Kentucky Wildcats basketball has long been a multimillion-dollar brand—one of the most lucrative in all of collegiate sports. It’s far removed from 1903, when the players pitched in $3 to buy a basketball for the team’s first season. The following decade, three brothers from Ashland helped form the bud of what was to blossom into Big Blue Nation.
Roscoe Preston from Inez High School was a four-year Kentucky letterman and a member of the Wildcats’ first unbeaten basketball team in the 1911-12 season. On Jan. 20, 1914, basketball fans in Ashland were able to see Preston and Kentucky battle their hometown boys. At the time, Kentucky was known as Kentucky State College, becoming the University of Kentucky in 1916. All nine Wildcats on the team, except Charles Schrader from North Philadelphia, were Kentucky natives. Rounding out the squad were Karl Zerfoss and Tom Zerfoss of Ashland’s Central High School, Herschel Scott of Madisonville High School, James Park of Richmond’s Normal High School, George Gumbert of Richmond’s Caldwell High School, William Tuttle of Somerset High School, and Ralph Morgan from Covington (high school unknown).
On that brisk January day, Karl, a sophomore guard, and Tom, a freshman forward/center, helped the Wildcats beat the Ashland YMCA basketball team 30-19. Coach Alpha Brumage was in his first year at Kentucky when his Wildcats traveled to Ashland with a 2-0 record. The game was part of a home-and-away series, with Ashland YMCA losing to Kentucky in Lexington 10 days earlier by a similar score: 30-21.
For L. Frank and Elizabeth Peak Zerfoss, it was a chance to watch their sons battle the Ashland YMCA team. And it was in the midst of a Zerfoss family run with the Wildcats: During every season except one from 1912-13 through 1918-19, a Zerfoss brother played basketball for Kentucky. The lone exception was the 1916-17 season, when Karl and Tom’s younger brother, George, transferred to Vanderbilt University to play for the Commodores following his freshman season at Kentucky.
Tom had already transferred to Vanderbilt after the 1913-14 season. George, a freshman in 1915-16, was the first Wildcat to transfer to another college and return to play for Kentucky, which he did for the 1917-18 and 1918-19 seasons.
Frank and Elizabeth had five sons altogether, but Lewis, the eldest—born in 1890—contracted pneumonia and died the same year; and Howard, who was born in 1892, died seven years later of diphtheria. The boys are buried in IOOF Cemetery in Bedford in Trimble County, also the final resting place of their parents.
In 1900, the family relocated from Bedford to Ashland, where Frank began work as an attorney. While living in Bedford, he had been a teacher, school superintendent and attorney. Karl, Tom and George had only a one-block walk to their school—the long-ago-demolished Central High School, now the site of Crabbe Elementary School. Their home on the corner of 17th Street and Central Avenue, across the street from the present-day Boyd County Public Library’s Ashland location, was adjacent to Central Park.
Frank was an active community member in Ashland. A plaque at the University of Kentucky proclaims L. Frank Zerfoss a co-founder of the YMCA of Kentucky. He worked with many boys organizations and served as president of the YMCA board. He became involved with the Lexington YMCA after moving there years later.
It was commonplace at the time in Kentucky for college and university teams to play YMCA teams. Ashland YMCA had strong talent, with two players who previously had played for Ohio State University. Kentucky sandwiched in a game with Louisville YMCA between the matchups with Ashland YMCA. The Wildcats beat Louisville YMCA 30-21 on Jan. 17, 1914.
After defeating Ashland YMCA, the Wildcats made the 20-mile trip the next day to play Marshall College’s Gallopin’ Green (today known as Marshall University’s Thundering Herd) in Huntington, West Virginia. The afternoon newspaper, The Huntington Advertiser, presented a grim outlook for Marshall because two of the team’s star players, Bailey and Lawrence (first names not included), would miss the game due to injuries.
“These two boys were fast as greased lightning and they were good basketball shooters. It is expecting [Kentucky] to beat the Marshall team by at least 30 points,” The Advertiser reported. The Wildcats did better than that, whipping Marshall 46-6. Kentucky finished the season with an impressive 12-2 record.
Tom’s career as a Wildcat ended after the sixth game of that season due to a knee injury. He scored 67 points—a high number for basketball players in that era. He transferred to Vanderbilt and played on its basketball and football teams. The Zerfoss brothers were multitalented athletes, as Tom excelled in football and in 1919 was named an All-Southern Football Player by both The Courier-Journal and The Tennessean. Tom and Karl both played football for Kentucky, and Karl also played baseball for Kentucky. Younger brother George was a three-sport athlete at Kentucky—football, baseball and basketball.
The following basketball season, 1914-15, Karl began playing forward, and the Wildcats split a couple of games with Vanderbilt. Kentucky finished with a 7-5 record. Karl was selected as the Wildcats captain for the 1915-16 season, his senior year. He was joined by another standout, brother George, a center who had played for the Ashland Tomcats. The Wildcats finished the season 8-6.
When George was a senior, Kentucky recorded its only tie game. The Wildcats went 9-2-1 in the 1917-18 season. The tie at Kentucky Wesleyan was due to a scoring error that wasn’t noticed until both teams had departed.
Kentucky played its first game against the University of Louisville in Karl’s freshman season. The Wildcats trounced Louisville 34-10 in Lexington in the kickoff of that heated rivalry on Feb. 15, 1913.
Life After Basketball
Like their grandfather, who fought for the Union during the Civil War, Karl, Tom and George Zerfoss served in the military.
Karl earned a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and became a professor at the University of Chicago. He taught at George Williams College in Chicago, serving on the faculty there from 1930-58. And, following in his father’s footsteps, Karl worked for the YMCA.
In 1989, he was featured in a set of collectors’ cards of former Kentucky Wildcats, which are still available for purchase online. The cards were sponsored by Kentucky Farm Bureau and distributed by Hall of Fame Memorabilia. He died in 1984 at age 91.
Tom served in the Army in France during World War I. He graduated from Vanderbilt School of Medicine in 1922 and practiced as a physician at Vanderbilt’s Student Health Center. Tom and his wife of 67 years, Dr. Kate Savage Zerfoss, an ophthalmologist and one of the first female physicians in Tennessee, founded the center in 1926.
In 1967, the center, which is still in use, was renamed the Zerfoss Student Health Center. Tom was an assistant football coach at Vanderbilt and the school’s athletic director from 1940-44. He started the Peak-Zerfoss Science Scholarship at Trimble County High School in Kentucky. Tom was 93 when he died in 1988 in Nashville.
George went on to be a test pilot in Florida for the Army Air Corps during World War I. He played semi-pro baseball in Atlanta and earned a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
George worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps in Sebree, Kentucky. One requirement for being in the CCC was being single. That changed for George when he met Sebree native Marguerite King, who would become his wife. Sebree also was the hometown of the wife of George’s nephew, Karl Zerfoss Jr.
George worked many years as a research engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville. He was 53 when he died of prostate cancer in 1950 at a VA hospital in Nashville.