The crowd of more than five hundred excited fans roared with excitement as Wild Bill Douglas sank another basket. The time on the clock was slowly ticking down and it looked as if the Cardinals were on track for another victory. The excitement of the evening has since gone; however, the whisper of its memory remains. For a brief moment in time, the Indiana Cardinals would create fierce rivals and bring a level of basketball to Indiana that had never existed before. The Cardinal’s run would be a short one, with circumstances outside of the team’s control bringing that streak to an end. For a moment in time, basketball was king in Indiana County and life was simple.
The Inter-County League
Basketball found its way into Indiana County and Western Pennsylvania shortly after its inception in the late 1890s. Photographic records show teams forming at the high school and club level, with adoption of the sport increasing each year. Local businesses sponsored teams with their namesake, thus sparking the competition for bragging rights and athletic supremacy. These teams exhibited a reasonable level of skill, however, there was a group of people who saw the potential for a higher caliber of play in the region.
Over the course of two evenings in December of 1933, at the Apollo Municipal Building, the Inter-County League was born. Representatives from the following teams were present: Tarentum Y, New Kensington Y, Natrona Falcons, Ford City Co. C, and the Apollo Steel. Though no one from the Indiana Cardinals was in attendance, their commitment to the league was submitted in writing. A team from Vandergrift would also be added, extending the league into four counties, and elevating the final number of participating teams to seven. The bylaws were drawn up and officers were elected. Frank Swust was chosen as the director of the league and an advisory board of five members was selected, comprising of sports writers from local newspapers. The league also decided to adopt the regulation Spalding ball for all games.
Each team was required to have a home court. For the Cardinals, this was the local high school (present-day Jr High). Games began at 8pm and saw lower-level teams who only competed inside the borders of the county playing an opening match–which guests could attend for fifteen cents. This was followed by the twenty-five-cent main attraction at 9pm. Over the next few seasons, the Cardinals would impress fans throughout Western Pennsylvania with their agility and skill.
The Cardinals were initially comprised of local athletes, Indiana boys; who’s speed, agility, talent, and tactfulness were a force to see. As competition within the league grew, the team recruited players from outside the area. This strategy would bring astounding talent to the team, enabling it to compete with noteworthy adversaries and hold their own. Some of the individual players would break league records and astound crowds with their abilities. Others would take their knowledge of the game and pass it along to the next generation of players.
Comprised of former All-Americans and local stars, the Indiana Cardinals was a unique blend of talent and hometown charm. The team drew its players from Westminster College, Penn State, the local high schools, and even other teams. The Redbirds would play or practice in the National Guard Armory on Wayne Avenue or the local Senior High School, whichever was available at the time. Within the region, the Cardinals participated in various tournaments and won many of them. The team had star players who came and went, but they all shared one thing, they had talent. The likes of Wild Bill Douglas and Wes Bennet led the team to multiple victories, breaking records, and winning championships. Comeback wins were common, showing that the game was never over until the last buzzer sounded.
More than a decade before the NBA was founded, the Cardinals took on some of the best teams in the region. They played the nationally famous Iron City Elks and won, as well as the Duquesne Comets–who boasted 152 wins and 25 losses when they played the Cardinals. The Redbirds came up against mighty foes, and tall ones too, and triumphed. Despite Franklin’s 7-foot-tall center, the Cardinals were still victorious. Indiana hosted teams such as the Altoona Jewish Five and played teams as far away as Harrisburg. The Cardinals almost played the New York Celtics, and even had a brush with the Wilmerding Y.M.C.A. Five. The same Wilmerding team was reported to have “lost in the semi-final game in the Olympic Games tournament being held at Madison Square Garden, New York City.” These are only some of the most notable teams the Cardinals played, not a bad lineup of opponents for a rural Pennsylvanian team.
If the players make up the individual pieces of a team, then the coach can be seen as the glue that holds everything together. That is exactly the role Doc Whitten played for the Indiana Cardinals. The team would not have existed without his influence, and his guidance would aid their rise to notoriety. He was a man of many talents, with the health and well-being of the community as a priority. His desire for better basketball in Indiana would shape the sport’s growth in the county and provide many memorable evenings for those who witnessed the games.
Dr. Warren Langdon Whitten came to Indiana from the state of New York to practice medicine. He attended Middlebury College and graduated cum laude from the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine in 1927. Whitten practiced family medicine in Indiana, with offices located on South Seventh Street in town. As his notoriety as a physician grew, he worked his way into the community sphere. He was a member of the Indiana County Medical Society, but other interests also filled his schedule too. Doc Whitten was a formidable tennis player and carried his zeal for the sport into the basketball arena. Papers would regularly proclaim the quality of basketball that Whitten had brought to Indiana and the region.
Above all, Whitten was a gentleman and exhibited excellent sportsmanship. Championship games were to be played on a neutral court, however, when restrictions limited what venues were available, Whitten conceded to play on the other team’s home turf. Other instances like this dot newspaper article, exhibiting that the love of the game, the benefit of the boys, and improvement of play was Whitten’s purpose. The league provided an outlet for clean, healthy, family fun, and a little competition.
The End of the League
All good things must come to an end. Coverage of the Cardinals in the Indiana Gazette and other local newspapers was thorough when the league was founded. By the time the 1938 season came around, that coverage was minimal and there is no mention of the Inter-County League or the team beyond that. It was likely the looming threat of World War II that had the town and region focused on other things. Doc Whitten and many of his Cardinals would enlist and serve their country in the dark days that were ahead. Thus ended an era when life was simple, and basketball was king in Indiana County.