In 1891 James Naismith, a Canadian-American physician and physical education instructor, invented would would become the sport of basketball as part of his work at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA. The first game of what was originally called “basket ball” was played at the Springfield Y.M.C.A. in December 1891. (Springfield is now the location of the Basketball Hall of Fame.) Word of Naismith’s “basket ball” spread around the United States, and recreational athletes and schools and YMCAs quickly took to the new sport. Naismith’s original concept for “basket ball,” which had 13 rules, a soccer ball, two peach baskets , and no dribbling, would undergo a bit of refinement until it more closely resembled the basketball we have today.
I have used the Elephind newspaper search engine, which I reviewed on site, to find original newspaper articles for several New Leaf Journal article projects, including a compendium of poetry by Charlotte Becker and a history of Mother’s Day. Today, we will put Elephind to good use in finding original 1892 newspaper references to he exciting then-new sport of “basket ball,” and in so doing we will see how quickly it spread beyond the humble confines of the Springfield Y.M.C.A.
Note that I am presenting the articles in chronological order. On account of this structure, you will find that we return to a few papers and stories several times over the course of the instant article. Moreover, note that while Elephind has a great number of newspapers in its search index, its selection is still limited. Other newspaper archives likely have many early basketball/basket ball articles outside of my small sample. You will find full citations to each article in the relevant sections.
(Note: I did not find any December 1891 articles on “basketball” or “basket ball.”)
- April 24, 1892: Omaha Daily Bee
- May 8, 1892: The Sun (New York)
- July 21, 1892: The Stark County Democrat (Ohio)
- August 30, 1892: The Wichita Daily Eagle
- September 14, 1892: Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (West Virginia)
- October 15, 1892: Evening Star (Washington D.C.)
- October 23, 1892: The Sun (New York)
- November 4, 1892: Vermont Phoenix
- November 19, 1892: The Morning Call (San Francisco, California)
- November 29, 1892: The Roanoke Times (Virginia)
- December 3, 1892: Evening Star (Washington D.C.)
- December 13, 1892: The Sun (New York)
- December 13, 1892: Roanoke Times (Virginia)
- December 20, 1892: Evening Star (Washington D.C.)
- December 24, 1892: The Evening Star (Washington D.C.)
Our first newspaper reference to basket ball from Elephind’s newspaper collection comes from Omaha, Nebraska, about five months after the first basketball game was played in Springfield. I quote from the following reference in the Y.M.C.A. Notes section of the paper:
Basket ball is becoming the most popular game among the Young Men’s Christian association athletes. It is played very much the same as foot ball, with the substitution of a basket in place of the foot ball goal.
The description of early basketball is accurate enough. I found it notable that our first newspaper reference locates basketball being enjoyed quite far away from its place of origin.
Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]), 24 April 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1892-04-24/ed-1/seq-7/>
The May 8, 1892 issue of The New York Sun included an article on three exciting new sports being enjoyed by young men at the Y.M.C.A. These three new sports were hang-tag, langball, and basket ball. The article described all three sports in detail, and here we will focus on basket ball. It began with a comparison of basket ball’s popularity to that of hang-tag and langball:
The game of basket ball is perhaps the most exciting of the three. It is likewise more generally known.
It then explains where basket ball was being enjoyed:
It has been practised both at Cornell and at the University of Pennsylvania by the football men. It is also being very generally taken up by players in this vicinity, especially in Y.M.C.A. gymnasiums.
The article explained, for the benefit of the uninitiated, the significance of basket ball being played indoors:
In fact, basket ball takes place in the ‘gym’ that football takes place on the field.
We learn how the gym was prepared for basket ball:
The floor is marked out, and the lines are drawn six feet from the walls, the outside of the lines being out of bounds. If there is a running track, the lines may be marked out directly underneath the railing of the track. The goals consist of a box or basket, placed at each end of the ‘gym’ ten feet above the floor. They should be about fifteen inches deep and fifteen inches across the opening.
How did people play basket ball?
The object of the game is to get the ball into the baskets by throwing or batting it. No running with the ball, like in ordinary association football, is allowed. The player throws the ball from where he catches it, but allowance must be made for a man who catches running at full speed. Rough playing counts as a foul. Three fouls made by one side without the other side having made a foul in the mean time, counts as a goal for opponents. A goal is earned when the ball is thrown or batted from the grounds into the basket and stays there, providing those players who defend the goal do not touch or disturb the basket. Should the ball rest on the edges a goal is allowed if an opponent moves the basket and sends the ball in.
You can see the outlines of what would become something closer to modern basketball. The use of the term batting is interesting. The article concluded by describing the ordinary course of a basket ball game:
The game usually lasts for two fifteen-minute halves, with five minutes’ rest between. In case of a draw the captains may decide to continue the game. The players are arranged as follows: A goal keeper and two guards to prevent opponents from scoring: three centre men to ‘feed’ the ball forward to the man having the best opportunity to score a goal.
1892 basket ball still had many characteristics more closely associated with sports such as football and soccer, such as clear delineations between offensive and defensive players. However, having halves and overtime would survive as basketball evolved.
I used an upscaled image from this New York Sun article in the introduction section.
The sun. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 08 May 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1892-05-08/ed-1/seq-16/>
This issue of The Stark County Democrat included an article titled A Pleasant Event: The Y.M.C.A. Keep Open House and Entertain a Large Crowd. After the Grand Army Band performed from 7:30 to 8:15 on July 20, the entertainment turned to sports, specifically basket ball:
After an intermission of twenty minutes the game of basket ball was begin. The sport is very interesting from beginning to end and a large number of spectators witnessed the match from the platform above the gymnasium.
Unlike the first two articles, we learn about specific participants in the game:
The game was played between the Blues and Whites. Mr. Dan Schlott was captain of the whites, while Mr. Jack Williams directed the blues.
Little did Mr. Schlott and Mr. Williams know that their exploits would be reported anew 130 years after the fact.
We next learn why young men at the Y.M.C.A. had taken to basket ball:
This game has been but lately introduced in this city and the boys seem to like it much better than the average game of ball. The hands don’t become battered up by catching the ‘dollar dead,’ for in the new pastime a football takes the place of the hard sphere of rubber and leather.
Little did they know that basketball at the highest level would eventually use a leather ball.
Who won between the blues and the whites?
Seven men engaged on each side last night and many rushes were made but no one was injured. The blues won by a score of 3 to 2. Two innings were played.
I had never heard a basketball half or quarter called an inning until reading this article.
In any event, I send my belated congratulations to Mr. Jack Williams and the blues for their 3-2 victory.
The Stark County Democrat. [volume] (Canton, Ohio), 21 July 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84028490/1892-07-21/ed-1/seq-5/>
Here, we learn that basket ball had made its way to Wichita, Kansas. I quote the short news bullet in its entirety:
A new game called basket ball has been introduced at the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium and bids fair to become quite popular, as it combines fun with plenty of physical exercise. The game resembles foot ball except the roughness of that game is avoided.
The note about resembling football underscores the very different rules under which basket ball was played in its very early days.
The Wichita daily eagle. [volume] (Wichita, Kan.), 30 Aug. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014635/1892-08-30/ed-1/seq-5/>
Basket ball received a brief mention one month earlier in the August 10, 1892 edition of the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, but we will focus on a more interesting note in the September 14 issue.
The paper reported on the opening of a new Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. It appears that news about basket ball was one of the primary attractions of the evening:
The evening was devoted to athletic exercises and the selections of teams to represent the association in the new game of basket ball during the coming season.
Basket ball was the only sport specifically referenced in the news article, so I suppose that is notable.
The Wheeling daily intelligencer. [volume] (Wheeling, W. Va.), 14 Sept. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026844/1892-09-14/ed-1/seq-8/>
We turn to the nation’s capital to learn about basket ball at the Washington D.C. Y.M.C.A.:
The new game of basket ball was played at the gymnasium during the week and the members of the class are much pleased with it. It is played with a foot ball and a basket is placed at either end of the room and just above a man’s head. There are goal keepers whose business it is to keep the ball out of the basket. There are no scrambles, but the play is to pass the ball back and forth in the air with the hands and at the proper time, when it is possible, to get it into the basket. It is a very lively game and from the fact that there is no kicking or scrambling makes it all the more desirable for an indoor sport.
Again, we have a detailed explanation of how basket ball differed from football and how those differences made it more amenable to being played inside gymnasiums.
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 15 Oct. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1892-10-15/ed-1/seq-12/>
We return to the New York Sun to find that basket ball remained popular in New York City Y.M.C.A. facilities months after the first report. Here, we learn about some of the dramatic personae in basketball at the Twenty-third street branch of the Y.M.C.A. in Manhattan:
The men who will play basket ball are turning out regularly. Some of the best players are Tufel, Kingden, Spantz, Edwards, Skatstrom, Hillock, Thatcher, Pollock, Gunther, Williams, Weaver, and Kempster.
I am glad to give these fine Y.M.C.A. athletes their due. We then learn a bit about how basket ball at this Y.M.C.A. differed from basket ball in other parts of New York:
They play the game somewhat differently than at the other than at the other branches. They have a rule which says that when a man catches the ball he shall have a fair throw of not less than four feet, and all the other players must stand away from him. This removes all chances for rough play. Dr. Bartlett, by introducing several new rules and changing old ones, has made the game a very enjoyable and harmless sport. It takes a considerable amount of science to put the ball into the basket, fixed as it is several feet above the players’ heads.
Many of the articles touted basket ball as a safe alternative to foot ball. The gentleman at this Y.M.C.A. came up with rules to further reduce the chance of injuries in basket ball and ensure that it was a safe and fun way for people to compete and exercise.
The sun. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 23 Oct. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1892-10-23/ed-1/seq-20/>
We stay in the northeast for a report about basket ball in Vermont:
Basket ball, which somewhat resembles foot ball, is a new indoor game which is attracting the attention of the frequenters of the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. A team will be formed here to go to Burlington to play during the winter.
This bullet point would have been insufficient for explaining what precisely basket ball was to newspaper readers who had not yet heard of it. However, there is an interesting note in the piece. The earlier basket ball articles covered individual games or recreational play at the Y.M.C.A. This article specifically notes that one local Y.M.C.A. was forming a team for the purpose of traveling to play during the winter. It appears that basket ball was taking off as the sport approached its one-year anniversary.
Vermont phœnix. [volume] (Brattleboro, Vt.), 04 Nov. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1892-11-04/ed-1/seq-4/>
The Vermont Phoenix had a basket ball update one week after its first report:
The Y.M.C.A. basket ball team have the armory for practice one evening each week. They expect to go soon to Burlington to play the association team at that place.
I left the original typo undisturbed (should be “team has” instead of “have.”) It looks like the local team had been selected between November 4 and November 11.
Vermont phœnix. [volume] (Brattleboro, Vt.), 11 Nov. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn98060050/1892-11-11/ed-1/seq-4/>
November 19, 1892: The Morning Call (San Francisco, California)
This is the only article in our collection about women playing basket ball. It is also the longest and most detailed article – and this merits and requires a fuller treatment than what I can give it here. For that reason, you can see my full discussion of Girl-Ball Kickers: Berkeley Beauties Have a Glorious Game in a separate article. It is hard to read the article and not think of the author, Albert May, as an 1892 version of a frat bro, but in this piece – I will focus primarily on the event described.
Before getting to the description of the introduction of basket ball in Berkeley, I will note that the author describes basket ball as “the latest Eastern fad” – both suggesting that it had not yet taken hold in California and that people on the West Coast perceived its East Coast origins.
In addition to featuring women, this article is unique in that it is situated at a university (Berkeley) instead of a Y.M.C.A. or other athletic center. We learn Mr. Magee, a certain physical instructor, introduced basket ball to girls at Berkeley – setting up two clothes-baskets as baskets and giving his students a six-pound leather ball. That the ball weighed six pounds is one of many clues in the article that the basket ball enjoyed by the young women at Berkeley was not only highly distinct from modern basketball, but also from the basket ball most commonly enjoyed in Y.M.C.A. gyms across the country in autumn 1892. We are told that both teams had nine players – making it sound closer to football than James Naismith’s invention. The author quoted Mr. Magee’s explanation to the women about the goal of basketball:
Now ladies, this game is called basket ball and consists in one nine trying to put the ball into one of these baskets and the other crew doing everything possible to prevent the accomplishment of the feat. The side that succeeds in basketing the ball the greatest number of times is the winner.
Apparently, the young women took a liking to basket ball – so much so that “they sent a challenge to the girls of Miss Head’s seminary, who had also learned about basket ball from Mr. Magee.”
The article, which I discuss in more detail in my separate piece, reported that the game was spirited and that it resulted in the victory of the seminary team, led by a certain Jenny. Moreover, May’s description of the aftermath suggested that the game was a bit rougher than some of the other basket ball affairs we have studied:
All the fair athletes were nearly exhausted and it was absolutely impossible to find a single girl among them which did not have numerous bruises or had not sustained some slight injury.
Stylistic quirks in the post aside, it is interesting to have a report of basket ball being introduced to women during the first year of the sport’s existence.
The morning call. [volume] (San Francisco [Calif.]), 19 Nov. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn94052989/1892-11-19/ed-1/seq-2/>
While we have demonstrated that basket ball was played on both coasts within several months of the first-ever game in Springfield, it was still being gradually introduced in late 1892. We learn here that the first game of basket ball in Roanoke, Virginia, may have played on November 29, 1892:
A new game will be introduced in the gymnasium of the Roanoke Athletic Club to-night after the regular class drill. It is called ‘Basket Ball’ and resembles football.
While all of the articles were consistent in rendering basketball as basket ball, I have noticed that the papers did not seem to agree on whether football was one word or two.
The Roanoke times. [volume] (Roanoke, Va.), 29 Nov. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071868/1892-11-29/ed-1/seq-4/>
We return to Washington D.C.’s Evening Star to learn that local basket ball teams had begun preparing to compete across state lines:
A series of house and home games of ‘basket ball’ may possibly be arranged with the Y.M.C.A. of Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia. It is something new here and it would prove to be a very interesting drawing card.
This is good evidence that basket ball was taking off at Y.M.C.A. gyms across the country by late 1892.
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 03 Dec. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1892-12-03/ed-1/seq-12/>
The New York Sun took the greatest interest in basket ball of all of the papers in our sample, and this article shows that the reason for this was the young sport’s early success in New York City.
I will begin with an update on the Twenty-third street branch of the Y.M.C.A., which played basket ball under its own set of rules (see our October 23 entry):
Basket ball is also having a great boom at the Twenty-third street branch. A large number of men indulge in the sport. Dr. Bartlett, the physical director, is a great advocate of the game, and may be seen instructing his men on several afternoons during the week.
We learn that basket ball was also having great success in the Eastern District, Brooklyn Y.M.C.A. branch:
The athletes of the Eastern District, Brooklyn, pay a great deal of attention to basket ball. There are enough players to make up two good teams, not counting the junior department teams. Among the best players are: William J. Mills, Theodore Totten, Ed. M. Ross, Frank Coffin, William J. Kinscherf, John R. McDevitt, Leonard Wathington, Dr. N. L. Thompson, William Willetts, Wallace Richardson, and Robert Harris.
The junior department, referenced above, had its own basketball success:
Sixty-five boys belong to the junior department of the Brooklyn Eastern District branch. A short time ago the boys visited the boys of the Central branch and defeated them at basket ball by 3 goals to 0. The Eastern District team were as follows: Frank St. John, Elbert Forney, George Kinscherf, Benjamin Holstein, William Lawlor, Will Pfeiffer, Ogden Merrill, Harry Graff, John Corlett, and Stanley Vanderwerken. The medals offered by the Eastern District branch, to be competed for in the series of contests now taking place, are the finest ever offered by a branch of the Y.M.C.A.
I suspect that George Kinscherf of the junior department may have been related to William J. Kinscherf of the seniors. In any event, it is interesting that the local Y.M.C.A. prepared its “finest ever” medals for a basket ball prize.
While we know from the previous passage that the junior department of the Brooklyn Central branch had taken to basket ball, we learn that the adults had not yet done so.
They have not yet taken up basket ball at the branch, but a little later on one evening a week will be devoted to the sport.
It is interesting that the junior department at the Central Branch was competing in basket ball games against other branches before the adult athletes at the branch had started to play.
The sun. [volume] (New York [N.Y.]), 13 Dec. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030272/1892-12-13/ed-1/seq-4/>
Recall from an earlier section that the first basket ball game of the Roanoke athletic club was played on November 19, 1892. About three weeks later, the introduction of basket ball to Roanoke appears to have been going well:
One of the features of this entertainment will be a game of basket ball between two picked teams.
This game was slated to be part of “a grand athletic and gymnastic exhibition, to be given on January 7[, 1893] at one of the theaters.”
The Roanoke times. [volume] (Roanoke, Va.), 13 Dec. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn86071868/1892-12-13/ed-1/seq-4/>
Our last two newspaper reports will be from Washington D.C.’s Evening Star. The first of these notes that basket ball had already become the most popular indoor sport at the local Y.M.C.A. – just months after it had been introduced:
Basket ball is still the popular gymnasium game and the members of the classes are becoming quite expert in playing it. Regular games are played twice a week and there is a probability of a game on January 3 between the first team and a team to be selected by Ed Groves. The members of the first team are A. Speiden, A.F. Miller, F.D. Ashcom, E.L. Burton, L.H. Herbert and George Johnston.
We will see these names again in our final article – but note “F.D. Ashcom” in particular.
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 20 Dec. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1892-12-20/ed-1/seq-7/>
The Evening Star had another basket ball report on Christmas Eve:
Aside from the regular work being done in the gymnasium, considerable time is given to practicing the game of basket ball, and on January 2, beginning at about 2 o’clock, a game will be played between the regular team and one composed of the pick of the gymnasium. The regular team, which is showing great proficiency, is composed of A. Speiden, E.L. Burton, T.D. Ashcomb, L.H. Herbert, A.F. Miller and George Johnston.
This article notes a January 2 game – it is not clear whether the January 3 game proposed by the December 20 article was still on. While this article notes the same “regular team” as the December 20 piece, it does correct what I believe was a typo in the original. “T.D. Ashcomb” seems like a more likely name for one of the regulars than “F.D. Ashcom.”
Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.), 24 Dec. 1892. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1892-12-24/ed-1/seq-14/>
The first basketball game was played in a local Y.M.C.A. in December 1891. A simple search of Elephind’s newspaper archive establishes that the sport had sport was enjoyed across the United States within one year of its being invented.