Washington’s Capital Caps

[In the late 1ate 1940s, a teen-aged kid named Elgin Baylor won a free-throw shooting contest at his Washington, D.C. junior high school. Baylor’s prize: Tickets to an upcoming Washington Capitols game. The Capitols, a.k.a., the Caps, played downtown at Uline Arena, which Jerry West later described in his book Mr. Clutch as “the single worst court I’ve ever played on.” It was, however, the best basketball venue going in Washington, which explains  why pro basketball was slow to catch on in the city. 

For Baylor, his evening in old Uline Arena was simply magical. As Baylor later recounted, he couldn’t believe that grown men could make a living playing his favorite sport. According to Baylor, that’s when he decided that someday he wanted in on this pro basketball action, too. That action was in the segregated Basketball Association of America (BAA), the precursor of the NBA and the Caps were one of its charter members.

In 1954, when Baylor finished high school, the BAA and the Caps were already long gone. The BAA had merged with the National Basketball League, its older rival, to form the NBA. The Caps went bust in 1950, but stuck around just long enough to take part in the NBA’s integration with Earl Lloyd. 

But during their short existence, the Caps were a top-flight pro team, coached by the young Red Auerbach. Red is the guy wearing a suit in the photo above. The article below was published in the magazine Sports World in May 1949. Bob Addie, a beloved local sportswriter, then with the Washington Times-Herald and better known for his long run with Washington Post. Addie passed away in 1982.

Just for the record, the book Let Me Tell You a Story, co-authored by Auerbach and John Feinstein in 2004, recounts a little differently the story in this article about Auerbach’s obsession with signing Bones McKinney and following him into a public restroom. Here is Red’s version:

“The only guy I really wanted that I didn’t think I could get was Bones McKinney. He was 6-foot-8, could run, shoot. But someone told me he had already signed a contract with Chicago. I thought I’d lost him. 

“I figured I’d call him anyway just to make sure. He said to me, ‘I haven’t actually signed with them yet, but I’m taking a train out there next week and I’m going to sign then.’ I said, ‘Train? you’re taking a train from North Carolina?’ He said he didn’t like to fly. He said he was going to take a train to Washington, lay over there for a couple of hours, long enough to get something to eat or something, then take an overnight train to Chicago. 

“I had an idea. I said, ‘I’ll meet you at Union Station and buy you dinner.’ He agreed. I met him there, took him out for dinner, and I said, ‘How much they gonna pay you?’ He said $6,750. I told him I’d pay him $6,750 and, being on the East Coast, he’d be closer to home and wouldn’t have to fly nearly as much since most of the teams were in the East. He took the deal and never went to Chicago.”

Which story is correct? Let’s ask Bones McKinney. In his 1988 book, aptly titled Bones, he wrote:

“I actually signed my first professional basketball contract with the Providence Steamrollers. My skinny bones and thin blood sent me a message that it was too cold in Rhode Island, so I tore up that contract. Next I agreed to sign with the Chicago Stags. Their owner, Arthur Morse called and said they had built their new arena just for me. I hadn’t heard that much horse manure since the vacuum cleaner salesman came to Lowland, but I agreed to catch the train to Chicago and talk. 

“My bones sent me another message that it was too windy in Chicago and my skinny frame might be blown into Lake Michigan. Before I could buy my train ticket, the sly devil Red Auerbach called and said he would be coaching the new Washington Capitols. He said he understood I planned to sign with the Stags, but he would like to chat with me when the train stopped in Washington. The next thing I knew, the train had long gone and I was drinking whiskey sours in the Blackstone Hotel bar. At about midnight in the marble floored toilet of that same Blackstone Hotel, I suddenly became outlandishly rich I was to be paid $6,750 [about $95,000 today] for the season with a $500 advance . . . In our “toilet contract,” Red wanted me as a back-up center to John Mahnken. He also wanted me to clown and help draw a crowd.”

Bob Feerick

Poor George Washington who fathered a country, a state, and a number of cities has been maligned in a sports way all these years because of his most illustrious offspring, the city of Washington, D.C.—sometimes called the “District of Confusion.”

The Washington Senators for years have reclined on or near the bottom of the baseball well—except for a war-year fluke. Last season, the city’s football representatives, the Washington Redskins, played like sleep-walkers, thus earning the label ”Deadskins” from long-suffering reporters who concluded the squad was testing a new form of fan torture. The Washington Lions, an alleged hockey team in the AHL, couldn’t beat P.S.38 on a frosty morning. The college grid teams representing Georgetown, Maryland (considered Washington property), George Washington and Catholic universities were severally and severely mauled during the 1948 season. And Washington prize fighters, as a group, couldn’t avoid a beating while shadowboxing. 

But all this red ink on the records side of the athletic ledger is canceled out by the newest darlings of the town, the Washington Capitols, otherwise known as the Caps. There was a time in the 1947-48 BAA season when it appeared the club would succumb to the municipality’s general mediocrity in sports and some wags were calling the Caps “The Lower Cases.” But, hark ye, that’s all past. 

The Caps are composed of four-fifths top-notch basketball players and one-fifth downright genius—the last being Robert Joseph Feerick, a lad who has been twice named to the Basketball Association of America All-Star team following election to the National [Basketball] League “All” squad in his first and only year with Oshkosh, and same being the player who was picked for the All-Service team while playing with the Norfolk Naval Air Training Station as a Navy Chief Specialist during the war. 

Of all the outstanding stars in sports, less has been reported of this quiet, curly-haired Irishman than anyone else in the business. But let’s start from the beginning. 

Back in 1944, a couple of ex-basketball players, both Navy Chiefs, met in Norfolk. One was Feerick, who had shucked off the tedium of the business career he began after a brilliant basketball success at Santa Clara, and the other was an auburn-haired, tough-talking kid from Brooklyn, Arnold (Red) Auerbach, who had gained pre-war fame of his own as a cager at George Washington University. 

It was a bit early to talk of the future because of the stubborn reluctance of the Germans and the Japs to holler “Uncle Sam.” But both young men thriftily began to chart the years to come and agreed that someday they’d like to be hoop pros. Red, the businessman, was then coaching the famed Norfolk (Va.) Naval Training School and one of his stars, natch, was Feerick. The Tars were rated the No. 1 team in the country, and Auerbach figured all he needed was a franchise and Feerick and the future would take care of itself. 

The Basketball Association of America was formed in the summer of 1946 and, with it, Miguel J. Uline, owner of the blimp-shaped ice arena, bought a franchise and hired Auerbach. The hustling redhead did the rest and beat the bushes for stars, eventually fashioning a red-hot team, which in its first year won 49 and lost 11. But the Caps weren’t too deep in reserves, and the end of the long schedule found them dragging, wan, and physically done in, as they lost the playoff to Chicago. 

In the 1947-48 season, the Caps fell slightly apart, with the exception of the dependable Feerick, and won 28 while losing 20. Then came a successful season again this year and a whole new generation of pro basketball fans began to wonder who Feerick was and is. 

Robert Joseph was born in San Jose, Cal. 28 years ago and spent his early life following the normal routine of selling papers and later graduating to soda-jerking. He attended San Francisco’s Lowell High, which is something like the Notre Dame of high school basketball out there, and naturally he made the team. Then came four years at Santa Clara from 1937 to 1941—full years of basketball that won him all-sectional honors—and a BS degree. 

While in college, Feerick did a little boxing on the side. He grew from a stringy kid to a 6-foot-3, 190-pounder and he hasn’t changed an ounce in seven years. He’s a handsome gent with a classic profile and black, curly hair. Washington feminine fans, who don’t know (or care about) a set from a hook shot, crowded arena stands to sigh waisted sighs because he’s happily married to his schooldays sweetheart, Eleanor, and has two kids, Bob. Jr., 6, and Dick 3.

After college Feerick decided there was more money in basketball than boxing, but there were no pro teams comparable to today’s setup. So he went to work for a milk company as credit manager. Of course, he played a little basketball for the dairy people “on the side.” Thinking it over he says: “I don’t know how hot I was as a credit manager, but I guess they hired me because I could play basketball.”

That he certainly could. Playing with the Golden State five, he helped fashion a winning streak of 29 in a row which took the club all the way to the national AAU finals at Denver in 1942. 

Came time for war service and Feerick enlisted in the Navy. “I started in bell bottoms,” he says, “and finally worked my way to the big wheels department—which means I was chief. I was in service 2 1/2 years and contributed nothing but my court ability to the war effort.”

At Norfolk Naval Training Station, Feerick captained the quintet which was widely recognized as the top service team, playing with Red Holzman of Rochester; Bob Carpenter of Oshkosh; Matt Zunic and John Norlander, now with the Caps; Bill Strannigan, former All-American at Wyoming; and Providence’s Kenny Sailors, among other fast-stepping court standouts. 

In December 1945, Feerick was discharged and began to shop around. He had an offer to play for a San Francisco “amateur” team at a salary of $1,000 a month—this light soupçon of work to be included in the deal, such as raising the windows before going to bed and other backbreaking tasks. Somehow, the offer slid down to $800 then $500 and then $350. Feerick liked basketball—but not that much. He wanted to buy a house in San Jose and realized he would have some little difficulty paying for it with a wife, two babies, and four healthy appetites to support. 

So Feerick sent telegrams to Chicago, Oshkosh, and Rochester—all of the National Basketball League at the time—painting himself in glowing terms. For the modest Feerick, that must have been quite a job. “Gosh,” he recalls, “I’ve never been so conceited in my life. I felt like a fool.”

What great, glowing accolade did he give himself? How did he puff his importance?

“Oh, I told them: ‘I played at Santa Clara and in the Navy. Do you think you have room for me?’”

Apparently, Oshkosh was up on its basketball players and promptly wired Feerick an offer, which he accepted. Even for one as innocent as he is about his ability, Feerick admits he “had a good year” in 1945-46 with Oshkosh. He was selected as the league’s rookie of the year as well as an all-league first teamer. 

It was at the loop playoffs that Auerbach, the city-slicker, lured the handsome guard away. The brash Red didn’t have the Caps job yet, but he was going to sell himself by lining up the players first. He talked so sweetly that Feerick followed his old buddy, and there began one of the most successful combinations in basketball. 

Auerbach’s opinion of Feerick makes ordinary hero worship sound like an insult. “There’s never been another player like him,” Red insists. “He’s just great. He’s fast, he can shoot, he can play a great defensive game, he sets up plays—well, he just does everything right. In addition to that, he’s a grand leader. That’s his trouble—he’s so much of a team man, he doesn’t shoot as often as he should, and he’s the best shot we have.”

Feerick’s specialty is the one-hand push shot so popular with West Coast collegians. “Hank Luisetti, of Stanford, originated it,” he explains. “I saw Hank play when I was 16 years old in high school. Before that, I used to shoot the orthodox, two-handed way, but Luisetti looked so good I decided to try it. I practiced and practiced and finally got so I could do it. It’s a great shot from within 30 feet because it’s so easy to control and so hard to stop. It’s not more accurate than that two-handed shot, but it’s a whole lot faster.”

Feerick sets the ball in his right hand like a waiter going by with a tray and then seems to push it easily through the cords. Either he’s exceptional at the shot or he doesn’t know his own accuracy because, in his first and best year with the Caps, he led the league in sharpshooting for 1946-47 by getting 364 goals out of 908 attempts—a remarkable .401 percentage. He also accounted for 926 points in 55 games that season, a 16.8 points average per game, which put him second to Philadelphia’s Joe Fulks in total scoring. 

How does he do it? Well, that one-hand shot is positively uncanny. “The best in the business,” Feerick admits, forgetting modesty in his desire for truth. His set shots he gets off sidearm, almost from hip-height. It’s almost impossible to guard against. “People rarely spot it,” he says, “but my elbow is slightly crooked. A broken arm I got as a kid never healed properly. It’s nothing serious, but that’s why I shoot the way I do.”

Famed referee Pat Kennedy recently picked the five best basketball players he has seen in 18 years of calling hoop shots. Bob Feerick was one of the quintet. 

While Feerick is great, he does have some help [from his fellow Caps]. Among his constituents are: Clarence (Kleggie) Hermsen of Minnesota; Sidney (Sonny) Hertzberg of City College of New York; Leo Katkavek of North Carolina State; Dick O’Keefe of Santa Clara; John Norlander of Hamline; Matt Zunic of George Washington; Dick Schulz of San Francisco University; Jack Nichols of the University of Washington; Horace (Bones) McKinney of North Carolina, and Fred Scolari of San Francisco.

Auerbach, of course, is the boss of the squad. There’s no division. But Red and Bob make a perfect working team and the rest of the players accept as orders any suggestions Feerick makes in the game. While Red is on a ceaseless personal quest for talent, he’s considerably influenced by Feerick, who has recommended O’Keefe, Schulz, and Scolari.

Fat Freddie Scolari

Fred Scolari would be a story in himself. He’s a round , little man of 27 who is a stump among the basketball Redwoods because he’s only 5-feet-10 inches tall and weighs about 180 lbs. That would be enough to make him a freak in this modern game. Freddie looks like anybody’s idea of a contented bartender, and the first time he waddled up to Auerbach, Red thought Feerick must have gone mad to have recommended him. 

Scolari and Feerick were kids together. They were buddies from the time they used to roam the San Francisco waterfront and combine in battle against mutual enemies. Their paths separated briefly during their college days, but the boys never lost contact with each other. 

Scolari was never considered a basketball player by anyone else except Feerick, a fact which breeds the suspicion that Bob was prejudiced. Fat Freddie wasn’t good enough as an undergraduate to make a San Francisco U. squad that lost 17 straight games—at least his coach didn’t think he was. But then Scolari’s coach didn’t have Feerick’s ability to size up talent. 

“So I’m waiting for the sensation, Scolari,” Auerbach recalls. “We were working out then at the George Washington gym. A fat kid comes up to me and says: ‘I’m looking for Red Auerbach. Who’s he?’ I tell him: ‘Go away, boy, you bother me.’ Then he says: ‘I’m Fred Scolari. Bob Feerick told me to see you.’

“Well, I almost swallowed my whistle, I want big men; the bigger the better. Feerick knows it. What do I get? A guy who looks like a fat dame in slacks. He puts on a basketball suit and I’m feeling worse. When he turns around it looks like the queen Mary backing into port. But Bob is my friend, you understand, so I sit down on the bench. I’m too weak to take much more. I put my head in my hands and ask why this has to happen to me. The things you do for friends.”

“I look up and I can’t believe my eyes. This Scolari doesn’t seem to be moving. Or maybe he carries a motor. But he’s all over the court. And shoot? Man, he pushed that one-hand shot and you could blow the chords in the basket and make more motion in them than his shots do. And what a ballplayer he’s been.”

Indeed he has. The little man who looked like a fireplug has been the sparkplug of the team. The Washington basketball writers, like Bob McClean of the Times Herald, Morris Siegel of the Washington Post, and Bill Fuchs of the Evening Standard say Scolari has the fastest pair of hands in the business. He’s like a terrier when he guards, and it’s annoyed many a big man who couldn’t shake off the pudgy puppy yapping at his heels.

Scolari, a San Francisco bank teller in the offseason, is the team battler. He has been embroiled in several fist fights with Harry (Buddy) Jeannette, Baltimore’s playing coach. Then there was the time Freddie tangled with Grady Lewis, also a player coach, of the St. Louis Bombers. Lewis stands 6-feet-7 and weighs 215 pounds, which gives him an advantage of nine inches and 35 pounds. The incident happened in St. Louis, and the furious Scolari started tossing punches—almost giving Grady water on the knee. So the crowd booed Scolari for taking advantage of a poor l’il kid. 

Bones McKinney

Another colorful character toiling for the Caps is Horace Albert (Bones) McKinney. Bones looks like all undertakers should look. At 30, he’s thin-shanked and lugubrious, with a slow shuffle that makes him look like an unjointed doll about to fall apart. Bones thriftily spreads his 185 pounds over a 6-feet-6 in. frame and he flops around the court like a seal pleased with himself. But the good-natured forward is the workhorse of the team and seems to have wings whenever a shot is made, because he’s always right up there waiting to get the rebounds.

It’s a strange story how McKinney was signed by Washington. He was an All-American player at North Carolina and decided to stir himself and play a little pro basketball. The Chicago Stags had made him an offer, and Horace allowed as how he’d go to the big city and talk it over. On the way up from his house in Durham, N.C., he stopped in Washington. 

Auerbach had been waging a frantic campaign to get McKinney to Washington, but Bones was being coy. So Red had his secret agents check every movement McKinney made. Bones was stopping at the Statler [Hotel] and went into the men’s room where—Surprise! Surprise!—he found the fast-talking Auerbach. Unused to Red’s eloquent rhetoric and convincing wheedling, Bones found himself signing right then and there. Red just happened to have a contract handy. The Stags, of course, screamed “foul” and intimated Auerbach must have wined and dined McKinney in royal fashion to get Bones’ name on a contract. This is just so they’ll know. 

McKinney’s charm for the fans, in addition to his clutch playing, is his total disregard for decorum. If a foul is called on him, he lies prone on the floor and beats the boards in anguish with his bare hands, like a wrestler going into his act. He jokes with spectators as he’s dribbling down the floor; warns the opposition which man he’s going to pick off, and animatedly discusses world events with the officials. The first year he played in the league, the other teams thought McKinney was some kind of a nut. But they soon gained respect for his icy nerves and dead eye. 

On one occasion, the Caps were playing the Philadelphia Warriors on the latter’s court. Joe Fulks, of course, is the Philadelphia hero, and a packed house booed in derision when Bones was ejected from the game for fouling out. Bones took his good time while the referee impatiently juggled the ball. McKinney went to the Warriors’ bench and knelt in front of the uneasy Philadelphia coach, Eddie Gottlieb. Then Bones salaamed three times. He got up, walked back to Fulks on the foul line and repeated his performance. Once more, he got up and did it again in front of the purple referee. Then, with a Sarah Bernhardt gesture of farewell, Bones walked off the court, looking very much like a broken man. 

Another time he was in St. louis and the crowd was unusually quiet. Not a sound as each team scored. Finally, Bones sank a foul shot. he bowed to the stands on the left, then to the right, and led furious applause for himself. Every time the Caps play in St. Louis now, the fans immediately yell for McKinney. 

Feerick, Scolari, and McKinney represent the Caps most potent scoring punch. In the 1947-48 season, Feerick finished as fourth highest scorer in the league with 775 points in 48 games, an average of 16.1 points per game. Scolari was tenth on the list last year with 589 points in 47 games for a 12.5 point average. McKinney bucketed 485 points in 43 games—just better than 11 points per game.

Feerick made 293 goals out of 861 attempts for a .340 shooting average, sank 189 fouls out of 240, and was charged with 139 personal fouls in what was a so-so season for him. Scolari netted 229 goals out of 780 tries for a .293 accuracy mark and registered 131 out of 179 fouls. He had 153 fouls called against him. The leader of the Caps in that department always is McKinney because of his unyielding stubbornness about letting the other man shoot. Last year, Bones had 176 personal fouls called on him, while racking up 121 fouls out of 188 and making 182 field goals out of 680 tries for a .268 scoring percentage. 

The trio, of course , doesn’t represent the total strength of the Caps. Another dependable performer is John Norlander, a lanky ex-Navy man who used to tape the boys up while doubling as team trainer. This is before the Caps got rich enough to afford George (Doc) Lentz, who each summer carries the black bag filled with medical supplies for the Senators baseball team. Norlander forms, with the other three, Auerbach’s dependables. Red always has at least two of them in the game. 

The Caps got great help as a result of the trade with Baltimore, in which they obtained Kleggie Hermsen for the colorful, but unpredictable, laughing boy from Georgetown, John Mahnken. The latter’s great forte was practical jokes, but Red didn’t see the humor and shipped Big John away. Mahnken wasn’t much of a man off the backboards, and poor, old Bones had to do it alone. But Hermsen has shared the load this past season.

O’Keefe and Hertzberg are the aggressive boys of the team with a lot of ketchup in their play. They’re both fine set shot artists and have pulled quite a few games out of the fire on the nights the dependables went into a mass slump. Schulz, Zunic, Katkavek, and Jack Nichols, a newcomer, round out the squad and give the Caps the depth they never had before. 

What’s the reason for the Caps’ success? Auerbach says it’s due to the fact his boys “can outrun, outhustle, and outshoot anybody in the league.” Auerbach insists his team has only four basic plays. As Feerick explains it: “It isn’t the plays so much as the fact that, playing together, we have a sort of understanding or mental telepathy. We know each other so well, we can anticipate when we’re going to break or pick off. We think we’re the best-conditioned team in the league and the fastest. Speed is our keynote—that and a good eye.”

How do the Caps stop men like Minneapolis’ George Mikan, Philadelphia’s Joe Fulks, Chicago’s Max Zaslofsky, Providence’s Kenny Sailors, and other great shooting stars? “We don’t” chorus Auerbach and Feerick. “Surprised, huh?” presses Red. “You think we have elaborate defenses set up. But we don’t. We figure it this way. If we drop off a man in order to put two guys on the big boys, we lose a man. Take Mikan, for instance. No matter what you do, he’s going to get his high average. So we play him with one man and let him go. That way, we’re not weakening ourselves and giving one of his teammates a chance to score 15 points more than he ordinarily would. So Mikan averages 30 points. We think he’ll get his 30 no matter what. But it’s better than letting him get 30 and another man 15 more. That’s 45 points. So we cut down by 15 points playing Big George with just one man.”

What do the Caps think of the rest of the league? Oddly, they have thought all season that the Western division is much stronger than their own Eastern league, which is quite an admission. Feerick likes Rochester and Minneapolis best, then St. Louis and Chicago. In the East, he picked Baltimore and Philadelphia as having the best chances to make the playoffs. 

As for the playoffs, there’s quite a financial stake riding. It works this way: the No. 1 team plays the No. 4 team, while clubs No. 2 and 3 meet in each division. These games are two out of three. When that’s settled in the finals, the East and West winners play three out of five for the title. Winning a division flag means a team bonus of $5,000. The club which emerges with the BAA championship hauls down $1,900 per man [today, $21,054]—which isn’t bad pickings. 

The Caps are well paid. There is a legal limit of $58,000 per squad, and there’s reason to suspect that every penny of that maximum is used to pay the Washington club’s talented personnel. Red doesn’t give out salary figures. Neither does placid Mike Uline, who has disposed of a lot of details since a recent illness. However, Feerick, for instance, generally is believed to be the highest-paid ballplayer in the league. Since Minneapolis’ Mikan gets $15,000, that would put Bob into really impressive brackets. The rest of the Caps get between $8,000 and $10,000 this season with Scolari, McKinney, and Norlander as the prize breadwinners. 

The 28-year-old Feerick seems well-set financially right now. He’s a quiet boy who likes to spend most of his spare time, when he isn’t playing or practicing, with his family. His only hobby is golf. He always affects sports clothes, and he and Auerbach have a passion for sports jackets in unrestrained patterns. He’s always deprecating himself, but he’s no dope. He knows how good he is and someday he’s going to make that knowledge pay enough to give him that house in San Jose. 

His favorite basketball players are Mikan, Fulks, Zaslofsky, John Logan, McKinney, and Scolari. His coach, of course, would be Red.

“There’s a team that would have everything,” Feerick says. “Good shooting, fine defense, speed and guts.”

Everything, that is, except Feerick.

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