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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Unsung Knick History – There Are No Station Wagons In Basketball!

This is the twenty-fifth in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.

Why yes, that is an A League of Their Own reference. Thanks for noticing.

This week’s piece is slightly off the beaten path in the sense that while it is definitely about the Knicks, the effect of the event was less direct on the Knicks than past editions. Still, when you see the Knicks actually act to eliminate a team from the National Basketball Association (NBA), I think that certainly has a definitive impact on Knicks history.

And that’s exactly what the Knicks did to the Sheboygan Red Skins, one of the inaugural members of the NBA, and at the time of their elimination from the league, the longest-running team in the NBA!

What did they do that led to the Knicks forcing them out of the NBA? Read on to find out!

The history of professional basketball in the first half of the 20th Century generally consisted of two different types of teams. The first were so-called “barnstorming” teams, teams that would travel the country playing exhibition games against a local team from that area, whether it be another professional-level team, or a college team, or heck, if all they had was high school teams, then a high school team! This is effectively what the Harlem Globetrotters do to this day (although back then, the games were more about seeing a good game and not about tricks and stuff like that). The second were “industrial league” teams – teams that were sponsored by factories/companies and consisted of players who worked for the company. These leagues were successful because the corporations covered most of the costs – it was good publicity to see their company teams do well. These leagues were particularly popular in the Mid-West.

The Sheboygan Red Skins were a very successful example of both types. They began in the 1930s as an industrial league team, representing first a local furniture store, then a clothier and finally a gelatin factory, by which time they were popular enough to go barnstorming across the country in the late 1930s (at this point they were going by the name the Enzo Jels, named for their sponsor, gelatin manufacturer Enzo-Pak). They had great success against some of the country’s leading independent basketball teams, like the aforementioned Harlem Globetrotters. This lead to the National Basketball League (NBL) inviting them to join in 1938. The NBL mostly consisted of Mid-West industrial teams. The Jels re-named themselves the Sheboygan Red Skins and consisted to be one of the best NBL teams in the history of the league, with only their rivals, the Oshkosh All-Stars (another small Wisconsin city), having greater success during the Red Skins’ 12 seasons in the NBL (the Red Skins appeared in five NBL Championship Finals to the Oshkosh All-Stars’ six). In 1942, the Red Skins (with the help of future Hall of Fame guard Buddy Jeannette) won their first (and only) NBL Championship over the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, who later moved to Detroit and still play in the NBA today (when they’re not protesting their coach).

In 1946, a new type of professional basketball league started up, called the Basketball Association of America (BAA). This league was formed by men who represented the major hockey arenas in North America who were looking for a new sport to get more use out of their stadiums. Places like the Boston Garden, Philadelphia Arena, St. Louis Arena, Maple Leafs Garden and, of course, Madison Square Garden. While it was Boston’s Walter Brown who really got the ball rolling on the idea of filling their often empty stadiums with professional basketball games, Knicks president Ned Irish was one of the shrewdest negotiators for the new league. Irish had already seen that their was a market for college basketball, as it had packed the Garden during the 1940s, and while he did not think professional basketball would ever reach the popularity of college basketball, he definitely saw it as a lucrative side project.

The BAA was the first successful league to establish itself in the major Northeast cities in the United Sates. Having the bank roll of the major stadiums behind them, they were able to more or less suck up the market for professional basketball in North America, despite not having teams that were necessarily any better than the smaller leagues (it is worth noting that in its three years of existence, two thirds of the BAA championships were won by teams that just joined the BAA from other, competing leagues.

In 1949, the 10 teams of the BAA and five teams from the NBL (plus a brand new franchise to make things even) joined forces to become the NBA. The incoming NBL teams all played together in the Western Division. Right from the get-go, the BAA teams clearly had more sway in how things were done (it is notable that the NBA officially recognizes the 1946 beginning of the BAA as the official start of the NBA, and BAA stats are “official” while NBL stats from the same years are not).

By the time the Red Skins joined the NBA, they were the longest-running team in the NBA (as the Oshkosh All-Stars folded before getting a chance to get into the NBA), but they were clearly running on fumes. Like the Green Bay Packers, the Red Skins were a civic corporation owned by 120 stockholders who kept the franchise running on a very tight budget. That was okay for a small, fairly local league like the NBL, but now that they were in the NBA, they were going to have a very difficult go at it. It did not help that Irish initially negotiated it so that home teams would take in the entire gate for NBA games. The only thing that keeps the Green Bay Packers a viable National Football League (NFL) franchise is the fact that they share in the revenue of all the other teams in the league. The Red Skins did not have this at first. This was particularly important since they played in the Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory, a public works project during World War II that held 3,500 people. 3,500!!! That is the smallest stadium in NBA history. Amazingly enough, though, with the NBA not being a particularly popular league at the time, the Red Skins actually averaged attendance numbers fairly similar to league averages (which were only about 3,000 per game at the time).

Still, Ned Irish found it ridiculous that “his” professional league was sharing space with a team that played in a stadium so small that their ushers stood under the basket…because there was no room for them anywhere else!!

When the Knicks traveled to play in Sheboygan, a New York newspaper referred to several dates on the Knickerbockers’ western trip as “whistle-stops.” The Red Skins defeated the Knicks 99-93 (as part of their remarkable 7-2 opening to the season, which began to give them national attention as the “little team that could”) and the local Sheboygan papers noted that “most of the whistle-blowing here was when the Red Skins were popping in baskets.”

However, the Red Skins then went on a significant losing streak so that they were 12-13 with the imposing Minneapolis Lakers (and George Mikan) coming to town. They managed to defeat the Lakers, even with Mikan scoring 42 points! Speaking of high-scoring games, Bobby Cook of the Red Skins briefly had the NBA single-game scoring record with 44 points against the Denver Nuggets. Mikan broke the record a few days later.

In any event, while the Red Skins were not a dominating team in the NBA, they were holding their own on the court. It was off the court, with their “bush league” stadium (according to Red Auerbach, then a coach for the Blackhawks) and their interesting modes of transportation that drove the bigger teams nuts. While the Knicks and other teams traveled by train or by bus to go to other towns, the Red Skins had their own peculiar form of transportation. The team owned two seven-passenger De Soto Suburbans that they used to transport the players to road games. This led to the incident that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Irish.

Irish (and Boston’s Brown) were so disgusted with the NBL teams that they actually wouldn’t allow them to play the Knicks at the Garden (the Celtics and the Philadelphia Warriors also refused to let them play them in their home stadiums – the owners of the Knicks, Celtics and Warriors were staunch allies in the early days of the NBA), as he felt it hurt the ability of the Knicks (and the NBA) to sell themselves as a big league organization if they had to have marquees like “New York versus Sheboygan.” Instead, the Knicks “hosted” the Red Skins in Philadelphia, the Celtics “hosted” them in Providence and Philadelphia “hosted” them in Chicago.

While the Knicks wouldn’t play them at the Garden, it was an incident at MSG that led to the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. The Baltimore Bullets “hosted” the Red Skins for a game at MSG (13,000 people attended!) that was set to start at 8:00 PM. Well, at a quarter to 8, the Red Skins had not yet arrived at the Garden. People were already lining up to enter the Garden when, at 7:50, the two station wagons drove up to the front of the Garden, in front of all the fans lined up to get in, and emptied the Red Skins roster on to the sidewalk and into the Garden. Irish was absolutely mortified (whenever I heard these stories, I always imagine Irish as talking like Donald Trump, “You got no class!”). The Red Skins lost to the Bullets, and spent their weekend in New York meeting up with the most pop culture export from Sheboygan at the time, the singing group the Chordettes (you might not know their name, but you know their songs – “Mr. Sandman” and “Lollipop”).

The Red Skins actually made the playoffs with a 22-40 record, and faced off against the only NBL team the big teams would play, the Indianapolis Olympians (an NBL team in name only, as they were the team that was formed just to make it so that the NBL had an even six teams to join the NBA with), who were the first place team in the Western Division and consisted of a number of famous collegiate players (including a number of players from the 1948 Olympic team, hence the name). They almost upset the heavily favored Olympians, but ultimately fell 2 games to 1 in the Best of Three series.

After the season ended (with the Lakers winning the title again), the bigger teams insisted that Sheboygan be given their walking papers. Irish, in particular, was adamant that they be kicked out of the league (some even suggest he gave an ultimatum of “them or us”). Four of the six NBL teams that had joined the previous season were kicked to the curb after that inaugural NBA season, including the Anderson Packers (who had played in the NBA title series), the Waterloo Hawks, the Denver Nuggets and, of course, the Sheboygan Red Skins. One of the two teams that remained, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, still play in the NBA today as the Atlanta Hawks (three other former NBL teams also remain in the NBA today, but they each joined the BAA before the NBL/BAA merger).

The Red Skins helped form an independent league, National Professional Basketball League, but that folded after one season. They tried to make it as an independent barnstorming team again in 1951-52, but the NBA pretty much killed most barnstorming teams, so after that last try, the Red Skins folded for good.

So decades before Knick President Isiah Thomas spent his days killing the Knicks, a Knick president actually killed another team.

Thanks to Brian Gaynor’s brilliant piece on the Red Skins for the Sheboygan Press for a lot of the information needed for this piece.

If you folks dig these stories, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here. I also have one Sports Legend featured every Tuesday at the LA Times.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

2 comments on “Unsung Knick History – There Are No Station Wagons In Basketball!

  1. Nick C.

    Wow that is fascinating, replete with machinations, east v. midwest, city slicker v. hick mentality battles. Keep ‘em coming.

  2. Jim Cavan

    Fascinating indeed. Great story Brian. But I can’t help but once again take one fact above all else away from what I just read: Ned Irish was a real @$$#*!&.

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