Albany’s First Professional Basketball Team: The 1920’s Senators

Their star forward was only 5’4″ tall. One of their guards switched to baseball by the end of the season. Most of the players suited up for different teams in different leagues – during the same season. 5,000 fans, including New York Governor Al Smith, packed the Washington Avenue Armory to see their games. And they shot baskets in a cage.

Meet the Senators, Albany’s first championship basketball team. From 1919 to 1923, the Senators (also known as “Solons” or “Lawgivers,” depending on the sportswriter’s preference) posted a 103-38 record in the New York State League, winning two championships.

Long before the Patroons or Schaefer Brewers held court, Albany was a member of the New York State League, a “major” circuit with teams from Pittsfield to Utica and from Kingston to Gloversville. No coast-to-coast league existed in the 1920’s, but regional circuits like the New York State, Pennsylvania State, Metropolitan, Eastern and Interstate Leagues showcased the best professional talent.

With time, the game Dr. James Naismith designed in a Springfield YMCA evolved into one of the most popular sports in the world. But the game of the 1920’s was very different than today’s game. The 1920’s basketball was 32 inches in circumference, whereas today’s ball is 30 inches around. The ball wasn’t completely round, but was as close to a sphere as a rubber bladder in a leather casing could get. Because there might not be enough air in the ball, a player was never sure if the ball would bounce back on a dribble, or just land on the ground with a dull thud. There was always a small bulge in one side of the ball – that’s where the inflation valve was stitched over. Even a sure-handed dribbler could accidently lose control of the basketball if he bounced it on its inflation valve.

The teams didn’t have shoot-around drills with fifteen balls before a game, as they do today. Often both teams shared the only basketball in the arena. If the visiting team was lucky, they could practice with the ball a few seconds before the start of the game – and after the home team took its own practice warmups.

The object of the game of the 1920’s was the same as ours is today; the ball was tossed through a high basket and points were scored. But the court itself was encircled by four net curtains hanging from the ceiling and bolted to the floor. This “cage” kept the ball on the court and the fans off the court. Undeterred by the barrier, spectators often reached through the net and tripped the visiting team’s best shooter. Fans jiggled the stanchion holding up the basket – a perfect two-point shot could ricochet off the hoop if the stanchion was shaken just right. “If you were mad at a team coming in from out of town,” remembered 1920’s basketball player Al Sloman, “the nets were open, so you could put your hand through, or you could throw something in there. Or you could stick your foot through the net and trip somebody coming down the lane.”

Scores of 115-95 were unheard of in “cage” basketball. For example, Albany beat Cohoes 43-14 on January 5, 1920, which was considered a blowout in those days. There were no backboards in the cage and the only shots that countered were the ones that entered the hoop cleanly – no ricochet shots permitted. There was no 24-second clock speeding up the scoring. And each team returned to center court for a jump ball after every basket. Often the center took the ball at the tip-off, passed it to a guard who got it to one of the forwards, who then fired a two-handed set shot toward the hoop.

The floor inside the cage was freshly waxed before every game. Not because it helped the ballplayers in their game. In fact, many players stumbled and slipped on the frictionless surface. No, the floor was waxed for dancing. Many teams advertised post-basketball dances, successfully increasing crowds at games.

What about the referee – what was his purpose in the cage? Many fans felt all a referee did was toss the ball up for a jump ball, award the home team all close calls, and run for cover when the game was finished. The referee was in the cage with both teams, and a “homer” ref would call more fouls on the visitors so he wouldn’t get pummeled by the home team fans after the game. Of course some fouls were called against the home team as well, the “homer” would have a hard time working in the league.

It was in this era and atmosphere that Bill “Brownie” Hepinstall felt he could build a winning basketball team in Albany. In 1919, Hepinstall, a savvy promoter and part-time baseball umpire, became the owner, manager, coach, and part-time forward of the Senators. Instead of scouting out local basketball talent, as did the rest of the league, Hepinstall knew more fans would spin the turnstiles if his team had recognizable and well-established players. Sparing no expense, he acquired New York basketball stars Barney Sedran, Marty Friedman and Harry Riconda as the nucleus of his Albany Senators.

Barney Sedran
Barney Sedran

Barney Sedran (born Sedransky), the son of Russian immigrants, was one of the earliest college basketball stars (City College of New York, 1911). Sedran, a 5’4″ forward, made a tidy sum as a basketball player by playing for as many teams during one season as was physically possible. In 1914 Sedran led the Tri-County League’s Carbondale (Pa.) Salukis to 35 consecutive victories and a league title. On off-days from the Salukis, Sedran played a full schedule with the Utica Utes of the New York State League. While with Utica, Sedran set a record by making 17 field goals in a game against Cohoes – 17 clean shots through a backboardless hoop.

“Sedran was strictly a shooter,” remembered Al Sloman, a semi-pro basketball player who faced Barney Sedran on more than one occasion. “A shooter and a busybody. When I mean busybody, he’d run around and get in your way. He’d block you without you even knowing it’s a block. He was running just to impede the progress of opponents so his man can get away. And he kept running back and forth, in and out, in and out.”

Marty Friedman
Marty Friedman

Sedran’s partner on the field was 5’8″ Max “Marty” Friedman. Like Sedran, Friedman normally played on two teams at a time. In 1919-20, he played on three teams in three different leagues at the same time – Albany, Turners Falls and Pasaic.

Sedran and Friedman were known as “The Heavenly Twins,” a sobriquet originally given to them as an insult. As Friedman told the authors of The Encyclopedia of Jews in Sport (Bloch, 1965), “Barney and I were playing in a couple of different leagues one year, and the clubs worked out their schedules to accommodate us. Anyway, an unscrupulous promoter advertised that we were going to play with his team. We weren’t supposed to and didn’t know about it, so we didn’t show up. Well, the promoter lied and said we didn’t show because of a schedule conflict that day. The inference was that we would prefer to play with another team even though we were booked with the phoney’s club. The newspapers picked up the story and called us ‘The Heavenly Twins.’ It was meant to be sarcastic and indicated we could do no wrong. Anyway, the name stuck and the way it was eventually received was completely different from the original intention.”

5’10” Harry Riconda was another New York basketball star who split his time among teams. As a member of the New York Whirlwinds, along with Sedran, Friedman and future CCNY coach Nat Holman, Riconda played two contests against the “Original Celtics,” drawing a record-high 19,000 fans for a two-game series. He was also one of the early two-sport athletes, as he excelled in minor league baseball during basketball’s off-season.

Forward Leo Duval was a late signee in the first season. The owners of the other teams in the league were dismayed when Hepinstall loaded his team with “imported” New York City players, and when he tried to add professional legend Nat Holman to the team, the owners voted against Hepinstall. Leo Duval, a local kid from Cohoes, was hastily signed in Holman’s place, and played well enough to remain with the team for years.

This was the team. Sedran, Friedman, Riconda, Duval, two or three others as needed and Brownie Hepinstall. With the Washington Avenue Armory as their home, the Senators began their 1919 maiden season. Tickets were reasonably priced for the returning war veterans, 40 cents per pasteboard at Schultze’s Cigar Store at State and North Pearl Streets.

Stockpiled with major professional talent, Hepinstall’s team beat nearly every team they faced, winning the first half championship with a 17-1 record – a phenomenal .944 winning percentage. And the one game the Senators lost – well, the league “said” they lost. That one game was against the hated Troy Trojans.

On December 6, 1919, 3,500 people watched as Troy’s 200-pound Tom O’Neil grabbed 115-pound Barney Sedran by the neck and wrenched him to the floor. No foul was called. But when Marty Friedman called referee George Tilden a “vile name” a few minutes later, Tilden ejected the Albany star. The Senators refused to play without Friedman, and the game was forfeited to Troy.

The Trojans, under the tutelage of Hall of Fame coach/player Ed Wachter, were one of basketball’s first dynasties, winning championships in both the Hudson River League and the New York State League. In 1914, the Trojans took a 29-game, 49-day tour through the Midwest, winning every game. Upon their return, they won nine more games against New York and Massachusetts independent teams to close out their season.

The 1919-20 Troy Trojans were just as tough as their 1914-15 predecessors, and Albany-Troy games were guaranteed packed houses, both at the Armory and at Troy’s Bolton Hall. To these fans, Senators-Trojans contests were more than ten men and a referee in a cage.

And if Troy came to the Armory, you could bet “Dashaway” Maloney was in the front row. “Dashaway,” a six-foot lanky, blond-haired firebrand, partisan to all things of Rensselaer County, once celebrated an early Troy lead by tossing his coat high in the air, taking off his shoes and socks and sprinting around the cage like a mad monk, screaming invectives to the home crowd. Before “Dashaway” could take off anything else, the police removed him from the Armory. “Before the game concluded, he was back again looking for trouble and his socks,” wrote Times-Union reporter Jack Coyne at the time. “Nobody disputed his right to the socks.”

One of the best Albany-Troy contests was held on January 29, 1920. Brownie Hepinstall had just signed local center “Red” Shannon, whose nickname “The Fighting Irishman” did not imply he attended Notre Dame. Troy manager Matt Kelly then announced the Trojans would play with Chris Leonard, a scoring power from the Pennsylvania State League who would later start for the Original Celtics.

Six thousand basketball fans squeezed into the Armory, many of them kids who shimmied up the iron girders and watched the game from the ceiling. The bleachers were so overcrowded with people that as the first half ended, one set of reserved seats actually collapsed, sending a thousand spectators crashing to the floor. Miraculously, nobody received more than a few bruises, and the game continued.

At the end of the half, Troy led 8-7. The Trojans employed a stingy defense, and were still leading 12-7 with 10 minutes remaining in the game. The Senators retaliated, scoring six quick points in rapid succession from forward Leo Duval and guards Red Shannon and Marty Friedman, and taking the lead for good – Albany 18, Troy 12.

How much of a defensive struggle was this game? Marty Friedman was the only player on either team tallying more than one field goal. Barney Sedran was held to three points. Troy’s newcomer, Chris Leonard, scored seven of Troy’s 12 points, while the Trojans’ star, “Chief” Muller, could only score one basket.

And where was “Dashaway” Maloney? Ironically, the notoriety he received from tossing his hosiery into the stands at the previous Albany-Troy game had earned him a job at a Cohoes men’s clothing store, and he couldn’t get time off to attend the game.

Troy won the second half of the season with a 27-5 record, and would face Albany in a best-of-five series to decide the league championship. Unfortunately, the series never got off the ground, as Troy’s owner Matt Kelly argued with Brownie Hepinstall over how the box office receipts should be divided. The conflict was never settled, so Troy and Albany were declared co-champions.

In the 1920-21 season, Hepinstall recruited more talent to make his Albany fivesome even tougher on the court. Sedran, Friedman, Riconda and Duval all returned, along with a new acquisition, 5’9″ forward Ray Kennedy. Also playing a few games at center for Albany was Al Reich, another two-sport athlete (he was a better-than-average heavyweight boxer of his day). These Senators were declared champions of the first half of the season, as their 22-6 record was more than six games ahead of second-place Schenectady (15-12).

Hepinstall also tried a groundbreaking experiment. In another effort to increase attendance, he created an all-female basketball squad, which played exhibitions against male teams before the Senators’ contests. This noble experiment was discontinued after a few games, when the Lady Senators defeated the men in every contest.

In the second half of the season, the champion Senators suddenly lost their touch. The 1920 League co-champions started the second half winning only two of six games.

The fans and newspapers accused Hepinstall of making his squad “lay down” so another team could take the second-half championship and force a lucrative playoff. Never mind that Harry Riconda was on the sick list with two twisted ankles, or that Barney Sedran was battling pneumonia, or that the Senators were on an enforced two-week road trip while the Armory hosted the 1921 Auto Show. The fans’ jeers quickly turned to cheers when Hepinstall and company won their next ten games in a row, tying the Utica Utes for first place in the league, each team having identical 12-4 second half season records.

Albany and Utica met in a one-game playoff at the Armory on April 2, 1921. If the Utes won this game, they would face Albany in a best-of-five series. If the Senators won this game, not only would they have the championship of the New York State League, but they would also face the Scranton Miners of the Pennsylvania State League in a profitable inter-league best-of-five exhibition series.

Hepinstall lined up his best five that night – forwards Barney Sedran and Ray Kennedy, guards Harry Riconda and Marty Friedman. Leo Duval, who had been battling a stomach virus all day, would play center opposite Utica’s Dick Leary, the League’s leading scorer (he finished the season with 332 points, Barney Sedran a close second at 324). In their last head-to-head meeting, a 34-27 Albany victory on March 30, Leary had led the Utes with nine points while holding Duval to one measly field goal.

On April 2nd, in front of a packed Armory, Leary again limited Duval’s scoring to one layup. The Senators’ center, however, kept Leary scoreless. Albany won the playoff, 35-16, claimed both halves of the season, and was the 1921 New York State League champion for the second year in a row. “As the score indicates the Senators ran away with the locals,” wrote a reporter for the Utica Observer. “In every respect the Uticans were outclassed proving conclusively that the Albanians were the real leaders of the Empire State circuit.”

The Senators were the 1921 New York State League champions. For Marty Friedman, this was his second team championship of the year; he led East Hampton to a championship in the Interstate League on the Senators’ rest days.

The New York State League expanded to nine teams for the 1921-22 season, but Albany was not one of them. Hepinstall wanted the Senators to join another basketball loop, the Eastern League. Blocking the move was State League President Louis Stolz, who claimed that three of the Senators – Sedran, Friedman and Riconda – were New York State League property and could not play in the Eastern League. Hepinstall solved that problem and removed his team from the State League, opting for an independent schedule. So while Barney Sedran played for the Mohawk (Utica) team, Harry Riconda shot for Amsterdam, and Leo Duval guarded for Troy, they still made time for Hepinstall and the Senators.

Albany won 11 of 12 games on its independent schedule, including a 33-29 victory over basball’s Frankie Frisch and his All-Stars. In Vermont, 2,500 fans saw the Senators whip the White River Junction team, 45-24. Watching the game that night was the Dartmouth University basketball team and their coach. “Coach Zahn’s purpose in bringing the [Dartmouth] Green quintet to the contest was to let it see a good passing team in action,” wrote a reporter for the Albany Knickerbocker Press. “Zahn stated after the game that he heard of the great passwork of the Albanians but was greatly impressed after seeing them in action. Zahn says he will instruct the Dartmouth players in several of the passes which he saw the Senators use here tonight.”

On January 22, 1922, Hepinstall and the New York State League made peace, and Albany returned to the circuit for the second half of the season. Unfortunately, Harry Riconda and Marty Friedman were sidelined with injuries, and the Senators could not overtake Cohoes, the eventual League champion.

The 1922-23 season was the last for the New York State League. Most teams in the League tried to follow Albany’s success formula, and signed star players from New York and Pennsylvania. Some men were paid an astronomical $100 per game, all in an effort to win glory for their team. By the time the season ended, many teams were so financially exhausted that another season was unaffordable. That included the Albany Senators.

“It was the most disastrous season in the history of the league insofar as the financial end of the game was concerned,” said the 1923-24 Reach Official Basket Ball Guide of the New York State League. “The games were more hotly contested and the sport furnished the fans was on a high plane, but the fans just wouldn’t turn out. No other reason can be ascribed for the lack of support than the fact that the fans were perhaps ‘fed up’ [sic] on basketball.”

The Albany Senators were no longer the dominant team – a new team in the League, Frank Morgenweck’s Kingston Colonials, were the first-half victors and ran neck-and-neck with Albany for the second-half championship.

Two factors contributed to Kingston’s rise and Albany’s demise. First, almost every Colonial lived in the Kingston area, and worked entirely with owner/coach Frank Morgenweck. Meanwhile, the Senators’ outside interests were pulling the team apart. Marty Friedman left the Senators in 1923 for some much needed rest, later taking a job as a trustee in a New York City bank. Harry Riconda’s baseball skills were noticed by Connie Mack, and Mack signed him to a major league contract with the Philadelphia Athletics.

But the Senators pressed on, signing journeyman John “Honey” Russell (who would gain notoriety as being the Boston Celtics’ first coach), and remaining neck-and-neck with the Colonials.

On March 12, 1923, Albany faced the Colonials in Kingston. Kingston was 12-5, Albany was 8-4 and needed to win this game to force a three-team playoff and keep their playing hopes alive.

In the end, the Colonials prevailed, 32-23. Morgenweck’s team had two men in double figures (each had 10 points), and Kingston led from whistle to whistle. “Honey” Russell led the Senators with eight points, while the only remaining original Senator, Barney Sedran, scored six. Hepinstall even played right forward and
scored on a free throw.

The League folded after this game. Having won both halves of the season, the Colonials were crowned League champions, and the Albany Senators went their separate ways.

Bill Hepinstall remained in the Albany area, where his decendents became involved with the Albany Public School system. Sedran and Friedman continued playing basketball, sometimes returning to Albany for exhibition games. In 1924, while guarding third base for the Athletics, Harry Riconda made seven putouts in a single game, setting an American League record for third basemen. Leo Duval’s son later played for an Albany minor league basketball team in the 1940’s. Ray Kennedy became captain of the Washington Palace Five, a charter member of the American Basketball League. In 1962, Barney Sedran was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Marty Friedman joined his “Heavenly Twin” in Springfield in 1971.

And the Armory – it became home court for the Siena Indians college five in the 1950’s, then found new life in the 1980’s as home for the Albany Patroons.

The Senators were champions in their era, a time before the 24-second clock, backboards, racial integration, airplane travel, guaranteed contracts, salary caps, the three-point play and designer athletic footwear. But could the Senators, in their prime, ever beat the Lakers or the Celtics or even the Patroons? Playing by today’s rules, not a chance. LeBron James could have hopscotched over 5’4″ Barney Sedran and still make a spectacular dunk.

But LeBron dunking in a cage – that’s another story.