The Original Celtics (Part I), 1949

[In March 1952, Red Auerbach was winding down his second season as head coach of the Boston Celtics. His Celtics were about to drop the division title to Syracuse, but things were looking up in Boston, and people were starting to ask questions about just how good Auerbach’s men in shamrock green really were. “How would the Boston Celtics fair against New York’s Original Celtics?” asked a reporter, referring to the “immortal assembly” that helped popularize pro basketball in the 1920s. 

“If the Boston Celtics didn’t win by 40 points, they would have to stand in a corner, ashamed of themselves,” Auerbach belittled the question. He added, “Great as they were by old standards, the Original Celtics could not compare to an NBA team of today—even Joe Lapchick admits it.”

Lapchick was the Original Celtics’ famous skyscraper of a center at a lanky 6-foot-5. Auerbach scoffed that Lapchick would be “a small man” in the 1950s NBA. “The Boston Celtics would beat the Original Celtics easily because they could play volleyball over the heads of those old players, and they’d take everything off both boards . . .

“I’ve heard it said by old timers that the Original Celtics would ‘defend us to death and would rough us up. Hah! Why, backcourt boys in our league, would knock ‘em on their pants . . . On defense, a player with the Boston Celtics today has to do 10 times as much work as did the Original Celtics, who played in the era of defensive ball and were masters of it.

“The Original Celtics had to defend against just two things—a two-hand set shot and a right-handed dribble. A player on today’s Boston Celtics must defend against a variety of shots that were never heard of in the old days—hooks with either hand, one-hand push shots, fall-away push shots, running shots of all types.”

There you have it. Except Auerbach’s Boston Celtics truly walked in the footsteps of the Original Celtics. These barnstorming, trailblazing band of brothers in basketball helped to make all those hooks, one-hand pushes, and fall-away shots come to pass in the NBA. What’s more, their team history is an absolutely fascinating one. 

There is no better person to tell it than writer Tom Meany, who grew up in New York watching the Original Celtics. Meany published this classic article in the February 1949 issue of SPORT Magazine, and it’s L-O-N-G. So long, in fact, it’ll need to be published in two installments, starting here with part one.]

It was balmy that winter in Miami, perhaps the balmiest winter that Florida’s great resort city ever was to know, both as to weather and real estate prices. The great hurricane of 1926 was still many months away. In fact, it wasn’t until the following September that it came swooshing out of the Caribbean to send buildings and prices tumbling.

The great storm was still in the future, and January and February were months of enjoyment. Every night was New Year’s Eve; every afternoon was the Fourth of July. Jack Dempsey, still the heavyweight king, was building a hotel—who wasn’t in Miami in those days?—and looking for an “added attraction.” William Jennings Bryan, the Great Commoner, was lending his silver tongue to the sale of lots in Coral Gables, so Dempsey cast about for an antidote. He chose, of all people, the Original Celtics, the greatest basketball team the world had ever seen.

It was a lucrative lark for the Celtics, as were all their basketball junkets in those days. They went Julius Caesar one better, for they came, they saw, they conquered—and they had a rollicking good time. Along with Bryan, with Al Schacht and Nick Altrock, the baseball comedy team, the Celtics, too, made their contribution to the sound and fury of Miami in that hectic season. 

Soon it was time for the Celtics to go to work again. Jim Furey, their energetic and industrious manager, had booked them for a game in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There were complications, too, as there so often were in those pioneering days of professional basketball. Nat Holman, one of the most-valued operatives on the Celtics roster, had to return to New York for business reasons. One of their members happened to find Benny Borgeman, a star scorer from Paterson, New Jersey, at a dog track one night. So, Benny was brought along, like many others before and since, to wear the shamrock jersey and be a member of the Original Celtics, even if only for a one-night stand.

It was characteristic of the Celtics that they neither knew nor cared how many miles it was from Miami to Chattanooga. Furey merely booked a game for them, and they went and played it. The next stop was always just around the corner as far as the Celtics were concerned. That Chattanooga was almost as far from Miami as Chicago is from New York came as a distinct surprise to the Celts, the most traveled of all basketball teams but also the most disinterested as to the details of their journeys.

Dutch Dehnert (left) in his latter years with Bill Russell.

“We were dog-dirty and tired when we got off the train at Chattanooga,” recalls Dutch Dehnert. “There were a bunch of guys on the platform, a committee or something, to greet the great Celtics. And there we were, five of us—Johnny Beckman, Pete Barry, Joe Lapchick, Borgeman, and me. And crummy-looking, too, after being on the train about 20 hours.

“Naturally, these guys wanted to know where the rest of the squad is. So Beckie says, ‘This is all there is, there isn’t any more.’ Then he tells them they can cut out the sightseeing tour they had planned for us, just get us to the hotel, let us get a hot bath, a shave, and an hour’s nap. ‘We’ll be in the dressing room at eight,’ he tells them, although it is then nearly five. Well, I don’t know about the others, but they had a tough time waking me up at 7:30. Beckman is going around whacking us on the soles of our feet with a shoe to get us out of bed.

“We were playing in some auditorium, and they had a good crowd with lots of standees. The club we were playing was [Bill Redd’s] Chattanooga Railites, a local industrial outfit and rated pretty good. They were already out on the court when we come on, about a dozen of them in nice new uniforms, zipping the ball around and putting on a great show.

“They stopped to watch us when we came out, and I’ll ever forget how surprised they looked. The crowd started to give us a hand and then stopped almost before it started. There had been no time to get our uniforms laundered, and we looked like five guys who’d just wandered in off the street.

“There was silence when we started to warm up, because we just stood back and took lazy pop shots and lobbed the ball to one another. The crowd didn’t know what to make of it. They probably figured they’d been jobbed, and the promoter had rung in a lot of stumblebums. Finally, we broke a sweat and practiced a little faster, and then the game got underway. 

“Lapchick was a dandy at getting the tap. We had set plays from the tap, which no other club had ever heard of in those days. Beckie went in and took the first tap from Joe, passed over his head to me, and I went under and laid one up, coming up from the guard position. Then Lapchick batted the next tap back to Barry, the other guard, and Pete dribbled in to score. We must have had eight goals in two minutes, and we’re in front 30 to 1 before there’s a timeout. 

“The Railites were using a standing guard, something which has long since gone out of basketball. The fellow stood right on his own foul line and never went upcourt, even when his own club had the ball. 

“In the timeout, Beckman said, ‘We’ll have to move that guard out of there. He’s breaking up our passes when we cut.’ Then I volunteered to stand in front of him, explaining that instead of him breaking up our passes, they could pass to me, and I could give it back.

“When play was resumed, I moved up in front of this fellow. Beckman passed to me and I passed to Borgeman, who was coming in from the other side. Then Barry passed to me, kept coming, and I passed right back to him. All of a sudden, a great light dawned, and I took time out. 

“We all went into a huddle and discussed the possibilities of this maneuver that we had accidentally hit on. Beckman was enthusiastic, and we knew if Beckie liked it we had something, because Johnny was the smartest man who ever played basketball.

“This was the pivot play, but we didn’t even know it at the time. A couple of minutes later, however, the standing guard, in an effort to bat the ball out of my hands, moved around to my right side. All I had to do was pivot to my left, take one step, and lay the ball up for a basket.”

This, then, is the story, among other things, of the birth of the pivot play, one of the many great contributions the Celtics made to basketball. The manner in which it was developed was characteristic of the Shamrock five. Looking for something new, they stumbled on this efficacious play by accident. If the birth of the pivot play was accidental that night in Chattanooga, however, its subsequent development through the years was deliberate. The Celts knew a good thing when they saw it. They were to basketball what the Baltimore Orioles were to baseball just before the turn of the century. You’ll recall that it was the Orioles of John McGraw and Hughey Jennings, of Uncle Wilbert Robinson and Kid Gleason, who brought most of the current strategic refinements into baseball—the hit-and-run, the delayed steal, the double steal, the drag bunt, and many more. 

The beginnings of the Celtics, who did much the same for the cage game, are lost in what passes for antiquity in basketball. The late Garry Schmelke, one of the greatest shots professional basketball ever knew, told me back in 1941 that he didn’t think one basketball fan in a thousand could name the Original Celtics. Schmelke, long since retired from the courts by this time, operated a package store on New York’s West Side. In the window, he had a group picture of the “original” Original Celtics, if you’ll overlook the redundancy. 

Schmelke offered any of his customers a case of liquor of their own choosing if they could identify the players. He never had to give up so much as a dram. The players in the photograph were Hart, McCormick, Goggin, Mally, Calhoun, Witte, Barry, and F. McCormick, the latter, judging from the picture, a brother of uninitialed McCormick. Witte and Barry went on with the more famous Celtics, but his squad, captioned New York Celtics, 1914-17,” undoubtedly was the original squad. The others dropped out before the Celtics became nationally known. 

It was some five years later when the Celtics began their march to glory. In the winter of 1922-23, Jim Furey, a far-seeing promoter, took the first step that was to bring order out of chaos in basketball. There were hundreds of basketball teams at the time. They were teams in the sense that they were uniformed and had a court on which to play, but not teams in the sense that they played together as such. Their composition was not static. Players were with one team one night and with another, quite possibly their opponents of the night before, on the next. It was very informal.

It was here that the genius of Furey asserted itself. He hired the Seventy-first Regiment Armory in Manhattan for Sunday nights and organized the Original Celtics to play for him and solely him. There was to be no more wildcat barnstorming, no more playing at so much a night. The Celtics signed contracts with him and were guaranteed straight salaries, instead of having to depend on varying pay scales on a per game basis. These were the first individual contracts in the history of basketball, although previously promoters had reached the point of signing team contracts when scheduling games. 

The members of the first Celtic team were Pete Barry, who appeared in the 1914-17 group picture, Dutch Dehnert, Horse Haggerty, Johnny Beckman, Joe Trippe, and Ernie Reich. The latter, who died while still at the height of his playing career, was a brother of the heavyweight prizefighter, Al Reich, who was later to achieve a modicum of fame as the bodyguard of  Dr. John F. (Jafsie) Condon in the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The team was coached by another veteran of the 1914 group, Johnny Witte. 

These were the Original Celtics as the public came to know them—a squad of six men, you’ll note, although Coach Witte could play in a pinch. Later, there were important additions—Nat Holman and Chris Leonard from the New York Whirlwinds, Joe Lapchick from the Brooklyn Visitations, Davey Banks, Carl Husta, and Nat Hickey. 

If the Celtics had a great tradition, they also had a bizarre one. Organized as a neighborhood team in 1914, remnants of this great team were playing as late as 1942. There was a winter or two when the squad put its shamrock insignia under the banner of Kate Smith, the radio songstress. Through her business manager, Ted Collins, himself an old basketball player, Miss Smith took the Celtic deficits and tried to keep the club afloat at the old Hippodrome. The Hipp is gone now, and so are the Celtics—except the memories of those who saw them when they were an almost legendary team on the court.

What the Celtics had, over and above all else, was pride in their organization, the same fierce pride which made the Orioles the terrors of baseball in the 1890s. Whether it was a league contest or an exhibition game, they wanted to win. And they did, too, most of the time.

Witte was called out of retirement to handle the revived Celtics back in the early 1930s. Lapchick, Dehnert, and Barry decided to go barnstorming. They picked up two additional players from their rivals, (the Visitations), in the persons of Willie Scrill, as aggressive a player as ever wore rubber soles, and John (Red) Conaty, who could go and grab a tap with any player who ever lived.

“It was then we found out we weren’t the Celtics any longer,” Lapchick said years later to Leonard Lewin, New York Daily Mirror basketball writer. “We were beaten badly in Philadelphia. Then we played a few more games, looking worse each time. Witte called us together and said: ‘Let’s call it off, fellas. Let’s not drag the reputation of the Celtics in the mud. It took too long to build it up.’

“And Johnny meant it. He was talking himself right out of a job, but he didn’t care. He felt that the genuine, deep pride he had—and all of us had—in the great name of the Celtics was worth more than trying to squeeze a last few extra dollars out of that name.”

What had happened to the Celtics was what happens to all great sports organizations. As Dehnert put it, “We got old on ourselves.” Not only did the Celtics get old on themselves, but so did the entire game of professional basketball in the East. It virtually died out until it was reborn in the National Basketball Association with the New York Knickerbockers, now coached by Lapchick [and] playing in Madison Square Garden in the 69thRegiment Armory, and the pro game spreading out among other cities in the country.

As the Celtics and their contemporaries aged, the game of professional basketball underwent a change, subtle at first and then at a pace which might be called “to hell in a bucket.” And not the bucket play Dutch Dehnert set up that night in Chattanooga either. In an effort to compensate for their lost speed, the Celtics and others slowed down the game. Basketball began to resemble wrestling, and it enjoyed about the same popularity as the mat game did around the big city, which was nil at that time. The Shamrocks once played Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a championship and won by the unbelievably low score of 16 to 15. This was under the old center-tap rules, of course, but under any rules it hardly was a score for a championship game.

College teams began to copy the Celtics’ style, to the detriment of the game itself. One of the most successful teams between 1929 and 1931 was St. John’s of Brooklyn, called the “Wonder Five.” With Max Posnack employed in the pivot, St. John’s, then coached by Buck Freeman, who was later succeeded by Lapchick, controlled the ball for most of the game. [In the ] Backcourt, their superb passing enabled them to maintain possession interminably. It was slick—and very uninteresting—basketball. St. John’s once kept a fine City College team scoreless from the floor for 38 consecutive minutes. In another game, the Wonder Five held Manhattan College scoreless from the field for the entire contest—if “contest” is the right word for it. 

While the Middle West was employing fastbreak basketball and filling the fieldhouses of the Big Ten, the East was stressing possession and sneering at the Midwestern game as being “fire-horse basketball.” While the purists of the East remained aloof, basketball boomed in the West. Nearly all the top-flight pros went into Fort Wayne, Chicago, Detroit, and Oshkosh for jobs. A pro basketball player in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, could make more than in New York.

When the intercollegiate rules restricted the number of seconds a player could stand in the bucket position, eliminated the center tap, and forced the team with the ball to bring it past midcourt and into the attack zone within 10 seconds, basketball became a different, and better, game. The East had to go along or wither on the vine. 

Johnny Beckman

Before the Celtics passed out entirely, they had one brief fling of sunset glory. Playing now with a six-man squad, and comparatively for peanuts, the Celts booked two games on a Sunday. One was in the afternoon at Hoboken, New Jersey, where they were made to look bad against a team which wouldn’t have belonged on the same court with them in older days. The other game was booked at night for the Renaissance Casino in Harlem against the popular “Rens,” one of the greatest of all Black teams.

After the Hoboken debacle in the afternoon, Ray Kennedy, the sixth man on the Celts, announced he was through. That left manager Witte with five men to face the Rens. But Dutch Dehnert suddenly got word that his mother was dying. He hastened to her bedside, and the Celtics had four players left—and two hours in which to dig up a fifth. Witte thought of Johnny Beckman. He took a handful of nickels and disappeared into a phone booth. He finally located Beckman in a tavern he was operating in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and told him about the Celtics’ plight.

“I’m retired, Johnny,” Beckie argued. “I haven’t had a uniform on or a basketball in my hand for a couple of years.”

“Look, Beckie,” said Witte, “the Celtics need you.”

That did it. “I’ll see you at the hall,” Beckman said. “Get me some things.”

Among the “things” Witte collected for Beckman that night were a pair of basketball shoes owned by Pappy Ricks, the great Rens’ ballhandler. They which were two sizes too large for Beckman. The shoes were what Lapchick called “two-step shoes,” meaning that Beckman had to take two steps before he was able to move one. 

When the game was over, Beckman, 39 years old and for some seasons retired from basketball, had led the Celtics to a surprising victory. It was not only a victory, but a decisive one. He was top scorer in the game with 13 points—good going in those days. And the soles of his feet were like two slices of raw beef, the result of the blisters he raised while racing up and down the floor in Pappy’s “two-step shoes.”

Nevertheless, it was a happy Beckman who accepted the congratulatory thumps of his sweaty teammates. “Thanks for having me back, fellas,” he said. “It was great to do it just once more.”

“And now, Beckie,” said Witte, “here’s your share of the guarantee.”

“I don’t want any money,” declared Beckman. “I enjoyed myself too much to be paid.”

The stubborn Witte insisted Beckman take his rightful cut of the gate. Equally as stubbornly, Beckie refused. Finally, he thought of a compromise. “Tell you what we’ll do,” said Beckie. “Gimme the money, and we’ll go out and drink it up.”

All agreed it was an eminently fair proposition.

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