Herkimer YMCA, from Herkimer, New York, was an early pioneer in basketball and a catalyst for the development of basketball in the state. The team is of interest in terms of historiography based on a claim in a memoirs of an old time basketball player that it was at Herkimer where basketball was invented and where the first formal game was played.
The Herkimer YMCA basketball team was reputedly founded by Lambert Will in the fall of 1891, according to a Utica Daily Press story from February 19, 1998. The team's earliest photo supposedly dates from the 1891-92 season, and the story of the Herkimer team was presented by Frank J. Basloe in his 1952 book, I Grew Up with Basketball. In the book he makes the claim that basketball was invented at the Herkimer YMCA and the first formal game was played in February of 1891 between Herkimer YMCA and the Businessmen’s Nine. The author claims that Will “wrote down all the rules that he and boys had developed and sent them to James Naismith at Springfield.” These claims have never been accepted by any historian of basketball.
Basloe is on no firmer ground in reporting that during the 1891-92 season other upstate New York teams took up the sport, notably Albany YMCA, Utica YMCA, and Ilion YMCA. In February 1892, Herkimer YMCA played Albany YMCA for the self-designated, “Basketball Championship of New York State.” Playing for the Herkimer team were Frank "Simp" Peterson, Harry Stanchel, Paul Quackenbush, John Collis, Gorman Harter, William Wright, Fritz Gray (player manager), and Lambert Will (player-instructor). Albany boys won 9-5, but only by engaging in some shenanigans.
Loss of YMCA Sponsorhip
In January 1893, Herkimer YMCA visited Syracuse and played by the newly formed Syracuse YMCA. Herkimer won handedly, 12-4. Because of unruly behavior by some members of the Herkimer team in the Yates Hotel in Syracuse, the Board of Directors of the Herkimer YMCA disbanded the team.
The Herkimer YMCA team, however, continued to stay together without YMCA sponsorship, calling themselves the Herkimer Team. The team met Utica YMCA in a game at the local opera house, and because the Herkimer team received payment for the game from the gate, Basloe contends that this was the first professional game. This claim has not been recognized by historians either. In 1894 the Herkimer Team had moved to Mohawk, New York, to play in the newly constructed New York State Armory. With the move they played professionally under the name, 31st Separate Company.
This is the story according to Basloe, but that seems to be far from the case. According to the Utica Daily Press, the Herkimer YMCA team stayed with YMCA sponsorship until around 1897, garnering a 35-2 during that period. The paper asserted that the team was reorganized as the 31st Separate Company in 1897.