If you ever look over the members of the Hall of Fame, you’ll recognize a lot of the names. And there will be some you’ve never heard of (unless you’re a serious basketball historian). And how can it be a Hall of Fame if there’s no fame behind the name?
And so, I bring you “Have You Heard of?” which will be a series of articles dedicated to the lesser-known Naismith enshrined, and who better to start with than one of the first great teams to ever take the court: the Buffalo Germans?
We talk about things happening before this or that. The Germans heard little such discussion. They first practiced together in 1895. The game was invented in 1891. To give you a sense of perspective, according to Robert Peterson, author of Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball’s Early Years, teams weren’t established as five per side for another two years. And the game was still 17 years away from literally having the bottom of the peach basket taken out (p. 24).
The Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame tells us how the team was organized and that it had ties to the inventor of the game:
The history of the Buffalo Germans actually traces back to the very inventor of the game, Dr. James Naismith. One of Naismith’s pupils, and a participant in the Naismith’s first basketball game, F.W. Burkhardt, was named physical director at the Genesee Street YMCA in Buffalo in 1895. Soon after his arrival in Buffalo, Burkhardt formed a junior team in the fledgling sport, and the Buffalo Germans were formed.
In 1898, after three years of dominance in the junior ranks, not only winning the title each year but never once losing a game, the young Germans entered the area men’s league. By 1900, the Buffalo Germans were a mere 48-4 in men’s league play.
They got their name because they were a team of second-generation Germans. Creative.
Peterson reveals that through their first six years, the Germans had a record of 87-6. That’s when the first-ever international competition came calling to Buffalo in 1901: the Pan-American Exposition. He relays the story told by the Buffalo Express, which I paraphrase here.
The underdog Germans, now mostly in their late teens, dominated the first part of the round-robin tournament, and rolled to the final day. There, they nearly were beaten by an unexpected opponent: exams.
Apparently, they forgot they had them, and their opponents weren’t willing to allow them to wait until the Germans’ exams were completed. So they played with three players: William Rhode, Hank Faust and Johnny Maier.
Midway through the game, with the score tied one apiece, Eddie Miller, apparently finished with his exams now, literally tore off his school clothes and joined the game in the process. And no sooner had he gotten involved in the game than the captain, Alfred A. Heerdt finished his test and joined the game in similar fashion. During halftime, they were able to don their uniforms.
With the sides even now, the Germans ran the score up, notching nine straight points and blowing out the opposition and finishing the games undefeated. (pp. 58-59).
And that’s how they came to fame. And so it was during just the third Olympics in St. Louis, with basketball being featured as a demonstration sport, they were selected as a team to compete. And once again, they swept the completion and became the first ever true “world champions.”
After that, they became a semi-professional team and toured mostly around the region for the next 20 years. Most spectacularly, they had an 111-game win streak from 1908-1911.
Per Peterson, the average score was 54-18 during it, and not one opponent came closer than three points. The aforementioned Faust, Miller and Heerdt all played with the team until 1915. Heerdt managed a second-generation version of the squad that played until 1926.
It’s worth mentioning that even writing his praise, Peterson throws considerable shade on the team, indicating that their remarkable winning streak was more a result of avoiding the best competition of the day. And he also points out that when they did play the most skilled teams, they didn’t always fare well.
However, he also states that most of the Germans had other occupations and careers to manage. And since this was a while before airline travel—or even interstates for that matter—it was difficult for them to travel. And their occupations also prevented them from having extensive practice time.
The Germans were the original famous team and world champions. And for that they were inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1961 and are one of only nine teams to be so honored. According to their Wikipedia page, they had a 792-86 record as a franchise.
And now you’ve heard of the Buffalo Germans.
You can read excerpts of Peterson’s book here.
And David L. Porter’s Basketball: A Biographical Dictionary has more on Heerdt.