On a Fast Break – Basketball during World War II

By Jennifer Steinhardt, NMAS Archivist

Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 so his students could burn off energy while stuck indoors during the long New England winters.  However, most people watching March Madness today would have trouble recognizing the game of basketball in its early days.  It was slow-paced and low-scoring.   That started to change when basketball players from various regions were suddenly put together on the same team.  What brought all these different ball players together?  World War II.  Basketball players from around the country joined different branches of the Armed Forces.  Many of them joined the Navy and reported to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois.

The long and proud tradition of athletics at Great Lakes stretches back to World War I.  Captain Moffett, Commandant of Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and Commander John B. Kaufman, Athletic Director, perceived a need for athletics as a way to round out the training program for sailors and build camaraderie.  Sports would serve as “something that would transform them [recruits] into fighters that would have no equal.”  Every sailor was required to join a team as part of their preparation for a life at sea.  The first Great Lakes basketball team was thus born and led by George Halas, a man who is perhaps better known for his time as a head coach for the Chicago Bears football team.

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The Great Lakes Basketball squad in July 1918 – Standing, left to right: Halas (guard), Ayers (center). Middle row: Covney (forward), Allen (guard) Johnson (forward), Peppard (center), Felmey (forward). First Row: Leavenworth (guard), Hellstrom (forward) from Great Lakes Recruit.

While Great Lakes did not continuously field a basketball team between the world wars, establishing one was a priority for Lieutenant Commander J. Russell Cook, the athletic director at Great Lakes at the onset of World War II.  In his opinion, there were three critical motivators to put together a competitive team at Great Lakes.  It was “a moral builder for the thousands of recruits in training at the Station; a means of recruiting of bringing the Navy before the eyes of natives of the 13 inland states comprising the Ninth Naval District; and a means of adding receipts to the Navy Relief Fund.”  He wasn’t the only person who thought a basketball team was a great idea; seventy-two men reported to his first practice!  Cook’s philosophy was proven correct when a survey discovered that the percentage of men enlisting jumped from twenty to forty percent in regions visited by the Great Lakes basketball team.

After the Great Lakes team defeated the University of Kentucky Wildcats 58-47 in March 1942, one Louisville reporter wrote, “Trying to name a star on the Great Lakes team is like trying to contend there is only one fish in the Great Lakes.  Almost all of them are former collegiate all-Americans and each is outstanding in his own fashion.”  Some of those superstars included Bob Calihan, formerly of Detroit University and the Great Lakes’ leading scorer at 308 points; Frank Baumholtz, All-American from Ohio University and the second highest scorer with 297 points; Bill Menke and Ernie Andres, All-Americans of Indiana; John Lobsinger, former captain at the University of Missouri; and Bob White, former captain and All-Eastern guard at Dartmouth.

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Cartoon in Great Lakes Bulletin proudly claiming championships in basketball, baseball, and football.

The 1941-1942 season team finished their year with a 31-5 record.  They enjoyed a nine game winning streak and defeated top teams such as Notre Dame, Purdue, and Northwestern. At the end of the season, Captain T. DeWitt Carr, the Executive Officer at Great Lakes, wrote to star Robert Calihan, EMC2:

Never for one moment have you and the rest of the boys on the team been anything but the finest examples of Navy manhood.  On trains, in hotel lobbies, at luncheons and on the basketball court your conduct has been so splendid that the entire Navy recognized you and your team as the best recruiting “poster” in the Ninth Naval District.  You carried the Navy story to colleges and towns and you did it the Navy way.  You ignored inconveniences, you fought harder when you were tired, and you asked for no special privileges during all the time you were doing a double job for your Navy.

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Two players from the 1942-1943 squad featured in the Great Lakes Bulletin.

The Great Lakes’ teams in 1942-43 and 1943-44 only built on this initial success.  This was a challenging feat, given that most of the sailors from the 1941-1942 season shipped out elsewhere.  Coach Tony Hinkle had to start from building his roster from scratch.  Despite this hardship, both the 1942-43 and 1943-44 teams recorded 34 wins to 3 losses.  These two Great Lakes Basketball teams were the most successful armed forces teams during the 1942-1969 period.

 

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