Twin City Covenant Basketball: A Brief History

by Curtiss D. Johnson

In the winter of 1936-37, the first meeting to organize a Twin City Covenant Basketball League was held at the old Minnehaha Academy office. Play began shortly following the Holiday Season in Minnehaha’s small gym with the concrete floor. The free throw circles almost intersected with the center jump area. A fast break would have been easy, but no doubt the game was slowed considerably by the need to return to the center circle for a jump ball after each basket.

The quality of play in that first season was enhanced by the entry of two teams that had already experienced city championships. Salem of Northeast Minneapolis—in those days a hotbed of great basketball—had taken home several trophies in the city-wide YMCA church league action. These boys represented the church, but by order of the deacons of the time, used the name “Gideons.” It was not clear whether they were named after the Bible organization or after their long-time booster and team manager, Gideon Carlson. In any event, they were a dominating team with players like “Pebbles” Stone, Harry Ohman, “Lunch” Wall, “Bud” Rosell, and Will “Bozo” Bolin. Only two of the players from the team survive today, the Engman brothers, Bob and Norm. Their principle rivals from St. Paul First Covenant were players who had previously starred at the old Johnson High which at the time was located close to the original First Covenant Church. “Slim” Wahman, Harry Falk, and Art Swenson are some of the names supplied to the writer by Art Johnson, also a player in those days.

The small gym floor and the unusual height of the Salem boys contributed to such overwhelming box scores that it became evident that the old guys at Salem should turn over the play to the younger boys. This included the Bjorklund brothers, Orville and Glen, Paul Peterson, Harlan Erickson, and others—even Curt D. Johnson, who played with eyeglasses protected by a wire mask that was similar to a baseball catcher’s mask, though smaller.

Another mysteriously named team appeared in the league the “Excels”—representing First Covenant of Minneapolis. Who knows why or where such a name came from? The old score book often recorded only the name ‘‘Tabernacle.”

Some of the church representatives in the early organizing meetings were Joe Nelson of Broadway, Oscar and Henning Bergstrom of Elim Minneapolis, Winston Oberg of Bethlehem and Milton C.R. Carlson of Bethany (now at Bethlehem).

Particular memories center around the home and home series played with the Mission Basketball League of Chicago. It began in 1938 with games between the champions of each league and selected All-Star Teams. Records of the date and location of the 1938 event seem to be lost. But, in 1939, the Mission Basketball League of Chicago invited the Twin Cities to send two teams to play at the big Lane Tech High School on the North Side. Henning Bergstrom remembers the awesome sight of a huge gymnasium with enough basketball backboards to equip five schools in Minneapolis. The players and fans boarded the sleek Hiawatha Train early Saturday, the first of April 1939, for a 6 to 7-hour trip arranged by Milton C. R. Carlson. There were perhaps 30-plus in the contingent, enough to claim a full coach. Arrangements for housing had been made with the Lawson YMCA, conveniently located on the North Side of Chicago.

If one were to examine the printed program for that event, he or she would find familiar names such as Paul W. Brandel of Ravenswood (past president) and Nevins N. Cedarleaf, also of Ravenswood. Vincent S. Wallgren of North Park was then current league president. Some of the players with the Twin Cities All-Stars were Stan Swenson and Manley Bohline of the old Broadway Church, and Orv Bjorklund and Ken Bergquist of Salem Covenant. Bethany Covenant of Minneapolis played against Grand Crossing of Chicago. The name of H. Roos tops the list of Grand Crossing players and it seems that this name also appeared at one time on the Northwestern University varsity roster. Also of note was the long record of donations from proceeds of the Mission Basketball League of Chicago to the Princeton Children’s Home. On a return visit with an All-Star team in 1941, Paul Peterson of Salem recalls that he was met at the train station by the famous artist, Warner Sallman.

The Twin City Covenant Basketball League, as originally organized, was of necessity curtailed considerably during the World War II years, but I believe that high-school-age teams continued competition, perhaps sponsored under the Minneapolis Park Board or the YMCA. When the Covenant League was active, there was a lot of fan support and friendly competition. Season tickets for all games sold for $ 1.00 each and Minnehaha became a social gathering place on Monday nights for the local area Covenanters. Referees were paid perhaps $4.00 a game to run three games an evening. In order to provide better seats than a balcony view, Oscar Bergstrom, a park board employee, arranged to bring in a set of bleachers which were temporarily installed on what was then the school auditorium platform. Somehow, we came out with a little profit to help pay expenses for Chicago trips.

The intercity games played in the local area were staged at the then rather new Hamline University Field House. A souvenir printed program included the support of Standard Clothing Co. and Eng Olson Fruit Co., as well as the Men’s Brotherhood Societies of Elim, Salem, and Bethany Covenant Churches.

The rivalry between the Mission Basketball League of Chicago and the Twin City Covenant Athletic Association of Minneapolis and St. Paul was renewed shortly after the end of WWII. The first game was played in 1948 again in Chicago—this time at Roosevelt High School which was located even closer to North Park College. The Twin City contingent on this trip had the privilege (and funding) to stay at the famous Stevens Hotel on Michigan Boulevard. The writer, who tagged along with the team found the restoration from Army Air Corps bunks in the rooms to a class hotel quite interesting after having spent six months there in 1943 as a Radio operator and mechanics student, sharing a room with five other GIs.

Records recently uncovered reveal that in 1949 we welcomed the North Park Church team and a group of Chicago All-Stars, this time to play in the new Northwestern College Gym on Harmon Place. At the time a new gym with a wooden floor was under construction at Minnehaha. Evidently, in fact, we had appealed to Mr. George Wilson to allow some of our local play-off games at Northwestern.

Games must have been hotly contested in those days. A file letter from the Minneapolis YMCA reveals that an appeal for help on a technicality brought forth an independent ruling that a certain game should not be replayed. The North Park team included a name—J. Hawkinson—now who could that have been? Perhaps that team was principally seminarians.

Those inter-city meetings provided a good means of fellowship both in Chicago and in Minneapolis. For some reason the rivalry was discontinued in 1966, perhaps because of lack of interest on the Minneapolis side, or perhaps the competition from Chicago was too much to handle. The Chicago Mission League just this past year celebrated their 75th year.

The Twin City Covenant Basketball League continued play until about 1979 when it was decided that lack of team entries, even in the junior boys divisions, made it necessary to end what had been many years of good times in the basketball arena. It was a very good relationship with Minnehaha Academy and perhaps contributed to interest in enrollment there by some of the youth who had spent happy Saturdays bouncing and shooting basketballs.