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History buff uncovers city's athletic roots

Date: 12/1/2009

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- Historic Westfield's athletic roots stem from the country's favorite pastime, baseball, but one local history buff is uncovering the little-known past of early 20th century professional basketball.

Westfield resident Dan Genovese, author of "Rough House," explained the sport, played inside a 10-foot high chicken wire fence, was nothing like the heavily refereed, highly publicized NBA of today.

"I doubt a modern day basketball player on any level would survive this style of play," he said. "Instead, I think a combination of a National Hockey League player and a mixed martial arts cage fighter would be better suited ... really!

"It's hard to imagine this style of play, let alone the game, on a major professional level, being played right here in Westfield," Genovese continued. "This makes Westfield a former major league city."

Genovese, a member of the Association of Professional Basketball Research, will speak about his new book as part of the Athenaeum's Fall Lecture Series on Dec. 2 at 7 p.m.

He told Reminder Publications his work is a labor of love and excitement, which uncovers an aspect of the city's history rarely researched or publicized.

Genovese explained the pioneer leagues of the early 1900s, including the Central Basketball League; the New England Basketball League; the National Basketball League; and the Western Massachusetts Basketball League, were considered to be the forefathers of today's NBA.

He said those who played were not the millionaire moneymakers of today's professional sports leagues -- rather a small step up from life as the typical factory worker.

"A college boy would not have aspired to be a professional basketball player," Genovese explained. "There were a lot of scrapes and injuries. A lot of times fans would poke at the players [through the fence] with hatpins or cigars.

"There was no backboard so you had to make a clean shot," he continued. "If you left your feet [to make a jump shot or lay-up] you'd end up on your back."

Genovese said players would often play for multiple teams in different leagues. He added the team that paid the most money settled players' scheduling conflicts if their teams played on the same night.

Genovese, also the author of two volumes of "The Old Ball Ground," chronicling the history of baseball in Westfield, said his next task will be to research the little-known sport of professional roller polo, an equivalent of hockey on roller skates.

For more information about Genovese's lecture on Dec. 2 or to obtain copies of his works, contact him at