by Chris Boucher
In honor of this weekend’s Lowell Irish festival, here’s a story of an early Irish basketball team orphaned by the city.
The year 1903 looked to be a bleak one for the Burkes basketball team and captain Michael Aloysius Qualey.
After seven years in Lowell, the basketball team was dropped by their sponsor in January (in mid-season no less!) and forced to look for a new home.
It was a humbling experience for the team that, according to the New York Times, had played for “the basketball championship of America” in 1901. (They lost to NY’s 23rd Street YMCA by a score of 27 to 18 that day.)
By 1903, the Burkes were one of two teams from Lowell in the young New England Basketball League. And sponsorship opportunities were few after their initial sponsor, the Burkes Temperance Institute, stopped bankrolling them.
Named after an Irish priest, Father Thomas Burke, an anti-alcohol crusader, the BTI bankrolled sports teams to promote healthy alternatives for youth.
Looking for positive press, they weren’t pleased with the headlines the team generated. Early basketball was hard fought, literally, and serious injuries were frequent. Newspapers played up stories of gashes that required stitches, broken noses, lost consciousness, and ejected teeth, resulting in sensational headlines like “Two Teeth Gone from Tighe’s Set: Devlin’s Blow Loosens Ivories.”
Then there was the gambling. While technically illegal, owners and newspapers promoted it as something to add interest, and fans were lured to games to bet against likely suckers with headlines like “Visiting Team Will Be Accompanied by Crowd of Rooters with Plenty of Money.”
Of course, Lowell’s other franchise, the Pawtucketville Athletic Club, had an emerging star in Harry “Bucky” Lew, basketball’s first Black professional. Lew was beginning a successful pro career with the PAC after leading his YMCA team to several Merrimack Valley championships. He was becoming a beloved figure in Lowell and potential investors likely saw the writing on the wall.
Fortunately, the owner of the league’s Manchester franchise saw an opportunity.
Tired of the losing ways of his roster of highly-paid primadonnas from Philadelphia and New Jersey, John Smith sent those players home and welcomed the Burkes. So Qualey and his teammates Donnelly, Devlin, Lynch, Healy, and Regan packed their (some would say) garish green satin uniforms and headed north!
The luck of the Irish returned immediately.
Cheered by capacity crowds of up to 1,100 fans at Mechanics Hall, the Burkes went on an immediate winning streak. They finished strong, turning a sixth-place finish in the first half of the season into a second-place finish in the second half.
Game 1 was held on Saint Patrick’s Day and 1200 fans watched the Burkes win. In game 2, 1600 fans saw the Burkes clinch the series with another win. Only 1000 attended the PAC’s anticlimactic and irrelevant win in game 3. The Burkes took the series by winning two of three games and restored their aching pride!
The next year was even better. The Burkes finished 9-1 in the first half of the season, earning a spot in the league championship season against the winner of the second half of the season, per the custom of the day. The PAC earned that distinction, and the two teams faced off for the league championship this time. When Burkes took that series three games to two, their revenge was complete!
Smith moved on to other ventures afterward and the team relocated again to New Bedford to start the 1905 season. After a slow start, they finished the season in Amesbury. And then the league folded.
The Burkes, however, stayed together and toured New England as an independent team. They met Bucky Lew again in Vermont in 1907 and it was his chance at redemption. Now known as “The Original Bucky Lew,” and a member of the Springfield Athletic Club, Lew’s team defeated the Burkes by a comfortable margin and continued on their way to the Vermont State Championship.
Chris Boucher is the author of “The Original Bucky Lew: Basketball’s First Black Professional,” His next Lowell event will be the dedication of Bucky Lew’s plaque at the YMCA tentatively planned for November 6, the date of his jump from the Y to the pros. The book is available in local bookstores and on all platforms at https://books2read.com/u/4XeQ9g.