Here is the pop quiz for today. A eager is:
1) a lion tamer
2) a four-wall handball player
3) a basketball player.
If you answered 3, then you're a fan of a certain age—gray, or at least graying at the temples—because a quarter century ago, basketball players were often called "cagers" and their sport was the "cage game" in the newspapers. The terms were useful shorthand for harried headline writers, most of whom probably had no idea how they had originated.
The words go back to basketball's Stone Age and the first professional players. Nearly everyone is familiar with the sport's beginnings, 100 years ago. James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Mass., needed a challenging game to amuse a bored gym class, so he invented basketball. A scant five years later, in 1896, the first acknowledged professionals took the floor in Trenton, N.J. Their court, in a social hall, was enclosed, literally, in a cage, a 12-foot-high wire-mesh fence set along the endlines and sidelines.
At the time, the cage made good sense. Front-row spectators sat even closer to the court than they do today, and Naismith's original rules said that when the ball went out of bounds, the first player who got to it could throw it back in. Obviously, it would have been disastrous to allow players to wrestle in the laps of paying customers for possession of the ball. With the cage the rule was moot—the ball never went out of bounds.
The out-of-bounds rule was changed in 1902 to eliminate sideline scrimmages, but by that time the early pros were wedded to the cage. The thinking was that the game was faster and more entertaining in a cage because there were no delays to return the ball to play, and because the ball and the players could bounce off the wire mesh. Rope netting, a cheaper material, soon replaced the wire mesh as the cage material of choice.
Many eastern professional teams played in cages until 1925, and a few continued using them well into the '30s. Cages were rarely used outside the Northeast and never by high school, college or AAU teams. Still, the term eager was commonly used to describe all basketball players.
The original reason for using a cage was largely forgotten by the 1920s; many professionals of the time believed its purpose was to protect players from enraged fans. They had ample reason: Pro basketball in the '20s was no place for shrinking violets. It was considered fair play to drive the man with the ball into the wire or rope, especially if he was shooting. When a home-team player was thus clobbered, it was not unusual for fans to join the resulting fray. The players entered and left the cage through doors at either end, and fans sometimes fought their way in using the same openings.
Playing in cages left its imprint on the pros, literally. The late Joel S. (Shikey) Gotthoffer, a star during the 1930s for the famed Philadelphia Sphas who also played for Nanticoke in the Penn State League, once said, "I played the first few games at Nanticoke in a [rope] cage, and I came home with the cage's markings on me. You could play ticktacktoe on everybody after a game because the cage marked you up; sometimes you were bleeding and sometimes not. You were like a gladiator, and if you didn't get rid of the ball, you could get killed."
The late Joseph K. Schwarzer, who played in the New York State League in 1919, once described what happened when he came home after his first game in a rope cage. He took off his shirt and exposed rope burns all over his back. "Oh, my god," his wife exclaimed, "you've been in a fight!"