Strange But True: Ten Men in a Cage

“Cagers Defeat Foes 75-70”

Headlines like this appear in sports pages every day all winter. Readers soon recognize that a cager is a basketball player. Some readers may even understand that the word is used because “basketball team” is too long a term to fit in a headline. But very few have any idea why a basketball player is called a cager.

In the early days of basketball, teams used gymnasiums and meeting rooms that weren’t designed for the game. Often there were pillars or posts set into the middle of the “court,” and part of the game’s strategy was built around the obstructions. But when the ball went out of bounds there was often a delay. The ball might roll down some steps and right out of the building. It might roll under rickety wooden bleachers. The players and spectators had to wait until someone retrieved the ball.

According to one story, the first man to consider enclosing the court–so that the ball would always be in play–was Fred Padderatz of Trenton, New Jersey. Padderatz was a carpenter whose hobby was managing the Trenton basketball team. In order to speed up play, Padderatz built a chicken-wire cage eight feet high surrounding the court. Later, a few professional teams used a modified cage made of rope netting.

The cage did speed up play, but it had lots of disadvantages. It obstructed the view of the spectators. A more serious problem was the injuries the players got from banging into the chicken wire or netting–nasty scratches, bruises and burns. Before many years had passed, basketball gave up the enclosed court. But before it did, sportswriters had settled on a new, brief nickname for the game and its players. Cagers still play the cage game, although almost everyone has forgotten where the nickname came from.

From The Giant Book of Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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