By Dale D. Dalenberg, MD
June 2, 2013
Tip Top Weekly was a popular five-cent story paper for boys published by the venerable Street & Smith, which was just beginning its run as the preeminent powerhouse of pulp magazine publishing when this dime novel came out in 1903. Tip Top Weekly ran from 1896 to 1912, and then with various title changes survived until 1916. The Dalenberg Library of Antique Popular Literature owns a couple hundred of the over 800 issues that were published. The stories run the gamut from school intrigues to detective stories to wild west adventures, but a majority of issues feature the fictional Merriwell brothers, Frank and Dick, in their sporting exploits.
A large number of Tip Tops feature baseball or football covers, a smaller number feature hockey or boxing or fencing or a kind of polo played with hockey-like sticks on roller skates. The rarest sports covers in the Tip Top series are basketball covers. These are especially priceless because they depict the sport in its infancy, but already established as a major collegiate enterprise.
Basketball was invented by James Naismith in December, 1891. This 1903 dime novel cover provides a glimpse into the game as it had evolved over 11 years and 3 months. The original game used soccer balls and peach baskets that were tacked to the railing 10 feet high (the same height as today) under the gym balcony. The backboard was created to prevent fans in the balcony from interfering with the ball in play. The original backboards were made of chicken wire. Many of the online sources we found name 1904 as the year colleges adopted wooden backboards, but this Tip Top cover clearly shows a wooden backboard being used by March, 1903. Otherwise, this cover demonstrates the placement of the basket that had been standard since 1891. The rectangular target on the backboard didn’t come in until later. Also, the practice of placing the backboard on a pole 2 feet in from the end of the court was adopted later.
Our Tip Top cover, both the color cover (if you look closely) and the back cover, demonstrate the stitching on this early basketball, much like the lacing on a football. The ball depicted on this cover is a regulation Spalding basketball. Spalding removed the stitching and gave the ball more bounce in 1929. At the time of this Tip Top cover in 1903, dribbling was not part of the game of basketball yet, and therefore the bounce in the ball wasn’t as important. The game in 1903 relied mostly on passing and shooting. Colleges had amended the basketball rules in 1901 to allow the player to bounce the ball once, but if they bounced it, they had to pass it before anyone could shoot it. Dribbling and shooting from the dribble didn’t come in until 1909.
The most obvious thing on the 1903 Tip Top cover that stands out as a difference from modern basketball is the closed net. The original nets were peach baskets, and someone had to climb up a ladder to retrieve the ball after every basket. With the advent of wire or nylon nets, you could poke a pole through the net and knock the ball back out. Nylon nets with open bottoms became standard in 1912. After the ball could fall through the net, it greatly speeded up the game.
In fact, one of the things that stands out in the story-line in Tip Top No. 361 is how low-scoring the basketball game is. If you look at the history of basketball, one thing that stands out is that many of the rule changes have been designed to make the game more exciting, speed it up, eliminate stalling tactics. There’s actually a monument to the 24-second shot clock in Syracuse which held the first scrimmage game to feature the new rule in 1954.