The First Pro League's First Season

The 1898-99 Season of the National League of Professional Basketball

Beginning in the mid-1890s, professional teams began populating the corridor from Philadelphia to Manhattan. Having escaped the authority of the YMCA and AAU, these early professionals had no method to the madness.

Or as the Philadelphia Times opined:

Basket-ball, which as during former seasons been conspicuous by its lack of governing officials, and which has gone along in a headless manner ever since its conception, has apparently at last drifted into the proper channel….

That the game was in a most deplorable and chaotic state cannot be denied, every follower of the sport being familiar with the conditions of things existing at last season’s ending. The obnoxious registration rule of the Amateur Athletic Union was mostly responsible for this miserable state of affairs.[1]

The AAU’s stricter enforcement against (semi-)pros proved the impetus for this “proper channel” described by the Times: the National League of Professional Basketball.

This league was the first pro circuit in basketball history. By 1898, a critical mass of professional teams existed to make such a league not only desirable, but feasible and able to break free of the amateur authorities.

Despite the grand title, the inaugural teams of this league were entirely based in the Delaware River Valley of Pennsylvania and New Jersey:

  • Millville (NJ) Glassblowers

  • Camden (NJ) Electrics

  • Philadelphia Clover Wheelmen

  • Germantown (PA) Big Five

  • Hancock A.A. Kensington (PA)

And, of course, the Trenton Basketball Team; which was now commonly known as the Trentons.

The Philadelphia Times gave credit to “the indefatigable efforts of Peter Wurfflein” in establishing the pro league. Given the legitimate novelty of this endeavor, preemptive action was taken to ensure that league games would be held and played as scheduled: “The forfeiting of games has been dealt with, a fine of $25 being the smallest amount levied on the guilty team.”

Also, notable was an enforcement not only of roster integrity, but of territorial integrity:

One other important move made by the league is club protection. This rule forbids a manager of a rival team signing a player from another locality without the manager who represents that vicinity giving consent.

Basically, Millville (for example) had first dibs on players hailing from Millville.

Here we can see that professionalization of the game didn’t immediately mean complete freedom for the players to play wherever they chose. Of course, this was also a nascent operation and the territorial rule only applied to National League members. A player could hop aboard other pro teams not affiliated with the league. Still, this is an important marker in the history of relations between players and management in pro basketball.

THE TRENTONS AND MILLVILLE BATTLE FOR THE TITLE

Unsurprisingly, the National League suffered a little attrition in its first season, as many pro leagues would for decades. Of the six original members, Hancock and Germantown dropped out relatively early, while the Wheelmen, Camden, Millville, and Trenton went the distance.

By March it was apparent that Millville and Trenton were the class of the league. A showdown on March 18 at Trenton’s Masonic Temple home court left Marvin Riley – one of basketball’s great boosters and early chroniclers– in awe at the throttling Millville received. Winning by a score of 20-13, Riley insisted “that score fails woefully to tell the full story of how completely Millville was outplayed” by Trenton.

Not a complete homer, Riley did give props to the Glassblowers from Millville: “All the games I have seen Millville play this season, I have never seen the sturdy South Jersey men do so much clever and effective passing as on Saturday night, and had not the Trentons been in the superb form they were, I think Millville would have won purely by virtue of that passing.”[2]

A little over a week later, Trenton defeated Millville on the Glassblowers’ home court causing Riley to practically break out in a fever planning a celebration for the impending championship the Nationals were sure to deliver.

Right here I want to be the first to suggest that, in the event of the Trentons winning the final game in this city, on Saturday next, which will give them the beautiful Spaulding [sic] pennant, a public banquet, or reception of some kind be tendered them in Masonic Temple the night the pennant is presented. It is no little honor to win a national league pennant; it means the first real United States championship ever won in the history of the game. If the Trentons bring this honor to Trenton they deserve such recognition at the hands of the citizens of this city.[3]

Sure enough, on April 8, 1899, the Trentons defeated Millville 24-13 and sealed their hold on the National League’s pennant. About a week later, the city of Trenton followed Riley’s advice and gave their basketball team a banquet celebrating the championship.

Reading speeches from the event as well as the news report afterwards suggest that attendees viewed this as a coming-of-age moment for basketball.

This excerpt from the Trenton Evening Times does well to give a sense of the beaming optimism proponents of professional basketball had as the 19th century was coming to its close, yet basketball was just beginning…

It was by far the greatest event in the history of basketball; an event which will be the means of causing the attention of the sporting world to be directed at this new winter sport which is becoming so popular with all classes and ages in both sexes; an event which reflects great credit on every person connected with it, and with the city of Trenton in general. The whole-heartedness with which the leading citizens united in celebrating the winning of the National basketball pennant, not only gives the game a prestige it heretofore lacked, but it also places Trenton as a pre-eminent in basketball circles, the city in which basketball has been developed and the city which recognizes basketball as the coming national winter sport.[4]

Trenton’s claim as basketball’s best didn’t go unchallenged. After all, this may have been the first season of the first pro league, but there were a growing number of pro clubs outside the confines of the four-team National League.

A studious observer, Marvin Riley noted in April 1899, the Trentons had won more games versus Manhattan’s Wanderers, who had “defeated everything in New York and the New England States, and this cinches beyond dispute the Trentons’ title to the championship over all other basketball teams in the world.”[5]

Obviously, that claim is a tenuous one; but such arguments over the nation’s best pro team would go on and on for 75 years until the NBA firmly monopolized pro basketball in 1976.

That means we have a lot of teams and leagues to cover; and lots of debates to recount as we move along pro basketball’s history.

NOTES

[1] “Basket Ball Season Due,” Philadelphia Times, October 6, 1898.

[2] Marvin A. Riley, “Basketball News and Comment,” Trenton Evening Times, March 20, 1899.

[3] Marvin A. Riley, “Musings on Millville Games, Trenton Evening Times, April 1, 1899.

[4] “National Basketball Pennant Presented To Trenton Champions,” Trenton Evening Times, April 28, 1899.

[5] Marvin A. Riley, “Basketball News and Comments,” Trenton Evening Times, April 10, 1899.


WE’RE A WINNER!

well, Trenton is. Not Millville.