 1893 when he resigned because, the record states, “circumstances seem to make a change necessary.” It took almost two months to find a full-time replacement. The record is silent on the reasons for this change. [Weekly secretarial newsletters 1891-1897, file: Indiana YMCAs, box 37, Kautz Family Archives, Andersen Library, University of Minnesota]

Unfortunately for the claim that Indiana was home to the first game played outside Massachusetts, my research–assisted by the archivists at Springfield College (the successor to Springfield International YMCA Training School) and the Kautz Family YMCA archives in the Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota–has turned up numerous examples of basketball being played in places other than Indiana in 1892. James Naismith, the inventor of the game, as mentioned above, had published its rules in the YMCA newsletter, The Triangle, in January, 1892. It was thus not surprising that the game spread quickly to such places as Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania; Iowa City, Iowa; Brooklyn, N.Y.; New London, Conn.; New York City; Bangor, Maine; Chicago, Illinois; and Burlington, Vt. The January 1893 the newsletter of the national YMCA, Young Men’s Era reported that basketball was “much enjoyed by the seniors in Duluth, Minn.” In Zanesville, Ohio, basketball was being played two nights a week at the local YMCA. [Kautz Family Archives, Young Men’s Era, January 19, 1893; see alsoYoung Men’s Era, March 22, July 28, August 4, Oct. 13 and 20, and Dec. 22, 1892];

The second largest claim: The summer issue of Indiana Basketball History Magazine carried an article by Jason Crowe, former executive director of the Indiana Basketball History Hall of Fame in Newcastle, Indiana, entitled: “The Cradle of Basketball.” “It was in 1891,” said Crowe, “when James A. Naismith invented the game of basketball . . . . It was just a year later when Rev. Nicholas McKay [sic] brought the game to Indiana. McKay was taking charge of the Crawfordsville YMCA. He felt this new game of basketball might help keep Hoosier athletes active in the winter months. . . . It didn’t take long for this sport to catch on, with players from Crawfordsville spreading the word about this new game of hoops to nearby communities. . . . Since the first game was played in Crawfordsville a hundred years ago, basketball has remained Indiana’s sport.” The article is sharply critical of local Hoosiers-the citizens of Crawfordsville–for failing to honor their city with at least a “historical marker on one of the roads entering town proclaiming the town of the birthplace of basketball and the home of the great state’s first-ever basketball champions.” [Jason Crowe, “The Cradle of Basketball,” Indiana Basketball History Magazine, Summer 1995, pp. 1-6]

The question now arises whether this claim from what appears to be a credible source is true. The above-mentioned sources, now including Crowe, all relying on Dr. Griffith’s memory, talk about the first game being played in the spring of 1893 but without mention of the day and month. The Young Men’s Era magazine, the news magazine of the national YMCA, from the spring of 1893–March 23 to be precise, page 375–mentioned an item under the topic of “Gymnasium brevities.” “Basketball,” it said enigmatically, “is a feature at Evansville, Indiana.” Clearly, this meant that basketball was, at the early date of March of 1893, being played in a Hoosier city other than Crawfordsville. And an article in another Crawfordsville newspaper, this one The Crawfordsville Star of November 20, 1894, contradicts the earlier sources. Entitled: “A Basketball League,” the article is a news story about the recent state YMCA convention held in Columbus, Indiana. The delegates, it said, organized a league of basketball teams from Indianapolis, Terre Haute, Lafayette, Crawfordsville, and Wabash College [my underlining]. “Basketball,” it said, “was introduced into the state by the Indianapolis association [my underlining] through its physical director. Two teams were organized in that city and played against one another for two seasons in Tomlinson Hall.” The article goes on to say that the first league game is scheduled to be played between Indianapolis and Crawfordsville on Thanksgiving Day. No other details were mentioned. Neither I nor my associates, after several days of searching, have been able to find other mention of basketball in Indianapolis in the 1890s.

Adding to the quandary but this time with evidence supporting Crowe’s assertions, another newspaper man, Grady Franklin, a former Crawfordsville sports editor published an article in The Indianapolis Star Magazine of March 14, 1965-not drawing upon the Journal-Review article of March 22, 1944 and spelling McCay’s name correctly-asserts that “the historic old terminal building at Crawfordsville [was] where the first basketball game in Indiana was played in 1892 [my bold]. . . .The first cage game in the Hoosier state was played on the court shortly after the structure was finished in the spring of 1892 [the article says, repeating the year].” Again, I have found no corroborating evidence for such a game. Such an event would not be surprising from what I have been able to discover, however, given the frailty of Dr. Griffith’s memory, the rate of growth of basketball’s popularity both in Indiana and elsewhere, and, finally, the considerable activity at the Crawfordsville YMCA gymnasium in 1892-1893.

An article in Young Men’s Era of November 24, 1892, p. 1493, for example, reported, without mentioning basketball, that “The boy’s gymnasium classes at Crawfordsville, Indiana are so large that they are divided into two sections.” The following month J. Lloyd Hammond, a Wabash College student, took charge of the Crawfordsville YMCA gymnasium classes until a full-time physical director could be found. The following February, Mr. E.G. Horton took over these duties and Hammond remained as his assistant, receiving part of his salary from the association and part from the college. The February 9, 1893 issue of Young Men’s Era reported that all Wabash College students were to become members of the Crawfordsville YMCA, paying their fees to the college treasurer as gymnasium fees and that physical education was compulsory. The 1892 YMCA yearbook lists Wabash’s student enrollment as 250. [1892 YMCA Yearbook, Kautz Family Archives] The association news magazine made no mention of basketball, but the March 2, 1893 issue did mention that over 300 people were in attendance at the reception in honor of the new physical director, E.G. Horton.

The two pieces of evidence above that contradict the claim that Indiana basketball originated in Crawfordsville are cryptic, fail to tell when and where these earlier events occurred, and are, at least so far, uncorroborated. The item about basketball in Evansville provides no detail at all. TheCrawfordsville Star piece gives no information about when or how the Indianapolis YMCA which it asserts introduced basketball to the state, did so. It goes on, however, to say that Crawfordsville produced two of the five teams for the new league-those of the Crawfordsville YMCA and Wabash College (which we now know practiced and played their games at the Crawfordsville YMCA gymnasium). And it reports that the first league game was to be between Indianapolis and Crawfordsville. Clearly, even in this article–the only direct challenge to its role as the sport’s Hoosier birthplace–Crawfordsville appears to be Indiana basketball’s pre-eminent city.

I have received assistance from and want to thank the Crawfordsville District Public Library local history archives curator; the historian and archivist at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.; the archivist at the Kautz Family YMCA Archives at the Andersen Library at the University of Minnesota; the archivist at Springfield College (formerly the International YMCA Training School) in Springfield, Massachusetts; the chief curator of cultural history at the Indiana State Museum; the archivist at the Indiana State Library; the archivist at the Indiana Historical Society; the archivist at Wabash College; and the historian and manager of the Indiana Historical Marker Program at the Indiana Historical Bureau. I also have contacted authors of several books on the subject of Indiana basketball. Crawfordsville Basketball Heritage Committee members Bill Milam, Bill Locker, Joan Stout White, Rosa White, and Carolyn Grimes all have provided assistance.

Conclusion: In sum, considering the volume of books and articles about Crawfordsville’s role as the birthplace of Hoosier basketball; the fact that the earliest scheduled game between teams from two towns (on March 16, 1894) occurred at the Crawfordsville YMCA; Crawfordsville High School’s victory in the first state tournament (in 1911); and the fact that the next seven towns to produce IHSAA basketball champions came from within a thirty-mile radius-the Montgomery County seat, one must conclude, deserves the appellation of birthplace of Hoosier basketball. R. Dale Ogden, chief curator of cultural history, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites has done research in the Indianapolis newspapers and believes that beginning in late 1892, Nicholas C. McCay conducted demonstrations of basketball at the Crawfordsville YMCA, demonstrations that continued throughout 1893 by which time the game had spread to other YMCA’s in the state. His research for his entry on “basketball” for the Encyclopedia of Indianapolis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994) found no basketball games “being regularly contested between teams at the Indianapolis YMCA before 1897.”

[Dale to Bill, e-mail 7-9-08] It would thus seem appropriate that a memorial be provided to commemorate Crawfordsville’s contribution to this part of the state’s rich heritage.

Other publications touting Crawfordsville as the birthplace of Hoosier basketball include:

Bill Benner, “Game’s ‘cradle’ now only lives in memories,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1991

Todd Gould, Pioneers of the Hardwood: Indiana, The Birth of Professional Basketball (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998)

Roger Jenkinson, “History of Indiana Basketball” in Bill Hale, Indiana High School Hoops! Lesson Plan: January 2003, updated Spring, 2007,

Pat Cline, Montgomery County: Legend and Lore (Crawfordsville, Indiana: Montgomery County Historical Society, 1988)

Phillip M. Hoose: Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana (Guild Press of Indiana, 1995)

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