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Daniel Wilco | | September 20, 2018

What we learned from reading the NCAA tournament 's oldest box score


The first NCAA tournament was held in 1939. Eight schools played eight games (there was a third-place game in the West region) over 11 days to decide the championship — where Oregon beat Ohio State 46-33 to claim the first NCAA banner. We wanted to find that box score and see what it could tell us about how basketball (and the world) was different in the 1930s.

Thanks to Google's newspaper archive, we're able to check out the issue of the Eugene Register Guard that ran the day after the game. That issue is dated Tuesday, March 28, 1939. On the front page, under the masthead, is this lead headline: “Mighty Oregons Scramble Ohio State To Take Hoop Title of All America.”

The front page is home to a story on the celebration back in Eugene, but you’ll have to turn to page six to find the stats of the game. Under a section labeled “Game nutshell and summary”, sits the oldest NCAA championship box score.

It doesn’t list first names, and only counts three stats: field goals, free throws, personal fouls, and total points:


Compare that with the box score for Villanova in 2018 national championship:

Villanova box score 2018 championship

 Just slightly different. Rebounds weren’t an official statistic until the 1950-51 season, assists weren’t recorded until 1983-84, steals and blocked shots came in 1985-86, and the three-point line was adopted in 1986-87.

Winners of the 2018 championship, Villanova averaged 86.6 points per game, just a bit more than what the Associated Press says Oregon did in 1939: “just under 50 points a game.”

That Associated Press report is fascinating to read, and we’ll get to it in a minute (with video highlights from the game), but there are some other great insights into life in 1939 spread across the ads that ran in the Eugene Register Guard:

If you wanted to experience the national championship game in real time, radio was your only option. The first televised college basketball game didn’t take place until the next season, when Fordham and Pittsburgh played on Feb. 28, 1940, in Madison Square Garden. But you were in luck, as local Oregon radio stations had a direct play-by-play live from Northwestern, where the game was being held. It’s advertised as the longest radio broadcast in state history.

Radio ad 1939

But perhaps you wanted to catch the game in person. Well, a train ride to Chicago cost just $65 for a coach seat on Southern Pacific.

Train ad 1939

Or maybe you’d rather drive yourself. In the classifieds, you’ll find plenty of options for used cars, like a 1937 Chevrolet Master Coup for $345. Don't forget to pick up insurance:

Insurance ad 1939

And of course you'd want to look good while watching the game. A town-clad suit from J.C. Penney’s will run you $19.75.

Suit Ad 1939

For sad Ohio State fans, 1,600 sheets of Kleenex were available for $1.

Kleenex ad 1939

And for both fans, a gallon of wine costs $1.42, or you could pick up a pint of whiskey for just 75 cents.

Whiskey ad 1939

Now, treat yourself to some fantastic sportswriting from the 40s:

"EVANSTON, Ill., March 28 — (AP) — The University of Oregon basketball team was homeward bound today with the National Collegiate Athletic association championship and one of the most impressive records of the season.

The lanky, spectacular-shooting Webfoots wound up their game season last night with a 46-33 victory over Ohio State, Big Ten conference titleholders, in the finals of the N.C.A.A. tournament at Northwestern university gym.

Oregon, in racetrack parlance, broke fast against the Buckeyes and led all the way. The Buckeyes rallied early in the second half to cut Oregon’s advantage to 21-20, but then the Webfoots brought their height and uncanny one-hand shooting into play again to run their lead to 29-20.

Just a Breeze

From there on it was just a breeze for the champions of the Pacific Coast Conference, whose victory last night gave them a season’s record of 29 victories in 34 games. Over this span they averaged just under 50 points a game.

Their defense was little less impressive. Captain Jimmy Hull, Ohio State ace, managed to squeeze 12 points through, but none of his mates could match that pace. Only three times in their 20-game season were the Bucks held to fewer points than they scored against Oregon.

Oregon qualified for the N.C.A.A. final bout by defeating Texas and Oklahoma in the western regional and Ohio State became eligible by winning the eastern regional with victories over Wake Forest and Villanova.

John Dick led the Webfoots’ scoring parade with 13 points, Capt. Bob Anet and Laddie Gale counted ten apiece and Wally Johansen nine.

5000 Spectators Approve

It was superior shooting and ball handling that enabled the lofty westerners to unseat Ohio State. 
Their marksmanship spotted them 6-0 lead in the first couple of minutes and enabled them to stay in front from then on although the Buckeyes were within striking distance until the last 10 minutes of play.

The 5000 spectators roared approval at Oregon’s light-fingered work with the ball. On defense they checked so perfectly that Ohio State seldom got a decent shot and never got more than one without losing possession of the ball.

Oregon threatened to outstrip Ohio State late in the first half when the Ducks glided to a 21-13 margin but the Buckeyes flung in a long basket and converted after a foul to reduce the halftime margin to 21-16.

The precise Pacific coast boys continued their attack with few interruptions in the second half but Ohio State, fighting back vigorously, stayed on their heels until the clock said 10 minutes to go.

Reserves Play

At that point Oregon really turned it on and demonstrated complete mastery over the eastern champs. The Webfoots ran their lead to nine points, had it cut to seven, then spurted and increased it to 13. Ohio reduced it to 10 before an Oregon lineup which by now comprised three regulars and two reserves boomed it back to 13 at the gun."

Finally, if you want to watch the game yourself, here it is:

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