[Editor’s Note: I’ll be off the grid for most of today. Fortunately, intern Vince Grzegorek has cooked up a doozy of an entry. It’s lengthy, but stick with it — you won’t be sorry. — PL]
What stands out in the photo shown at right?
Its age? Sure. The socks? If you’re named Paul. Wonder if Bill Veeck once ran a basketball team and hired the little guy in front? Maybe.
But what really sticks out are the uniform numbers — A1, A2, A3, etc. We’re not playing Battleship here, so what gives?
In terms of a definitive answer, not much. But there’s plenty to be learned along the way. For starters, we know that this is a photo of a YMCA basketball team from Independence, Missouri, taken sometime around or before 1900.
The letter/number system used on the jerseys seems like an anomaly when compared to other early-1900s YMCA basketball squads (as seen here, here, here, here, here, and here). But that’s not so strange when you consider there was no real template or guide to go by when creating these uniforms. Remember, the game was still in its nascent stages, and coherent style and fashion were still a long way down the road. Still, for all the variations exhibited by other YMCA teams of the era, none of them used the number/letter format seen in the Independence photo (or any numbering system at all, for that matter).
Of course, we’re simply talking about YMCA teams here. There were plenty of colleges, schools, and private clubs that fielded squads during this time, some of which probably put together better uniforms, but the point is that the letter/numbering format shown in the Independence photo appears to have been a pretty rare phenomenon.
Rare, but not unprecedented. Uni Watch design director Scott M.X. Turner points out that there’s at least one other instance of alphanumeric uniform designations: the 1952 LSU football Tigers, who used a combination of the letters E (End), G (Guard), T (Tackle), Q (Quarterback), L and R and F (Left and Right Fullbacks), and the digits 0-9 (even and odd depending on your side) for each player during that season. But the Independence YMCA photo appears to be the only other example.
So, end of story, right? Well, yes and no.
In researching the history behind the photo and the uniform numbers, I ran across an excellent video series produced for the Sunflower Cable series, called As Time Goes By, on kusports.com (the full series of short videos can be found here). Thanks to the first video, a key element in the picture is explained: Player A4 is none other than Forrest “Phog” Allen.
Some quick background: Phog Allen is considered one of the founding fathers of college basketball. Before that, though, he played for the Independence athletic club team in the early 1900s, and it was during this time he met James Naismith (here’s a photo of them together in 1932), who brought Allen to the University of Kansas to play for the Jayhawks starting in 1905, and to coach in 1908. Allen had a huge impact off the court as well (there’s plenty of biographical info available here), which helps explain why the University of Kansas now plays at the Allen Fieldhouse, in front of which stands a statue of the man himself (check out the old Jayhawk logo on his jacket).
As you might expect, a man of this stature had a few ideas about how a basketball team should be dressed.
According to Tim Carpenter of kusports.com, “For a game in 1923, Coach Allen demonstrated his reverence for George Washington’s birthday by dressing five players in blue uniforms, five players in red uniforms and five players in white uniforms. He substituted in units of five.” (The full text of the article can be found here.) Phog was also one of the first to recognize the immense market for basketball athletic equipment, even marketing his own brand of shoes, the Phog Allen Basketball Shoe. (Mick Allen, Phog’s grandson, commented, “You should have seen the thing. Each shoe weighed about 40 pounds. They’re laughable!”)
And that, my friends, is just the tip of the sartorial iceberg.
The goldmine is found in Dr. Forrest C. “Phog” Allen’s 1924 book, My Basket-ball Bible, which includes 10 solid pages on equipment and uniforms. After digging up a copy of the book at the library (it’s out of print), I transcribed the most interesting and relevant parts below. It’s evident that some of his suggestions and beliefs have taken hold and can still be seen in uniform design to this day, and then there are the ideas (most notably, one involving gasoline) that have fallen by the fashion wayside.
What is clear is that Phog would have been an enthusiastic Uni Watch reader. He wanted his players to look good on the court, in style and color, and believed the athletic aesthetic had a proportionate effect on their play. He also had a particular interest in stockings.
Here are some choice excerpts:
From the Introduction to the section on Equipment:
The best in a player’s equipment is none too good. Neat, well-fitting and durable basket-ball outfits enhance the players’ chances of winning. They look the part of champions. It is then up to them to acquit themselves as such. Legitimate competition in appearance is a natural and desirable thing. Clean competition in athletics is another.
We must not lose sight of the fact that the patrons of the game are pleased at the spectacle of two well-groomed, high-powered aggregations struggling for supremacy. The players are the picture; the spectators, the background.”
Two Sets of Uniforms Desirable: A team should have two sets of uniforms- one for use in practice, the other for use in games. This separate outfit for practice helps to keep the one used in the games new and clean, and the men get the psychic effect of feeling well dressed for the game. When soiled, these out-fits used in the games should be dry-cleaned, as tubbing will cause the vivid colors used in the suits to run.
Cotton Gymnasium Shirts: For practice, I have found it expedient to use a cotton gymnasium shirt under a white regulation wool jersey. The wool used day after day chafes and irritates the players. During games, the regulation wool jersey is all right, as the player in his excitement will forget small irritations.
Shoes: Efforts are being made now with several shoe concerns for the manufacture of a specially designed practice shoe, with a thin lead plate in sections vulcanized into a heavy rubber sole. The difference in the weight of such a practice shoe and the light shoe used in the game would make the player when in the game feel as if he had wings.
Sulphur is used in the manufacture of all rubber goods. For this reason, the soles of the shoes should be washed with benzene or gasoline just before the game starts.
Stockings: Wool socks give life to tired feet. See that the athlete has them. Use a cheap white cotton sanitary stocking next to the skin, with the footless stocking over it, and a short soft wool sock over these. These two pairs of socks will allow the friction to come between the socks; whereas, if only one pair of socks is used with the footless stocking, the friction will come between the skin and the sock, and will cause a blister.
It is not necessary to have a basket-ball stocking as long as a football or baseball stocking. The better plan is to have them made six inches shorter than they are ordinarily, so that the unnecessary bulk around the knee guard will be done away with. Emphasize the use of knee guards and stocking. Men wearing stockings have two chances to find their team mates; while men without have but one. In close scrimmage, the color in the stockings often shows more readily than does the color in the jerseys. Men learn to play to the color in the jerseys and in the stockings. Take away the stockings, and you lessen the power of your offense.
Jerseys: Teams that can afford them should have two sets of woolen jerseys- one set white, and the other some brilliant hue, signifying the colors of the school. Exercise care in selecting your colored jerseys. White or some bright color will show better under artificial light than will the more somber hues.
Often, in practice, I use uniforms at variance with the team’s regular colors, in order to make it difficult for the men to find their team mates. Sometimes we use misfits in any color, so that the men will be forced in passing to look for something other than color. This improves their passing vision for close competition in games. Freshmen often wear their traditional opponents’ Varsity colors. This gives atmosphere to the scrimmage and encourages traditional rivalry between your school and your friend, the enemy.
Pants: Flannel basket-ball pants are better than the regulation cotton pants, because they retain heat around the hips and back, and display more class on the court.
However, regardless of the material used, the pants should be white in color. When the colored shirt is used, the white pants break the monotony and will often relieve a color that does not have all the advantages of optic attraction. If color is used on the pants, it should be only a thin silk ribbon trim around the leg and down the side seams, the same shade as the jersey.
Property Man: In connection with the player’s equipment, I am mentioning the property man. So essential is he in caring for the players’ outfits and for athletic supplies in general that in a short time he will save the price of his salary.
After practice hours, the equipment should be checked in to this property man, who should hang each outfit on an individual coat hangar. At the next practice the property man should check the outfits and exchange clean equipment for soiled. These clean outfits keep the men in fine spirits and help to ward off what coaches may mistake for staleness.
When possible, combine the duties of your property man and your team trainer into one. One man handling the combined jobs will justify the expenses of his trips. He will know the various peculiarities of the men- their idiosynchrasies- and will be well fitted to design their protective equipment, when necessary. He is a good moralizer, and, when situations arise that cause incompatibility, he is often a handy intermediary between the coach and the players.
Think such a treatise could come from the collegiate coaching ranks of today? Think Bob Knight has some opinions on whether a particular jersey is going to chafe his player? Or cares in the least about how a sock could possibly bunch up around the knee, making the player appear disheveled and the stocking too large? Probably not.
Alright, so a little of the language is a little bit laughable, but remember, this was first published 83 years ago. We can look past those moments (after an acceptable chuckle, or five) and concentrate on the fact that Phog took the lead in the early days to try and eradicate some of the uniform variations that we saw earlier. With the help of some gasoline, some hemming along the knee area of the stockings, and a good property man, he tried to lead basketball into a more stylish and better dressed era.
Unfortunately, Phog and his book remain silent on the issue of uniforms numbers. So the Battleship-style designations remain a mystery, for now.
Even though Phog had to retire from coaching (age limits) before Wilt Chamberlain joined the Kansas team in 1955, we do have this photo of the two together. Here is a photo of Wilt with his 1952 YMCA championship team from Philadelphia.
The history of the adoption of the Jayhawk as the University of Kansas logo and its evolution in design can be found here. If you scroll down to the last link on this page you can find the history of the uniforms for the Kansas football team, where you can enjoy plenty of striped-sock goodness with matching striped hats here, and this photo of some bizarre sweaters the team wore in 1926. Finally, in more archive news, there is a great site devoted to the centennial of Georgetown basketball, entitled, “100 Years of Blue and Gray.” While normally I would take the time to sort through the great team photos and media guides in the gallery section, quite enough has been written today, so feel free to poke around on your own.