Hoops, Hebrews, and the Hudson River League
My father had not been an athlete in his youth in Cracow and he never could fathom my boyhood mania for sports, especially basketball, “this crazy American jumping,” as he called it. Immigrating to this country after the War, by 1954 my family settled into Kew Gardens, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Queens. As my pudgy frame began to elongate by age 11, basketball became my life: maneuvering around the nuisance of schooling, I became a playground habitué from daylight to dusk and a gym rat at night. And I was never lacking for company from similarly crazed coreligionist jumpers.
Ever since the turn of the century, when the new game of basketball had come into the cities through the settlement houses, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and the Amateur Athletic Union, Tevye could have blared “Tradition!” in reference to basketball more aptly than to the Talmud. As Hank Rosenstein of the original 1946-47 New York Knickerbockers recently said, “Basketball was our religion.”
Today the game is universally conceded to be the game for African Americans, with a token representation by white jumpshooters from the western states and Eurostars looking to buy a vowel. But the year 2000 marked the first time in the history of the National Basketball Association, and all the pro leagues before it going back to the 1900s, that not a single Jew was on a roster. In the middle-class flight to the suburbs what had been left behind on the curb was “Our Game.”
Investigating the story of Kingston’s surprisingly long and illustrious history in professional basketball [see sidebars below], we will focus on “Our League”: the Hudson River League (HRL) of 1909-12. Kingston played in other pro leagues too, from 1914 all the way up to 1940. The Colonials of 1923 were world champions, defeating the Original Celtics (of New York, not Boston) in a best-of-five classic. Among the hoopsters who wore Kingston colors are Hall of Famers Frank Morgenweck, Barney Sedran, Johnny Beckman, and Benny Borgmann, plus such stars as Harry Franckle and Phil Rabin. While not all of our region’s top players were Jews, certainly, there is no telling this story without them, any more than you could tell the story of the NBA’s rise without mention of Shaq, Kobe, Lebron, and other black stars so famous they don’t even need last names.
Let’s do a racehorse run through early basketball. Our national pastime of baseball has roots in this country going back to the 1700s but it is an Old World import. Indeed, the only major sports born in America are basketball and lacrosse — the latter created by Native Americans and the former by a Canadian physical education instructor at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1891 James Naismith nailed peach baskets to the balcony rail of the local gym and formulated a set of rules (no backboards, no dribbling, no limits to the number of men on the floor) that soon became subject to widespread tinkering.
Unlike the development of baseball and football, in basketball the pro game advanced simultaneously with the college brand, with the formation of a play-for-pay circuit in the Philadelphia area in 1898. As additional pro leagues sprang up, each operated under its own rules, as did the AAU and the NCAA at the amateur level. One of Dr. Naismith’s original rules — that a ball out of bounds belonged to the team that first possessed it — led to bloody mayhem that did not cease until 1913. An early means of keeping the ball in bounds, adopted by several pro leagues, was to play the game in a wire or rope cage; though the cage was last used in 1930, players were still called cagers in news headlines for fifty years thereafter. And then there was the center jump, an action-stopper after each field goal or free throw that somehow survived until 1936-37.
In its inaugural season of 1909, the HRL included teams in Kingston, Newburgh, Catskill, Hudson, Poughkeepsie, Troy, Yonkers, and Paterson (NJ). Apart from the inclusion of Troy, these franchises mirrored precisely the final-year cast of HRL baseball only two years before. In its three years of play, several of the league’s teams (the Newburgh Tenths, the Yonkers Fourth Separates, etc.) were sponsored by local National Guard units, or “Separate Companies,” thus transforming the patriotically grandiose, white-elephant Armories into basketball arenas. Probably the best of the early pro teams and champions of the HRL in its first two seasons were the Trojans of Troy. Led by Ed and Lew Wachter, they then abandoned the HRL for the New York State League, whose crown they also captured … playing on courts with no backboards, so all that all shots had to be made “clean”! Many early pro fives also played in other leagues under the banner of other cities, or barnstormed like the Original Celtics, the Rens (Renaissance Five, an all-black unit), and SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association).
“Professional basketball is a Jewish boys’ game,” said Eddie Gottlieb of the SPHAs in the 1920s. And for several decades it was, despite such formidable African American teams as the Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters, organized by Ape Saperstein in 1927 and still barnstorming today. Jews went on to dominate the new pro leagues that began to have national aspirations, from the American Basketball League (1925) and the National Basketball League (1937) to the Basketball Association of America of 1946, which three years later would change its name to the NBA. In what is now considered the NBA’s first game, between the Knicks and the Toronto Huskies on November 1, 1946, Ossie Schectman scored the league’s first basket on a give-and-go fast break. With Jewish teammates Sonny Hertzberg, Stan Stutz, Hank Rosenstein, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber, and Leo “Ace” Gottlieb, the Knicks won that game and finished the season with a 33 – 27 record.
What accounted for the basketball success of the Jews? New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote in the mid-1930s that basketball “appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartaleckness.” In rejecting the clear anti-Semitism behind that analysis we are thrown back upon the obvious answer, that pro basketball provided a ladder to a downtrodden minority, as it would continue to do for other minorities. Yet the most intriguing answer may lie closer to Gallico’s remark, and it played out in the Hudson River League of 1911-12.
In that truncated season the Kingston Company M squad, led by Harry Franckle and Sam Curlett, won the championship as the league folded on January 20, 1912, having played barely half its scheduled games. Kingston’s 14-8 record bested the 14-9 mark posted by the Newburgh Tenths. This colorless regimental name soon gave way to the more descriptive “Bizzy Izzies,” the nickname that the all-Israelite squad had first assumed when it won the New York City inter-settlement league “midget” title (under 106 pounds) five years running. Its players included future Basketball Hall of Famers Barney Sedran (Sedransky) and Marty Friedman, league-leading scorer Ira Streusand, and such other Lower East Side luminaries as Harry Brill, Lou Sugarman, Bill Cone (Cohen), Joe Girsdansky, and Jake Fuller, all of them alumni of the teenage Bizzy Izzies.
This “midget” team — some, like Sedran at 5’4” and 115 pounds, were too small to make their high-school teams — owed everything to their coach, Harry Baum, who is not in the Hall of Fame but ought to be. Streusand explained that “as kids, we were all physically inferior. We were really midgets; hardly weighed anything at all. But Baum taught us teamwork and a new brand of ball and we ran everyone ragged.” Sedran added: “He taught us a style of play which we carried with us during our entire careers. In fact, his style of basketball was followed by most of the pro teams.” In 1983, at the age of 87, the legendary Nat Holman recalled that he had really begun to learn the game in 1908 ... when he was the 12-year-old mascot of the Izzies.
Substituting brains for brawn, Baum transformed the plodding style that basketball had known ever since its birth into a sharp passing game with intricate crossing patterns that became the classic New York style. Instead of bulling one’s way to the basket or positioning for two-hand set shots, the Bizzy Izzies pioneered the five-man fire-drill that presaged today’s Phoenix Suns.
Amazingly, Baum never played basketball himself. Born in Cracow on July 11, 1882, Baum graduated from City College in 1902. He played one season of lacrosse while there and another three seasons at Columbia. It was while pursuing his engineering degree at Columbia that he agreed to coach the midget team at the University Settlement House on Eldridge Street. Because Baum's only previous athletic experience had come in lacrosse, he based his approach to basketball on that game, with its short passes, absence of dribbling, and man-to-man switching defense. Also influencing the Izzies’ style was the Lower East Side kids’ tradition of playing basketball with a rag ball that could be tossed between the rungs of a fire-escape ladder. As Maclyn Baker, Jewish captain of NYU’s 1921 basketball team, put it, “rags didn't bounce.”
Leave it to a Polish Jew to blend one game invented by a Canadian with another created by Native Americans. In basketball history no better example of “an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging” may be found than Harry Baum and the Bizzy Izzies.
HRL Standings, 1909-12
Hudson River League data derives from work by John Grasso and Robert Bradley in Total Basketball (Sport Classic Books, 2003).
1909-10 HRL W L Pct.
Troy Trojans 24 4 .857
Paterson Crescents 23 5 .821
Kingston Wild Cats 14 13 .519
Catskill Mystics 14 14 .500
Yonkers Fourth Separates 13 14 .481
Hudson Mixers 12 14 .462
Poughkeepsie Bridge Jumpers 6 18 .250
Newburgh Rose Buds 2 26 .071
NOTES: This year was the last in which this league employed the rule that a team would designate a man to shoot all the team’s free throws. HRL leading scorer Toby Matthews of Catskill had 71 Field Goals and 140 Free Throws, averaging 10.4 Points Per Game. Troy’s Bill Hardman had more FGs with 78 but only 10 FT, as teammate Ed Wachter was Troy’s FT specialist with 89.
1910-11 HRL W L Pct.
Troy Trojans 29 10 .744
Paterson Crescents 26 11 .703
Kingston Colonials 26 14 .650
Yonkers Fourth Separates 18 17 .514
Newburgh Company E 16 23 .410
Hudson Mixers 13 21 .382
Catskill Beare-Cats 12 26 .316
*Schenectady Indians 2 20 .091
*The Poughkeepsie Bridge Jumpers were replaced by the Schenectady Indians, who assumed Poughkeepsie’s 0-6 league record. Schenectady dropped out before the season ended.
NOTES: In this year the HRL rule adopted the rule that the man fouled had to shoot the free throw. HRL leading scorer was Chief Muller of Troy at 6.3 PPG. Bill Hardman of Troy had 6.8 PPG but played in only 31 games to Muller’s 38 and so had fewer total points. Kingston’s Sam Curlett was third at 5.3 PPG, but led in FTs. Kingston’s Harry Franckle averaged 5.6 PPG but played in only 32 games to Curlett’s 39.
1911-12 HRL W L Pct.
Kingston Company M 14 8 .636
Newburgh Bizzy Izzies 14 9 .609
Paterson Crescents 13 9 .591
White Plains Lambs* 8 8 .500
Trenton** 3 5 .375
Yonkers Fourth Separates*** 3 16 .158
*White Plains dropped out
**Trenton dropped out
***Yonkers dropped out
NOTES: In 1911 Catskill’s league president Major Albert Saulpaugh, Jr. was dumped, precipitating withdrawal from the league of the teams from Catskill, Troy, Hudson, and Schenectady. League founder John Poggi of Newburgh assumed the presidency and brought in White Plains and Trenton to make for a six-team league. But after only three games most of the Kingston team jumped to the Central Basketball League to play as the Pittsburgh Southside AC. Trenton folded after eight games. The Paterson team doubled up as the Cohoes squad in the NYSL. On January 20, 1912, the league folded. Kingston was the champion and continued to play as a new entry in the NYSL (where they finished third at 24-26) while the other three clubs continued play as independents. HRL leading scorer was Newburgh’s Ira Streusand, at 12.7 PPG. Kingston’s Sam Curlett was second at 11.7 PPG.
Kingston in Pro Basketball, Post-HRL
1912-13: Kingston finished third in the NYSL at 27-23. Their leading players were Jimmy Clinton, George Henschel, and Pete Lamb.
1913-14: Kingston fell to sixth at 23-41. Its leading scorer was Joe Johnson at 6.6 PPG. Troy failed to win the championship for the first time in five years, losing by one game to Utica and its “heavenly twins” of Sedran and Friedman.
1914-15: Kingston precipitated the close of the NYSL in midseason (January 2). The Kingston team had been run by the players and they sought a guarantee of their salaries by the league, which refused. Leading players for Kingston had been Joe Johnson and 18-year-old newcomer Johnny Beckman, later to become an HOFer as captain of the Original Celtics. Kingston did not return to the NYSL for seven years.
1915-16: Kingston Pathfinders played briefly in the Interstate League.
1921-22: Kingston returned to NYSL and finished 18-21 but were led by HOFer Benny Borgmann, who scored 10.8 PPG.
1922-23: In the NYSL’s final year Borgmann upped his PPG to 11.7, highest in league history, and Kingston ran away with the championship with a 33-9 mark. In a 1923 World Championship Series, on April 6 Kingston wins a fifth and final game at home over the Original Celtics by a score of 24-19.
1924-25: Kingston Colonials played in Metropolitan League.
1927-28: Kingston Colonials were champs of the first half, then the league folded. Key Kingston players were Carl (Mickey) Husta, Harry Riconda, and James Campbell. Benny Borgmann, now with Paterson, was the star of the league.
1935-40: Kingston Colonials were members of the ABL from 1935-36 to 1939-40. Carl Husta was Kingston’s notable player, along with Nat Frankel and Phil Rabin, who led the league in scoring at 13.2 PPG in 1937-38 and 10.3 the next year. The Colonials won the pennant in 1938-39 (28-7) but lost in the playoffs to the Jersey Reds. In 1939-40 Kingston (8-4) merged with Troy on December 19 and lost in the playoffs. Its stars were Sammy Kaplan and Chick Reiser. League leading scorer was the future HOFer Bobby McDermott.