A League of Their Own

By Chuck Miller

Chuck Miller is a professional writer from Albany, NY and the Albany Patroons of the CBA’s biggest fan. In his career he has written for Basketball Digest, Football Digest, Hockey Digest, Hockey Ink! and ProBasketballNews.com (R.I.P). In 2003, Chuck was awarded “Best of 2003” from the Truck Writers of North America and also a 2004 silver medal for entertainment writing at the 2004 International Automotive Media Awards. In 2005, Chuck set out to find the lost history of the CBA and it’s predecessor the Eastern League. The following is his account of his quest to set the records straight.

“How the hell did Swish McKinney play 35 games in a 32-game season?”

This was the conundrum; what looked like a typographical error in an old Continental Basketball Association media guide, crediting a 6’1” guard from Oakland City College with 1,206 points for the Binghamton Flyers of the CBA’s earlier incarnation as the Eastern Professional Basketball League, a rough-and-tumble weekend-games-only regional circuit that stretched from the Adirondacks to the Poconos. Apparently that season, McKinney averaged 34.5 points per game, numbers that would make any major league basketball team drool.But if the league only played a 32-game season, how did McKinney squeeze in an extra three matches – when nobody else in the Eastern League that year played more than 32 contests, and Binghamton only garnered a 10-22 record that season? Was this an errant printer’s typo – or did something get left out of the history books?

Some background on the Eastern League – it was formed in 1946, six weeks before the formation of the leagues that would eventually form the NBA. Teams flourished throughout the coal mining regions of Eastern Pennsylvania, as fans of the Allentown Jets, Wilkes-Barre Barons, Scranton Miners and Sunbury Mercuries would attest. The league expanded into New Jersey with the Trenton Colonials and Camden Bullets; the Hartford Capitols and New Haven Elms would represent the Nutmeg State; and the Wilmington Blue Bombers won two championships in the 1960’s.

But any statistics or background information on the Eastern League was scant at best. A few scattered last names were available in old CBA media guides – and even though the league started in 1946, the CBA had no player statistics for anyone before the 1959-60 season.

Thus began a project to find out what happened to the games of the Eastern League.

I started with the Swish McKinney problem. Visiting the New York State Library in Albany, which contains a repository of the state’s newspapers, I spooled through microfilms of the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin for any game reports about McKinney playing for the Binghamton Flyers. Surprisingly, there was no game reports of any sort of a “Binghamton Flyers” in November 1967 or December 1967. But the January 1968 papers told of a “Bridgeport Flyers” who were moving from Connecticut, with their 1-11 record, to Binghamton in a couple of weeks. Once the Flyers relocated to Binghamton, the franchise made a deal to acquire Swish McKinney from the Scranton Miners – McKinney had a job at the local IBM facility in nearby Endicott, which helped cut down his travel costs. Because Binghamton had to finish off several postponed contests from the Bridgeport franchise, McKinney essentially played 35 games between the Scranton and Binghamton franchises that season. So not only was the McKinney mystery solved – a new one appeared. The Bridgeport Flyers were never mentioned in any of the CBA media guides – it was as if the team never existed. If that team was left missing, were there other teams in the league that disappeared as well?

Too late to stop now. My weekends were now spent driving to various microfilm libraries throughout the Northeast. The goal now was to photocopy the original box scores from each team and each season, take this information back to my Albany home, and feed the data into a computer program (Dakstats 3000, a basketball statistics calculation program available at http://www.daktronics.com) that could recalculate the data and re-assemble these missing teams and seasons. The data itself was limited; all I could accurately acquire from those ancient box scores were free throws and field goals, so searching for rebounds or blocked shots was out of the question. I contacted two of the foremost minor league hoops historians, Karel DeVeer and Bill Himmelman of Sports Nostalgia Research, to help fill in the missing gaps – in fact, I was able to help fill in some gaps for their databases, as well.

I ran into plenty of obstacles on this project – several newspapers in Eastern League cities did not print Sunday papers, meaning I had a coinflip’s chance of finding Saturday night game results in the Monday editions of the paper. Other cities had Sunday-only editions, but they were only available in a single library – and those “single repository” newspapers were not available through Inter-Library Loan, which required me to travel to the mountain rather than the mountain traveling to me. The tiny town of Berwick, Pennsylvania had a franchise for five seasons, but no microfilm archives of the Berwick Enterprise newspaper were publicly available (luckily, during my time on the project, the Enterprise newspaper released their personal holdings of microfilm to the Bloomsburg University library, and one of their staffers photocopied all the games for the 1949-54 Berwick Car Builders team, a team that was originally owned by Chicago Bears tackle Paul Stenn).

But for two years, Saturdays for me meant getting up at 3:00 a.m., driving from Upstate New York all the way to Harrisburg to arrive by 9:00 a.m. and get the best microfilm readers (there’s one by a lit alcove, the photocopies are very sharp). Harrisburg was the only place that had the Williamsport Sunday GRIT, which allowed me to get Saturday night box scores for the Williamsport Billies franchise. I could then drive up I-81 to several other former Eastern League outposts – Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Binghamton. I could shoot over I-78 for Reading, Lancaster, Allentown, Easton. I could visit Trenton and Camden on a Saturday, then drive to the University of Delaware and access their holdings of the Wilmington newspapers. And I always knew to fill up for gas at the TravelCenters of America off Exit 7 in New Jersey, where gasoline was 50 cents a gallon cheaper than it was in New York.

It got to the point where I knew that the best hot dogs for my Saturday road trips could be found at Yocco’s in Allentown, and if I stopped at Victoria’s Chocolates in Hazleton, I could bring my wife back some sweet homemade treats. I also learned that universities charge much less for photocopies than do historical societies or state libraries (the cheapest I found was at the University of Scranton, who only charge 7 cents per copy for issues of the Scranton Times).

Two years of hard statistical research, studying dozens of newspapers and vintage teams of generations ago, allowed me to uncover and rediscover what happened to the early years of America’s oldest professional basketball league.Yes, it’s the oldest. Six weeks before the Basketball Association of America (we call it the NBA today) was formed, several basketball promoters met at the Alhambra Hotel in Hazleton, Pa. in April of 1946, proposing a brand new post-World War II pro league. Six cities signed up for the initial season, including five in Pennsylvania – Hazleton, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, Reading and Lancaster. The sixth franchise, in Binghamton, would move mid-season to Pottsville, keeping the Eastern Professional Basketball League an all-Pennsylvania circuit.

The early EPBL seasons ran for 20-28 games apiece, the top four squads would then play a Shaughnessy-style playoff system (#1 seed v. #4; #2 v. #3; winners play a best-of-three matchup). Those coal-mining towns produced several stars whose names still reverberate around basketball circles – John Chaney was a star for the Sunbury (Pa.) Mercuries in the mid-1950’s; Jack McCloskey, architect of the Detroit Pistons’ “Bad Boys” championship teams, was “Jack the Giant Killer” for the Pottsville Packers in the early 1950’s. Jim Boeheim spent five seasons with the Scranton Apollos in the 1970’s; Bob “Butterbean” Love originally suited up for the Trenton Colonials. Among the league’s officials were future NBA rulekeepers Mendy Rudolph and Dick Bavetta; in 1962 Tommy Lasorda was a league referee. Yes, THAT Tommy Lasorda. The Harlem Globetrotters played against Eastern League teams, as did traveling teams like the female All-American Red Heads, and the cowled “Masked Marvels” (actually members of Villanova’s college hoops team, playing under disguised identities to avoid losing their college eligibility).

The Eastern League was a league of many accomplishments. Bill Brown, Zach Clayton and John Isaacs became the first African-Americans to suit up in the league, playing for the Hazleton Mountaineers in the 1946-47 season, three years before black players joined the NBA. The 1955-56 season saw Hazleton field the first professional all-black starting five, with a lineup of Tom Hemans (Niagara), Jess Arnelle (Penn State), Fletcher Johnson (Duquesne), Sherman White (Long Island University) and Floyd Lane (CCNY).

Those last two names – White and Lane – are notable in that they were among several college players who shaved points and “dumped” games in college basketball’s point-shaving scandals. The NBA wouldn’t take these players; but the Eastern League provided them an opportunity to prove that they really could play the game on the level. Jack Molinas, Bill Spivey, Bob McDonald, they all when from college basketball pariahs to Eastern League stars. 5,000 fans would pack Wilkes-Barre’s Kingston Armory for Barons games; and tickets at the Scranton Catholic Youth Center (for Miners games) or at Allentown’s Rockne Hall (home of the Jets) were hard to acquire.

By the 1960’s, the EPBL expanded from its Pennsylvania boundaries. Temple scorer Hal “King” Lear and New York City playground legend Stacey Arceneaux were stars for the Trenton Colonials, as was Wally Choice, whose 41.3 ppg average in 1961-62 is still an Eastern League / CBA record. In the crowd for many Colonials games was a teenaged Bob Ryan. Yes, THAT Bob Ryan, columnist for the Boston Globe.

NBA star Paul Arizin finished his pro career with the Camden (N.J.) Bullets, helping them win the 1964 Eastern League championship. K.C. Jones suited up for the Hartford Capitols, who battled the New Haven Elms, Bridgeport Flyers and Hamden Bics for Nutmeg State supremacy. And the Wilmington Blue Bombers, led by Waite Bellamy and Maurice McHartley, won back-to-back league titles in 1966 and 1967.

Of course, just as the league starts to expand, it gets noticed – and poached. The 1961 American Basketball League, formed by Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein, poached many of the Eastern League’s top stars, including Hal Lear and Bill Spivey, who later returned to the Eastern League when the ABL folded in 1963. The 1966-67 American Basketball Association also did its share of Eastern League poaching; almost the entire 1966 EPBL All-Star Team were playing in the ABA a scant season later.

Teams came and went – players came and went – and by 1970, the league’s name came and went, now rebranding itself as the Eastern Basketball Association. The league even worked out ersatz arrangements with NBA and ABA teams for player assignment – the New York Knicks farmed many of their young talent to Allentown; before Harthorne Wingo earned a 1973 NBA championship ring, he was patrolling the boards in Rockne Hall for the Jets.

But back to my research. Every time I drove for a “research trip,” I would find some new clue about the league’s history. When the NBA’s Rochester Royals moved out of the Lilac City in the mid-1950’s, a group of businessmen bought into the Eastern League with the Rochester Colonels. The team lasted eight games before folding; among the team’s players was one Hubie Brown. Yes, THAT Hubie Brown.

The next week, I found evidence that the league suspended players for “double-dipping” – playing for two teams in two different leagues during the same season, trying to double their paychecks. The suspended players actually cost their Eastern League team a playoff spot. A decade later, during the playoffs, another team actually stayed in the locker room rather than take the court because they thought they were being cheated on game receipts – they eventually played the game, but the league president suspended all the players on that squad for a year (most of the sentences were commuted after the league president calmed down).

What eventually changed the league around was the addition of a Western-based franchise, a franchise that changed the Eastern League from an Eastern Seaboard operation to one that spanned the continent. In 1977, the Anchorage Northern Knights joined the Eastern League.

Yes, THAT Anchorage. In Alaska. Nine franchises on the East Coast – and Alaska.

But for better or for worse, that addition allowed the league (now rebranded the Continental Basketball Association) to greatly expand its boundaries. Within a year, stable franchises appeared in Montana and Florida and Wyoming and Wisconsin. Teams like the Sioux Falls Skyforce and Dakota Wizards, Tampa Bay Thrillers and Wyoming Wildcatters, and a hundred other franchises from sea to shining sea. But because the league moved its headquarters from city to city, much of its previous history disappeared. Franchises who didn’t finish the season were either deleted from league records, or credited their final games as forfeits, with no explanation given.

After two years of research, I have finally finished the first part of my research project. The Eastern League’s first twelve seasons, including player statistics, game statistics, and the like, have been recovered. All-Star Classics going back to 1949 have been re-established. Rule changes have been identified, including when the league established a three-point line (1965, a 25-foot belt from the hoop), when a shot clock was employed (1955-56 season, using clocks borrowed from the Philadelphia Warriors), and when Eastern League teams played against NBA squads in exhibition contests (and contrary to popular belief, the NBA did not win every game against their Eastern League brethren).

The CBA has enthusiastically embraced the rediscovery of these new statistics, and the 2007-08 CBA Media Guide and Register will, for the first time in league history, have accurate stats and information from the CBA’s earliest years.

But my project isn’t over yet. Now I need to re-confirm statistics from 1959 to 1978 – which include playoff stats (previously never kept), player trades (apparently if a guy played 25 games with Allentown and finished the season with Hartford, the media guides claim he spent the entire season with Hartford), and any other historic findings that are trapped in the dusty microfilms of a Pennsylvania historic society.