The year 1903 looked to be a bleak one for the Burkes. After seven years in Lowell, the basketball team was dropped by their sponsor in January and forced to look for a new home.
Fortunately, the owner of the New England Basketball League’s Manchester franchise saw an opportunity. Tired of the losing ways of his roster of highly-paid primadonnas from Philadelphia and New Jersey, John Smith sent those players packing and welcomed the Burkes.
This kind of reshuffling of teams and players may seem odd today, but it wasn’t unusual in the chaotic early days of basketball. And looking back, the Burkes’ departure from Lowell in particular is not surprising for several reasons.
The Burkes were one of two teams from Lowell in the young NEBL and sponsorship opportunities were few after their initial sponsor, the Burkes Temperance Institute, stopped bankrolling them.
Named after an Irish priest, the BTI crusaded against alcohol use and bankrolled sports teams to promote healthy alternatives to youth. And they can’t have been pleased with the headlines the team generated. Early basketball was hard fought, literally, and injuries were frequent. Newspapers played up stories of gashes that required stitches, broken noses, lost consciousness, and ejected teeth, resulting in sensational headlines like “Two Teeth Gone from Tighe’s Set: Devlin’s Blow Loosens Ivories.”
Another factor was the gambling. While technically illegal, owners and newspapers promoted it as something to add interest, and fans were lured to games with headlines like “Visiting Team Will Be Accompanied by Crowd of Rooters with Plenty of Money.”
Of course, Lowell’s other franchise, the Pawtucketville Athletic Club, had an emerging star in Harry “Bucky” Lew, basketball’s first Black professional. Lew was beginning a successful pro career with the PAC after leading his YMCA team to several Merrimack Valley championships. He was a beloved figure in Lowell and potential investors likely saw the writing on the wall.
So the Burkes left Lowell for Manchester but kept their nickname out of spite. The team, led by captain Michael Qualey, responded immediately to their new surroundings. Cheered by capacity crowds of up to 1,100 fans at Mechanics Hall, they went on an immediate winning streak. They finished strong, turning a sixth-place finish in the first half of the season into a second-place finish in the second half.
Further, enough fan interest remained in Lowell for the PAC to invite them back for a city championship series. And the Burkes restored their aching pride by winning the series two games to one!
The next year was even better. Manchester finished 9-1 in the first half of the season, earning a spot in the league championship against the winner of the second half of the season, per the custom of the day. Lowell earned that distinction, and the two teams faced off for the league championship this time. Manchester took that series three games to two and their revenge was complete!
Smith moved on to other ventures afterward and the team relocated again to New Bedford to start the 1905 season. After a slow start, they finished the season in Amesbury. And then the league folded.
The Burkes, however, stayed together and toured New England as an independent team. They met Bucky Lew again in Vermont in 1907. Now known as “The Original Bucky Lew,” he had the last word. The Springfield Athletic Club he now played for defeated the Burkes by a comfortable margin on their way to the Vermont State Championship.
Chris Boucher is the author of “The Original Bucky Lew: Basketball’s First Black Professional,” He will be sharing stories and pictures about Lew in particular and early basketball in general at Manchester City Library Tuesday, September 26 at 6:30 p.m.. The book is available on all platforms at https://books2read.com/u/4XeQ9g.