(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared in The Forecaster’s July 26, 2002 Southern edition)
To most Americans the year 1922 seems like centuries ago. While 91 years is indeed a long time, not everything is different or better today.
In 1922, most of the world had yet to hear of Adolf Hitler. Movies were still silent and the Red Sox were only four years removed from a World Series win (it would take 82 to get another one). The Yankees had yet to win one.
Even though 1922 featured a different world, there is at least one common denominator. Basketball was then, as it is now, a passion, and communities lived and died with the fortunes of their local teams.
The storied boys’ basketball program at South Portland High School has captured 11 state championships in its illustrious history. Perhaps the most famous came in 1992, when the Red Riots got past Bangor in a heartstopping five overtime thriller.
That title was just a mere addition to a trophy case that began filling up back in 1922, when Warren Harding was president, there were only 48 states and a basketball team from South Portland first introduced the state of Maine to championship play.
When South Portland took the court that winter they were known as the Capers (The Red Riots moniker wouldn’t come until later).
Clarence Hamilton, a forward, was team captain. He was joined in the frontcourt by the Trefethens, forward Waterman and center Walter, who was also known as “Big Boy” and the “Giant South Portland Center.” Alfred “Chook” Dunlap and Harold “Fat” Dunton were the guards.
Backups included Blaine Davis (who would one day become the sports editor of the Portland Press Herald and later earn induction into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame), guards Charles Gibbs and Edward Miller and forwards Thomas Berry and Chester Thompson. The team was coached by Linwood Kelley.
Janice Hamilton Hanly, the daughter of Clarence Hamilton, remembers her father telling her how the sport had changed over the years.
“He talked about how the game was different then,” she recalls. “I don’t think that they had substitutes.”
Players in those days essentially played from start to finish.
While the Capers were in the midst of a perfect regular season, there were rumblings that they should face the undefeated Bangor team for the “state title.” At that time, the state of Maine had no organized tournament (the sport itself was just a little over three decades old) and while a team could call itself the best, there was little way to prove it.
By the time the regular season came to a close in early March, South Portland had agreed to join several other squads as the Bates Tourney in Lewiston. Bangor would be there as well.
South Portland closed out the regular season with a 32-19 rout of Morse (“South Portland lifts Morse scalp,” was the Portland Evening Express’ headline) and set their sights on Lewiston.
In a preliminary showdown with Stephens High from Rumford on March 10, South Portland overcame an early 10-8 deficit (at that time it was difficult to rally from any deficit) to win 23-15.
In the semifinals, Bangor crushed Northeast Harbor 48-18, while South Portland eliminated Woodstock (playing without Joni Mitchell and Jimi Hendrix for that game), 32-13. At long last, a state champion would be crowned.
March 11, 1922 saw Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey dominating the ample sports section, which also offered tips for golfers and information for those looking to learn more about the game of baseball.
Headlines that morning read: “Indian Leader (Gandhi) Under Arrest, Charged With Sedition By British Authorities,” Portland and Deering Debate Teams Victorious,” “Davy Crockett Club of Falmouth Gives Jolly Banquet,” and “New High School Building Assured South Portland,” which reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
In a sign of the times, that day’s paper featured a “Page for Women,” which included tips on cooking, “pointing up your personality,” and a daily fashion hint.
Douglas McLean and Rudy Valentino were the movie stars of the silent, silver screen.
Men’s shoes sold for $3 at Lane’s City Hall Shoe Store on Congress Street. Boy’s blue suits were on sale for $9.95 at the American Clothing Co. on Middle Street. A two bedroom house in Deering went for $2,500. Traffic managers were making $3,000 to $5,000 a year.
Against that backdrop, the Capers took the court at Lewiston City Hall against a heavily-favored Bangor squad with a partisan Bangor crowd cheering them on. For most of the game it appeared as if the Bangor fans would get their money’s worth.
Bangor never trailed in the first half. After the teams traded baskets in the early going (Waterman Trefethen got South Portland’s first hoop), Bangor raced to a 16-7 lead at the half. Waterman Trefethen would have all seven Capers points in the first half.
A nine-point deficit in 1922 was equal to trailing by 20 or 25 points today. A Bangor victory appeared to be a done deal.
Slowly, however, South Portland would rally.
Baskets by Dunlap and Walter Trefethen made it 16-11. After the teams traded one free throw apiece, baskets by Gibbs, Waterman Trefethen and Walter Trefethen gave South Portland its first lead, 18-17. Bangor went back on top 19-18 on two foul shots, but Waterman Trefethen answered with a basket for a 20-19 South Portland lead. One free throw by Hamilton, followed by one from Trefethen made it 22-19 Capers. Bangor got a basket to pull within one, 22-21, but two free throws by Hamilton iced it and South Portland escaped with the stunning 24-21 win.
“I remember hearing about how everyone came running on to the court after the win,” Hanly said. “From what I understand, it was a big brouhaha.”
“Capers By Wonderful Comeback-Shock Bangor at Bates Tourney,” read the headline the next day.
The Evening Express was lyrical in its recap of the game, boasting:
“There can be no doubt in the mind of anyone, that there is no gamer cluster of basket tossers in New England.”
South Portland was expected to go on and compete in the New England Tournament at Tufts College in Massachusetts, but they instead chose to rest on their laurels and pulled out, citing “poor physical condition.”
Regardless, South Portland’s tradition of boys basketball excellence had begun.
Clarence Hamilton, who also captained South Portland’s strong baseball team, went on to Bowdoin College where he was a top runner. He opened the law firm Blake and Hamilton, later Blake, Hall and Sprague. He lived into his 90s and is immortalized with his name on the Mill Creek Stone.
Sadly, all of the players from the 1922 South Portland state champions have passed away. Even though they are no longer with us, what they accomplished nine decades ago should not be forgotten.
For being the first state champion in a beloved sport and for rallying in improbable fashion, the 1922 South Portland Capers should forever be hailed for introducing the fervor that surrounds basketball in the months of February and March.
A new group of South Portland heroes hopes to build on their legacy Saturday night.