I never took a historiology course in college.
But, from my time studying the past as it relates to Arkansas sports, I’ve come to realize that history – what truly, really happened – is like an ever-shifting shadow.
One moment, you feel you have the answers. And the next, you realize once again there is a vast ocean before you that on the best of days can only be illuminated a few feet down.
Case in point: Try answering the question “Who is the first Arkansan to play in an established major pro basketball league?”
Off the top of your head, you may think back to someone like Wayne Yates or Eddie Miles from the early 1960s. If you’re really good, you’ll recall Mel McGaha, who played for the New York Knicks in 1948.
If you’re among the best of the best, you’ll think about El Dorado’s Goose Tatum, the astoundingly entertaining and athletic baseball player who was so funny on the diamond he attracted the attention of Abe Saperstein, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters. Tatum started playing for the renowned traveling basketball squad in 1941.
But the Globetrotters did not play within the confines of a structured league. They were free agents, playing who they could to make the most money.
Back to our original question: There is a possibility that a Mena native named Don Harvey, who played for the Sheboygan Red Skins in the National Basketball League (a precursor to the NBA), was technically the first Arkansan basketball “big-leaguer.”
And I do mean “technically.”
According to basketball-reference, Harvey appeared in all of one game in the 1945-46 season and accumulated no other stats.
I’d love to find out more about this guy, because it looks like close to nothing exists about him online. Indeed, the only way I know about him at all is by stumbling across his background on this Web site for basketball historians.
Harvey’s extreme obscurity highlights how tenuous any claims at “first” can be when writing about history.
There simply is no way to confirm him as the pioneer. I can only hope someone proves that he isn’t, which helps us all edge closer to a truth we can never actually reach…
JUNE 7 UPDATE: Well, it looks like Caleb Hardwick has stepped up to the researchers’ place and may just be the guy who pushes us closer to the truth. The resourceful Hardwick, who runs the outstanding Arkansas Baseball Encyclopedia, dug into Harvey’s background and found it’s unlikely he ever lived in Alma before playing in the NBL. According to this obituary, Harvey was a Missouri man – born in Jefferson City, played for Mizzou. There’s no mention of an Arkansas connection in his obit, or in a Sheboygan newspaper account of his debut with the team.
So, for now, it looks like Mel McGaha remains the man.