A Voice from Hoops History

(March Madness is right around the corner, and the Library of Congress has an interesting connection to basketball’s invention. The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell for the Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.)

A portrait of James Naismith, who in 1891 invented the game of basketball. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

A portrait of James Naismith, who in 1891 invented the game of basketball. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.

Basketball, unique among major sports, has a clear creation story: We know when, where, why and how the game was invented, and by whom.

Now, some 125 years after the first game was played in a Massachusetts school gymnasium, we know something new: the sound of the creator’s voice.

A researcher recently discovered in the Library of Congress archives the only known audio recording of Dr. James Naismith – revealing, for the first time, the voice of the man who invented basketball, telling how he did it.

“Suddenly, out of nowhere, you have this very unique snapshot, kind of like putting your ear to the keyhole and hearing the past,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the Library’s Recorded Sound Section. “It’s really quite wonderful. There’s magic to it.”

The discovery was made by Michael J. Zogry, the director of indigenous studies and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas.

Zogry had been conducting research for a new book exploring the influence of Naismith’s religious beliefs on his work, including the invention of basketball.

“People tend to think of him as a sideline figure who created this game and that it kind of took off. But he was a very interesting person and he was a man of principle,” said Zogry, noting that Naismith declined to patent his game or try to get rich off it. “He lived those principles, he displayed those throughout his life – a great American success story.”

Seeking a Voice

Despite basketball’s great popularity in Naismith’s lifetime, no recorded interview with its inventor was known to exist. He appears in a least three films – all silent. Zogry, in the course of his research, had identified three potential audio recordings of interviews. Two leads were dead ends.

The third was a reference made in a Naismith biography to an interview on a popular radio program, “We the People,” in early 1939. Zogry was able to determine the broadcast date for that particular episode and eventually made an online reference request to the Recorded Sound Section.

The “We the People” recordings were part of the WOR-AM collection of radio programs donated to the Library on lacquer discs in 1984. The lacquer discs were transferred to tape and now are in the queue for digitization.

However, DeAnna said, many such collections come to the Library without in-depth cataloging – particularly variety shows such as “We the People.”

“The cataloging typically is pretty thin – usually the title of the show, the host and the date,” he said. “Beyond that, it’s difficult to analyze the content of these programs.”

In this case, the cataloging information didn’t include Naismith’s name. So, reference librarians in the Recorded Sound Research Center pulled the recording Zogry requested and heard history: Naismith describing, on the radio, the first basketball game ever played.

“I practically jumped – ‘My God, a recording of James Naismith,’ ” DeAnna said. “I had never heard that there was a recording of him, so it was pretty special.”

The Library provided the audio to Zogry, who soon had a special moment of his own: Zogry played the recording for Naismith’s 79-year-old grandson Jim Naismith – the first time he’d ever heard his grandfather’s voice.

“That was a terrific moment,” Zogry said.

Peach-Basket Ball

James Naismith had been working as a physical instructor at what is now Springfield College in Massachusetts during the winter of 1891, seeking something to occupy his students during a New England blizzard.

So, he nailed two peach baskets up at opposite ends of the gym floor, divided his charges into two teams of nine – sides would be reduced to five in later years – and told them the object of his new game: pass the ball up the court and throw the ball into the opposing team’s basket.

Naismith’s game, with modified rules, spread around the globe. The YMCA introduced basketball internationally by 1893, the first pro league formed in 1898, major colleges adopted the sport in the early 1900s and, in 1936, the Olympics added basketball as an official sport, with Naismith on hand to present the medals.

Three years later, Naismith went to New York in early January to attend a college basketball doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. While there, he submitted to the “We the People” interview with host Gabriel Heatter.

In the brief segment – the recording is about 2.5 minutes long – Naismith describes how he came up with the game and the first contest ever played.

Naismith quickly realized, he told Heatter, that he’d made a big mistake: This game seriously needed more rules.

“The boys began tackling, kicking and punching in the clinches. They ended up in a free-for-all in the middle of the gym floor,” Naismith said. “Before I could pull them apart, one boy was knocked out, several of them had black eyes, and one had a dislocated shoulder.

“It certainly was murder.”

The boys kept nagging Naismith to let them play again, so he sat down and wrote 13 basic rules that served as the foundation for how the game is played.

“The most important one was that there should be no running with the ball; that stopped tackling and slugging,” Naismith said. “We tried out the game with those rules, and we didn’t have one casualty – we had a fine, clean sport.”

No Brogue, New Mystery

 The recording offered something of a surprise: “Accounts suggested he had something of a Scottish brogue,” Zogry said. “He sounded like an elderly gentleman from the Midwest.”

It also created a mystery: Previous accounts said that the rules were written before the first game, not after. Zogry suggests that Naismith, trying to please the show’s producers, might have been reading from a script, perhaps provided by the program.

“Whether he wrote what he said or someone else did, I think that he felt it was in the spirit of what he was trying to get across,” Zogry said.

Naismith died only 10 months after the interview, leaving a newly discovered recording that, Zogry said, helps reveal a modest and humble man who invented something great.

“In this day and age where media is ubiquitous,” Zogry said, “to be able to find something like this is extraordinary.”

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