Sports: Basketball & Baseball
Born: November 22, 1898
Died: November 11, 1978
Bernhard Borgmann was born November 22, 1898 in Haledon. At Clifton High School, the kid everyone called Benny was one of the state’s top baseball players, and even better in the emerging sport of basketball. He was quick and deceptive, able to hit long set shots or drive to the basket if a defender got too close. This is standard operating procedure in the modern game, but it was a novel skill in the early years of the 20th century. At 5’8” he was a shade taller than most guards of his era.
Benny loved basketball and New Jersey was a hotbed of amateur hoops. As a teenager, Benny (a Protestant) pretended he was Jewish in Jewish leagues and Catholic in Catholic leagues. Sometimes he earned a few dollars for playing, but mostly he played for the fun of it. That change in 1921, when he joined the Kingston Colonels of the New York State League. Against those early pros he averaged in double-figures—at a time when winning teams often scored under 30 points a game. In 1922–23, Benny led the NYSL in almost every offensive category. The following year, Kingston beat the famous Original Celtics for the championship of pro basketball.
Pro basketball became a “major-league” sport in the mid-1920s with the formation of the American Basketball League. Benny signed with the Fort Wayne Hoosiers and led the ABL with 11.2 points per game in 1926–27. He led the ABL again two seasons later. Benny scored many of his points from the free throw line. In the days of the one-shot foul, many opponents preferred to send him to the line than allow him to shred the defense. Many pro players suited up for multiple teams during this era, playing in a league for one club and barnstorming with another. Benny actually played with the Original Celtics in 1926–27.
In 1929–30, Benny was traded to the Paterson Whirlwinds and led the ABL in scoring for the fourth time in five seasons. The Depression devastated the ABL, and Paterson had to disband during the 1930–31 campaign. Benny was picked up by the Chicago Bruins, who were owned by George Halas. He led the league scoring for the fifth time. The ABL contracted the following year and became more of a minor league. Benny continued playing well into his 30s, leading the ABL in scoring at age 38. During World War II he worked in a defense plant.
All through the 1920s, Benny played baseball in the summer as a Red Sox farmhand for an assortment of independent minor league teams. He usually placed among the league leaders in runs and stolen bases. In 1932, the Cardinals signed him. Because his deal with St. Louis was that he did not have to report until after the basketball season ended, Benny never progressed above AA ball. However, his knack for teaching fundamentals (and his value as a sure-handed middle infielder) led St. Louis to make him a player-manager in 1935. In 1938, Benny led the Portsmouth Redbirds to the Mid-Atlantic League title. A year later, he led the Sacramento Solons to the PCL championship. He continued to be a player-manager through the 1942 season, and then came back to coach and manage in the St. Louis system from 1946 to 1950. He stayed with the club as an executive until 1964.
Bennycontinued to work in baseball as a scout, with his final gig coming in the early 1970s for Charlie Finley and the Oakland A’s. Though remembered mostly for his basketball legacy, Benny actually spent more years—and made more money—as a baseball player, coach, manager and scout.
Benny coached basketball for a year in Vermont at St. Michael’s College. From 1949 to 1954, he coached the Muhlenberg basketball team in Allentown, Pennsylvania, leading the Mules to a 77–60 record.
In 1961, Benny was enshrines in the Basketball Hall of Fame, both as an individual player and as a member of the Original Celtics. He once estimated that he had played 3,000 pro basketball games, and 2,000 baseball games. Benny spent his final years organizing youth sports in New Jersey. He passed away in 1978.