Did Vanderbilt play the first college basketball game 125 years ago this Wednesday?


Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

When the Vanderbilt Commodores take on the Georgia Bulldogs this Wednesday, they will be carrying on a tradition of potentially historic significance.

This Wednesday, February 7th will mark 125 years since Vanderbilt defeated the Nashville YMCA by a score of 9-6 in a novel new game known as “basket ball.”

Substantial evidence compiled by Bill Traughber, a Nashville sports historian and author of five books on the history of sports in Nashville, shows that this was the first-ever basketball game played by a collegiate team, giving Vanderbilt a legitimate claim to be the birthplace of college basketball.

“The debate would be who played the first game, and it’s clear that Vanderbilt played the first game by two months,” Traughber told The Vanderbilt Hustler. 

For years, Geneva College, a small liberal arts college in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, has claimed to be the “birthplace of college basketball” because of a game they played on April 8, 1893 against the New Brighton YMCA. They have substantiated this claim based on an excerpt from the founder of basketball’s autobiography that was written 76 years ago. Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game in 1891, wrote in his autobiography that an acquaintance of his went to work for Geneva, and that “It is my belief therefore, that this college was the first to play basketball.”

However, as Traughber points out, that evidence is not as solid as Geneva would like to think.

“It’s a belief,” he said. “It’s not certain. It’s quite possible, and even probable, that he didn’t even know about Vanderbilt forming a team. He was up north and he lived most of his life in Kansas, that’s where he died and that’s where he’s buried. In the South, he just didn’t know. That’s what I contend.”

The evidence that has amassed over the last few years makes it fairly clear that Vanderbilt has a very strong claim to be the birthplace of college basketball. A page in the 1893 Vanderbilt Comet yearbook shows the players that played and the score, but does not mention a date.

A page from the 1893 Comet Yearbook outlining the Vanderbilt basketball game that took place that year (obtained via Bill Traughber)

In order to confirm the date of the game, Traughber looked through Nashville newspaper archives and discovered a story previewing the game from the February 7, 1893 edition of The Daily American.

A story in the February 7, 1893 edition of The Daily American previewing the Vanderbilt “basket ball” game taking place that night (obtained via Bill Traughber)

He also found a story in the February 8, 1893 edition of the Republican Banner summarizing the game and saying “The game of basketball at the YMCA gymnasium last night between the Vanderbilts and the Association team was witnessed by a large audience, who greatly enjoyed the first public exhibition of this new game.”

A story in the February 8, 1893 edition of the Republican Banner summarizing the Vanderbilt victory the night before (obtained via Bill Traughber)

Given the overwhelming evidence, it’s hard to deny Vanderbilt’s claim to the first collegiate basketball game.

“Geneva also has, outside their fieldhouse, they’ve got a historical marker that mentions that they’re the birthplace of college basketball,” Traughber said. “But, it’s pretty undeniable that Vanderbilt was the first.”

As far as gaining official recognition from higher authorities in basketball, that is still up in the air. When a journalist from Pennsylvania approached the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame about the question in 2014. A historian for the Hall of Fame was very hesitant to take a side on the issue, but said “there is evidence to support the Vandy claim.”

Despite this evidence, the University has neither officially recognized this game nor have they officially acknowledged their purported position as the birthplace of college basketball. So, don’t expect any commemoration of the anniversary when the Commodores play the Bulldogs on Wednesday.