Frei, Terry. March 1939: Before the Madness. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2016. Pp. 237 + Notes, Bibliography, Index, Appendices. $16.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Murry Nelson
Here was a book that I had very mixed feelings about. First, the topic was timely, focusing on the first NCAA Tournament, then called the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) Tourney, which the NCAA agreed to take over the next year, and the champion Oregon Webfoots (later Ducks). The research was also seemingly thorough and some of the major characters such as Coach Howard Hobson and players Slim Wintermute and the various Astoria, Oregon, players were quite interesting and their impact was felt in college basketball for a longer period than might have been expected.
Frei attempts to contextualize the play of the times with the larger, global issues of the times, which were, most decidedly, the impending war in Europe, which eventually became World War II. The technique of starting a number of chapters with news headline paragraphs was a good one, but it became too forced and unnecessary as the basketball story became more intense. The basketball story was more than just a tourney; it was also the acceptance of basketball played beyond the East, most notably New York City and Madison Square Garden, as well as the type of game basketball was and would become. In that sense, Howard Hobson was a most intriguing character and Frei tells interesting and impactful tales of this coach, who later went on to coach at Yale and wrote insightful and, surprisingly, current books on basketball coaching and rule-making (most notably Scientific Basketball), including a proposal for the three-point shot, which was used in an experimental game between Fordham and Columbia in February of 1945.
The book has two parts, the first focuses on the major players and highlights of the college season prior to the tournaments. The second narrows to the teams, tournaments (NIT and NCAA) and world stage events of March, 1939, with sixteen short chapters on these various aspects of that time.
Besides the Oregon team’s season, Frei also focuses on Long Island University’s season, led by Coach Clair Bee (with way too many references to the Chip Hilton books, authored by Bee), as well as the season of the Ohio State Buckeyes, led by Coach Harold Olsen, the president of the NABC and one of the creators of the tournament. The book is not very long and the Oregon story did not seem to fill the pages; thus, the focus on a number of other topics that, at times, seemed unnecessary in detail. Ironically, there were times that more detail would have been appreciated, such as the details of the “play in” process for the eight district tourneys (p. 61) or the nature and source of Nat Holman’s (the CCNY coach and former Original Celtic great) apparent disdain for the academics of LIU (p. 53).
My biggest gripe, however, was one that must be shared by the author and the publisher, and that was the citation of sources within the text and the use of notes. Regarding the latter, it was hard to tell why some notes were there, except to be cute. Others were quite interesting, however. As to references, they were the hateful, unmarked-in-text kind that one would find after reading a chapter, then, have to return to the body to make sense of them. Many sources were subsequently abbreviated after initial usage, which required going back to find the initial citation to contextualize. I understand this must be a cost-saving gesture, but it destroys a lot of the scholarly reading and understanding process. Author interviews needed data as to time and place listed in the bibliography. The appendices include both NCAA and NIT tourney results and details, part of the continued (and belabored) argument that Oregon was clearly the better basketball team than the NIT champion LIU squad.
Despite all my complaints, I enjoyed the book and it provides a useful window on the creation of the NCAA tournament.
Murry Nelson is a Professor Emeritus of Education at the Pennsylvania State University. His research focuses on the history of basketball, and he is the author of The National Basketball League: A History, 1935–1949 (2009) and Abe Saperstein and the American Basketball League (2013).