Did Dr. Naismith Have A Middle Name?
by Curtis J. Phillips
History may be fickle. Take for example the name of Dr. Naismith, the inventor of basketball.
Encyclopedias and reference books pride themselves on the fact that they are usually accurate to the letter. In this case though, the letter is in fact the problem as many of these books, for decades, stated that Naismith’s full name was Dr. James A. Naismith.
If Naismith did have a middle name, what was it then?
Alvin, Andrew, Ace or even stealing some basketball jargon, Airball?
Well, according to his surviving family members and a few historians, Naismith never had a middle name let alone initial, despite the fact that the 15th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica states that he adopted the initial A. in later life.
So, the natural question is now asking, “Where did that A. come from?”
The late Mrs. James Sherman Naismith, second wife of the late James Sherman Naismith, who was the youngest of Naismith’s five offspring (born 1913), told this writer many many years ago that the father of basketball inherited the letter A. from his unique writing style.
“He (Dr. Naismith) always wrote James and made the last ‘s’ in James very large,” said Mrs. Naismith, who was predeceased by her husband in 1980. “It was a great big letter S coming all the way up and I guess a lot of people took it for a letter A instead. Someone wrote it that way in a newspaper a long time ago and it stayed that way.”
So why didn’t the good doctor speak up and correct the infraction?
“My husband said his father probably didn’t care or even notice. He was just too busy. And my husband’s family really didn’t take notice either,” said Mrs. Naismith, who resided in Corpus Christie Texas at the time of the interview back in the 1980s. “The only time my husband said anything about his dad was when he overheard his father’s name with the letter A. inserted.”
Also living in Corpus Christie was James P. Naismith, grandson of the original Dr. J. “It’s true what they say that my grandfather never had a middle initial,” says James P., who was three years old when his grandfather died in 1939. “According to my father (James Sherman) the A. came from the way my grandfather signed his name. He always abbreviated James to Jas. and everyone took it for James A.
“I guess someone wrote it down wrong and the rest of the people just followed copycats. I guess they thought, “Hey it’s in this book, so it must right,” and no one ever bothered to check it out.
“I still see books with it wrong but with stories like this, people will have it correct in time.”
The one and perhaps only Naismith offspring who seemed really upset with the name error was his second born and second girl, the late Helen Carolyn.
Dr. John Dewar, whose 1965 dissertation of Florida State University was entitled “The life and contributions of James Naismith,” had a chance to talk to Helen (then Mrs. Helen Dodd) at her residence in St. Louis Missouri in 1965.
“She was very upset when she told me that her father never had a middle initial,” says Dewar, who has been involved in all facets of Canadian basketball for more than 50 years.
“According to Mrs. Dodd, the letter A. came from the pronunciation on how he said his name. He spoke slowly and said “eh” between his name. It just came out that way and it stuck. People thought he was saying Dr. James A. Naismith. “I guess you could say it was the proverbial Canadian “eh” and his Canadian heritage. That’s another one I’ve heard of how the A. came about. “The same was confirmed by this writer in the 1980s’ when talking to Mrs. Dodd.
All five of her brother and sisters had passed away the last John Edwin in the 1980s’.
In a 1959 letter to Major James Leys, founder of the Memorial Museum to R. Tait McKenzie, another Canadian educator and close friend of Naismith, detailing the biography on her father, Helen had under his name James Naismith, in brackets and underlined – “He had no middle name or initial.”
In Springfield Mass., birthplace of basketball, Joe O’Brien then executive director of the Naismith Hall of Fame, told this writer in the 1990s’ that Naismith had no middle name, “There is no legitimate proof that we know of that he had a middle name or even middle initial.”
If you’re still not convinced, talk to historians from Almonte Ontario, birthplace of Naismith. “We have heard or read that he has middle initial A. but no birth certificate or record shows us that,” says historian John Dunn.
So why do people continue to refer to the farther of basketball as Dr. James A. Naismith? Perhaps they are copycats or unaware of the truth? Did Naismith really adopt a middle initial or name or is history wrong? Was it the way the Dr. learned how to write or was it just Canadian slang that confused everyone?
So is it true or not?
I guess only the good Dr. will know for sure “eh”.
N.B. This writer has spent a few decades correcting the Naismith error and a few years back received a letter from Encyclopedia Britannica of the correction plus other publications and Sports Halls of Fame have followed suit. Honoured to be mentioned on the Wikipedia bio of Dr. Naismith for such.
Last year at a game in Lawrence, Kansas while I was doing a feature on Andrew Wiggins, ESPN was to give me a minute to talk about Naismith and Canadian hoops. It stretched into five minutes at which the hosts in the studio commented at the conclusion that they were amazed “that a Canadian knew more about basketball than they did.”