Before there was an NCAA Tournament, there was March Madness in Hartford, provided by a rag-tag bunch known as the Hartford Dixies. The Dixies begged and borrowed their way to and from Kansas City to play in the National Amateur Basketball Tournament in 1925. They captivated their neighbors in and around Connecticut's capital city.
"As small as the local champions are, it's a safe bet they will open the eyes of doubtful Missourians who always have to be shown," The Courant predicted on March 8 as the entire Dixie squad was pictured on the sports page. "The majority of the teams entered are composed of tall, rangy performers."
The local amateur scene was dominated by YMCA-sponsored teams, not surprising because of their connection to basketball's inventor, James Naismith. By 1925, the sport's third decade in existence, the peach baskets were gone and the ball no longer had laces. But it was still a relatively slow-paced game of set shots and players wore heavily padded shorts and knee pads.
The Dixies, who were managed by Frank Tredo, and founded and captained by Tommy Murphy, struggled to buy gear and had trouble finding a place to practice and play until the Dixie Oil Company was convinced. Then the roguish boys had emerald green uniforms with the fancy Dixie logo across the chest, and white sweaters with a plain-block D.
"At the beginning of the last chalked-court season, the emerald-clad Dixie outfit was unheard-of, and its entrance into state basketball was taken more or less as a bad joke," The Courant explained.
But the "Dixie speedsters" were the fastest kids on the block — they even scored 30 points in a game on occasion — and they whizzed past all comers in across the state and in Hartford, winning the city title in 1924 and 1925. They could be rowdy: A fight broke out after a game in Rhode Island. And now they were going to Kansas City "with jaunty confidence," the Courant reported.
So popular were the Dixies that The Courant ran a daily diary of their trip to Kansas City to keep readers informed of their exploits and shenanigans, as the team boarded its train at Union Station on the morning of March 9.
The team was formed in 1915, a group of 10- 12-year-olds gathered at the Hartford YMCA with no coach. Murphy, 12, organized the group, was the unquestioned leader, and played forward along with Bobby Hafner. Bill Hofferth played center, Red Fay and Jack Steele were the guards. They called themselves "The Independents." The kids won early YMCA league titles.
By 1923 Tredo was their manager and in the summer the boys all worked odd jobs and contributed nickels and dimes to help buy uniforms and secure a site for home games. One player, Ted Torrent, learned the Dixie Oil Co. was looking to advertise. Tredo went three times to ask D.T. Smith to sponsor his team, and finally, as long as local referee Dick Dillon vouched for the team's skills, Smith agreed and the Hartford Dixies were finally to become big time, entering the senior division.
Reluctantly, Murphy and his original group were convinced to drop the name Independents and play as the Dixies, and Foot Guard Hall was home. The group now included Abe Silverman and Wardy Waterman. When Silverman left to become captain of Hartford Public, teenagers Harold Ogden and Carl Holmquist joined the group.
In 1924 Silverman returned and John "Babe" Hurley, the youngest player on any senior team, came on board and the Dixies won the city title, their games covered in The Courant as expansively as UConn is today. In 1925 the Dixies won the city title again and were on their way to a state amateur title when they were selected to go to Kansas City. Murphy and the original players were in their 20s, but the average age of the team was 18. .
Now came the hard part. The Dixies needed $1,600 to get to Kansas City and back, but the AAU offered only $400. They raided their treasury, got a few donations and scared up enough … almost.
"Assemblage at the Union Station started at 10 o'clock," read the diary entry in The Courant on March 9, 1925, "until the squad was complete as Captain Tommy Murphy came racing down Pratt street, suit case and overcoat in one hand and an apple clutched in the other.
"Some of the loyal rooters were on hand to wish the Dixies God-Speed and they were well rewarded for their early rising by the antics of the members of the team. Abe Silverman brought along a six shooter that was in use at Custer's last stand. Bill Hofferth imparted a picnic flavor to the trip as he was equipped with a package that contained with other things a half a dozen sandwiches, half a cake and some olives. Quite a gallery gathered to watch Tommy Murphy's attempts to make the suitcase reach from one end of the station to the other. The train announcer soon stopped this performance."
The Dixies changed trains in Springfield to head to Chicago, where they detrained and had time to kill.
"The first stop was made at the nationally famous stockyards," read the March 10 diary, "where 'Fat' Ogden had to be forcibly restrained from vaulting the yard fence and attempting to bulldoze one of the steers waiting for the axe. … Abe Silverman was tearfully pessimistic when an antique dealer refused to sell him a lucky charm that was said to have adorned the person of "Hambone" Jones, [the prize fighter] who is training to fight Jack Keefe. ... Babe Hurley strayed from the maternal eyes of Frank Tredo and Ed Craven and after a frantic search he was located in a toy shop bartering with a clerk for a hook-and-ladder that rang a bell as it was pulled along the floor."
Torrent began dancing in a restaurant and nearly got the whole team kicked out. Then they went to the station to finish the trip to Kansas City.
They arrived on March 11 and Murphy told the team no one was to shave until the first game was played. Silverman got the first basket against Platt College of St. Joseph, Mo., and the Dixies went on to win 26-18. "Cool, fast and brilliantly, the Speed Boys went," according to the diary.
The run ended the next day. St. Phillips Athletic Club of Chicago, considered the best team in the Midwest, beat the Dixies, 26-17. "Suffice to say that the Dixie defense was demoralized by the amazing size of the Chicago team, every man towering in the neighborhood of six feet."
By the time the Dixies ate dinner and bought train tickets home, they were all but broke. When they got back to Hartford they were greeted — and fed — by family and friends.
They soon beat the All-Middletown team in a three-game series to secure the state championship.
"Thus it was," The Courant wrote in 1926, "that the team of mere striplings attained the goal in two seasons, a goal it had been seeking unswervingly since the time the players were kids in grammar school. A city championship in their first year, a city and state championship and a crack at the national title in their second year – the sensation of Connecticut."
The Dixies began to break up. Silverman left for Connecticut Agricultural College, now UConn, and later coached at Hillyer College, now UHart, and taught physical education in the Hartford school system for more than 40 years. Hurley went on to play at Fordham. Hofferth became a Hartford firefighter, Ogden a longtime sports writer for the Hartford Times.
Murphy went to Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he played for the varsity team, and later became a purchasing agent for Colt, Pratt & Whitney and other firms. The Dixies continued under Tredo's direction and in later years the original teams held annual reunions.
They forever owned a piece of the hearts of Connecticut basketball fans, as William Hofferth of Cromwell, grandson of the Dixies' center, attests.
"They became local heroes," he said. "When my mom told her father that she was going on a date with Bill Hofferth his reaction was 'the son of Hofferth of the Dixies?'"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun