With Indianapolis hosting the NCAA Final Four next weekend, I thought it would be a good time to share some of my research about the origins of Indiana basketball.
For over 70 years, Hoosiers have told, re-told, printed, and re-printed the story about how basketball came to Indiana. According to the tale, Nicholas McCay (nearly always rendered McKay) was a protegé of James Naismith at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. McCay learned the new game of basketball from Naismith, and brought it with him to his first post at the Crawfordsville YMCA. It was there that the first basketball game in Indiana happened on March 16, 1894 between teams from the Crawfordsville and Lafayette YMCAs. This game was well documented in newspapers at the time. Three of Crawfordsville’s four newspapers carried coverage of the contest, and brief mentions also appeared in Lafayette and Indianapolis papers.
I have long had doubts about the veracity of Crawfordsville’s claim. My suspicions were first raised in 2007, when I found the following article in a November 1894 issue of the Crawfordsville Review.
Notice the second sentence: “Basket ball was introduced into the State by the Indianapolis association through its physical director.” It seemed odd to me that a Crawfordsville paper would carry this article; especially if they believed they introduced the sport to the state.
Unfortunately, at the time I found this article in 2007, very few Indiana newspapers were digitized. To find corroborating evidence of basketball in Indianapolis before the Crawfordsville game in March 1894, would have taken many hours of microfilm research over several weeks to search several Indianapolis titles (News, Journal, Sentinel, Sun, and others) from 1892-1894. It was research I did not have time to conduct, especially when I relocated to DC not long thereafter.
I learned in 2013 that IUPUI’s Center for Digital Scholarship had digitized and uploaded a large run of the Indianapolis News. Here at last was an easy way to search for evidence to confirm what the Crawfordsville Review published in 1894. After I entered the keywords, I received numerous results, which I then sorted by date. Then low-and-behold, there in black and white, tucked between accounts of meetings of the State Board of Health and the Haughville Republicans, was the earliest mention of basketball being played in Indianapolis (even though the mention was over-shadowed by an acrobatic hound):
The News published this article on March 30, 1893, which was almost an entire year before the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game occurred. The News gave greater attention to the new game in the April 1, 1893 issue (p. 7). They devoted an entire two columns to the sport. The reporter noted that basketball “has taken hold here and is awakening interest and promises to become the all-around game for general fun in the future.” The article credited Indianapolis YMCA physical director, William A. McCulloch, with introducing the game at the Indianapolis branch a few months prior. McCulloch organized a four team league at the Indianapolis Y.
A few months after IUPUI uploaded the News, I learned that the Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library had digitized millions of pages of Evansville newspapers through the commercial firm NewsBank. Researchers can use the resource on site at EVPL. I had also come across mentions of Evansville also playing basketball earlier than the Crawfordsville game, so I thought this would be a prime opportunity to check this out. I was not disappointed in the search results.
Based upon the newspapers currently digitized, it appears that Evansville began consistently playing basketball earlier than any other Indiana community. The Evansville Journal and the Evansville Courier both reported on contests as early as November 1892, which was less than a year after Naismith invented the game and 16 months before the Crawfordsville-Lafayette game of 1894. Evansville also hosted the earliest inter-city Indiana basketball game when they defeated a team from the Terre Haute YMCA in January 1894.
After searching digitized Indiana newspapers in several content management systems, I was able to assemble this timeline of the earliest basketball games, practices, and exhibitions in Indiana:
- 1892 July – North Manchester Journal announces basketball to be played at the college’s Field Day.
- 1892 November – Indianapolis Sun “Evansville athletes are playing ‘basket ball’ a sort of indoor foot ball that is almost as murderous as the original game.” Evansville Journal and Evansville Courier cover the contests.
- 1893 February – Indianapolis News: Students at Earlham College in Richmond learn basketball.
- 1893 April – Indianapolis News reported basketball league at Indianapolis YMCA.
- 1893 Sept. – Connersville Times described basketball contest there as the “feature of the evening.”
- 1893 December – Columbus Daily Herald reports basketball is “the favorite game” in that city.
- 1893 December – Portland Daily Commercial announces a New Year’s Eve game in nearby Ridgeville.
- 1894 January – Evansville Journal reports that Evansville’s YMCA defeated Terre Haute’s YMCA.
- 1894 January – Bloomington World notes that Indiana University phys. ed. classes play basketball.
- 1894 March – Crawfordsville’s YMCA defeated Lafayette’s YMCA at Crawfordsville.
Indiana newspapers continue to be digitized, and it’s likely this timeline will need revision in the future.
If you are interested in reading more about my research, the Indiana Magazine of History published my findings in their December issue. You can possibly find a copy at your local library, otherwise you can order a copy, or download a copy from JSTOR.