A Wonder to Behold: The Franklin Wonder Five Makes Its Mark on Indiana Basketball

Franklin High School Basketball Team, 1920, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History.

March Madness may not officially start for another week, but here in Indiana it’s already underway. This is the time of year when basketball reigns supreme in the Hoosier state, as fans flock to gymnasiums and arenas to support their high school and college teams and reminisce about the legendary players and moments of the past. This year marks the 110th anniversary of the annual Indiana high school boys basketball tournament (the 109th officially sponsored by the Indiana High School Athletic Association). Throughout its long history, the tournament has given us numerous memories of underdogs defeating giants to claim the state title and bring glory to their towns. Hoosiers will no doubt recall Milan’s 1954 championship, but well before Milan other small schools made their mark on Indiana basketball. The tournament also gave us players like Johnny Wilson and Bill Garrett, who used basketball to overcome racial barriers and help pave the way for others. And it served as a unifying force both at the state level and in small towns across Indiana, creating a shared interest and passion for basketball among Hoosiers. This was certainly the case in the 1920s when the Franklin Wonder Five made their mark on Indiana basketball and established one of the first dynasties in the state’s history.

The Franklin Wonder Five era represented an eight-year period from 1918-1926, wherein Franklin, a small town just twenty miles south of Indianapolis, dominated the state basketball scene. The Wonder Five won an unprecedented three consecutive state championships at the high school level, followed immediately by two state collegiate championships. They were the talk of the town and the target, envy, and dream of many teams across the state and the Midwest. Basketball was already immensely popular in Indiana by this time and the excitement surrounding the sport would later earn the moniker “Hoosier Hysteria.” In Franklin, as in other small towns across Indiana, local residents and businesses rallied closely behind their basketball team. Games were intensely followed by the majority of the community and regular season wins were often celebrated with bonfires and parties in the town square that brought people of all ages and classes together.

Coach Ernest “Griz” Wagner, “The Scenario,” Franklin High School Yearbook, 1922, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History.

Many of the young men who played during Franklin’s Wonder Five years had grown up playing the game together or competing against one another in grade school. This experience helped them develop a remarkable sense of teamwork once they reached Franklin High School and later Franklin College, which no doubt contributed to their success. It’s important to note that despite their nickname, the Wonder Five comprised more than five young men. That being said, not every player on Franklin’s rosters between the years 1918 and 1926 earned the distinction of being part of the Wonder Five. According to Phillip Ellett, author of The Franklin Wonder Five: A Complete History of the Legendary Basketball Team, Wonder Five teams all featured player Robert “Fuzzy” Vandivier and Coach Ernest “Griz” Wagner. Additionally, “to be considered a member of the Wonder Five, a player must have been on at least one of the three high school state championship teams.” Using this as a benchmark, Ellett identified fourteen players that he considered to be members of the renowned team. [1]

Robert “Fuzzy” Vandivier. “Franklin College Ace,” Indianapolis News, January 2, 1923, 20.

The Wonder Five era began in the fall of 1918, Vandivier’s freshman year and Coach Wagner’s third leading Franklin’s high school squad. The team had a strong season, losing just one game before tournament play. In January 1919, the Indianapolis Star described them as “one of the fastest passing quintets . . . [they] have both speed and stamina, and play a wonderful floor game with a fine degree of team work.” [2] They won the sectional tournament handily, outscoring their four opponents by a total score of 123-34, but fell to Crawfordsville 18-16 in the first round of the state tournament. [3] While the loss no doubt stung, hopes for the future were high. The majority of the team remained intact for the 1919-1920 season and players were eager to improve upon the previous year. They did not disappoint.

As early as November 1919, the Indianapolis News considered Franklin to be a “strong contender” for the state title. [4] They dominated their opponents throughout the season, again losing just one game, to Martinsville, on December 24, 1919. Newspapers frequently commented on their “stonewall defense,” their terrific passing game, their shooting accuracy, and perhaps most importantly, their remarkable sense of teamwork. [5] The team continued its winning ways through sectionals, where they again walloped their opponents by a total score of 174-50. Heading into the state tournament, they were the favorites to win it all. After three big victories, followed by a tight overtime victory over Anderson, Franklin defeated Jefferson High School of Lafayette 31-13 on March 13, 1920 to claim the first state championship for the school and forever cement their name in IHSAA history. [6] The Indianapolis News reported on the celebrations in Franklin in its March 15th issue:

Indianapolis News, March 15, 1920.

Franklin is hilarious today despite the fact that celebrations have been going on regularly since the results of the final game with Jefferson were flashed over the wires. The official Franklin city celebration did not take place until today. The jubilee started at [one] o’clock this afternoon and was scheduled to last until 6 this evening. A mammoth parade in which all the high school students, the greater part of the Franklin College student body, and hundreds of townspeople participated, was the first thing on the program. – Indianapolis News, March 15, 1920.

In a show of appreciation for leading the team and bringing a championship to the town, Franklin’s residents raised a $1,000 purse, which they presented to Coach Wagner shortly after the tournament. [7] With four of the team’s five starters graduating that spring, leaving only junior “Fuzzy” Vandivier, few could have expected Franklin to claim a second championship in 1921. Little did they know that Franklin’s period of basketball dominance was just beginning.

Advertisement promoting new electric score board, Franklin Evening Star, January 8, 1923, 5, accessed Newspapers.com.

Wagner frequently adjusted his Franklin High lineups early in the 1920-1921 season as he experimented with his new starters. The different combinations proved successful, as Franklin continued to score big wins early in the season. Despite losing four games throughout the year (twice as many as it had in its previous two seasons combined), the team proved that it was again a top contender for the state title. Fans came out in droves to support the team both at home and on the road, with tickets often selling out within minutes. During these years, Franklin alternated between playing their games at the South school gym and Franklin College’s gym, as their gymnasium at the high school was far too small. In December 1920, a new opportunity to follow the team presented itself when the Franklin Opera House placed an electronic score board on its stage. [8] The new scoreboard provided play-by-play coverage of the game for fans. As Ellett notes, “With radio still a novelty and television unheard of,” the electrical scoreboard provided an incredible opportunity for Franklin’s residents to gather together to follow the game “live” with friends and family. Interest in “watching” the game on the scoreboard became so high that its use at the Opera House (and in later years at the Artcraft Theatre as well) became commonplace throughout the Wonder Five years.

Franklin College Gymnasium, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History. The Franklin Wonder Five played many of their high school games in this gym to accommodate more fans.

Franklin’s continued success during the 1920-1921 season and its huge following helped underscore the need for a new high school gymnasium that could properly accommodate its fans. As the team prepared for another strong run in the tournament, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce began a season ticket drive for the following year in an effort to help raise the needed funds for construction of a new facility. The drive was successful, as Franklin’s loyal fans purchased 1,000 season tickets, a sign of their faith in and support of the team. [10] It quickly proved to be good investment, as Coach Wagner and his young men again advanced to the state tournament shortly after the drive’s completion.

The team defeated Anderson High School 35-22 on March 19, 1921 in front of more than 10,000 fans at the Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds for its second consecutive state championship. [11] According to the Richmond Palladium-Item, that evening, “a crowd of about 3,000 persons met the victorious squad at the town square and bonfires were built, yells were given and even the old canon [sic] gave vent to its feelings with an awful roar.” [12] Later that month, the Chamber of Commerce held an official celebration for the team that attracted thousands more. The team had again brought glory to the small town of Franklin.

Indianapolis News, February 25, 1922, 16, accessed Newspapers.com.

While fans were eager to see the team claim another state title in 1922, they also recognized the enormous difficulty of the task at hand. As the Franklin Evening Star noted on December 3, 1921, “Franklin high school admittedly has the hardest job of any team, for it will have to do the thing that has never yet been done, namely, capturing the state high school championship for three successive years.” [13] Despite a few losses, Franklin had another strong season and looked poised to make another run in the tournament.

Indianapolis News, March 17, 1922, 34.

With over 500 teams contending for a chance at the state title that year, the competition was fierce, but Franklin did not let the pressure get to them. On Saturday, March 18, 1922, the team made history when it defeated Terre Haute’s Garfield High School 26-15 for its third consecutive state title. [14] This remarkable feat would not be matched for over sixty years, when Marion won three straight state titles from 1984-1987.

Franklin High School Basketball Team, 1922, photo courtesy of the Johnson County Museum of History.

The end of the 1922 season symbolized a changing of the guard for Franklin High School in more ways than one. While the school would experience many other successful basketball seasons in the decades to come, the 1922 state championship was its last. In late April, Coach Wagner became athletic director and basketball coach at Franklin College. Franklin High School graduates Fuzzy Vandivier, John Gant, Carlyle Friddle, and Ike Ballard joined him there that fall in hopes of continuing their reign as champions. Coach Wagner began the 1922-1923 season by alternating between the college’s veteran players and his group of freshmen, but the freshmen quickly claimed the starting roles. As they had in high school, they continued to score impressive wins, drawing attention and praise from across the state.

Indianapolis News, March 2, 1923, 36.

By January 11, 1923, the Indianapolis News reported that:

Franklin College seems to have a world championship basketball team. This assertion may be made advisedly for basketball reaches its greatest state of perfection in Indiana and there is no team now playing in the state that appears to be able to conquer the Franklin five.

Twice that season, the team defeated the Indianapolis Omars, an independent professional team that many considered to be among the best in the Midwest. [15] These victories earned them further clout. Franklin College lost only once during the season, to Indiana University in December 1922. However, because IU refused to waive its rule preventing freshmen from playing in the game (as such, none of Coach Wagner’s former championship team could compete), the game is often omitted from Wonder Five history. [16] On Thursday, March 1, Franklin defeated Butler to secure the best record in the state and thus claim the 1923 state collegiate title. [17]

Richmond Palladium-Item, January 3, 1924, 10, accessed Newspapers.com

Franklin maintained a highly competitive schedule during the 1923-1924 season, playing and defeating the likes of Wisconsin, Marquette, and Notre Dame. The team lost just one game of the season, to Butler, and clinched their second consecutive state collegiate title in March 1924. [18]

There is only one team of any sort in the world that can’t lose. That is the Franklin College basketball team. When DePauw failed, why should others try? This machine is the nearest approach to perpetual motion that scientists have found and it seems not to be affected by flood, famine, or fate. – Muncie Star Press, February 10, 1924, 13.

Injuries and ineligible players hurt the team’s chances in 1925 and 1926 and Franklin fell short of the state title both years. Although the Wonder Five era had come to an end, the team’s legacy endured. Many players later coached basketball, imparting on other young men the skills they had learned under Coach Wagner. In 1962, Wagner and Vandivier were among the five charter members inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. John Gant was inducted five years later in 1967 and Burl Friddle (half brother of Carlyle Friddle) in 1969. Vandivier was also enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1975. [19] Even more important than individual honors though was the team’s impact, both on the town of Franklin and on Indiana basketball in general. For years they brought Franklin residents together and turned the state’s attention towards the small town. They had set a new bar for the quality of play that other teams would continually try to match for years to come.

Footnotes:

Note: All newspaper articles accessed via Newspapers.com.

[1] Phillip Ellett, The Franklin Wonder Five: A Complete History of the Legendary Basketball Team (RLE Enterprises, Inc., 1986), 1-2.

[2] “Shortridge Loses Again,” Indianapolis Star, January 23, 1919, 15.

[3] “Franklin Lost 18-16,” Franklin Evening Star, March 14, 1919, 1.

[4] “Franklin High Looms Up,” Indianapolis News, November 13, 1919, 25.

[5] Ibid.; “Rushville Easy for Franklin,” Franklin Evening Star, December 13, 1919, 2; “South Gains Comment for Splendid Playing,” Indianapolis News, January 26, 1920, 16.

[6] “Franklin Trounces Jefferson, 31 to 13, for State Net Title,” Indianapolis Star, March 14, 1920, 26.

[7] “Franklin Coach Awarded Purse,” Columbus Republic, March 18, 1920, 6.

[8] “Big Game at the Gym Friday Night,” Martinsville Reporter-Times, December 16, 1920, 1.

[9] Ellett, 58-59.

[10] “New Gym for Franklin,” Muncie Star Press, March 6, 1921, 15.

[11] “Franklin Defeats Anderson for Title, 35-22,” Indianapolis Star, March 20, 1921.

[12] “Franklin Does Honor to Quintet Champion,” Richmond Palladium-Item, March 22, 1921, 11.

[13] “Want County to Nail Three Championships,” Franklin Evening Star, December 3, 1921, 1.

[14] “Franklin High School Wins Title for Third Time,” Indianapolis Star, March 19, 1922, 25.

[15] “Vandivier Shines in 32-31 Victory,” Indianapolis Star, January 18, 1923, 10.

[16] “Local Freshmen Barred in I.U.-Franklin Game,” Franklin Evening Star, November 18, 1922, 1; “Baptists Defeat Omars, 36 to 29, in Last Half Rally,” Indianapolis Star, February 2, 1923, 13.

[17] “Franklin College Wins State Championship,” Franklin Evening Star, March 2, 1923, 1. Some sources claim that by winning the state championship, Franklin College was also the national champion during this period. Because the NCAA tournament did not start until 1939 and there was no other official national tournament at this time, it is difficult to definitively claim Franklin as the national champion. In fact, other schools like Kansas also try to lay claim to the “national” 1922 title. For more information about this, see Zach Miller’s “What Constitutes A Basketball Championship? Don’t Ask Kansas,” The Missourian, March 6, 2012.

[18] “Franklin Wins State Title,” Franklin Evening Star, March 5, 1924, 1.

[19] Details about the Wonder Five players is limited in this post due to space constraints. For more information on the players, specific games, and fan reactions, see “Franklin Wonder Five,” Marker File, #41.2020.1, Indiana Historical Bureau or Ellett’s The Franklin Wonder Five.

“All for Lebanon!”: A Retrospective of the 1917 Indiana High School Basketball Championship Season

In 1917, basketball was only twenty-five years old. Indiana high school basketball was a bit younger than that, and the state tournament was only in its seventh year (its sixth under Indiana High School Athletic Association control). Hoosier Hysteria was quickly taking root, as year after year more high school teams entered sectional tournaments with dreams of hardwood glory. Basketball in Lebanon began a bit later than other communities, but it quickly became a favorite sport of the town’s teenage boys. The school team’s reputation and skill-level improved year after year and culminated in a state title in 1912. Many influential figures in basketball’s development in the state walked the halls of Lebanon High School in the 1910s. The following narrative provides an overview of some of those people, and their accomplishments that culminated in Lebanon winning a second state basketball title in 1917.

Lebanon High School’s coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert was among the best Indiana high school coaches in the nineteen-teens. He came to Lebanon after their first state championship, and started coaching in the fall of 1912. He won 79% of his games in four seasons on the bench. His teams were perennial title contenders. Perhaps the best team that he coached at Lebanon was the 1914 squad, which due to an unfortunate draw in the state tournament played six games in a little over twenty-four hours before succumbing to fatigue and the well-rested, Homer Stonebraker-led, Wingate team, which won the 1914 crown. In 1915, Thorntown’s team surprised Coach Lambert’s squad in the sectional, and went on to win the 1915 title. Lambert and his boys reclaimed the sectional in 1916, but suffered a narrow, and disappointing defeat to Martinsville in the second round of the state tournament.

Lebanon coach Ward “Piggy” Lambert. Photo from Lebanon High School yearbook, The Cedars, 1915. Accessed via Ancestry.com

Lebanon projected to return most of its team the following season, including two impressive underclassmen who were first and third on the team in scoring. Unfortunately, Coach Lambert would not return for a fifth season. In the summer of 1916, he became the head basketball coach at Purdue University where he would go on to a hall-of-fame career, and positively influence generations of players, including John Wooden. Lebanon’s high school administrators hired Wabash College graduate Alva R. Staggs to replace Lambert, and teach English. However, Lambert’s coaching in the years before had honed athletic skills, developed high basketball IQs, and created a winning culture in his high school charges, and set the stage for Staggs’ successful season.

THE REGULAR SEASON 

Due to injuries and eligibility issues, the 1916-17 Lebanon squad did not start the season as anticipated. Three year letterman and team captain Frank “Doc” Little, who played back guard, would miss most of his senior season due to a hip injury. Gerald Gardner, who the Indianapolis News described as “evasive as a mosquito,” had been a third team all-tournament player in ’16 after accounting for 42% of Lebanon’s points. Yet, academic eligibility issues erased most of the forward’s junior season.

Don White, floor guard, led the team in scoring with 11.4 ppg during the regular and post season. His scoring accounted for 30% of the team’s offense. Photo from Lebanon High School yearbook, The Cedars, 1917. Accessed at Ralph W. Stark Heritage Center, Lebanon Public Library.

Even with these personnel losses, the Lebanon coach and players adapted. Staggs cycled through six different starting line-ups in the first ten games of the season. The two constants in the line-up were floor guard Don White and back guard Clyde Grater. White, a junior, was the team’s leading scorer as a sophomore and would retain the honor for the rest of his high school career. Grater, a sophomore, was in his first year on the varsity. At 5’ 8½” in height, he was much shorter than the prototypical back guard who was at this time the tallest and heaviest player on the team. Despite his average stature, Grater played the defensively-obsessed role very well. Other players who started for Lebanon in the early part of the season were George White (Don’s older brother), Charles “Dutch” Frank, Bob Ball, Harry “Peck” DeVol (the Whites’ first cousin), and Fred “Cat” Adam (the second-leading scorer from the previous season).

Lebanon rolled through the first half of the season. They compiled an 9-0 record against Veedersburg, Advance, Rockville, Washington, New Richmond (twice), Thorntown, Lafayette Jefferson, and Martinsville. The squad averaged ten points better than their opponents during this span. The game against defending state champ Lafayette Jeff was such an anticipated early season event that a Jeff physics teacher sent in-game updates via wireless to an amateur radio operator in Lebanon. The Lebanon receiver subsequently relayed updates of the game to local businesses via telephone.

Clyde Grater, defensive ace. Photo from Lebanon High School yearbook, The Cedars, 1918. Accessed at Ralph W. Stark Heritage Center, Lebanon Public Library.

After the triumph over Jeff, a few cracks appeared in the quality of the team’s play. A revenge-hungry New Richmond team played a physically rough game in which Lebanon escaped with a five point lead. In the next game, Lebanon had to go into overtime to defeat Martinsville by a last second field goal.  They returned home to play Advance, and the wheels fell off. The up-start Boone County rival shellacked Lebanon, 28-6. A week later Lebanon lost to another Boone County team in Thorntown, 30-20.

Although on a two-game losing streak, the “Black and Gold” had a 9-2 record and a favorable schedule ahead against Frankfort (twice), Crawfordsville (twice), an away game against Rochester, and home games against Jeff, Washington, Martinsville, and Bedford. Over the final ten games, Coach Staggs settled on a regular line-up of DeVol and Adam at forwards, Ball at center, and White and Grater in the back court. With this line-up, Staggs fielded a trio of his best scorers. White was the team’s most consistent scorer all season with ten points per game. Ball and Adam disappointed over the first ten games with averages of less than three points. However, once inserted into the starting line-up the duo averaged ten points a piece over the final 10 games. With five games left in the season, “Doc” Little and Gerald Gardner returned to the team. Their immediate contributions were minimal, but they bolstered the bench of a booming Lebanon team. Over the final nine games, the Lebanon cagers routed their opponents by over 26 points a game. On the season, the team compiled an 18-2 record, with an offensive average of 33.15 points a game, and a defensive average of 17.9 points against.

THE SECTIONAL TOURNEY

Fred “Cat” Adam, forward/center, averaged 7.5 ppg as a junior in ’17. Photo from Lebanon High School yearbook, The Cedars, 1917. Accessed at Ralph W. Stark Heritage Center, Lebanon Public Library.

The Indiana High School Athletic Association selected Lebanon as a district host for a sectional tournament, which was held on March 9 and 10, 1917. The townsfolk welcomed squads and fans from Boone, Carroll, and Clinton counties, including: Advance, Bringhurst, Burlington, Colfax, Cutler, Delphi, Flora, Frankfort, Jamestown, Kirklin, Thorntown, and Zionsville. Don White and company had little trouble with their first two sectional opponents, Cutler and Delphi, and defeated the Carroll County teams by an average margin of victory of 59 points.

Their next challenger, Thorntown, would present a much tougher match-up. The friendly rivals had split their regular season series. Thorntown also had the advantage of having three players and a coach from their championship season in 1915. The scores were close throughout the sectional game. Thorntown held a 10-9 lead at intermission. This was only the third time all season that Lebanon trailed at half time, and they lost on the previous two occasions. Don White determined to not let it happen again. He came out white hot in the second half with seven unanswered points. His scoring whipped the fans into a frenzy. Thorntown was down seven with a quarter to play. They clawed back, and cut Lebanon’s lead to three, but a series of miscues including two missed free throws sealed the fate of the Sugar Creek Township team.

Prognosticators picked the sectional final between Lebanon and Advance to be another tough contest, especially after Advance’s surprise victory over Lebanon at mid-season. However, Advance lost their star player to injury in the semi-final. To compound matters for Advance, Lebanon’s bench depth allowed Coach Staggs to flex his line-up to rest his regular starters and give “Doc” Little and Gardner some additional playing time. In the final, White’s 17 points almost outscored Advance single-handedly as Lebanon powered past Advance, 37-18.

THE STATE FINALS

On March 16, twenty sectional winners convened at Indiana University to vie for the state title. Lebanon played three uncompetitive contests in the early rounds to advance to the finals. They sank Trafalgar in their first contest, 34-14. In the quarterfinals, the Lebanonites left Kendallville tilting at windmills, 43-8. In the semis, the Boone County boys sent Martinsville packing, 36-12.

The final pitted Lebanon against the speedy Gary Emerson team. The majority of the crowd of 4,000 rallied behind the underdogs from Gary at the start. Yet the crowd grew silent as Lebanon built a 25-15 lead by half time. The Steel City team went on a run in the second half to make it a three point game. With the score at 25-22, Lebanon surged ahead with a 9-4 run to ice the game, 34-26. White and Adam tied for team highs with ten points a piece.

With the win, Lebanon won its second state championship. White was a consensus all-state tournament first team member. Adam, Little, and DeVol appeared on various all-tournament lists either on the first or second teams.

1917 Indiana basketball champion team from Lebanon. Photo from Lebanon High School yearbook, The Cedars, 1917. Accessed at Ralph W. Stark Heritage Center, Lebanon Public Library.

POSTSCRIPT

Coach Staggs left Lebanon after the school year to accept a job at Anderson High School. Little, DeVol, and Frank would join mid-season graduate George White in the ranks of Lebanon alumni. Bob Ball although technically a junior would leave high school and enter DePauw University, depriving the team of its second leading scorer. Yet the core of White, Grater, and Adam would return for the 1917-18 season. Under the tutelage of a new coach, Glenn Curtis, and a younger cast of supporting characters they would win the state tournament again, and join the historical annals with Wingate as back-to-back state champions.

After graduating in 1918, Don White reunited with his old coach, Ward Lambert, and continued his athletic career at Purdue. He was second in the Big Ten in scoring as a sophomore, and led the conference in scoring as a junior while also leading the university to the conference title in 1921. After college, White entered the coaching ranks where he had a thirty-five year career at Washington University (St. Louis), the University of Connecticut, and Rutgers. He even coached Thailand’s Olympic team in 1956.

After high school, Adam and Grater teamed together again at Wabash College where they were multi-sport athletes, and fixtures in the basketball line-up. After graduation they both became high school teachers and coaches.

Learn more about Lebanon High School basketball history with a presentation by IHB Director Chandler Lighty at the Lebanon Public Library. The talk takes place Monday, March 20, 2017 from 6-8 p.m. and includes a special viewing of an LHS 1967 basketball film.

Is This the Earliest Photo of an Indiana High School Basketball Game?

This may be the earliest photo of an Indiana high school basketball game. Wingate High School vs Kokomo High School, January 16, 1915 at Kokomo Y.M.C.A. Source: Kokomo High School yearbook, The Sargasso, 1915, accessed via Howard County Memory Project (howardcountymemory.net).

For all of basketball’s cultural worth to the state, finding a photo of a basketball game from before the 1920s is a difficult task. Early basketball team photographs are rather plentiful, and frequently appeared in yearbooks, and newspapers.  Action shots are much rarer, likely due to early-20th century Hoosiers having cameras that required long exposure times, which were unable to clearly capture moving subjects.

The introductory photo at the top of this blog post is the earliest that the Indiana Historical Bureau has yet to encounter of Indiana high school basketball players on the court, and about to play a game. The story behind the picture is an interesting one. The photo depicts the teams from Wingate High School and Kokomo High School before a January 16, 1915 game at the Kokomo Y.M.C.A. This moment was photographically commemorated because Wingate was the defending state champion, having won back-to-back titles in 1913 and 1914. Situated in northwestern Montgomery County, Wingate was a small school with only 67 students. Among those enrolled in that student body, however, was one of the best Indiana basketball players of that generation, Homer Stonebraker.  The 6’4″ Stonebraker was a giant among his competitors. In 15 of the 18 box scores that research could uncover from Wingate’s 1913-14 regular season, Stonebraker averaged 24.9 points a game. By comparison, Wingate’s opponents only generated 17.3 points a game. After leading Wingate to consecutive state titles, Stonebraker graduated in 1914, and matriculated at Wabash College where he continued his athletic success and eventually carved out an eleven season career playing with professional clubs and early American Basketball League affiliates like the Fort Wayne Caseys, the Detroit McCarthys, and the Chicago Bruins.

Wingate’s 1914 championship team. Stonebraker is seated in the middle of the first row.             Source: Indiana High School Athletic Association Annual Handbook for 1914, accessed via Indiana Memory.

Wingate was hardly the same team after Stonebraker’s graduation. On the eve of their Kokomo game in 1915 they could not even boast about their 5-6 record. To complicate their season, they cancelled most of their December games as a result of the entire town falling under a small pox quarantine. Despite their struggles, fans and the press continued to hype any contest against Wingate. The Kokomo Tribune announced:

This game Saturday will be the most important home game for the locals this season. Wingate’s team is a real championship contender again this year and a victory for Kokomo would mean that we also have a team of first class ability.

The very calm composure of the players in the photo taken before the game hardly indicated the animosity that developed in the ensuing contest. Kokomo lost the contentious game 31-15. The Indianapolis Star reported that “Wild scenes, which threatened frequently to break up the game, marked the second period of play and may result in . . . breaking off athletic relations.” The hired referee failed to show up for the game. Consequently, the two schools agreed to let a representative of each of the respective teams officiate one half each. Wingate led 13-7 at half time with Kokomo’s ex-player Tyner Spruce officiating. Wingate’s coach Hugh Vandivier refereed the second half and according to the newspaper reports showed favoritism to his own team, which drew the ire of the Kokomo fans. Ultimately, both squads would finish the season with disappointing records [Wingate (11-8) and Kokomo (7-10)], and neither team would advance out of their division tournaments to qualify for the state tournament.

1918 state championship game between Lebanon and Anderson at Indiana University’s “New” Gymnasium. Source: Indiana University yearbook, The Arbutus, 1918.

Attempts at basketball action photography continued to be a novelty throughout most of the 1910s. The 1918 title game between Lebanon and Anderson is one of the earliest-known attempts to photograph an Indiana high school championship game. Even then the visual chronicle leaves much to be desired, as the camera’s exposure time had yet to catch up to the action on the court.  All of the players are out of focus, and several are nothing more than blurs in the image.  Despite this, these pictures can give modern viewers small windows to glimpse the earliest years of Hoosier Hysteria.

For your bonus enjoyment, here’s another photo of a non-high school basketball practice from the 1912 Purdue University yearbook, The Debris. This photo is likely posed, which is why all the players are in focus with the exception of the top right defender’s blurry arms.

Purdue University yearbook, the Debris, 1912. Credit: Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries.

Do you know of any Indiana basketball action photographs that are earlier or contemporary with these shown here?  If so, let us know at ihb@history.in.gov.