When your favorite pro basketball team you enjoyed watching was the Indianapolis Kautskys.
Historical Perspective: George Chestnut and pioneer pro basketball in Indiana By Mick McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
The owner of a small family-operated grocery story on Madison Avenue on the southside of Indianapolis, Frank H. Kautsky was a sports enthusiast.
Kautsky especially loved baseball, a sport he played at the semi-pro level until he was 37 years old in 1926.
Frank knew nothing about basketball until Paul “Pete” Bailey, a former Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis) star invited him to watch a pickup game at an Indianapolis elementary school in 1930.
As the two men left the school together that evening, Kautsky asked Bailey if he could organize an independent amateur basketball team. The grocer offered to buy uniforms for the players and provide sponsorship as the “Kautsky Athletic Club.”
Bailey agreed, recruiting former players from Indiana Central, Butler and Indiana University. Frank was extremely happy with the white jerseys Bailey designed with blue letters on the front spelling “Kautskys.” Later that year Kautsky’s squad piled into a giant Chrysler two or three nights each week to visit gyms around Indianapolis for games against opponents, including barnstorming women’s teams such as the Hoosier Demons or the Red Silk Girls Club.
Meanwhile, Kautsky began scouring the Midwest to find better players.
In December 1931, the Kautskys won the Indianapolis Gold Medal basketball tournament sponsored by the Central States Basketball Association, beating Bond Bread, the perennial favorite, in the championship game, 20-11. Then they captured the Indiana independent basketball title in 1932 by edging Bond Bread in two overtimes.
The next year (1932-33), the grocer decided to make the Kautskys a professional team, playing home games on the second floor of the National Guard Armory on North Pennsylvania Street. Abe Goldsmith, who made basketball goals and operated a retail supply store, became the team’s business manager.
The decision to go professional was made easier when a three-time All-American from Purdue who was teaching English and coaching basketball in Dayton, Ky., spurned more lucrative offers to play in Indianapolis.
John Wooden was a hot basketball property but the country was in the midst of a depression and pro basketball was a risky profession. Several pro leagues, including the American Basketball League with the Fort Wayne Hoosiers among its constituents, folded at the end of the 1931-32 season.
Wooden opted to play basketball in Indianapolis while keeping his teaching and coaching job, which paid $2,000 annually. Kautsky paid him $50 a game plus expenses.
A second income during those bleak times enticed Charles “Stretch” Murphy, Wooden’s 6-foot-7 teammate at Purdue; Clarence Christopher, a former 6-foot-7 center at IU; and Branch McCracken, another former Hoosier star, to join him.
The players liked Kautsky. “He was a very, very wonderful person for whom to play,” Wooden reminisced a few years ago. “And he loved the sport. You always had your money in cash in an envelope after every game. Sometimes there was a little extra in there.”
Kautsky’s team was so good that there was little competition nearby. One exception was the Akron Firestone Non-Skids, coached by Paul Sheeks, recreation director of Firestone Tire and the former Wabash College basketball coach.
After a career in pro baseball, Roy Burris — the great Indiana State Teachers College athlete — was an accountant for Firestone in Akron and a top player for the Non-Skids.
Kautsky and Sheeks concocted a schedule for the new National Basketball League, consisting of pro teams from Indiana and Ohio. The circuit eventually included the Akron Goodyears, Toledo Crimson Coaches, Fort Wayne Chiefs, Kokomo Kelts, South Bend Guardsmen, Muncie Whys and, for awhile, the Lorain (Ohio) Fisher Foods.
The Non-Skids won the 1932-33 title but the Kautskys gave them a battle, losing in Indianapolis, 32-31, before 4,000, despite Wooden’s 21 points.
Most teams in the 1932-33 National Basketball League could not survive the Depression. Not many statistical records endured either. The following year the Kautskys — already considered among the premier pro basketball teams in the nation — played independent and barnstorming teams, usually on weekends at sites close enough to permit players to return to their jobs on Monday. Yet it was tough duty.
Opponents included the legendary barnstorming professionals from the East, such as the New York Renaissance, also known as the “Harlem Rens,” and the New York Celtics.
Kautsky added Helms Foundation All America Frank Baird of Butler and Indiana State center George Chestnut, one of the state’s top collegiate scorers for two seasons, to the roster in 1933-34. A three-sport star (football, basketball and baseball) from Odon in Daviess County, Chestnut gave up collegiate athletics during his senior year to become a pro.
Bill Perigo of Delphi and Western Michigan, Marshall Tackett of Butler and Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards, the Kentucky All American from Indianapolis, played for the Kautskys from 1933 to 1935. During 1934-35, the team had a 15-game winning streak.
In late 1935 Sheeks and Kautsky collaborated to found the Midwest Basketball Conference, considered a predecessor of the National Basketball Association, which was founded after World War II. The Kautskys won the West Division, which included the Chicago Duffy Florals, Detroit Hed-Aids, Indianapolis U.S. Tires and the Windsor Cooper Blues. “Cowboy” Edwards played for the U.S. Tires.
During one stretch in the 1935-36 season, Wooden hit 134 straight free throws. Joining the Kautskys that year was former Butler captain Searle T. “Cy” Proffitt of Lebanon, then coaching at Spencer High School but later a popular Terre Haute teacher, coach and school administrator. So did Bob Kessler, Big Ten Player of the Year at Purdue.
The Firestone Non-Skids won the East Division of the MBC in 1936 over the Pittsburgh YMHAs, Buffalo Bison and the Dayton Metropolitans. The Duffy Florals were the surprise playoff winner. Using “tricky passwork,” the New York Rens defeated the Kautskys at the former Indiana State gym on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 1937. Proffitt and rookie John Miklozek, the 6-foot-6 former Wiley and Indiana State star, joined Chestnut in the Kautskys lineup.
Next Saturday, on the 71st anniversary of that game, Chestnut will be inducted into the ISU Athletic Hall of Fame posthumously during ceremonies at the Ohio Street Building at 670 Ohio St. Sycamore legends Brian Dorsett (baseball), Chris Hicks (football), Julie Koebcke (track) and John Sherman Williams (basketball) also will be enshrined.