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The ZoUner Piston
by Rodger Nelson
Whether the name 'Zollner Pistons'
conjures up softball or basketball, it
always means champions.
Fred Zollner 's teams put Fort
Wayne, Indiana, on the sports pages
of the nation. They not only won
games, they were leaders in softball
for more than a decade and innova-
tors in basketball. The Pistons' his-
toric 19-18 win over the Lakers in
1950 led directly to the 24 second
clock. They also pointed the way to
an expanded foul line. They were the
first sports team to travel to and from
their games by air.
The Zollner Pistons' story takes us
back to the early days of pro basket-
ball and the golden era of fastball. It
all happened because of one gener-
ous and visionary man, Fred Zollner.
Here we have the history of those
teams, written by Rodger Nelson,
who watched the Pistons play, and
with contributions by the players
The tale of Fred Zollner and his
teams is sports at its best: exciting,
innovative, and above all, fun.
3 1833 02701 9188
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Nelson 7 F-\ddger R.
The Zollner Piston story
BY RODGER NELSON
EDITED BY RYAN TAYLOR
Allen County Public Library Foundation
Fort Wayne, Indiana 1 995
Allen County Public Litorary
900 Webster Street ^
PO Box 221^
Fort Wayne. IN 4f8m-??70
© Allen County Public Library Foundation
All rights reserved.
This book is pubhshed by:
The Allen County Pubhc Library Foundation
Fort Wayne IN 46801-2270
telephone: (219) 424 7241
The pubbcation of this book was made possible
by grants from
The Foellinger Foundation and
The Zollner Foundation.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Oxford Umversity Press for
permission to quote from Robert W. Peterson's Cages to Jump Shots (1990),
and to Thomas S. Wilson, president. The Detroit Pistons, for permission to quote
from a letter.
Printed in the United States of America
by Evangel Press, Nappanee, Indiana
This book is humbly but proudly dedicated to my four
very best friends, Jenny, Reid, Jon and Anne May their tribes increase
And to two other special best friends, Chris and Max.
And to the treasured memories of my beloved Mary
Alice, and Phil Harris
Also to all the endearing and enduring friendships
which have been created through our wonderfiil world of sports.
Books of this kind are produced with the cooperation of a
great many people
This project was the inspiration of Carl Bennett, who also
provided the leadership to see it through It was encouraged by
Carl Bennett appointed a committee to work with him on the
project Rodger Nelson, author; Rob Fisher; Hilliard Gates; Bemie
Kampschmidt; Phil Olofson; Bob Parker Mr. Parker was instrumental
in offering advice and arranging the illustrations, and gave permission
for the republication of his own cartoons
The support of the Allen County Public Library made
publication through the Allen County Public Library Foundation
possible Library director Jeflfrey Krull has offered splendid
cooperation and leadership, and Curt B. Witcher, manager of the
historical genealogy department, has given freely of his time in
facilitating the research, writing and editing. Rebecca Witcher
graciously processed the original typewritten text Ryan Taylor has
been a tremendous help in composing, editing, interviewing and writing
for the final product. The reference librarians and historical genealogy
department staff assisted with fact checking and advice. Tim Dixon of
the systems office offered technological support
A number of people loaned or donated materials about the
Pistons for the author's use: Dorothy Christie, Rosie Gilpin, Norman
E Nix, Max F. Robinson, Lee Sholund, the late Dale Hamilton, Bemie
Kampschmidt, Pat McGary, Mrs. Neal Barille, the late Bob Scherer,
the family of the late Ed Robitaille, Len Sholund, Scott Schaefer, Glenn
Timmis, Scott Armstrong.
Both The Journal-Gazette and the News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne
Newspapers, kindly gave permission for extensive quotation from back
issues of their newspapers, the principal source of data on the Pistons
Special thanks go to retired News-Sentinel staffers Carol Heyn,
for proofreading and editing, and John Steams, for his photographic
Appropriate recognition is also due to the late Dale
Bennington, original editor of The Rocket, the Zollner Machine Works
magazine He and his successor. Bob Parker, did an outstanding job
documenting Zollner history.
Robert W Luzadder's unpublished manuscript on the
basketball Pistons was a great help in the editing process. The
assistance of Bill Plummer of the National Softball Hall of Fame is also
Both players and fans added their memories: Frank Brian, Dike
Eddleman, Stan Hood, Mel Hutchins, Harry Jeannette, Bill Johnston,
Hughie Johnston, Bemie Kampschmidt, Leo Luken, Don Mauck,
Andy Phillip, Fred Schaus, Charlie Share, Carlisle Towery, George
Several former members of the Knot Hole Gang contributed
reminiscences: Don Graham, Mary Ellen Johnston, Virginia Simone
Wyman, Jerry Snyder, Chuck Suder, Jerry Thompson, Don Weber.
A great many people assisted, in large and small ways. If we
have missed mentioning any name, we are sorry, but we are still
grateful to you. Dating the team photographs was somewhat diflBcult;
if we made an error, we are sorry.
Fort Wayne R.N.
Zollner Machine Works and the Teams 1
National SoftbaU Hall of Fame 1 05
Zollner Stadium 107
1942-43 , 121
1944-45 ' 133
An Historic Game
The All-Star Game in Fort Wayne
The Knot Hole Gang
Fred ZoUner: the Afterglow
Zollner Machine Works and the Teams
The Zollner story started out as a family affair and wound up
The story begins with Theodore Zollner, a pioneer in industrial
leadership. His son, Fred, was one of the founders of major league
professional basketball as we know it today. Zollner Machine Works'
sponsorships delivered world championships in softball (fastball) and
professional basketball, and gave the Summit City its only bona fide major
The Golden Era of Zollner Piston sports in Fort Wayne started in
1941 when both the company-sponsored softball and basketball teams
stepped away from the local competition to play in premier amateur
softball and major league professional basketball action.
It lasted until 1957 when Fred Zollner moved his National
Basketball Association franchise to Detroit where they are still playing as
the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons that made Fort Wayne famous have now
made Detroit famous.
The Zollner name made a meteoric rise in both industry and sports
once it picked up its roots in Duluth, Minnesota, and moved to Fort Wayne
in 193 1 . The Zollner zeal for excellence in tooling and machination spilled
over into the teams the family sponsored or the franchises they owned.
Ted Zollner, at age seventeen, started out as a $20-a-month
apprentice machinist for Twin City Iron Works in Minneapolis. He be-
came one of the industrial giants of the country. Along the way, the
company that carried his name spawned two great athletic legacies: a
softball team that jumped from the sandlots to the top of its class, and a
storybook basketball team that went from the YMCA to the National
Basketball Association. The softball team, best ever to play the sport, was
the first three-time winner of the world's championship and never finished
less than first in any league in which it played. They won 87% of all the
games they played. Nine Zollner Piston players are enshrined in the
Softball Hall of Fame.
The basketball team jumped from a local industrial league into the
National Basketball League and became the first three-time winner of the
world's professional championship when it was decided by a sixteen team
tournament in Chicago. The team also became one of the original
franchises of the National Basketball Association.
Besides the three world championships in softball and basketball,
some important Zollner milestones have been the building, in 1947, of
Zollner Stadium on North Anthony Boulevard in Fort Wayne (now the
home of the Concordia High School Cadets), occupancy as the major
tenant of the Allen County Memorial Coliseum when it opened in 1952,
the hosting of the NBA All-Star Game in 1953, and varieties of
entertainment including ice shows, concerts, personal appearances,
boxing, and wrestling.
Zollner Machine Works was founded in Duluth,
Minnesota in 1912. It was a one man show — Theodore Zollner and one
tooling machine. Zollner invented an automatic machine for weighing
difficult bulk items such as sugars and grains for wholesale merchants. At
the age of thirty-four, he resigned as superintendent of Duluth's Marine,
Iron and Shipbuilding Company and set up shop to manufacture and sell
Theodore's family moved to Minneapolis shortly after his birth in
1877 at Waupun, Wisconsin. His father built and designed flour and grain
storage mills. Theodore sensed the romance of mechanization as applied to
making rough metal into a desired product by use of machines.
In those days, the approach to trade was through apprenticeships
and they were not easy to come by. The term was for four years and
usually required a $500 bond to insure completion of the course. Theodore
applied to the Twin Cities Iron Works for his training as a machinist.
There were no openings but Theodore persisted. The hiring man finally
concluded, "Around here we like to be sure a man knows what he wants. I
guess you know what you want. You'll be a machinist." The apprentice-
ship began at twenty dollars a month for one year with small increases
each succeeding year. Each problem he encountered in metals processes
and machines seemed only to center his interest in machines. He stayed
for an extra year at Twin Cities then struck out for other jobs in the mining
and ship building industries in northern Minnesota. He wound up in
Duluth and invented the automatic weighing machine.
Business was good, and he had soon saturated the local market.
His company was too small to go national. In 1914 he was joined at
Zollner Manufacturing Company (as it was known then) by an apprentice,
his own son, Fred. Fred went to school half days and spent the remainder
of the days and his summer vacations working at the plant.
The name of the company was officially changed to Zollner
Machine Works in 1918. Theodore Zollner saw the automobile as a
tremendous potential on the industrial horizon. He began to rebuild
automotive engines along with manufacturing precision parts for the
pneumatic tools used in Minnesota's great iron mines.
Theodore 'Ted' Zollrier, the founder of the corporation that bears his
From 1917 to 1921, Fred Zollner worked side by side with his
father, operating the machine adjacent to his dad's. From 1918, after
finishing secondary school, Fred worked ftill time at Zollner Machine
In 1919, Theodore decided that Fred should have more formal
education and the younger Zollner attended night school from 1919 to
1927, working days and going to classes at night.
By 1924, both phases of Zollner Machine Works products were
highly touted, noteworthy particularly for parts for mining tools. A
Zollner rebuilt engine was considered equal to a new engine while the
Zollner-designed, Zollner-built pistons were considered superior to the
Fred received his engineering degree from the University of
Minnesota in 1927. There were some personal sacrifices along the way —
fourteen-hour work days and, at one juncture, sale of Theodore's forty acre
farm to keep the business alive.
By 1928, Zollner's was recognized for its high quality pneumatic
tool parts and its pistons. It was decision time as to which endeavor to
pursue. Ted Zollner decided to concentrate on the heavy duty aluminum
piston. The pneumatic tool parts division was sold.
The pistons were so successful that leading engine manufacturers
were demanding Zollner pistons for their engines, the demands continuing
to grow despite the national depression which began in 1929. Duluth
became economically unfeasible for the growth of the company. Zollner
Machine Works had to find a new location, more accessible to its
customers and suppliers. After a diligent search. Fort Wayne was found to
answer all the criteria.
Fort Wayne was a clean, pleasant city in which to live with easy
access to the entire Midwest, a hub with spokes to Detroit, Chicago,
Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis, and a very respectable
manufacturing city in its own right.
So, right in the middle of the snowballing Great Depression,
Zollner Machine Works moved to Fort Wayne from Duluth. Theodore
was president, Fred vice-president, with daughter Janet the secretary-
treasurer. The entire work force numbered twelve. The site was on Bueter
Road (now Coliseum Boulevard South). The single story brick building
was 50 X 100 feet on a 100 X 300 tract of land, dwarfed by its giant
neighbor. International Harvester, to the south.
Janet Zollner Fisher
There was room for expansion, which was necessary as the piston
business flourished with the nation tooHng up for World War II. Ted
Zollner had longstanding plans to retire when he reached the age of sixty-
five but fate intervened and produced two of the greatest achievements in
his life. Normal retirement would have been in 1942. World War II was
at hand and those engines of war needed Zollner pistons. So in 1942
another building was added. Plant size and production capacity more than
doubled and the new structure (now the center building) became the
Aircraft Building, which opened in 1943.
Wright Aeronautical production was activated. Zollner pistons
became vital parts of Wright's American bomber and fighter planes.
Tooling and organizing the aeronautical line was considered the crowning
achievement of Ted Zollner's life, coming after he reached the age of
There was pride when Zollner Machine Works not only met
deadlines but beat them. Where the allowable number of rejects was five
percent, Zollner shrank its rejection percentage to one fourth of one
The combination of speed, efficiency, precision, and perfection
won the company the coveted Army-Navy "E" citation in July, 1943, for
war effort. Theodore Zollner considered this award the proudest moment
of his life. In the relatively short space of twelve years, Zollner Machine
Works had risen to become an industrial giant.
In actuality it was a "Ted and Fred Show." With its small work
force, all activities could not help but be on a respectful first-name basis.
And, of course, Janet (later Mrs. Emerson Fisher) was more often called
by her first name than as 'Miss Zollner'. She still lives in Fort Wayne.
The first-name familiarity laid the cornerstone for good working
conditions in a friendly atmosphere. Ted and Fred made a fine
management team. Fred's informal style was characterized by his habit of
signing his staff memos simply "Fred." Ted was more at home in the
plant than behind the desk.
Both became recognized throughout the industry for their
engineering genius. Fred ran the front office; Ted took care of the plant.
Janet watched the books. Perception and perfection became the Zollner
The Zollner family and Zollner Machine Works were good
citizens. They paid their proper dues to worthy community or civic
projects. Yet, the family was socially private, actually shunning the
Both father and son were avid sports enthusiasts, perhaps Ted
more as a participant and Fred a spectator- fan. Ted was a rugged
outdoorsman, a crack shot and a good fisherman. He hked bowHng and
indulged himself in one of his few rare luxuries by building his own two-
lane bowling alley on Fairfield Avenue.
Sports was a high priority with the Zollners in furthering
employee relations at the piston plant. Sponsorship of athletic teams in
bowling, Softball and basketball proved good for morale. Little did any-
one realize that this sponsorship in two sports would lead to distinction
among the founding fathers of the National Basketball Association and the
best Softball team ever put together.
While Fred was the catalyst for the sports programs, Theodore
was one hundred percent behind every activity, wanting to play to win
every time. The willingness to work, the ability to think and the courage
to take a chance had brought huge rewards to Zollner Machine Works
through Ted's and Fred's efforts, and the same would prevail in the wide
world of sports.
From the twelve-man force that moved to Fort Wayne in 1 93 1 , the
firm eventually became the supplier of seventy percent of the world's
heavy duty aluminum alloy pistons for internal combustion engines. Just
as ZoUner's had chosen Fort Wayne as a pleasant city in which to live, a
large piece of Fort Wayne's work force found Zollner Machine Works a
pleasant place to work. Former personnel director and athletic boss Carl
Bennett said that during World War II and afterwards, employment
Theodore Zollner retired after World War II. He died of a heart
attack in 1952, aged 74.
Zollner Machine Works became the Zollner Corporation in 1956.
It remained privately owned by the Zollner family until 1990.
Enigmatic Fred Zollner was simplistic yet complicated, an engin-
eering genius, disciplined, determined and decisive, extremely compet-
itive, generous, fair, compassionate, publicly shy and craftily sly without
deception, a very private person. Both of his marriages were childless, yet
he was known and respected for his love of children. He enjoyed a rapport
with them that few adults can claim.
FredZollner, son of the founder and the person wholly responsible for the
outstanding Zollner Piston sports program.
Ray Scherer, a native of Fort Wayne who gained fame as an NBC
White House correspondent, said of Fred, "As for his vicarious father
syndrome, what I remember is my brother, Jim coming home and saying
that this nice man with the big house on Forest Park Boulevard had picked
him up and three or four other lads in the Zollner Buick, gave them a
speedy ride out the St. Joe Road and then wound up buying them ice
cream." This would have been in the 1930s.
One of Zollner's greatest legacies may be with youngsters. Many
have speculated that it was the frustration of having no children of his own
that led to productive fun and education with kids. In the Lakeside Park
area, he would round up grade school youth and get them into softball
action. He even leveled off a vacant lot at Kenwood and Crescent for a
ball diamond and erected a backstop so that kids could play the game.
Bernie Kampschmidt recalled the Pistons lying in the grass at the
Peoria Caterpillars' home field. Ball players in uniform always draw kids,
and there was soon a crowd. Fred came out to join them, dressed in a suit,
but before long he was wrestling with the boys in the grass. Bernie said,
"He didn't care about the stains on his suit."
When Zollner Stadium was built to house his world champion
softballers, the Zollner organization started the Knot Hole Gang, a
program devoted to the youth of Fort Wayne. Many Fort Wayne natives
recall happy Knot Hole Gang times provided by Fred Zollner.
Zollner was seen in many different lights by his peers. "Fred
Zollner," Detroit columnist Myron Cope once wrote, "is short and stocky,
a dapper man sporting peak lapels, a silk shirt, a constant tan and an unruly
coiffure that suggests he is about to mount a podium and conduct
"He is the sort who would not harm a fly. Rather than swat one,
he would catch cold holding the door open until the fly got ready to leave."
Carl Biemiller, executive editor of Holiday Magazine, came to
Fort Wayne to do a story entitled "Hoop Happy Town." He presented Fort
Wayne as a "town in love with basketball."
Biemiller wrote, "Zollner, at forty-nine, is a soft-voiced curly-
headed manufacturer, a friendly man with a taste for expensive striped
suits and the engaging knack of making them look as if he'd worn them to
Zollner's foray into the national sports scene was merely an
extension of company policy. The unwritten idea was a splendid
February 1951, p. 76.
employee relations program which, like the piston production, just kept
Fred's parents had front row seats; Fred sat on the bench. He
shared the pre-game locker room buzz as a more-than-interested fan, laid
back owner and had an arms-length fellowship with his players, perhaps
more paternal than fraternal.
Zollner was more active on the softball bench than in basketball,
as Softball was acknowledged as his original favorite. One of Fred's ear-
liest recollections of his father, and of sports, was when Theodore pushed
him through a turnstile at a baseball game.
Hughie Johnston said he preferred not to be the guy sitting next to
Fred. "He was like a wild man on that bench," shifting and moving with
the excitement of the game. "He wanted to win and he wanted to win by
more than one run."
Hughie recalled a game in Michigan. It was a dull game. "We
were ahead by five runs or so," Hughie explains, "And the mosquitoes
were out." He sat on the bench, bored. Beside him, Fred was as excited as
ever. When Hughie asked him why, Fred looked at him as if he were
Having Fred there did make a difference, in Hughie's view. "The
reason we played so well," he says, "was because Fred was on our bench.
He had good judgment."
While Theodore enjoyed his role as a regular guy, Fred was more
of a loner. Their intense work ethic left little time for frivolity. Ted's
outlet was some hunting and fishing. Fred's recreation was watching his
plant-sponsored softball teams from the press box.
They both had private social lives. Fred's best friends were his
business associates. He did not play golf He was more at ease with a
pinball game in the neighboring suburb of New Haven than spending an
off night playing cards with the boys in a country club setting.
In a sense, Ted built the machines and Fred, a brilliant engineer,
honed and designed the pistons that rolled off them. Fred spent all his
sixty-eight working years with the Zollner Coiporation. He excelled
enough at inventing and improving piston designs, structurally and metal-
lurgically, that at times he turned down job offers when he could have
named his own price.
Leo Luken recalls that Fred helped engineers at General Motors,
Caterpillar and other plants by preparing experimental pistons, which they
could then try on their new products. It was a way of developing markets,
but also showed his own engineering expertise.
Fred was incisive, decisive, and his projects had horizons that
were continually expanding. He hired people who had their eyes on the
same target and to whom he could delegate authority with confidence.
Many times he was so immersed in plant work or product development
that he would approve a softball budget or a basketball transaction with an
approving nod or a firm handshake. Some personnel situations in the plant
were decided in the same quick manner.
If production was slack for a time, he would not enforce quick
layoffs, but deferred them with a "lef s see if it gets better in a few weeks"
attitude. His foresight, perception and judgment were well respected by
all his associates.
Zollner's rapid ascendancy to domination in both softball and
basketball may be unparalleled in industrial sponsorship history. And with
Zollner's high standards of excellence, it almost seemed automatic. Zoll-
ner's lieutenant in the formative years of Piston teams was Carl Bennett.
Forty-five years after Theodore Zollner began his apprenticeship,
his son Fred hired a sports apprentice of his own. Bennett was first base-
man for Fairview Nurseries' team in Fort Wayne's fastest softball league,
and in 1938 was named player of the year. Fred Zollner was an avid fan
and enjoyed some of the game from the press box. Fred asked Carl to
come to work at Zollner Machine Works in 1939.
This began a pattern. It seemed that the best way to get a job with
the Zollners was to play well against them. Fred Zollner offered Carl
Bennett a chance to work at the Zollner plant and play first base on his
entry in the Main Auto Major Softball League.
Carl had been making nineteen cents an hour at Charlie Seyfert's
potato chip operation on East Wallace street, so the Zollner offer was too
good to turn down. Eventually Carl would be player, business manager,
coach, athletic director, personnel director, basketball coach, president of
both the National Softball League and the National Basketball League and
would serve on the board of governors of the National Basketball
Association. He became Fred's front man for the Zollner sports activities.
"Sports, under Fred, was relatively informal but he just wanted to
have the best teams and many of our workers were among the best athletes
in the city and we were almost automatically winners," Bennett said,
"Eventually Fred gave Fort Wayne a national reputation in both business
and sports. Everything he did was first class." First class in Zollner's eyes
also included first place, and the major leagues.
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It happened gradually, but with certainty. After cakewalking
through Fort Wayne's major industrial league, and running short of local
competition, Fred suggested to Bennett that they expand their horizons and
reach out for better foes.
South Bend's Bendix Brakes was one of the Midwest's softball
powers along with Detroit's Briggs and several others from the motor city.
National power was focused in the industrial Midwest. Nick Carr's Boos-
ters of Covington, Kentucky, had won the world title in 1939, Briggs a
year earlier. Toledo and Columbus were strong.
With the go-ahead from Fred, Bennett branched out. As Zollner
Machine Works started to flourish, Bennett became personnel director at
the plant and business manager for the company-sponsored sports teams.
League basketball was also in its early stages. The first NCAA
tournament was played in 1939. Professional basketball was almost semi-
pro. The seasons, schedules and league competition were not enough to
keep a player busy without finding off-season employment.
Franchises were changing. The depression had flattened many
teams; the most noted pro teams were those that toured, such as the New
York Celtics, New York Rens, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia Sphas,
and Detroit Eagles. The pro championship was decided by a sixteen team
tournament in Chicago Stadium, the winner of which would play the
college all-stars to start out the following season.
The world's pro tournament was the springboard to Zollner's
emerging on the national basketball scene.
Leo Fischer, sports editor of the Chicago Her aid- American, was
the organizer for the pro tournament. He was also president of the
tottering National Basketball League. His pro tournament, with the winner
hosting the college all-stars in the fall, was more or less the Herald-
American's answer to the Chicago Tribune's entrepreneurial sports editor
Arch Ward. Ward had created the major league all-star baseball game and
the annual college all-star football game.
In seeking to round out his sixteen-team field, Fischer offered Fort
Wayne a place. The best independents in Fort Wayne were the Zollner and
International Harvester teams. They played off for the right to go to the
pro tournament. Zollner won 37-35.
The win was no fluke, as the Pistons had been unbeaten in both
halves of industrial league play. But the fact that they did well enough to
compete in the pro tournament whetted Fred Zollner's appetite for
expanding basketball horizons.
Fort Wayne had a history in pro basketball with the Fort Wayne
Knights of Columbus and the Fort Wayne Hoosiers. The Fort Wayne
General Electrics played in the NBL in 1937 but folded after one year.
The fact that an industrial league team from Fort Wayne could compete in
the world's pro tournament says something about pro basketball in the late
1930s and early 40s.
The Pistons went to the Chicago Amphitheater and drew Lon
Darling's Oshkosh All-Stars, one of the vaunted pro teams, as their first
opponents. Oshkosh had finished second the previous year in the
On the Piston squad were Don Beery, Red Oberbrunner, Jim
(Wiggles) Hilgeman, George (Red) Gatton, Dale Hamilton, Bob Symonds,
Joe Grimme, Jack Keller, Phil Bail, and Johnny Shaffer. They beefed up
their YMCA team by adding Hans Dienelt, Jim Glass, and Bob Irons.
Bennett went along to handle the business.
Fort Wayne made a credible showing, losing only to the old-time
pros from Oshkosh, 47-41 . Winners of the championship were the Detroit
Eagles, whose roster included Jerry Bush, Ed Sadowski, and Buddy
Jeannette, all of whom eventually would wind up in Zollner uniforms.
Jeannette had a great pro career and later coached the Baltimore Bullets.
He said about Fred Zollner, "Fred took pro basketball out of the nickel and
After their respectable debut m major competition, Zollner
summoned Bennett into his office and said, "Carl, lefs get some tougher,
better teams to play from now on. See if we can get a better schedule."
Bennett went to Chicago to talk to Fischer, president of the
National Basketball League, to arrange more exhibitions for the pro teams
to play in Fort Wayne. Fischer had a better idea. "Why don't you join the
league, and you'd be playing the best on a regularly scheduled, competitive
Thus the Fort Wayners became professionals and joined the
National Basketball League, the best in pro basketball.
Bennett, with his mandate from Fred, became a scheduler,
recruiter, business manager, and part-time coach. He still loved to play
first base for the championship softball team that Fred was building. In
Zollner's quest to be the best, Bennett did such a good job of loading up
the team that he lost his playing job.
In 1943 the Pistons brought in Hughie Johnston, a fierce
competitor with the Detroit Briggs, and generally acknowledged as
Softball's best-ever first baseman. With Johnston's arrival, Bennett picked
up his glove and bat and went to the office.
Everything started booming all at once.
"When Fred hired me in 1939," Bennett recalls, "we had about
twenty-five employees in the plant. We had to use some outsiders to fill
out our sports teams in city play. Just a couple of years later we're into
heavy piston production, trying to build a reputable softball program
beyond local competition and in 1941, we're in the National Basketball
Bennett estimates that war-time employment reached 1 800, a far
cry from the twelve in 1931 and the double-digit employment of thirty to
eighty by the late 30s. With Fred busy engineering the heavy duty
aluminum pistons, Bennett said he "had free rein with the athletic and
promotional programs, obviously with Zollner's stamp of approval."
Recruiting athletic talent was fairly easy, once the players knew
that the Zollner program was genuine. Softball was almost a depression-
built sport and top stars used it to secure employment. Basketball was in
the same boat. The seasons were short and the players had a heavy
reliance on off-court jobs. Zollner Machine Works, growing rapidly in
defense and wartime production, provided the background that would
count heavily in its won-lost columns.
Frank Parson, Stan Lipa, and Len Murray were among early out of
town Softball recruits to spice up the team. In 1940, Zollner dispatched
Bennett to pick up Bernie Kampschmidt, Jim Ramage, and Leo Luken
from a Covington, Kentucky, team that had won the 1939 world
Leo Luken was a coming pitcher, but not yet the ace of the team
in Covington. He was, Bernie Kampschmidt observed, wild as a March
The star pitcher of Nick Carr's Covington Boosters was Norb
Warken. The Dayton-Cincinnati-Covington area was a hotbed of softball,
with teams playing every night of the week. Young Leo had begun
attending the games, hankering to play, but found he did not know how.
He knew a good pitcher when he saw one, and began practicing, modeling
himself on Norb Warken. "I never had a pitching lesson in my life," he
He had already signed to play for an industrial team in Evansville
when he played the Pistons for the Covington team. He left work, drove to
Fort Wayne and arrived late at Municipal Beach. As he and his friends
pushed through the crowd, Fred Zollner spotted them. "Hurry up," he
said, "We've had hours of practice already."
Leo quickly changed in the beach house, threw two warm-up
pitches and then played the game. He won 10-0.
Fred Zollner's reaction was natural. He told Carl Bennett he
wanted Leo Luken for his team.
Leo turned them down, because he had so recently signed with the
other team. Carl drove down to Evansville and even brought Leo to Fort
Wayne for a talk with Fred Zollner. It took a long time for Leo to make up
his mind, but eventually, the attractive work package and the difficulties of
commuting between Evansville and Covington convinced Leo to make the
move. Fred was surprised to receive the call after so long, but the offer
was still good.
Leo told Fred that there was a catcher on the Covington team that
would add a lot to the Pistons. "We have a catcher," said Fred.
"But," said Leo, "He'd add a lot to the team."
So Fred agreed that Leo could bring Bernie Kampschmidt along.
Leo then added that there was a shortstop on the Covington team
that would add a lot to the Pistons. He could play outfield, too. "We have
a shortstop," said Fred.
"But," said Leo, "This guy will help on the team." He adds that he
knows now he was pressing his luck.
But Fred agreed that Leo could bring Jim Ramage along, too.
The three men drove up on a Sunday, stayed at the Y and reported
to Zollner's the next morning. Leo was hired at eighty cents and hour,
Bernie and Jim for seventy. They started on the Tuesday.
This trio — Luken, Kampschmidt and Ramage — were the
backbone of the Pistons throughout the next decade and a half, and were
also stalwarts of the Piston plant. Luken became production chief, Kamp-
schmidt personnel director and Ramage supervisor of a stock room. It was
the beginning of a softball dynasty.
Leo knew that his control was not the best, so Fred took Jim, Leo
and Bernie out to Harvester Park to practice, having Leo pitch and Jim hit
to hone their skills. They spent two hours a day there for two years. Leo
remembers, "I developed a curve ball which was unusual in softball in
Of Ramage, Bernie said, "He was a good hitter, fleet of foot and a
strong throwing arm. There isn't much more to say than that." Ramage
would later race Stan Hood, the batboy, around their hotel when the team
was on the road, but Ramage was too fast for him.
Fort Wayne Gallery Of Sport
■ LEO "THaoJ^
one of THe=
Historians record that softbail was invented in 1886, and Dr.
Naismith put up his first peach basket in 1 891 . When Fred Zollner entered
both arenas, the sports were still fairly primitive by today's standards.
Softball did not get its name until 1926. The Amateur Softball
Association came into being in 1934. Basketball was still using the center
jump after every basket until 1937 and there were still a lot of rules to be
changed to make the sports more attractive to fans.
Softball claimed to be the nation's number one spectator sport
with some 140 million watching but, these were basically non-playing
audiences watching a game that was so defensive and pitcher-strong that it
Zollner would find that out later. In the meantime, loaded with
the best pitchers, he tried to pep up the game with changes in rules to
improve the offensive strategies. Pitchers at one time were throwing forty
feet. This was gradually moved back to forty-three, then forty-five, and
now forty-six. In 1945, the Pistons instigated the National Softball League,
courting other industrial sponsors, which they felt might be the door-
opener to "major league" softbail.
Hughie Johnston emphasized the importance of pitching, and that
the Pistons were always pitcher-strong. Players from other sports might
find the pitching more than they could handle. "It's a matter of timing,"
Hughie says, "You get used to it." He estimated that some of the better
Piston pitchers sent the ball in at 95 miles an hour.
He remembered a spring training session in Clearwater, Florida,
when the Philadelphia Phillies were nearby. The Phillies took a batting
practice with the Pistons, with Bill West on the mound. With the
difference in the distance between pitcher and batter, and the speed, the
Phillies had some trouble making a connection.
"In baseball," Hughie explained, "You have a little more time to
make a judgment." He said the Pistons' fastest pitchers were Elmer Rohrs
and Big Bill West.
Softball had ten players and in 1946, in another offensive man-
euver, the tenth man or "short fielder" was eliminated. To further speed up
the action an offensive pinch hitter rule was adopted in which someone
could pinch hit for the pitcher, but he could remain in the game. A version
of this was later adopted by the American League in baseball with their
designated hitter rule.
As well as loading up with the game's best pitchers, Fred searched
out the cream of the country for every position. Five of his pitchers (Bill
West, Clyde "Diz" Kirkendall, Herb Dudley, Leo Luken, and Elmer
Rohrs) have been inducted into the Softball Hall of Fame. Four other
players (catcher Bernie Kampschmidt, shortstop Ramage, first baseman
Hughie Johnston, and center fielder Sam Lombardo) are also in the Hall.
The tenth Piston in the ASA Oklahoma City shrine is Fred himself, the
first sponsor so honored.
After trouncing the local competition in 1940 (their record: 44
wins and 14 losses), and with the arrival of Kampschmidt, Luken, and
Ramage, the Pistons branched out to broader fields, and better, tougher
In 1941, they went 50-10. They had their first crack at the world's
championship in 1942, finishing third.
In climbing the national softball ladder to the top in competition
against the best the world could offer, Zollner fielded what may have been
the greatest sports team ever assembled. The team won 87% of all games
played and had an all-time record winning streak of sixty-nine games that
ran into two seasons. One of its pitchers (Luken) won fifty-three straight
In the 1946 world tournament, which they won, the Pistons scored
twenty-five runs in forty innings on forty-one hits. Their opponents scored
one run on twelve hits in forty-two innings. Seven players were on the all-
tournament team. Kampschmidt considered this team the best he had
After the Pistons won their third straight world's championship a
year later, Fred thought he had a perfect team. "I've got the best players at
every position. There are no other players in the country with whom I
would replace any one of them."
Piston softball players fondly remember Fred's philosophy in what
has now been labeled as a very effective between-games "pep talk."
The Zollners had just lost the first half of a double-header to their
arch rivals, the Midland Dow Chemicals. Sammy Lombardo, sweaty and
dusty from playing center field, came into the Zollner Stadium locker
room, threw down his glove and said, "Fred, you can't win 'em all."
Zollner stared at Lombardo and simply asked, "Why?" The Pistons did
not have any trouble winning the second game.
Fred Zollner was a visionary. In his aluminum piston world he
pioneered and developed bi-metallic pistons (aluminum alloy and ferrous
material) for expansion control and wear resistance, and was the holder of
several U.S. patents. He also conducted extensive research on turbine
engines for land and marine applications.
After he had mopped up all the softball competition, his vision
was to build a "major league" of softball — to go out and find comparable
sponsors and get a league going that could determine national cham-
pionships in league-like fashion, as they did in football, basketball,
hockey, and baseball.
He built Zollner Stadium to showcase his 1945 and 1946 world
champion teams. Prior to its opening in 1947 the team was playing at Fort
Wayne's municipal beach park to estimated turnouts of 5000 to 6000 fans.
There was a "free" gate or a pass-the-hat offering to help underwrite the
expenses of bringing in the best teams for foes.
Softball was riding a post-war boom, but the nature of the sport
eventually determined that the game was oriented more to the participant
than the spectator. This was despite all the efforts of Zollner and his staff
to take it from a pitcher's game to a hitter's game.
Currently slow pitch softball has grown in popularity, a game of
high scoring and easy-to-hit-pitching, while men's fastpitch has been
overshadowed by women's fastpitch which will be getting an Olympic
audition next time around. It would have been one of Fred Zollner's
wildest fantasies to have had his "perfect" team participate in the
Olympics. Odds are, he would have made sure they would win.
Zollner's vision in basketball exceeded the Fort Wayne level.
After Fred's death in 1982, Joe Falls of the Detroit News had this to say
about the man and his vision.
"...Truthfully, it was hard to believe he (Fred
Zollner) was the owner of the Detroit Pistons because his
manner was so gentle. He had a lot of power, but he
never let you know it. ..He never complained about
anything... Never for a moment, though, should we forget
he was the one ~ he and he alone — who brought pro
basketball to our city. He believed in the city in ways
other could not understand. He believed the game would
go here, and he made the move from Fort Wayne, Indiana
in 1957 even as others laughed at him. ..He had a vision,
and he saw the day when the NBA would rank with the
other professional leagues of the land. He may have been
blind, but his feelings for the game never wavered. ..He
never big-timed it. If anything, he made certain everyone
was cared for. He gave his players meal money, but he
also made sure they had nice meals on the plane, even if it
was only sandwiches and beer in some cities. ..The other
owners took advantage of him in the conference rooms of
the NBA. They always gave him the worst dates, while
asking him for handouts, and still he never complained.
Fred Zollner just was glad to see the game growing, and
who knows, tomorrow might be a better day. Now, there
are no more tomorrows... but let's not forget all the
Just as Zollner's and its twelve employees had found Fort Wayne a
fine place for a home after Duluth, so did the ballplayers. No sponsor in
either basketball or softball offered the opportunities in work and play like
Fred. Most softball sponsors could not offer full-time jobs. Kamp-
schmidt, as an example, worked for a relative and played for three or four
teams for a few dollars in expenses. One sponsor, Nick Carr's Covington
Boosters, came up with a couple of good pitchers and lucked into a world
Zollner could offer regular employment, a versatile schedule and
lifetime work at the employee's discretion. The taskmaster production
department would determine if the athletes could do the jobs.
Basketball was in the same arena. The country was gearing up for
war. Travel would be restricted. The National Basketball League was
wobbly and the most famous touring pros, the Celtics, Harlem Globe-
trotters, and New York Rens were filling the seats at fewer and fewer of
their one-night stands.
Zollner's was a defense-war plant and offered a permanent home.
It was tough to pass up. Local heroes, Curly Armstrong and Herm
Schaefer, were getting out of college and basking in the glory of their 1940
NCAA championship at Indiana University and looking for work.
Under these circumstances, working at and playing for Zollner
was inviting. For their inaugural season in the National Basketball League
schedule, Bennett had already signed Elmer Gainer, who had a good
college career at DePaul, and Carlisle (Blackie) Towery, whom Coach Ed
Diddle proclaimed the greatest player in Western Kentucky history.
Towery had led Western Kentucky to a third place finish in the NCAA.
Soon after the season started, Fred had courted the brightest young
star from the aging Celtics — long-shot expert Bobby McDermott. When
McDermott saw it was for real, he talked his play-making teammate, Paul
Birch, into coming along.
McDermott became a Fort Wayne legend and is now enshrined in
the Basketball Hall of Fame.
From the day that Fred ZoUner picked up his franchise for the
1941 season, professional basketball found its most stabilizing factor in
the history of the sport. For thirty-four consecutive seasons he did every-
thing in his power to make it a better game.
Pete Waldmeir of the Detroit News summed it up very succinctly
in his obituary when Fred died in 1982.
The Z was the League's money man, a wealthy
eccentric who was a soft touch for anybody who wanted
to borrow a few bucks — or a few hundred thousand —
to keep the sheriff out of the locker room. His fellow
owners never failed to take advantage of his good nature
and his love of the game. Zollner owned an executive
DC-3 aircraft, appropriately called the Flying Z, which
was fitted with such amenities as a bar, reclining easy
chairs, a sofa, a "picture window" and booster rockets to
help lift it out of dinky airstrips. Because his team had
use of the plane, the Z's team always got the worst
schedule in the league. After all, the other owners
reasoned, the Pistons didn't have to put up with airline
schedules... There are so many stories. ..so much to tell.
But then, with the Z, there always were. One of the last
interviews I did with him ended the way I might end
this. .."That's about all I have to say," the Z concluded,
pleasantly. "You know me well enough to write it
without having to resort to the knife. I don't need any
Two weeks into the 1941-42 season, the Japanese bombed Pearl
Harbor and World War II was on. Seven teams persisted through a
twenty-four game schedule in the National Basketball League.
The Pistons' first NBL team consisted of Curly Arm.strong,
Blackie Towery, Herm Schaefer, Elmer Gainer, Jack Keller, Red
Oberbrunner, Dale Hamilton, Don Beery, and Jim Hilgeman. Three
games into the league season McDermott was signed and later on, for the
final eight games. Birch came in.
Herm Schaefer was the team's first coach. He had gone to
Chicago with Bennett to talk to Leo Fischer about more exhibition games
and that was the trip which ended with Fischer coming to Fort Wayne and
signing Fred up for a franchise in the league.
The other teams were the Oshkosh All-Stars, the Akron Goodyear
Wingfoot, the Indianapolis Kautskys, Sheboygan Redskins, Chicago
Bruins, and the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets.
The Pistons did well in their pro debut, tying for second with
Akron's 15-9 record. The pro veterans from Oshkosh (to whom the
Pistons lost in their pro tournament start in Chicago the previous year)
won the league championship with a superior 20-4 record.
The All-Stars led by veteran Leroy (Cowboy) Edwards beat
Indianapolis two straight and Fort Wayne, two out of three for the playoff
championship. The Pistons had eliminated the Goodyears in the semi-
Oshkosh proved it was no fluke as the team went on to win the
world's pro tournament in Chicago, polishing off the Harlem Globetrotters
and defending champion Detroit Eagles along the way.
The instant successes of his softball and basketball teams thrust
Fred Zollner into the spotlight, a situation which he did not seek. Like his
father Theodore, Fred never took time to let himself be too impressed with
himself. He barely tolerated the spotlight but still enjoyed his place on the
bench to be supportive and sometimes corrective. He waved off any
personal attention at civic functions or award ceremonies.
"By the mid-forties, the Pistons were the talk of the town and
people wanted to pay him homage," Bennett said. "But it took three years
for him to agree to accept the United Commercial Travelers' award as Fort
Wayne's Man of the Year in 1947."
In 1944, Fred did accept the Naismith Trophy at a Chamber of
Commerce dinner. It was a symbol of the world championship which the
Pistons had won for the first time and Leo Fischer, president of the
National Basketball League, came from Chicago to present it.
Zollner had a keen sense of civic responsibility and dutifully
served on the board of directors of the Chamber of Commerce. He took
more pride in sitting in the board room of Lincoln National Bank for thirty
years, a position earned by his astute business judgment and impeccable
credit history. More dutiful than characteristic, he held memberships in
the Masonic Lodge and Scottish Rite. Fred also had a longterm asso-
ciation with the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Managing the softball team and coaching the basketball team
were almost arranged by committee in the early days. The Koch brothers,
Harold and Mel, were among a few of the employees who approached
Fred about sponsoring a softball team in 1938. Jim Hilgeman was among
the prime advisors in basketball, as well as being a pitcher on the softball
When Hilgeman asked Zollner to give the basketball players a few
hours' rest before their championship playoff game against International
Harvester in 1940, Fred thought that was a little bit shortsighted and
turned over the basic managerial reins to Carl Bennett.
After the Pistons beat Harvester 37-35 for a spot in the 1941 pro
tournament, Indiana University's Herm Schaefer was signed to be playing
coach as Zollner's moved into its first year in the National Basketball
This merely stresses the point that building the piston factory was
Fred's highest priority and that the sports venue was still a part-time
hobby. Harold Koch was the softball manager. Zollner and Bennett were
bench-side every game and a year later (1943), Kampschmidt came in as
catcher and team captain.
Harold Koch deserves credit for having planted the seed of the
softball team. He organized the first team, obtained the uniforms and led
the team to the first local league games.
Through the heavier playing schedule and his plant
responsibilities, Koch gradually eased out as field manager and Kamp-
schmidt took over in 1946.
Basketball was equally "intramural." Schaefer was player-coach
and Bennett as manager made the substitutions and lineup changes. When
Schaefer went into the service two years later, McDermott was named
player-coach but Bennett still managed from his bench position. Bennett
officially became coach when McDermott left during the 1946-47 season
but the strategy still prevailed as Curly Armstrong became playing captain
and ran the team on the floor.
Bennett was head coach into the first season of the National
Basketball Association but when the Pistons lost their first six games, Fred
stepped in and named Armstrong officially as the player-coach. The
player-coach-captain-manager status prevailed until 1950 when Zollner
(and Bennett) lured Murray Mendenhall away from the Anderson Packers
of the NBL. So Mendenhall actually became Fort Wayne's first "bench"
coach without player status or ties to the front office.
It was surprising to many Fort Wayne fans that the Zollners could
woo Mendenhall back to Fort Wayne, but perhaps less of a surprise than
when Mendy left Central High to go to the Anderson, Indiana, Packers. In
Biemiller's piece in Holiday magazine, Mendenhall was described as "a
silver-headed, hawk-faced athlete.... He is a quiet bland man with an
almost ministerial air away from the heat of the game, but when his fast-
breaking Pistons begin to drive, he turns pure tiger.... Despite his current
career, he will always be Central's coach to many local citizens."^
When the BAA merged with the NBL to form the National
Basketball Association in 1949-50, Mendenhall became the Pistons' first
coach in the NBA. He started out with a 40-28 record, but when he
slipped to 32-36 the next year, he was unceremoniously relegated to his
"Fort Wayne citizen" status. It was a sign that Zollner was becoming more
personally involved with his basketball franchise.
Mendenhall's run-and-shoot style had not worked out. The
Pistons could win their share in friendly North Side Gym but did not do
too well in Madison Square Garden, Boston Gardens, or on other road
games. Fred reverted to the formula that had served well in the beginning
— good old-fashioned pro style, give and go. The teacher would be
Coach Paul Birch, one of Bobby McDermotfs cronies on the original
Celtics and the second "old pro" signed with Fort Wayne in 1941-42. Paul
and Mac led the Pistons to three world titles.
When Mendenhall came on board. Curly Armstrong had volun-
tarily stepped aside as a coach. The Pistons' BAA experience (1948-49)
was Fort Wayne's worst record in pro ball. Armstrong, a home town hero
ever since he helped Indiana to the NCAA championship, stayed on as a
player and was honored with a special night, February 7, 1951. He was
the only player, from point of service, to have played ten years
consecutively for one team in organized basketball. His service included a
stint in the Navy. He also played on the world champion Pistons softball
Fred Zollner enjoyed the element of surprise. He provided plenty
during the Pistons time in Fort Wayne, starting with his jumping into the
National Basketball League in 1941 with a local industrial league team.
The first shocker came three games into that first season when he signed
Bobby McDermott from the New York Celtics. McDermott was
acknowledged as the best pro player in the business, and later when Birch
also joined the club. Fort Wayne finished second and lost a two-of-three
playoff to the veteran Oshkosh All-Stars in the championship playoff
The Zollner procurement program was almost foolproof There
was little money in the game, and coming out of a depression and moving
into a war, the players needed full-time jobs besides basketball. Pro
basketball was a long time away from being full-time.
Players could go on the Zollner Machine Works payroll (at
inflated salaries) and at the end of the season, after deducting nominal
expenses, the players would divide up the gate receipts. "I think the
players drew $100 a week from the company (which was good money),"
Bennett recalled, "and then they would split up the 'kitty.' It seems that
would amount to about $2200 or $2500 per man." It was easy to attract
players. Glenn Dickey in his The History of Professional Basketball
called them "the best team in NBL history."
Resurrecting Birch as head coach was a good directional change
for Zollner. Few players or coaches knew the game better than Birch.
Getting it across to the players was another matter.
Birch started putting the pieces back together gradually. His first
year, 1951-52, the team ended with a record of 29-37, and was lucky to
make the playoffs, bounced out by Rochester in two games. The next year
they made 36-33, knocked Rochester out of the playoffs and lost the
Western Division finals to the eventual champions, Minneapolis, three out
Even though the team climbed to 40-28 in Birch's third year, the
die was cast. Birch could never escape the old-fashioned approach to
handling his personnel. He created a drill-sergeant atmosphere. Stanley
Frank, of the New York Herald Tribune, said that "Birch operated with the
grim intensity of a cop looking for his stolen patrol car and seemed to go
out of his way to antagonize the players and fans."
George Yardley, who would become the first player in NBA
history to score more than two thousand points in a single season, was an
innocent victim of the Birch psyche. Yardley graduated from Stanford in
1950, but opted to stay in school another year, play AAU ball and go to the
"The Bird" had broken the great Hank Luisetti's scoring records at
Stanford, was AAU's All-American for three years and was casually
indifferent to Fred Zollner's "blush" of $6000. Yardley had missed his
Olympic opportunity with a broken hand, and finally signed for $9500.
Because he had been drafted by Bennett and Mendenhall, there
was some resistance by Birch to welcome him with open arms. So the
beginning of Yardley's pro career was off to a shaky start. Zollner could
not have been happy with this early rejection. In fact, the Minneapolis
Lakers dangled a very attractive trade offer, the seasoned Jim Pollard.
Both Zollner and Birch favored old pros to the "ice cream kids" coming
out of college. Bennett, as athletic director, had the biggest argument of
his life in justifying the retention of Yardley even before he stepped into a
Yardley proved Bennett right, despite a frustrating first year when
he spent too much time on the bench. In his four Fort Wayne years,
George became the Pistons' all-time scoring champion. In the the
franchise's first year in Detroit, he broke the two thousand point barrier.
Yardley joined a team in rebellion against the coach. In Charles
Salzberg's From Set Shot to Slam Dunk, Yardley said, "Birch was a
marvelous talent, a marvelous teacher, but every time we'd get behind in a
game, we'd say, 'Well, this is Birch's loss, to hell with him.' Everybody
was united against our coach."
Fort Wayne's leading sportscaster, Hilliard Gates, said, "Birch tied
the players into knots and tore down their confidence with incessant
Birch's fate had been sealed when Zollner had to fly to
Minneapolis during the season to quiet an open rebellion among the team's
players. Things calmed down after Birch heard the players air their
grievances and the Pistons came back strong and won five in a row. But
Birch alienated the players again and the war continued.
"I decided by midseason to get rid of Birch," Zollner told Stanley
Frank in a Saturday Evening Post interview. At the end of the 1952-53
season Zollner had extended Birch's contract two more years for reaching
the goal of pushing the club back over the .500 mark.
Fred could not make the change in midseason. He could not even
approach the man he had in mind as a replacement. It would have been
unethical. But it would be another whopping Zollner surprise.
The Pistons finished with an excellent 40-32 record, but,
demoralized, they evaporated in the playoffs, losing four straight in a
round-robin affair with Minneapolis and Rochester.
The name in the envelope was Charley Eckman, a thirty-three-
year-old loud-mouthed NBA referee.
After he had bought out Birch's contract, Zollner toyed with the
speculative press, saying he would hire a coach who had been associated
with the NBA for many years. There were many guesses: Bob Davies, an
old rival with Rochester but well-respected in the Fort Wayne arena; Jim
Pollard of Minneapolis, who wore some of the Laker championship rings;
current Piston players Andy Phillip and Frankie Brian.
The announcement was not merely a surprise. It stunned Fort
Wayne and the NBA community. Piston fans, with their basic home court
verbosity, were never courtly to those who whistled fouls against their
The ploy nearly worked. The coach who had never coached made
a complete change in the players' lives. With fast stories and profane talk,
he brought the team around to his way of thinking. They were willing to
play for him in a way they had not for Paul Birch.
77?^ Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia remarked, "Fred
Zollner, its owner, had startled everyone by making Charley Eckman the
coach — the same Eckman who had been a referee in the NBA for years.
That he succeeded was taken as something of an insult by the experienced
The Pistons had gone all the way to the finals of the NBA World
Series. They lost 92-91 to Syracuse. George King, later athletic director
at Purdue, sank the winning free throw with twelve seconds left.
The Nationals had overcome an eighteen point deficit. On the
inbounds play after King's free throw. King hacked Phillip, but a whistle
was never blown, even for the whistle blowing coach. Fred Zollner's
dream of a NBA championship remained unfulfilled.
While the signing of Eckman appeared impulsive, it was
definitely not. Zollner had been trailing the fiery, flippant referee ever
since a barroom meeting in Milwaukee when the teams, coaches and
officials were stranded after an NBA double header.
Stanley Frank wrote:
...a group of basketball people including the Fort
Wayne owner, Fred Zollner, met around a convivial watering hole
in the Schroeder Hotel. George Mikan, who had just scored
twenty-seven points, was in a benign mood. 'That wasn't a bad
game you worked tonight,' he said condescendingly to Eckman.
'I called a better game than you big oafs played,'
Eckman snapped. 'I'd like to coach you monkeys and teach you
The Official NBA liaskelball Encyclopedia, edited by Zander Hollander and Alex
'It was one of those flip answers Eckman always pops,'
Fred Zollner relates now, 'but something in his voice convinced
me he was serious. I wasn't in the market for a coach. Birch had
just signed a three-year contract, and there were no complaints
against him yet. I filed Eckman's crack for future reference. The
more I thought of it, the more sense it made....'
'During the next two years I made a point of
bumping into Eckman and chatting with him. He didn't suspect I
was scouting him. I discussed everything except basketball to get
an idea of his philosophy and attitude toward people.'
Frank's article was a portent of what lay ahead for Fort Wayne pro
basketball. He pointed out that the change in players' attitudes had also
made a difference at the gate. Fort Wayne had been averaging more than
4000 admissions at home games.
The article was an early public mention of the differences between
the team owners concerning Fort Wayne's status in the league. It was so
much smaller than the other cities, a smaller market even though Indiana
was famous for its interest in basketball.
Frank quoted Fred Zollner: "I've dropped more than three
hundred thousand dollars in pro basketball during the last fifteen years....
It never bothered me until this season. I'll be honest and admit the team
does not cost me a nickel personally. I write off the loss as a tax deduction
for consumer advertising. I'll also concede the team is priceless publicity
for my company. It offends me as a businessman, though to lose money
with a good product offered in fine facilities."
In the end, that led to the team's departure from Fort Wayne. But
while it and its softball partner were here, they were at the heart of the
Zollner Pistons Softball
Fred Zollner told Carl Bennett to "schedule some tougher
competition, move into more regional play, let's be the best. If we're going
to do it, let's do it right." What he probably meant was, "Let's beat the
Bendix Brakes from South Bend."
Bendix had been the dominant team from Indiana. So the Pistons
started loading up. The Zollner plant was growing, so why not hire some
good ball players in the process?
With this in mind, the Pistons hired Frank Parson, a good catcher,
from Detroit. The Z's added Stan Lipa and Len Murray, two crack
pitchers, and Frank Kowal.
At the end of the 1940 season they raided the Covington,
Kentucky, world champions by signing pitcher Leo Luken, Bernie
Kampschmidt and Jim Ramage, who could play infield or outfield. That
was the start of something big and was a good mix for a Piston team that
had outgrown the Fort Wayne competition and was looking for broader
The Zollners had already had a 44-14 record in 1940 and
improved that to 50-10 in 1941. But Bendix still would not let them get
out of the state. South Bend won the state championship in 1941 and then
went on to the world championship from there.
It had taken the Brakes eight years to climb to the summit. But
they had stopped the ambitious Fort Wayne club at the state line as the
Pistons started taking their national aspirations seriously. South Bend
became the first team from the Hoosier state to win the world's Amateur
Softball Association championship. The Brakes qualified for the world's
tournament by being the world champs, but Fort Wayne had to work its
way through regional and state play to get a shot at the world title by
winning the Super Regional.
They beat the Elkhart Excels to win the Elkhart Regional and then
beat the East Chicago Superheaters and Warsaw Power Kings. Leo Luken
had to go 12 innings to beat the Allison Boosters in the first game of the
double elimination and Len Murray won the second.
World War II was at hand and in order to meet work schedules
and cut down travel, the super-regional was created to determine which
teams would go to the nationals. The Pistons beat the state champs from
West Virginia on a forfeit; Len Murray pitched, Ramage helped with a
homer and the Zollners beat the tough Columbus Ferguson State Auditors,
2-1. The semifinals were an ironic pairing, pitting the Pistons against the
Detroit Bunts. The Bunts' pitcher was Norb Warken, who had been a
teammate of Fort Wayne's Kentucky imports.
Kampschmidt still remembers Warken as "one of the best pitchers
ever seen in the game." Luken, supported by Porky Slater's eleventh home
run of the year, won the duel and the Pistons moved into the finals against
the Sixth Ward Boosters of Newport, the 1939 world champs. It must
have given Luken an interesting feeling to win a game from the pitcher on
whom he had modeled his own play.
The Pistons were undefeated going against Newport in the double
elimination. Pitching for Newport was Big Bill West, who answered all
the criteria for becoming a Zollner Piston star in the future. He beat the
In the deciding game, Murray came back strong and the Pistons
beat down a weary West to gain a spot in the World. Newport made it
interesting and had the bases loaded in the last inning before sending Fort
Wayne to its first crack at the ASA World Championships.
The tournament was played at the University of Detroit Stadium
and Fort Wayne came home with everything but the championship.
Players on the team flying the Piston banner were Manager Harold Koch,
Lipa, Gene Nickolin, Ramage, Ron Burgette, Tony Sparks, Slater, Parson,
Kampschmidt, Murray, Bennett, Luken, Hank Doerhman, John Shaffer,
Curly Armstrong, Chet Nahrwold and Bob Baker.
They went six games before the Deep Rock Oilers of Tulsa,
Oklahoma, finally knocked them out in the semi-finals, 2-0. Technically
the Pistons were the third place finisher, but theoretically, everyone
conceded that they were the second best team in the land.
Piston pitchers had accounted for two of the four no-hitters in the
tournament; the team had scored 21 runs to opponents' nine in the six
games and had out-hit them 38-13. Luken went 23 innings, giving up just
one run on four hits.
The Zollners started out by beating Maryland, 7-0, and came back
with a 2-1 win over North Carolina. Defending champion South Bend
started strong by pinning the Detroit Briggs 4-1. Both Briggs and Bendix
had won their opening games (from Massachusetts and Alabama).
The Brakes then hung a 5-2 loss on the Pistons. Briggs
meanwhile marched to the finals with straight victories over North
Carolina, Arizona, Chicago and Oklahoma. Bendix lost its first game to
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Oklahoma, 3-2, and the Pistons pohshed them off, 2-0, for South Bend's
second loss in the double elimination event.
Briggs stayed alive with a 3-2 win over Oklahoma. Deep Rock,
Fort Wayne, and Detroit all had one loss and Fort Wayne was eliminated
by a 2-0 loss to the Oilers. Oklahoma then beat Briggs by the same score
for the championship.
When the Pistons beat South Bend in their "semi-final," it may
have been the Pistons' most significant win in their short but hurried climb
to national attention. As Chris Savage of the New-Sentinel opined: "It
took Bendix eight years to get to the top; it took Tulsa six years, but the
Pistons only two years of building for the big time."
Although they were shut out on four hits in the final, the Pistons'
offense was awesome during the tournament. Doehrman went 5-for-ll
(homer, two triples, and two singles). He also had two walks and a pair of
sacrifices. Ramage was 5-for-17, Slater 5-for-18, and Armstrong 5-for-19.
Ramage had five RBIs with Nickolin collecting four.
For the season, Luken was 29-2, Lipa was 20-2, and Murray was
16-7, giving a season mark of 65-12 against all comers.
Just two wins away from an almost unbelievable world
championship in 1942, the priorities of World War II were reshaping the
dreams of the sports spectrum.
Pitcher Len Murray had been the first of Fred's sports stars to be
called into military service. Curly Armstrong, who doubled in both sports,
had just won the Most Valuable Player Award at the basketball world's
tournament, where the Pistons had been nosed out by Oshkosh for the
championship. With the MVP trophy under his arm, Armstrong hustled
off for the Navy.
He had been one of the cogs in Fort Wayne's valiant try for the
Softball championship at the end of 1942, "a tough man on the ball field,"
as Hughie Johnston described him. Also called to service were Ramage,
Nicholin, Baker, and Doehrman. All had played prominent roles in the
Pistons' meteoric rise, beating natural rivals South Bend Bendix' and
Detroit Briggs along the way.
To fill the gap, the Pistons signed Hughie Johnston as first
baseman. Johnston was as fierce a competitor as the game has known,
heavy hitter and team leader.
The Bendix Brakes company withdrew from softball sponsorship
because of the war and it was easy to pick up its pitching star, Stan
Corgan. Pro basketballers Bobby McDermott and Paul Birch fit in the "all
around athlete" category and played well enough to supplement the
With their 1942 success, the Pistons first line of sight was to make
sure a six-game series with South Bend was on the schedule. Although
some sponsors dropped out because of the war and its travel restrictions,
corporate concern for morale at the plant and on the home-front helped
picked up the softball pace in 1943. With the series against South Bend as
a guideline, several midwestern teams fell into a six-game round robin
schedule that would eventually mold the National Fastball and National
Industrial Fastball League patterns.
Interested teams were the Midland Dow Chemicals, never a factor
before, Chicago Match Corporation, Peoria Diesel Cater-pillars, and
Cleveland Midland Steel. Some teams found willing sponsors in political
arenas: South Bend switched to the Molnar Sheriffs; Newport had the
Sixth Ward Boosters; and Joe Ferguson had always fielded an excellent
team as the Columbus, Ohio, State Auditors.
In the round robin play at this level, the Pistons wound up with the
best record of thirty-five wins and ten losses. Luken and Corgan shared
the pitching burden throughout the season. Team members were Luken,
Kampschmidt, Tony Sparks, Ron Burgette, Slater, Ev Huth, Hughie
Johnston, Bennett, Shaffer, Birch, McDermott, and Billy Johnston. Billy
was the younger brother of Hughie and a good short fielder or second
baseman who played for awhile on his way to the Marines from Hillsdale
College. Gerry Wagner was picked up from Detroit to fill out the season.
Hughie and Bill Johnston had been born in Ireland and stopped off
in Canada before growing up in Detroit. Bill later observed that softball
was a way of acquiring a job during the Depression. Both brothers had
played for a number of teams in the Detroit area, "working our way up,"
until Fred ZoUner offered them a better deal.
Hughie was playing for the Briggs in Detroit. When the Pistons
came up to play them, he became friendly with Curly Armstrong. Curly
suggested he consider moving to Fort Wayne, but Hughie did not give it
much thought. One day, Fred Zollner invited him to come down for a
They talked, and while Hughie was considering, the Piston basket-
ball team left for a tourney in Chicago. Hughie went along. When he got
back, he was asked if he had any expenses, and then was handed a
generous check. He decided this was the place for him. Despite the fact
that he might have had a chance to play baseball elsewhere, he has never
been sorry he came to Fort Wayne.
He also told Fred Zollner about two other Briggs players who
would benefit the Pistons, Bill Johnston and Ed Robitaille. The three had
been together in pickup games as youngsters, with the Burr Patterson team
in Detroit, then the Briggs. They would eventually stay together on the
With all of the personnel changes, it turned out to be more or less
a makeshift season, particularly following the hurricane finish of 1942.
Things started out shakily when the Z's lost a double-header to Midland, a
team that had never beaten them before. Luken wound up winning his
usual thirty games. Overall the team posted 63-15 against all comers.
All the Piston home games were played at the Municipal Beach in
Fort Wayne, which provided a mecca for northeastern Indiana sports fans.
The major teams were brought in for week-end double headers. Fred
Zollner, generous as he could be while still committed to the war plant
effort, was more lenient with his team's out-of-town games, giving Fort
Wayne fans a chance to see some of the best possible opponents on a
steady week-end diet.
It was a free gate, no turnstiles. A freewill offering was taken up
to help defray the visiting team's expenses. Crowd estimates ranged as
high as 8,000 to 10,000 but usually all estimated attendances tend to be
inflated. It still was Fort Wayne's prime attraction.
The Pistons still had to go through the paces to qualify for the
national ASA tournament through state and regional eliminations. Midway
through the season the Pistons were 22-8 against their peers. Along the
way they split a series with Midland. Clyde (Lefty) Dexter was their best
pitcher. The Columbus Auditors split. The Pistons gave Warren (Speed)
Gerber his first loss of the year, but Fort Wayne could not beat their Clyde
(Diz) Kirkendall. Both Gerber and Kirkendall are in the Softball Hall of
Fame. Kirkendall would later become a Zollner player.
In the state tournament the unheralded Hebron (Indiana) Seeds
threw a slight scare into the Z's. The Pistons, behind Stan Corgan,
knocked Hebron into the loser's bracket but the Seeds battled back into the
finals by beating Muncie, 2-1, before Luken settled them down 5-2.
That qualified Fort Wayne for the Super-Regional, hosted by Fort
Wayne at Municipal Beach. After an opening bye, the Pistons breezed by
the Indianapolis Allisons, 11-1, but then were upset by Midland 1-0. The
Peoria Caterpillars then knocked the Zollners out of the tournament, 1-0,
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and that ended the season for Fort Wayne without a chance to go to the
ASA and to build on their 1942 laurels. Midland beat Peoria to win the
trip to Detroit.
Hammer Field of California, an army unit, won the world tourna-
ment with pitcher Al Linde, later a Zollner nemesis, as the star. Linde had
played on the Deep Rock Oilers when they beat the Pistons in the 1942
Failure to get out of the Super-Regionals in 1943 fevered Fred
Zollner's passion to "win it all." The South Bend team was gradually
breaking up. Their star pitcher, Ike Bierwagen, was in the service. The
Pistons had already plucked Stan Corgan for their own pitching corps.
The Piston's impact and Zollner influence were growing within
the ASA. Fred was a model sponsor and an excellent example for other
corporations. Fort Wayne got Chick Goldberg, Ed Cieslik and Monday
Cieselski to jump from South Bend but announced they "will not become
employees of the plant but will be available (and eligible) for all games."
Ordinarily this would be a violation of their amateur status. The
Pistons started reloading in 1944. They also added Lou Bertsos of Ann
Arbor, Michigan, who had finished the last part of the 1943 season with
Midland when that team went to the nationals.
Tony Sparks and Gerry Wagner had departed. Softball interest
was perking up. Chicago scheduled a spring major softball tournament,
pre-Memorial Day, and the Amateur Softball Association booked a Nat-
ional Industrial Softball Tournament at Mack Park in Detroit for July 1-4.
The winner would get an exemption for the world's tournament.
The 1944 roster for Zollner shaped up like this: Monday Cie-
selski, Porky Slater, Lou Bertsos, Hughie Johnston, Chick Goldberg (The
Leaner), captain Bernie Kampschmidt, Ron Burgette, Paul Birch, Frank
Parson, Johnny Shaffer, manager Harold Koch, Stan Corgan, Ed Cieslik,
Leo Luken, Carl Bennett and, in mid-season, Neal Barille.
With both Corgan and Luken throwing one-hitters, the Pistons
polished off Evanston and the Milwaukee Rustic Gardens in their Chicago
tournament bracket, but the championship game against Chicago Match
was rained out, to be settled later in the season.
Hoping to use the industrial tournament as their free ticket to the
ASA World championships, the Pistons breezed into Detroit with only
three losses for the whole season. They trampled the Detroit Hudson, 1 1-
0, and Evansville Briggs to enter the finals of the double-elimination
tournament unbeaten. Corgan and Luken were still carrying all of the
pitching load and Detroit Briggs surprised Zollners with a double-
whammy, 4-1 and 3-2.
That sent the Pistons back to "qualifying school," which meant
they would have to go through state and super-regional tournaments on the
road to the World, the site of which had now been switched to Cleveland's
Lake wood Stadium.
After the shocking loss to Briggs in the Industrial, it was a
determined Fort Wayne Zollner team that headed into the rest of the sea-
son with a defiant "look out world, here we come" attitude. They stormed
through the rest of the season, including the state and super-regional
tournaments without losing another game. Among the games was a 7-2
win over the Chicago Match team, which gave the Pistons the Major
League spring tournament championship, and the John Owen trophy for
the bulging Zollner trophy case.
They evened the score with arch-rival Midland. The Dows had
not beaten them all year. Diz Kirkendall had switched his pitching finesse
to Cleveland and he could not beat the Z's either.
On the "if you can't beat them, join 'em" theory, the Pistons finally
got speedster Neal Barille on their roster. They had been negotiating for a
couple of seasons but could not convince Barille to leave his home town of
Nicknamed "Lightning" for his speedy base running, Barille grew
up in fast company. He went to school at Cleveland East Tech with Jesse
Owens, who was billed as the "world's fastest human" when he set four
world records in one day in his charge toward Olympic stardom.
Barille immediately moved into the leadoff position and was a
huge addition to the Piston's offense despite his short stature. He was a
pinch hitter, drew a lot of walks, and his base running was phenomenal.
He became famous for his head-first slides.
Barille was a sparkplug that kept the offense humming. The
heavy artillery was coming from Johnston, Kampschmidt, the newcomers
Goldberg, Cieslik and Cieselski, Birch (most improved hitter) and Shaffer.
There was bench strength from Bertsos, Burgette and Parson while Slater
was the veteran of the club (in his fifth year).
It was a unique happenstance that Zollner's had two entries in the
1944 state tournament. The Zollner reserve club, a plant-sponsored team
in the local Main Auto League, worked its way through the elimination
channels to the state. The reserve club, as the name implies, was a
secondary or "farm" club for the classic Pistons. The Zollner team had a
free pass to the state, but the Reserve Club earned it way in by beating
Bueters, Horton Washers, Harvester, GE and Studebaker in the sectional;
Bluffton and Huntington in the regional; and Goshen in the super-regional
played at Mishawaka.
On that Reserve Club were Red Miller, Earl Rickey, Walt
Lundquist, Paul Kessey, Bruno Gulbin, Howard High, Steve Kowal,
Furman (Red) Smith, Ev Huth, Bill Speck, Buddy Jeannette, Joe
Koehnlein, Frank Kowal and manager Ray Yarman. The reserve club lost
in the state to Evansville Briggs, but with one more win could have
challenged the parent club in the fmals.
Hughie Johnston had enjoyed playing with the Detroit Briggs,
who were now among Fort Wayne's chief rivals. Hughie says that many
of the Briggs players were Polish. He particularly remembers Jake Mazer.
Jake played the outfield, where he was a good player but sometimes
needed guidance in judgment.
Jake could catch a pop fly with the best, but if someone else was
going for it, they could call out, "Eve got it, Jake," and he would step
In a game after he came to the Pistons, Hughie Johnston was on
second when someone else hit a fly to the outfield. It was headed straight
for Jake Mazer. Before it reached him, Hughie called out softly, "Eve got
it, Jake," and Jake stepped aside. Hughie ran to third and home, while
poor Jake looked foolish in the outfield.
The Pistons continued their winning streak into the world
championship play at Cleveland. Three straight wins over Phoenix, Salt
Lake City and the Ferguson Auditors put them into the quarter-finals
against also unbeaten Hammer Field (California) Raiders, the defending
In one of the classic games of tournament history, Al Einde led his
Raiders to a 2-1, 18-inning victory that dumped Fort Wayne into the
loser's bracket. Both teams scored runs in the first inning and scored no
more until the 18th.
Einde was almost a one-man gang. At one point Cieselski
doubled and Hughie Johnston powered one that had "home run" written on
it but, Einde, now playing left field, pulled it down at the fence to spoil a
game winner. A walk, single and error game saw Hammer Field achieve
its winning run in the 1 8th inning at 1 :30 a.m.!
The Pistons battled back to the finals, ousting Columbus, 3-2. It
was the fifth straight time Zollners had whipped the Auditors and gave
Luken his 30th win of the year, about par for his course.
The Columbus game started at 7 o'clock and Fort Wayne had to
come right back to play Hammer Field at its conclusion. It was Stan
Corgan against Linde in the finale but the Pistons could not get Corgan a
run. They came close in the fourth when Cieselski doubled, Goldberg
singled, but Monday was nipped at home plate on a close play. The script
was the same; the Raiders got their run in the 12th inning on a walk, error
Linde was the super star. In the 30 innings against the Zollners he
played all of them, 26 on the mound and four in the outfield. He happened
to be in the outfield on Johnston's big drive. After his time in the service,
Linde joined the Midland Dows and continue to be one of Zollner's most
The Pistons closed out the season when an appreciative crowd of
5,000 turned out to welcome them home. A team of Fort Wayne All-Stars
nosed them out, 2-1, but it was only their eighth loss of the entire season.
The home games were still played at Municipal Beach and the
crowd estimates still ranged from 4000 to 6000. A few lesser exhibitions
were booked at Memorial Park. Hammer Field's Army All-Stars won the
world championship twice in a row, but Zollner's had proved themselves
to be the best civilian team in the land.
The 1945 Softball club came up with a special challenge. By the
spring of the year, their professional brothers, the Zollner basketball team,
had climbed the mountain first. In its second year in the National Basket-
ball League the Pistons had won the league championship.
As with Fred Zollner's "let's do it right" philosophy, the Zollners
kept fitting the pieces into their jigsaw puzzle that would take them to the
championships. They had jumped into the big time so far so fast, but
could not quite win the big one.
As early as 1942 they were considered the second best team in the
land when Tulsa nosed them out. Midland upset them in the super-regional
in 1943. They did not make it to the nationals in 1944 and it was Al Linde
and Hammer Field that blocked their path.
The two-man pitching force of Leo Luken and Stan Corgan had
not proved enough in 1944, so the Pistons added Clyde (Diz) Kirkendall, a
seasoned pitcher from Findlay, Ohio, who had been a Fort Wayne foe on
many occasions with the Toledo, Columbus and Cleveland teams. He was
one of the best in the nation.
The true glue may have been added with the signing of Sam
Lombardo, Ed Robitaille from Detroit and Harold (Mugsy) George from
Columbus. The intraclub scrambling for jobs was as competitive as the
It had to be a picnic for manager Harold Koch. Catching was Ber-
nie Kampschmidt (also the team captain), backed up by Frank Parson.
Hughie Johnston was a fixture at first base; Johnny Shaffer (nicknamed
"Double Play") was at second; Neal Barille at shortstop, and Robitaille at
third. Parson and Lombardo were battling for shortfield (it was still a ten-
man game), while the outfield was a scramble between Chick Goldberg,
Porky Slater, Monday Cieselski, Ron Burgette and Lou Bertsos.
The new combo opened against Chicago Match May 26th in Fort
Wayne. Kirkendall got his first start with the Pistons. Leading 1-0 on
John Shaffer's home run, Diz tired in the seventh inning, needed help from
Luken, but the ZoUners lost their opener, 2-1 .
Counting the previous year's championship loss to Hammer Field,
and the homecoming exhibition loss to the Fort Wayne All-Stars, the Pis-
tons now had three losses in a row. After a surprise 2-0 loss to the Indian-
apolis Kingan Knights on June 8th, the Pistons started a 50-game winning
streak with a 16-1 pasting of Midland.
Corgan had a shoulder injury, leaving most of the pitching duties
to Luken and Kirkendall. The offense was blistering.
The best part of the winning streak was the inclusion of the
National Industrial Tournament championship at Detroit over the July 4th
week-end. Winning the industrial was an automatic qualifier for the
world's championship, meaning the Pistons would not have to go through
state and regional play to get another trip to Cleveland.
It took the Z's five games to get through to their first industrial
tournament title. They beat Detroit Hudson Motors 7-0, then gave defen-
ding champion Detroit Briggs its first loss, 1-0, in the double elimination
The 1-0 win over Briggs was historical; it went 21 innings and
lasted three hours and twenty- five minutes. Kirkendall went all the way
for the win and the run was scored when Johnston singled, beat the throw
to second on Lombardo's sacrifice. Johnston was forced at third but
Lombardo moved around on Slater's and Kampschmidt's grounders and a
They knocked out Rossville, Georgia, 3-0, and won the title with a
3-0 win over Briggs. Kirkendall again did the honors. Through the five
tournament games, the Pistons did not have a run scored on them. After
the industrial tournament, the Pistons' record stood at 25-2; Luken was 13-
0; Kirkendall, 10-1; the injured Corgan, 2-1.
George had won the battle for shortfield, moving Lombardo to the
outfield where he played the rest of his Piston career and wound up in the
Softball Hall of Fame. Lombardo was a flamboyant player who. Bill
Johnston said, could make an easy catch look hard. He might even make a
catch at his shoelaces, take a tumble, and come up with his arms in the air
and the ball in his glove.
He also perfected the "chop bunt", which made the ball bounce
high enough in the air that when it came down, Sam was already at first
base. Bill said Sam was the only player he saw use it.
Hughie Johnston remembered that the other players did not bunt
much. "If I wanted to bat .500 I could bunt, but I never did care too much
about statistics. I went for the long ball." From time to time, if the game
called for it, Fred Zollner would remind Hughie that a short one would be
a good idea.
Sam Lombardo liked to bunt because he cared about his batting
average. "Sam was concerned about his average at all times," laughed
Given that Fred Zollner acknowledged softball as his first sports
love, the summer of 1945 had to be special to the sponsor.
One of the Midwest's formidable teams was Charlie Justice's
Detroit Elks team. The all-black club was sponsored by Flint M and S
Orange in 1945 and later came in under the banner of the Joe Louis
The Pistons' winning streak had sparked bigger, enthusiastic
crowds at Memorial Park and Municipal Beach. When Justice and his
Detroit-Flint teams came to town in late July, the Pistons drew their
biggest crowds of the season, 4,000 Satruday night and 8,000 Sunday
Luken beat the M and S team 4-2 Saturday night, and Kirkendall
threw a no-hitter at them Sunday night. Chuck Percy, Detroifs other
pitcher, lost to Luken but in the process struck out Hughie Johnston. John-
ston took three strikes from Justice the next night. It was the first time this
season that Fort Wayne's first baseman had struck out.
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Another favorite rival of the Pistons were the Peoria Caterpillars.
When the Pistons pasted them on successive nights, 4-0 and 6-0, Luken
had won 19 straight and Kirkendall 17 straight, with only the opening loss
to Chicago Match marring his record.
The Pistons were gearing up for the world's championship in
Cleveland. They would be hearing from Charlie Justice some more, how-
The Z's were zipping through their schedule with ease and had
broken the all-time consecutive win streak record of 46, established by the
South Bend Bendix Brakes. With fifty in a row. Justice brought his
powerful Flint team back to town and won a dramatic 1-0 nine-inning duel
over Fort Wayne. The game was settled by a home run in the ninth, giving
Kirkendall his second loss of the year. The Pistons had not been beaten
from June 19th to August 29th. During the winning streak the Zollners
outscored their opponents 346-35. The pitchers had thrown 37 shutouts
and nine one-run ball games. Of the 464 innings played, 451 were
scoreless for the foe. It undoubtedly was the best the world of softball had
ever seen. It set the stage for a dramatic entry into the world's cham-
pionship, the same double elimination affair that had slipped out of Fort
Wayne's grasp two of the last three times.
The Pistons (now nicknamed The Big Z's in the Cleveland sports
columns) marched through their first five tournament games: Phelps
Dodge, 5-0; Flint, 3-2; Washington Kavakas, 3-0; Toronto Tip Top
Tailors, 4-0; and Tacoma, Washington, 7-3.
Meanwhile, Flint (and Justice) had worked its way back up
through the loser's bracket to the finals. Charlie played the ghost of Al
Linde to Fort Wayne as Flint won the game, 1-0, Justice scoring the
With one loss for each team and the title on the line, Luken came
on to pitch and beat Flint, 1-0, giving the Zollners their first world's
championship. The winning run came in the fourth inning when sparkplug
Barille singled, moved to second on Robitaille's grounder and scored on
Chick Goldberg's single.
It was Luken's 35th win of the season without a loss. The Z's
wound up the season with only four losses: to Chicago Match, the Indian-
apolis Kingans, and twice to Charlie Justice and Flint. Hughie Johnston
was named the most valuable player of the 1945 world's tournament.
During the season, the Pistons won fifty consecutive games.
There were 37 shutouts and nine one-run games. The Zollner pitchers
(Luken, Kirkendall and Corgan) threw 451 scoreless innings out of a total
of 464 innings played.
Fred Zollner now had two world championship teams. His owner-
ship of the National Basketball League franchise and his softball sweep
perked up interest among other corporations for industrial competition.
Realizing the morale-building such spon-sorships created during the war
years, other companies saw the value to their employees and communities,
and started to follow suit.
Six teams met in Fort Wayne to organize the National Softball
League, one of the ZoUner-Bennett visions. Besides the Pistons, the teams
entered were the Midland Dow Chemicals, Detroit Briggs, Cleveland
Allmens, Columbus Ferguson Auditors and Chicago Match.
League games would be scheduled on weekends, a double-header
on Saturday night and a nine-inning game on Sunday, giving a 30-game
schedule. The League would be affiliated w|th, and abide by the rules of,
the Amateur Softball Association.
The Commissioner was former umpire Charles F. Jensen. Bennett
was the first league president and W. E. Landis of Detroit was the trea-
1945 was a very good year for Fred Zollner. Production at
Zollner Machine Works was booming; some four million pistons were
rolling off the assembly line; three Army-Navy "E's" were flying from the
Beuter Road plant flagpole for excellence in production for World War II;
the pro basketball team and amateur softball team were the best in the
world and the Zollners were a proud ingredient in Fort Wayne's industrial
The game of softball was changing. In 1946, the Amateur
Softball Association's rule-makers opted to make the game a nine-man
instead of ten-man sport. The shortfielder was eliminated in an effort to
get more offense into the game.
There had been too many pitchers' duels and not enough slugfests.
But no-hitters held less interest than home runs. The pitcher's box had
been lengthened from 35 feet to 40 feet, then to 43 feet.
Whereas it had started out as a fun-to-play depression-oriented
sport, Softball now was arousing fan interest and its principals wanted it to
be fun to watch as well as to play.
By its record in the incredible 1945 season (72-4), Fort Wayne
had become the showcase team of national softball. But even climbing to
the top of the mountain was not enough for Fred Zollner's pursuit of
There were several players returning from service as the war
wound down. There were others on the team who had served their own
Piston-player tour of duty and it may have been surprising to see the
number of changes that started the 1946 campaign.
The ASA was tightening its war-loosened eligibility requirements.
That eliminated Monday Cieselski, who was playing on a partial basis but
had a South Bend residence. Stan Corgan, one of the best in the game
when he started out with South Bend, was sore-armed most of 1945, and
Frank Parson, Lou Bertsos, Porky Slater and Ron Burgette
returned to their plant jobs at Zollner Machine Works and all, except
Bertsos, spent the rest of their working lives there.
But coming back from their time with Uncle Sam were Jim
Ramage, Billy Johnston, Bob Baker and Curly Armstrong. To make up
for Corgan's departure, Big Bill West was signed. He was from the
Kentucky area that spawned Kampschmidt, Luken and Ramage, and
quickly became one of the Zollner stars.
There has always been debate about who has been Softball's
fastest pitcher and Wesf s name is among the contenders. He was one of
the earliest Zollners to be inducted into Softball's Hall of Fame.
It seemed to be an inconsistent number of changes for a team that
had just reached the top. But it worked.
With the challenge of the new National Softball League ahead,
and defense of their world's championship, Zollner thought they should be
as well conditioned as possible. Besides, softball enthusiasts wanted to
see Softball's new "dream team."
So a spring training trip of ten games was booked into the
Phoenix, Arizona, area. It was perhaps the first spring training trip for any
team in softball history. Phoenix was a softball hotbed and had just built a
$60,000 softball park.
The Pistons opened with a 15-0 win over a Scottsdale, Arizona,
club, and local sports writers dubbed them "The Gas House Gang." They
roared through ten straight wins, Kirkendall and Luken winning four each,
and newcomer West, two.
They drew 35,000 fans for the exhibition. Ramage hit the first
home run out of the park in the new arena. It was another example of
"first class Fred" and his visions of making softball a major league sport.
The Pistons had suddenly become "notorious" in their own sport.
It was a far cry from the rain-hampered spring of 1945 when the
Pistons did not seem quite ready and dropped their season opener to
Chicago Match. But Fred Zollner wanted to give his team a jump start
into the National Softball League, which at the opening of the season had
added two other clubs — the Indianapolis Kingans and the South Bend
One unexpected loss to the 1946 team was critical. Ed Robitaille,
the premier third baseman in the game, was diagnosed by the team
physician with a heart condition that took him out for the entire season.
Robey was a role-model ball player. He had gone through the entire 1945
season with only two errors at the hot corner. He seemed particularly
effective at the plate in clutch situations. He had forfeited a budding
career in Detroit baseball for the security of employment-safe softball.
Hughie Johnston, who had known him since they were sandlot players,
described Ed as "one of the happiest guys to play ball with I ever knew.
Whatapair of hands he had. No balls ever got by him."
Robitaille remained on the team and was stationed at third base,
except it was in the coaches' box. The shuffling of the roster with return-
ing service-men and departing veterans left the Zollners with a hard-core
fifteen players on the squad.
After the ten-game sweep through Phoenix the Z's returned to Fort
Wayne to face the new challenge of the National Softball League. The
winning streak was extended to nineteen games, six of which were coun-
ters in the NSL, before they were upset by Newport, Kentucky, 1-0. This
happened at Fort Wayne's Dwenger Park. The Pistons still had to split
their home schedule at city parks.
A few days earlier when the Cincinnati Emmerts were beaten, the
game was played at Memorial Park (8-0) before the largest crowd ever at
that park. The Phoenix training trip and a continuation of the Pistons'
winning ways had stirred a lot of fan interest.
Arch rival Charlie Justice was the next to pop the Zollner bubble.
He beat them 2-0 with his Flint M and S Orange team, inflicting the
second loss of the season. But in six games with Flint, Fort Wayne won
the other five.
=: 5 ^ -t:
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In fourteen games in the 1944 season, his 35 games in 1945 and
the first four games of 1946, Leo Luken had continued a brilliant fifty-
three-game winning streak. It was unprecendented. Then, in a NSL
Fourth of July doubleheader at Detroit, Briggs finally snapped the streak.
Up until the 2-1 loss in the second half of the twin bill the Pistons had won
fourteen in a row in league play. Their record for the season at this point
Fort Wayne clinched the NSL championship at Midland. Their
final 37-5 record was four games ahead of Briggs. Detroit wound up
beating the Z's three times in league play. Midland and South Bend
inflicted the other defeats.
In preparing the team for its world championship title defense
Bennett scheduled an exhibition tour through the East. Also coming up
was a "World Series" playoff with the American Softball League
champions, Buffalo Bell Aircraft.
The Fort Wayne team's fame had spread to Toronto, where they
were challenged by the Tip Top Tailors in a charity doubleheader at the
Canadian National Exhibition. Before 16,297 paid admissions, the Pistons
helped raise more than $12,000 for the building fund of Sick Children's
Hospital and whipped the Tip Top Tailors, 5-1 and 5-0. The crowd
reportedly was the largest in softball history to watch a game.
The successful Eastern exhibition swing took the Z's to Hamilton
(Ontario), Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo and Pittsburgh for lopsided wins,
except for a 1-0 thriller at Hamilton and a rained out 0-0 tie.
The world's championship at Cleveland was a cakewalk for the
Big Z's. They marched through six straight games to the championship,
outscoring their competition 25-1 in the process. Their heavy-artillery
offense pounded forty-one hits (an average of one an inning) while
stopping the opponents at twelve. The only run scored against them was
The roster for the 1946 world champions: John Shaffer, Neal
Barille, Sam Lombardo, Hughie Johnston, Jim Ramage, Bernie Kamp-
schmidt. Curly Armstrong, Chick Goldberg, Harold George, Ed Robitaille,
Gene Nickolin, Bob Baker, Leo Luken, Bill West, Diz Kirkendall, Billy
Johnston and coach Carl Bennett.
In a mid-season change, Harold Koch, who had been manager,
gave up the skipper role to Kampschmidt because of the extensive travel
schedule now required by the world champs. Koch, one of the originals in
the Softball program, finished out his working career at Zollner Machine
After winning at Cleveland, the Pistons came home for successive
double-headers against the American League champs and demolished
them in four straight games: 4-0, 9-1, 6-0 and 4-0. Luken won two of the
games; West and Kirkendall one each. Kirkendall's was a no-hitter.
The Pistons had won 93 games, their highest winning total ever,
and lost just seven.
What next? Most wins, first National Softball League Champion-
ship, first "World Series," second straight world's ASA title, first ever two-
week spring training trip. What next? Ground was broken during the
season for the country's most advanced softball stadium. Zollner Stadium,
on North Anthony Boulevard in Fort Wayne, was being constructed and
would be ready for play by the spring of 1947.
The players had good reason to look forward to the advanced
facilities at the new stadium. At Municipal Beach, there were no lockers
or showers. The team dressed at home and then returned there to clean up.
The idea of having first-class facilities was exciting.
Several players were named to the all-NSL All-Star team: Hughie
and Billy Johnston, Jim Ramage, Sam Lombardo, Bernie Kampschmidt,
Bill West and Neal Barille.
It started to look like one-upmanship. The pro basketballers ans-
wered the softballers' second straight world's title with their third straight
victory in the world's pro tournament in Chicago, a feat never accom-
plished before. The softballers had their work cut out for them. Zollner
and Bennett made sure they did not flinch.
Already armed with the best pitching corps ever assembled, the
Pistons picked up Elmer ("Farmer") Rohrs, an apple-cheeked fireballer
from neighboring Hamler, Ohio. As usual, they had spotted him before.
He had come close to beating them when he hurled for the Columbus
Ferguson Auditors and Napoleon, Ohio, Seven-Ups.
Rohrs had credentials like Bob Feller's in baseball. Born on a
farm, he had been coached by his dad, who hung a tire in an apple tree.
Elmer practiced controlling where the ball went, and developed one of the
fastest slingshots in the history of the game. Bernie Kampschmidt said,
"He was wild enough to make him a better pitcher," and Hughie Johnston
called him, "Wilder than blazes." If you had too much control, the pitching
became predictable and the other team knew what you would do next. His
signing with the Zollners was his first step toward the Softball Hall of
Fame, into which he was inducted in 1992.
The other players loved to play tricks on Elmer, and started with
his arrival on the team. They took his shaving cream and wrote 'Hi, Elmer'
on his hotel bed.
The team added infield insurance with Bill Hilgefort from the
Covington area. The Pistons had scouted him when they kept jousting
with the Newport Sixth Ward Boosters.
Sore-armed Stan Corgan was trying a comeback so that gave the
Pistons a front wall of pitching from Leo Luken, Diz Kirkendall, Bill
West, Corgan and Rohrs. No other team had ever been more strong-
The pitchers each had their characteristics, too. Bill West was a
fast ball type of pitcher, low down, while Rohrs' used a 'rise ball' which
came up under the chin of the batter.
The parade of Detroit stars to Fort Wayne continued as the Pistons
signed smooth-swinging Ernie Flowers, who eventually would set a Piston
season home run record. Hughie Johnston said Flowers had "a good wrist
action. When he would nail the ball, it was gone, a good long ball."
Gene Nickolin was released, Johnny Shaffer signed to work and
play for Midland, and Harold George went back to the Machine Works
and played for the reserve club.
Robitaille decided it was more fun to play than watch and
resumed his place at third base, moving Ramage to shortstop. In the speed
game of Softball, it was a big advantage to be a step closer to first base and
the Zollners loaded up on left banders.
Even Billy Johnston, a natural right hander, switched to the port-
side at the plate and became one of the game's best drag bunt artists. Of
the eight regulars, only Kampschmidt, Ramage and Curly Armstrong
batted right-handed. There were few left-handed pitchers. Clyde (Lefty)
Dexter, Midland's ace, was one of the notable exceptions, so this was
deemed an extra advantage for Fort Wayne's potent offense.
As spring training in Phoenix approached, the Zollners prepared
another historic chapter in Fort Wayne's sports book, the opening of Fred
Zollner's softball palace, Zollner Stadium.
Spring training was a six-game swing through Rock Island,
Illinois, Libertyville and Aurora. It limbered up the arms and loosened the
muscles, and the Pistons returned to Fort Wayne for the stadium opening
on Memorial Day with successive league double-headers against Midland
It was around this time that the team switched from travelling by
bus. It had always been a problem. As Bernie Kampschmidt explained,
there were three kinds of guys on the team. One group arrived early for
the bus, another came on time and there were always those who were late.
It was easier to travel by car. The cars could stop and go as the groups
liked. The cigar smokers would not bother those who did not care for
cigars. The team stuck with automobile travel for the rest of its existence,
except when it had the luxury of riding on Fred Zollner's plane.
Bill Johnston later said that "travelling was the worst part of the
Bill West had to go eight innings to win the opener, 1-0. Sam
Lombardo had the honor of scoring the first run, driven in by a Curly
Armstrong double. West fanned seventeen. The losing pitcher was Linde.
The Pistons unwound in the second game, beating Dexter 5-2. West got
credit for his second win of the night after relieving Leo Luken and Diz
The Pistons made it a perfect weekend. Kirkendall beat
Columbus, 2-1, the next night, and Elmer Rohrs made his Fort Wayne
debut throwing a no-hitter at his old teammates in a 10-0 romp. Hughie
Johnston had the honor of hitting the first home run in the new stadium —
a 260-foot blast — and enjoyed a heavy hitting night with another pair of
All 2804 seats in the permanent stands were filled while the crowd
overflowed into the bleachers down left and right field. Fireworks and an
appearance by radio celebrity. Dr. I. Q., helped the cele-bration
A business detail of the new stadium showed Fred Zollner at his
Every year, the Zollner firm sponsored a high-school age softball
team, called the Zollner Piston Juniors. The year the stadium opened, the
team was made up of boys from Central Catholic High School. They had
put together their own team, then gone out to the piston plant to ask for
The boys on the junior team were offered jobs as vendors in the
stands at the new stadium. They earned a commission of 10-15 cents for
each dollar of peanuts or soft drinks sold.
Don Mauck remembered that it was a dream job for an adolescent.
They played their own games, spent most days on the golf course and the
evenings in the bleaciiers selling peanuts and watching the game. "It was
good money, too," he said.
In the second season, attendees at the games had the chance to
soften the hard seats by renting pads. The pads rented for sixty-five cents,
but the boys earned the same commission for them. The pads were
popular and the boys' earnings soared.
But not for long. "They quickly cut back our commissions," said
Mauck, "We were earning too much!"
The Pistons settled down to the business of scrapping for the
National Softball League championship. One of the earlier upsets in the
season was losing a Zollner Stadium double-header to Toledo Buddies
Lunch. Virgil Gladieux had build the Toledo Sports Arena to house his
Toledo Jeeps in the National Basketball League and Fort Wayne enticed
him to a softball sponsorship.
One of the Toledo's pitchers, Elmer MacDonald, beat the Pistons
in one of those games, which immediately caught the eye of Zollner.
MacDonald would later be pitching for Fort Wayne, but the double loss to
Toledo was an early blow to the Pistons' prestige in their new ball park.
Detroit's celebrated boxer, Joe Louis, picked up the sponsorship of
Charlie Justice's Flint team and the team became the Joe Louis Punchers,
advertising a soft drink bearing the heavyweight champ's name. Most
sports writers still simply called the team Punchers.
Flint was not in the NSL, but was always an attractive exhibiton
date. The Pistons went to Flint early on and were punched out, 6-1. The
loss cracked Bill West's 38-game winning streak, which was going into its
The Pistons won the second game 5-2 but it set the stage for a
mid-July shoot-out at Zollner Stadium. Louis came along with his team
and more than 7500 fans poured into the two-night stand, with the Pistons
winning both times, 3-1 and 2-1. South Bend and Columbus hung single
losses on the Pistons, and at midseason they had won thirty-three and lost
1947 was developing into a significant historical year, not only for
the Pistons but for softball. The Pistons, with their own playing facility,
were playing the most ambitious schedule of any team in history. In
August they had already won sixty-five games and lost just eight. Toledo
had beaten them three times, all in league play, but the Z's had a
comfortable lead in the NSL. Cleveland and Midland had slipped in one
win each against them, although the Z's were impregnable with all others.
But the Pistons were like the Yankees, the old Celtics — the team
everyone wanted to beat. This was the spirit when they went back to
Cleveland looking for their third straight, and unprecedented,
To settle the Toledo score, after splitting with them in six league
games, they took on the Buddies in an exhibition twin bill in which
Kirkendall no-hit them and Rohr had a two-hit shutout to beat their stars
Fritz Sosko and MacDonald. But big, slim Mac had passed his "physical"
and would soon be in a Zollner uniform.
It was in a "break-up-the-Pistons" atmosphere that Fort Wayne
went into its title defense. The Pistons opened with a 5-1 win over the
host Cleveland Turners, who protested the eligibility of center fielder
Curly Armstrong, because of his professional status in basketball. In a
provincial, home-town ruling, the committee (afraid to disqualify their
biggest attraction. Fort Wayne) ruled Armstrong ineligible and the game
was replayed the next morning. Jim Ramage, who homered in the first
game, hit one again and the Pistons breezed through 2-0.
Armstrong had played all season, eligible in all the ASA games.
A solid ruling would have been forfeiture of all Pistons' wins, which were
more than one hundred by this time. After the tournament Armstrong was
made eligible to finish out the National Softball League, still in the ASA
But the Pistons thought it was a cheap shot. It made the Zollners
look stronger, the Amateur Softball Associaton weaker.
The Zollners came back the same night to pluck New York's
Grumman Aircraft, 2-0, and took the Washington Kavakos next, 6-1.
Hughie Johnston's three-run homer settled Hanford, California, in the
winner's bracket finals.
Asked why he was so good, Hughie Johnston said, "I played hard.
I had a good eye. I didn't strike out too many times — maybe ten times in
a season, and then because I was going for a big one." He said the best
players were tough and were always thinking, putting the stress on
"thinking all the time."
Fred Zollner once asked Hughie, "Why do you always tag the
guys so hard?" Hughie said he had once tagged a player in the usual way,
only to have the umpire call him safe. "I made up my mind then," Hughie
says, "If the umpire doesn't see it, he's going to hear it."
West threw a no-hitter in the championship game where the Z's
beat the respected Russ Johnson and the Toronto Tip Tops for their third
straight world's title.
Manager Bernie Kuiiipschinidt and team owner Fred Zullner display the
World 's Championship trophy at Cleveland, Ohio.
Piqued by the spineless Armstrong decision, combined with a
hope for organizing a solid major softball league, Fred Zollner announced
the next day that the Pistons were withdrawing from ASA world
competition to concentrate on building the National Softball League.
The team would remain a member of, and observe all the rules of,
the ASA, but would not compete in the tournament competition. At the
rate they were playing, their domination could have continued for several
years with their current players, and with Zollner's constant rebuilding and
replenishing. The team that had been dubbed in 1946 by Cleveland
sportswriters as the "most perfect" seemed to be even more perfect now.
They continued through the National Softball League champion-
ships, beating Western Division champion Aurora in four straight. They
then beat the American League champion Rochester Rossers in four of six
for their second straight world series crown.
For the season, the Pistons won a record 1 13 games and lost 19.
The big three of the five-man pitching brigade — West, Kirkendall, and
Rohrs — each won twenty-eight games. Luken was 1 7-4 with Corgan 1 2-
3. West lost six, Kirkendall four, and Rohrs two.
The championship roster was: Hughie Johnston, manager Bernie
Kampschmidt, Neal Barille, Curly Armstrong, Chick Goldberg, Ernie
Flowers, Sam Lombardo, Jim Ramage, Ed Robitaille, Elmer Rohrs, Billy
Johnston, Bill Hilgefort, Stan Corgan, Bill West, Leo Luken, Carl Bennett
and Diz Kirkendall.
Three Wins . . . and Out!
Abdicating their throne as the world's best softball team in 1947
was no snap decision for the Zollners.
Inconsistencies with the ruling ASA body had troubled the
Pistons, among others, through their seven years of active tournament
competition. Barring Curly Armstrong from further tournament play after
winning the first game in the world's was merely the final straw.
The wishy-washy Cleveland decision caused the Pistons to come
back and replay their Friday night win on a Sunday morning, without
Armstrong. Ironically it was Armstrong's home run a year earlier that had
been a clincher for the Pistons' second title. The Annstrong ruling was
akin to Michael Jordan being ruled a pro golfer because he was a pro bas-
ketball star with the Chicago Bulls.
Pro basketballers Bobby McDermott and Paul Birch had been on
the Piston softball club, under ASA sanction. Buddy Jeannette, another
cage star, played with the Zollner reserve club when it competed for the
Special exemptions were provided for Chick Goldberg, Monday
Ciesielski, and Ed Cieslik to live in South Bend and play games for the
Zollners a couple of years before. Immediately after the tournament,
Armstrong played in the National Softball League playoffs against the
western division champs from Aurora, all under ASA sanction.
ft was important for the Pistons to maintain their ASA status
because they needed a schedule. Neither they nor any of the National or
American Softball League clubs wanted to become outlaws. The intent,
through a series of meetings during the 1947 ASA tournament, was to
have a "super league of softball" and eventually work into a full-time
There were other rumblings. Prior to the 1946 tournament, Gold-
berg and Ciesielski had been ruled ineligible. Zollners wielded a powerful
influence on the ASA, and by opening night, Goldberg and Ciesielski were
in the starting lineup.
The Pistons were powerful enough that they had created a "beat-
the- Yankees" aura around the tournament. The September 14, 1946,
Journal Gazette said regarding Armstrong, "The action of the ASA caused
some surprise and not a little resentment among officials of the Zollner
club.... The procedure in the Armstrong case and its management of the
tournament here had the Zollner management thoroughly displeased and
there were hints of further developments and a possible break in the
"ft was claimed that this year's tournament is a weak one because
of disbarment of some of the leading teams and the Zollner officials felt
further that the ASA went out of its way to make trouble for the
Ben Tenny, the News Sentinel sports editor travelling with the
club in Cleveland, had reported that the tournament was like an "ASA
benefit." His story said it cost Zollner $3000 (which was a low estimate)
to make the trip and the team was reimbursed only $1 50.
Inclement weather extended the tournament. The umpires were
unpaid for the extra days and a Puerto Rican entry had to wire home for
money to finish out their schedule.
That prompted the decision to concentrate on building up the
National Softball League. The National and American leagues agreed to
drop out of tournament play, but to stay within the ASA parameters.
The day after Bill West no-hit Toronto, 4-0, for the third title,
Fred Zollner announced, "Our relations with the ASA have been very fine,
but we feel that it will be mutually beneficial for our leagues and for the
ASA for our retirement from ASA tournaments. We have won the cham-
pionship three straight times now and by our retirement it will leave the
tournament wide open for other leading softball clubs.
"The tournament, as it is set up, does not give the chance for the
majority of fine softball teams to be represented. For instance, in the
Midwest there are nine or ten outstanding softball clubs but only one of
these is qualified to participate in the Cleveland tournament. We feel that
the strength in the softball world is found in the midwestern and eastern
cities which are represented in the National and American leagues.
"The ASA tournaments come at a time when these teams should
be giving their undivided attention to their respective final positions in
their league races. It's a diversion and an attention which is not in the best
interest of the National and American League races.
"Because of our definite belief in the increasing strength of the
National and American leagues, we deem it advisable to retire from ASA
tournaments as thrice world champions.
"ft is our earnest desire to help develop the National and American
Softball leagues as the premier softball competition of the country and we
cannot do this by dual participation in our league schedule and the hope of
competing in the ASA tournaments." Thus closed the memorable ASA
chapter for the world's greatest softball team. No team had ever won three
in a row. In six years (1942-47), they had won three, been beaten by the
champs (Tulsa in 1942, Hammer Field in 1944) and missed out in the
super-regionals in 1943. No other team had gone so far so fast.
If Fred Zollner were a poker player, he might have picked up his
cards for the 1948 season, choose to discard one and say, "I'll play these."
The discard was Stan Corgan, one of the game's historical greats
when he started out in South Bend. He had tried to come back after
recovering from a sore arm but was comparatively ineffective with a 12-3
mark in 1947. He found work with the Waukegan Pilots in the Western
Divison of the fledgling National Softball League.
Zollner had good reasons for sticking with last year's lineup. The
1947 club had just won its third world championship. They dominated the
NSL in the regular season and beat the American League in the playoffs.
Six of their players — Bernie Kampschmidt, Hughie Johnston,
Jim Ramage, Sam Lombardo, Bill West and Elmer Rohrs — had made the
League All-Star Team. Johnston was the league's most valuable player,
edging out Kampschmidt by one vote in the All-Star balloting. Other All-
Stars in 1947 were Midland's Johnny Shaffer (a former Piston),
Cleveland's Joe Costello, Detroifs Steve Sage, Midland's Pat Walsh and
Toledo pitcher Elmer MacDonald.
While in Cleveland at the World's, three of the Z's had been
invited to a major league baseball tryout by manager Lou Boudreau of the
Cleveland Indians. They were the Johnston brothers, Hughie and Billy,
along with shortstop Jim Ramage. Their workouts were impressive
enough that they were offered contracts. Unfortunately, they would have
to prove themselves in the minors and it was a little late in their careers to
try that approach.
Earlier on, Kampschmidt had a chance in the Cincinnati Reds
program. He preferred softball. Softball was a door opener to permanent
employment and, frankly, there was quite a bit more money in softball
than in minor league baseball.
So the players were complacent as they faced the most ambitious
league schedule ever tried in major softball. They faced a trying seventy-
game schedule in the Eastern Division against arch-rival Midland, Detroit
(under the E and B banner), Cleveland, Flint, Toledo, Ann Arbor, and
South Bend. Eight others were in the Western Division. The divisional
champs would play for the league title and meet the American League
champs for the "world series."
The team included: Kampschmidt, Barille, Ramage, H. Johnston,
B. Johnston, Flowers, Goldberg, Hilgefort, Robitaille, Lombardo, and four
pitchers, Rohrs, Luken, Kirkendall, and West. Rohrs had passed his
freshman test leading the NSL with ten wins and one loss.
It was Bernie Kampschmidt's job to collect the appearance money
from the other teams on road trips. This was meant to cover the expenses.
Anything left over was given to Fred Zollner, but his expenses were
always more than he received.
The sums were large, perhaps $400 a time, and Bemie was con-
cerned that the money be kept safe. He used to put it in his wallet, and
then stuff it all in his pillow-case.
Naturally, the other players knew he did this, so once when he was
in the shower, they took his wallet and filled it with shaving cream. When
he took out the wallet to pay the team's hotel bill, there it was.
The Pistons were in their prime. They had just won a record 1 13
games and felt strong enough that the fourteen-man roster would carry
An estimated 90,000 fans had helped celebrate the 1947 inaugural
season at Zollner Stadium. Recognizing that Carl Bennett needed a bigger
staff to promote the stadium, softball, and the dream of major league
status, Zollner called Rodger Nelson at the office of the National
Association of Professional Baseball Leagues in Columbus to invite him
to have an interview with Bennett to handle publicity and promotion for
the budding ventures.
Nelson had a sportswriting background, most recently at the
Journal-Gazette. He joined the Zollner staff in August, 1947. He brought
with him baseball's tried and true "Knot Hole Gang" promotion, which fit
the Zollner pattern. It would stimulate interest among the youngsters,
increase attendance, teach the game and even sell some hot dogs and
popcorn along the way. It created a lot of new, young Zollner Piston fans
in Fort Wayne and northeastern Indiana.
Zollner and Bennett attacked the Knot Hole Gang program
vigorously. All youngsters, first through eighth grades, were invited to
sign up. Their membership cards would give them free admission to the
bleachers on designated Knot Hole Nights with door prizes and a grand
prize drawing at the end of the season. The response was overwhelming
with 9000 signing up before the start of the season.
Bill Johnston said that the timing of the program was important.
Fort Wayne was bustling, everyone was home from the war and had a job.
"You could walk downtown and speak to every business man you saw.
You knew everybody," he said. People in the city knew one another, and
the Pistons were an important element of urban life here.
Getting ready for the 1948 season was a typical seven-game swing
through the western end of the National League with stops at Hammond,
Iowa City, Rock Island, Aurora and Milwaukee. The only missing player
besides the released Corgan was Curly Armstrong, whose controversial
ban in the world's tournament helped the Pistons decide to drop out of the
ASA championship runs.
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Armstrong suffered a broken finger during National Basketball
League play and was having corrective surgery. Kampschmidt was the
heavy hitter during the seven-game swing with all four pitchers getting
unbeaten workouts. However, the long ball seemed to be missing as only
Ramage, Robitaille and Goldberg had homers.
The league opener was at Toledo. Elmer MacDonald, of Buddy
Lunch, forced the Z's into 10 innings before wild-pitching Billy Johnston
home and losing 1-0. It was Fort Wayne's eighth straight win.
The Z's opened at home with a Memorial Day double-header.
That Saturday night against Detroit was the first Knot Hole Gang Night
and Zollner Stadium overflowed. Bill West and Diz Kirkendall beat the E
and B's 4-0 and 5-2. Sunday's 3-2 win was followed by a huge fireworks
A record crowd of 7000 turned out at Midland the next weekend
as Clyde (Lefty) Dexter snapped Fort Wayne's 1 1-game winning streak, 4-
3. The revitalized Dow Chemicals rattled eight hits off West, Rohrs and
The Pistons were doing their best to sell softball. Prior to the Ann
Arbor game in June, the players offered a clinic to softball youngsters,
players and enthusiasts. National League Commissioner Charlie Jensen
came in to discuss rules and league competition as Piston players told and
showed the 1,000 "students" how the best players in the game play it. The
guests were invited to stay over to watch the teachers best Ann Arbor, 1-0.
Ann Arbor could not produce a run during the three-game stand, as they
lost the next double-header, 8-0 and 1-0. West, Luken and Kirkendall got
The other teams were building up to Zollner's level in league play.
Joe Costello's hitting helped Cleveland to a win over the Z's, 3-2 in
Cleveland and later Ken Ramsdell, Toledo's other pitcher, gave Fort
Wayne its first loss (2-1) in Zollner Stadium in 1948.
The club did its clowning and relaxing in exhibition trips, trying to
build area softball interest by playing in neighboring towns — Marion,
Harlan, Kendallville, Defiance, and Napoleon. They greatly overmatched
these local all-star teams and would rotate their own players around,
demonstrating their all-around talents and entertainment skills.
Pitchers would switch to outfield or infield positions while Kamp-
schmidt, Ramage or Flowers would take turns on the mound, but never to
the endangerment of losing a game. On several occasions the outfielders
would come in and sit around the pitcher's box and watch the pitchers
strike out the side.
The demanding league schedule took its mid-season toll of the
South Bend and Ann Arbor entries and they dropped from competition.
The results of their games played were nullified. The Pistons had seven of
their wins erased and it temporarily gave Midland a slight lead in the
standings on the percentage of games played.
Overall for the season the Pistons won 39 of the 41 exhibitions
played and this competion included some of the tough western division
clubs. As league competition stiffened, the Pistons started to beef up their
lineup. Johnny Palcheff, a sweet-swinging, all-around player from St.
Louis, tried out and made the team. He joined the club in August and was
available on a part-time basis as he was winding up his studies at St. Louis'
Washington University. Palcheff could play all positions, even catcher,
where Kampschmidt needed more relief
When South Bend threw in the towel, the Pistons also signed Big
Ike Bierwagen for part-time duty. He had been a South Bend pitching
whiz since Bendix days. After the South Bend and Ann Arbor dropouts,
the NSL schedule was mended and the six remaining teams played out the
70-game schedule. The only schedule that seemed off was the Pistons, in
For awhile Midland gave them a scare in the standings but at the
final count, Fort Wayne's record was 56-14, ten games ahead of the Dows.
Late in the campaign they had lost a home double-header to Flint's
Punchers plus a twin stadium loss to Midland.
The Z's had one winning streak of 23 games, but moved into the
NSL playoffs cautiously. While Midland played Cleveland, Fort Wayne
took on third place Flint. Charlie Justice and company gave them a tussle.
Flint forced the Pistons to the five-game limit and Big Bill West
was the winner in the three games for Fort Wayne. West won 5-0. Justice
came back with a 1-0 victory for the Punchers. Chick Goldberg's bat was
a big factor as West won 3-0 in Flint. In the fourth game, the Punchers
raked four Fort Wayne pitchers for a score of 7-1. West finally beat them
I-O in the decider. Goldberg again drove in the winner.
Midland had dusted off Cleveland. In the first game of the Easter
division finals, they fell 1-0 on Luken's no-hitter. But the Chemicals came
back to take the second game at Fort Wayne and handed Rohrs and
Kirkendall a 3-0 loss. The series moved to Midland and the Dows
swamped the Z's 8-3, scoring as many runs as any team had ever scored
against Fort Wayne. West, Luken and Kirkendall were the pitchers.
Midland then won the playoff championship, 3-1. Rohrs and
West could not stop them. Midland went on to beat Racine of the Western
half for the NSL championship and won the "world series" against the
It was Midland's first full-blown crown and it was a reminder of
the 1943 ASA super-regionals when they stopped Fort Wayne from
qualifying for the world tournament. The Pistons' final figure was 99-21 .
It was the most losses for a Piston team in any season. The hitting
and pitching were both off However West was chosen the league's most
valuable player; Kampschmidt, Hughie, Ramage, Robitaille and
Lombardo made the all-star team with West. Midland's pair, Lefty Dexter
and Al Linde, were the all-star pitchers with West. Midland's Johnny
Shaffer, Flinfs Floyd Bates and Caldonia Phelps were the others named
The Z's 1948 roster included: Jim Ramage, Ernie Flowers, Sam
Lombardo, Hugh Johnston, manager Bernie Kampschmidt, Chick
Goldberg, Neal Barille, Ed Robitaille, Bill West, John Palcheff, Bill John-
ston, Bill Hilgefort, Ike Bierwagen, Diz Kirkendall, Leo Luken, Elmer
The pitching record was: Luken 16-2; Rohrs, 22-7; Kirkendall,
21-4; West, 34-7; Bierwagen, 6-1.
Before the next season, Kirkendall left the organization. He
continued to pitch throughout Michigan, Ohio and even did a spell in
Windsor, Ontario. He died in 1957 at the age of 42, and was elected to the
Softball Hall of Fame in 1959. Bill Johnston rated him among the top ten
pitchers in fastball history.
Diz was a quiet man who did not socialize too much with the
other players. He let his record, which included 108 scoreless innings
while he was pitching in Cincinnati, speak for him. Hughie Johnston
remembers one occasion when he did join in, to his regret.
The players had some time off in Peoria and decided to go to a
gambling joint. "We were looking for something extra to do, and
everything was legal in Illinois," Hughie explains. They decided to shoot
craps. Diz was known to carry "a bunch of money tucked away in his
wallet." Hughie later decided the game was fixed in favour of the house.
"We got taken," he said, "Diz's money was all gone. It was unusual, $40
or $50, back then, that was a lotta dough. I never caught him doing that
In 1948, Lowell Thomas wrote, "As 5,000 rabid enthusiasts will
tell you, there's nothing sissy about this game. Here are three reasons for
its popularity: pitchers are fast, sliding is rough and the ball is hard."
Thomas went on to say that nothing about softball was soft. It
did everything baseball did, plus speed and more speed.
Perhaps Thomas was the inspiration for changing the National
Softball League name to the National Fastball League.
That is what the Zollner's message had been when they abdicated
their ASA world's championship after the 1947 tournament. The Pistons
and their peers were playing the fastest of all other softball. Thus the
name changed to 'fastball' for the 1949 season. Bernie Kampschmidt
remembered that it was Carl Bennett who suggested the name change at a
meeting of team owners.
The Pistons' mission in 1949 was twofold: to get back the cham-
pionship they had lost to Midland in the 1948 playoffs and to sell the game
to the fans and more players. The mere fact of Fort Wayne losing to
Midland demonstrated that the other clubs were building up to the Pistons.
Fred Zollner made a point of attending as many games as he
could, which required some planning for a businessman as busy as he was.
If the team's schedule called for games in Cleveland, he booked his
appointments in Cleveland for those days. The same with Peoria and
Detroit. Later, when he had an airplane, it was easier, because he could
still spend all day at the plant in Fort Wayne and still fly to the out-of-
town engagements. Leo Luken also appreciated the plane, because his job
often kept him late at the factory. He sometimes joined Fred and Mary
Lyons when they flew to the games.
Instead of a spring swing through Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, the
Pistons set up a series of clinics and tryout schools at the Concordia Gym
in Fort Wayne or outdoors, weather permitting. Three sessions were for
pitchers and catchers, three others for infielders and outfielders.
They took their show on the road to several surrounding towns —
Auburn, Bluffton, Hartford City, Warsaw, Kendallville and Van Wert —
for intrasquad games. The Pistons took turns beating the Zollners and visa
versa, but the stimulus was to step up fastball interest.
The Pistons probably played more exhibition games than those on
the league schedule. In the industrial league, there were not enough teams
to keep everyone busy. So much depended on whether invididual cor-
porations were willing to spend the money required. Fred Zollner was, but
he was unique among the industrialists of his day.
The Pistons travelled everywhere, promoting fastball and enter-
taining fans. Exhibition games were meant to demonstrate good playing,
but they were also meant to put on a show. Since the local teams they
played were not on their level, the Pistons were careful not to humiliate
Pregame warmups were also part of the show. In an act which the
players called "the no-brainer act", two rows of four or five men would
throw the ball to each other, passing it on as quickly as they could. At
first, they would throw only to the man across from themselves, but soon
the balls began criss-crossing the lines. Although it was carefully
rehearsed, it looked spontaneous. The fans loved it. Eventually, Rodger
Nelson suggested adding fluorescent paint to the balls and turning out the
lights. Only the balls were visible, whizzing through the dark.
The act ended with the balls being thrown randomly. "We would
seem to goof up," Bill Johnston said, and all the players leapt out of the
way. Sometimes, the applause for the dazzling pregame outdid that for the
One of the first priorities now was to bolster the pitching staff Big
(six-foot-five) Elmer MacDonald became a free agent when Toledo's
Buddy Lunches team dropped out after two years in the National Softball
Originally from that softball-fertile area of Covington-Newport,
Big Mac had pitched with Bill West and the Sixth Ward Boosters before
moving to Toledo for Virg Gladieux's Buddy Lunch. He was the work-
horse of the entire league, setting a record thirty-one appearances in 1947
and thirty-six in 1948. He had beaten the Pistons eight times over the two
year period. His brother, Don, was on the Midland staff MacDonald set
an all-time NSL record with 22 wins in the 1948 season while managing
the Toledo entry. He had an interesting style, slower to get ready on the
mound than other pitchers.
The Pistons started the 1949 campaign with a 15-man roster:
Curly Armstrong (back after a year's absence because of finger surgery),
Barille, Flowers, Goldberg, Billy and Hughie Johnston, Kampschmidt,
Lombardo, Luken, Palcheff, Ramage, Robitaille, Rohrs and West.
The National Fastball League set up a 60-game schedule. Toledo
and Cleveland were gone, leaving a six-team Eastern Division of Fort
Wayne, Midland, Flint, Windsor, Detroit and Columbus.
Curious to see how tough their conquerors from 1948 were, 6000
fans turned out for the traditional opening doubleheader against Midland
on Memorial Day. West won the opener, 5-1, but big John Skolnicki,
acquired by Dows from defunct Cleveland, shut out the Z's 2-0 in the
Four rookies graduated from the Zollner tryout schools, with 19-
year-old Lowell Duerk making the traveling squad. Fifteen-year-old
Chuck Shearer, former batboy and promising pitcher, Tom Barfell, and
Rol Kenneke dressed for the home games. Duerk attracted quite a
following from his home town. Defiance.
After the early loss to Midland, the Pistons went on a 19-game
winning tear. Nine straight shutouts were in the string and Rohrs had a
perfect game and West a no-hitter on the same night in 4-0 and 2-0 wins
over the South Bend Tribune.
Midland was the only enemy coming close by midseason and
fastball interest was high. A stadium record crowd of 6700 turned out for
the Fourth of July fireworks and a 1-0 win over rugged Flint. With only
60 games scheduled in the league, the exhibition schedule was heavy.
Skolnicki, always one of the best, was a particular nemesis and
beat the Pistons five times during the year. By mid- August, the Pistons
had the season well in hand, running ahead of their record 113-game
winning season of 1947 and five games ahead of 1948 when they won 99,
but lost more than 20 for the first time.
The offensive bats were booming and the club was hitting 30
percentage points (above .250) ahead of the last two seasons. Zollner
Stadium activity was heavy with 14000 Knot Hole members and a
Carnival of Stars circus attraction. The ball club had to hit the road for
three weeks as the outdoor Holiday On Ice came in for its second annual
The world champion girls' team, the famous New Orleans Jax,
filled out a double-header exhibition, losing to a men's team from Dayton
after the Pistons beat Toledo 5-1 in the opener. By mid- August, the Z's
had not lost an exhibition. All eight defeats had been in the NFL.
The Z's finished the league schedule 51-8, or 14 1/2 games ahead
of second place Midland. They coasted through Flint in the first playoff
round then waited for a rematch with Midland. They were ready to even
last year's score.
Midland won the first game in Fort Wayne 5-2, with Skolnicki
doing the pitching and first baseman Jack Kett supplying the offensive
punch. West came back to win the second game 1-0, beating Midland's
In the third game, Midland jumped on Elmer MacDonald early
but Luken came to the rescue, and the Pistons whomped Skolnicki 10-3.
Ironically, Elmer's brother, Don, finished up for Skolnicki. Fort Wayne's
MacDonald started the game; Midland's MacDonald finished and neither
one got a decision.
The Zollners got their Eastern championship back and went on to
beat Bloomington State Farm Insurance in four straight for the first official
National Fastball League championship. Then it was on to Lancaster,
New York, to meet the American League champs.
In a season finale that was embarrassing. Fort Wayne smothered
Lancaster. At ZoUner Stadium, Lancaster was fairly respectable, losing 5-
and 5-1, but back in the Buffalo suburbs, Elmer Rohrs pitched a perfect
game, 1 1-0 and walloped Lancaster 17-1 in the finale.
It was undignified enough that Piston officials asked for a suspen-
sion of the "world series" until the Americans could build up to National
The final count was 114 wins, 10 losses. It was perhaps Bill
Wesfs finest year, winning 36, losing two and striking out a remarkable
452 batters in 285 innings. Ramage had his best home run year, leading
the league with nine and 15 overall.
Their 114 wins set an all-time Fort Wayne record. When the
season ended, manager Bernie Kampschmidt declared it "the greatest team
I've ever seen."
Veterans Chick Goldberg and Curly Armstrong announced their
retirement from fastball. Goldberg was one of the game's finest all-round
performers and could play any position. He had been with the Bendix
Brakes of South Bend in their heyday and had been a member of the
Pistons for five years, playing in two of their three world's ASA
Championships. His loss was particularly crucial because he could spell
manager Bernie Kampschmidt behind the plate. Kampschmidt's main
backup now was Johnny Palcheff, primarily an infielder-outfielder.
Armstrong came to the Pistons from Indiana University to play
basketball but was well-rounded enough athletically to get a starting job
with the fastballers. He is best remembered for the home run which won a
game in the ASA world finals in 1946 and also for being declared
ineligible for the 1947 world's because of his basketball career.
The American League "world series" was a shambles when the
Pistons annihilated Lancaster, New York, in four straight, but catcher Dick
Szymanski caught the eye of the talent-searching Pistons. He later joined
them as a catcher for the 1950 campaign.
Defiance's Lowell Duerk came out of the Pistons' tryout camps in
1949 and made the team, but the veterans still did not give him any
responsibilities in NFL compethion, saving him for the rigorous exhibition
On the business side, Rodger Nelson resigned in April 1950 to
become sports editor of the Ohio State Journal in Columbus, his home
town. Fort Wayne native Al Busse, who was graduating from Indiana
University, was hired for the press, radio and promotional work with Carl
To stimulate interest in the game of fastball, manager Bernie
Kampschmidt scheduled three tryout, instructional camps in May, taking
the pitchers and catchers in the morning sessions, infielders and outfielders
in the afternoons. Except for Duerk, there were no survivors of the 1949
The amateur softball world continued with changes. Charlie
Justice, called the "Satchel Paige" of softball, finally broke through with
the Toronto Tip Top Tailors and took the world's ASA championship.
This, of course, was without challenge from the National Fastball League
A newcomer on the scene was the formidable Clearwater (Florida)
Bombers, who still remain a major factor in the softball world. Justice
won the championship at the expense of Clearwater 3-1 in the 18-inning
finals. Still wanting to assert the Zollner supremacy, Carl Bennett
immediately worked Toronto and Clearwater into the 1950 schedule.
The National Fastball League adopted a highly ambitious 80-
game League schedule. The emphasis was on league play, with fewer
exhibitions. Fort Wayne's division included Midland, Flint, Detroit,
Columbus and Windsor.
In addition to Clearwater and Toronto, the Pistons' exhibition
challengers included the Oklahoma Cowboys, who were connected to the
Tulsa Oilers who nosed the Pistons out in 1942.
The Knot Hole Gang program expanded with more than 22,400
signed up through the Fort Wayne Community Schools and surrounding
Allen County systems. Included in the Knot Hole program was a new
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fastball league for the youngsters. Zollner players would serve as team
managers for Knot Holers wanting to participate in a league schedule that
would be played during summer mornings at Zollner Stadium.
It was an 'everybody plays' theme. There would be champions
and a regular playoff system for the Knot Hole Gang. The Pistons would
provide T-shirts, playing equipment and caps.
The Zollner roster for the year was: Jim Ramage, Bill West, Ernie
Flowers, Dick Szymanski, Lowell Duerk, Ed Robitaille, Elmer
MacDonald, Kampschmidt, Billy and Hughie Johnston, Sam Lombardo,
Leo Luken, Johnny Palcheff, Elmer Rohrs and Neal Barille.
The Pistons carried an 1 1-game winning streak into the opening of
the season. It was the traditional Midland double-header, which the
ZoUners handled 2-0 and 2-1. The exJiibition season opened with a 5-0
romp at Rockford, Ohio. Through the first 14 games in the NFL schedule
the Pistons stood at 12-2. The only defeats were handed them by Detroit,
one a 2-0 shutout by Detroit's Al Wierzbicki.
By the Fourth of July in 1950, the Pistons had piled up a five and
one-half game lead over the Dows. The spark of this rivalry brought out
the largest crowd (7100) in stadium history for the fireworks show on and
off the field. The Pistons nosed out Midland, 3-2.
Oklahoma's Cowboys had been beaten 2-1 in their Fort Wayne
invasion, so with a comfortable lead, the Pistons waited for the Clearwater
Bombers and their two pitching aces, Herb Dudley and Johnny Hunter.
The Bombers (like the Pistons in 1942 and 1944) were just a win away
from the World's in 1949. It was Hunter's rookie year with the Bombers.
Both Dudley and Hunter are now in the Softball Hall of Fame.
The Pistons had the better pitchers in the double-header wins,
Rohrs throwing an 8-0 no-hitter and West, a 2-0 one-hitter.
The National Fastball League was still not solid, except for the
Pistons and Midland. Scheduled for eighty games, the Pistons played
seventy-six, winning sixty-five of them. Dow won forty-nine and lost
twenty-two, giving them 71 games total and finishing thirteen and one half
games behind the Zollners.
Fort Wayne would have completed its schedule but inclement
weather, plus the fact that the two remaining double-headers were
insignificant in the final standing, prompted cancellation of the four
games, without rescheduling them.
The Pistons were to face Columbus (who had a 31-37 record)
while the Chemicals went against Detroit in the first round playoffs. Flint
finished fifth and Windsor sixth in the race.
In late August the showdown against the reigning ASA champion
Toronto Tip Tops was the premier attraction. After humbling Charlie
Justice and his gang, 5-0, the Pistons started throwing rice instead of
On August 26, 1950, veteran pitcher Elmer MacDonald took
Hyrlene Ivy for his bride in the only wedding (to date) ever held at Zollner
Stadium. Appropriately, the wedding took place on the pitcher's mound
with the entire ball club attending.
A scheduled double-header was rained out the following night but
in the three innings before the rain, Fort Wayne had pulled away to a 3-0
lead, so the world's ASA champs from Canada had not scored a run
against the Z's in twelve innings played in the series billed as the
"unofficial world's championship."
Now it was playoff time and Fort Wayne eliminated Columbus in
three of four games. West received credit for all three wins
The Eastern Division finals were four of seven against Midland,
which had already eliminated Detroit. The Pistons won the first two, 9-2
and 5-0, but the Dows bounced back and evened the series, 1 1-8 and 6-3.
There was definitely more offense in the game. Fort Wayne won the next
two, 4-0 and 4-1 for the Eastern Division championship and the right to
meet Bloomington State Farm Insurance for the 1950 pennant. Blooming-
ton was completely shut down by Piston pitching and did not score a run
in the final series, getting blown out 7-0, 4-0, 12-0 and 1-0. Rohrs finished
strong for the Z's, winning his last five starts to finish at 34-6 for the year.
The Korean War was at hand and West was recalled to Army duty
at Fort Lewis, Washington, after winning 32 of his 36 decisions. Mac-
Donald, steady as ever, stood at 27-4. Luken was spending more time in
the plant as production manager but had a respectable 15-3 run.
Rookie Duerk, also headed for the service, was at 5-0. The
Pistons had finally given the Defiance youngster a league assignment,
against Detroit. He wobbbled through, 5-4, to keep his record unblem-
Hughie Johnston wound up with the team's best batting average,
.309, and Ernie Flowers belted nineteen homers. Neal Barille broke a
league record by scoring fifty runs, edging Midland's Jack Kett.
For the third time in the last four seasons the Pistons had won
more than one hundred games. They had missed the fourth (1948) by a
single game. The heavier league schedule in 1950 found them losing a
total of seventeen games for the year.
Once again they had conquered everything in the sport: the
outright regular season and the playoff championship of the National
The Pistons remained as the supreme fastball power of the land.
Fred Zollner's pursuit of perfection seemed relentless. The Zoll-
ner Armada, already king of the fastball oceans, added a couple of aircraft
carriers and destroyers for the 195 1 season.
The Pistons had marched through all opposition in 1950.
However, Bill West had been called for military service and there was a
possibility that Elmer MacDonald might retire early. This ignited a retren-
ching call for the 1951 season. As it happened, West's military absence
was short and he returned before the beginning of the 195 1 season.
The ball club had gone through a 130-game schedule in 1950
(perhaps its most taxing season) with all the activity of coaching Knot
Hole teams and neighboring exhibitions promoting fastball.
The 80-game National Fastball League schedule had proved too
tough for some of the members and the Pistons settled back into a less
strenuous six-team league, the National Industrial Fastball League, its
members were bunched around the greater Detroit area and made for more
convenient scheduling. It looked like the best opportunity for establishing
a strong, industrial, corporate competition that would embrace the best of
fastball and build toward the "major league" dreams of 1947 when the
Pistons stepped away from ASA tournament play to concentrate on
building a strong National Softball League.
The Midland Dow Chemicals were the only consistent compe-
titors which came up to the Zollner expectations. They kept building up to
the Pistons. With the other teams, it was one or two shots before they
would fade away.
The Pistons' domination of the sport was thorough. They met
every challenge, but the paradox was that Zollner's efforts to make a
"super league" were, in effect, turning against him. The "thrill of victory"
was becoming the "agony of victory" as Fort Wayne was winning too
much for their own good.
The entire Zollner infield was elected to the NFL All-Star team —
Ed Robitaille at third, Jim Ramage at short, Billy Johnston at second, and
brother Hughie at first. Elmer MacDonald had the best pitching
percentage; Bill West, the most strikeouts. In the voting, Columbus'
Jimmy Clark, a fine black catcher, nosed out Fort Wayne's Kampschmidt
as the backstop.
Clearwater's aspiring Bombers became the ASA champs. This
was the team which had been runner-up in 1949 and had invited Fort
Wayne for a double-header during 1950, getting one hit in two games.
ZoUner's immediately challenged them, but cleared away their
battery in the process. They signed pitcher Herb Dudley and catcher
Harry Hancock to the Piston roster for 1951, and decided to hold spring
training at Clearwater, which was also the training camp for baseball's
National League Philadelphia Phillies.
The Z's also added fleet-footed Bill Jones from the Detroit area
and pitcher Frank Harvey from the Newport-Cincinnati wars. Jones was
an outfielder who had been clocked at 9.8 in the 100-yard dash and Harvey
had taken a Cincinnati Coca-Cola team to the ASA world's tournament.
Bill Hilgefort, a steady performer in the outfield, had never broken
into the starting lineup and retired to Cincinnati to work in the Postal
Service. It was a beefed-up 18-man squad that headed south to Clearwater
for spring training. Hancock and Dudley would join them there. The
traveling squad was Bill Jones, Sam Lombardo, Jim Ramage, Neal Barille,
Ernie Flowers, Bemie Kampschmidt, Ed Robitaille, Johnny Palcheff, Dick
Szymanski, Hughie Johnston, Elmer Rohrs, Billy Johnston, Leo Luken,
Elmer MacDonald, Bill West and Frank Harvey. A six-man pitching staff,
three fulltime catchers, an Ail-American outfield and infield. It may have
been the best fastball personnel roster in the history of the game.
Eighteen games were booked throughout Florida and in Georgia
and Tennessee on the way home. Four of the games were against the
newly-crowned world champion Bombers from the ASA tournament. The
Pistons won the first three games of the set and, in what was billed as the
"softbali-fastball world series championship game," Herb Dudley was to
go against his former Clearwater teammates and youngster John Hunter, a
Hunter threw a no-run, no-hit game at the Pistons, and Dudley lost
his first Fort Wayne start. It was the first time in their fastball history that
the Pistons had no hits. However, it added drama to spring training and
the Pistons returned to Fort Wayne with a 17-1 record to start the 1951
Dudley finally got his first Piston win at Jacksonville (4-2).
Harvey was given a lot of work to test his mettle and Rohrs was the main
star, winning six of the 17 decisions.
Their basketball cousins, the professional Pistons, had replaced
Murray Mendenhall with Paul Birch as head coach and Birch and Bennett
had drafted a flock of collegians for the next NBA race. Promotion-
minded Bennett suggested a basketball get-acquainted spring camp that
would wind up with an intrasquad game, giving opening night fastball fans
a unique basketball-fastball doubleheader on May 26, 1951.
The weather man did not cooperate and the basketball game was
called after one quarter. The fastball game against Columbus was
canceled. The Detroit Briggs came in May 30 to pick up the same
program and the "Zollners" — Fred Schaus, Boag Johnson, Jack Kerris,
Larry Foust and Frank Brian — beat the "Pistons" — John Oldham,
Charlie Share, Jim Riffey, Art Burris and Bob Garrison — 47-36 in
basketball while Bill West pitched a 5-0 shutout over Briggs in fastball.
Briggs Beautyware was a member of the NIFL along with
Midland, Toledo Champion Sparkplugs, Detroit Hudson Motors, Detroit
Ford Motors, Pontiac, Michigan GMC Truck and Coach. The opening
Memorial Night game was billed as an exhibition.
The NIFL board had a stable air, with Charles Pink of Ford
Motors, presiding, Tom Kanary of Midland as vice-president, and Harold
Welch of Pontiac GMC as treasurer. The new commissioner was W.E.
Landis. Bennett was on the board of directors with Frank Calvenna, of
Detroit Hudson, and Dan Lapinski, of Briggs.
The Pistons, already well seasoned after starting their spring
training in mid-April, opened their league play at Midland, Rohrs and
Luken winning, 2-1 and 3-0. The home opener was against Pontiac and
Piston bats rattled out 21 hits in 7-1 and 10-3 wins, MacDonald won his
third of the year, and rookie Harvey his fourth.
The Pistons had two batboys, teenagers who helped the team out
in various ways. During the 1951 season, one of the boys reached the
retirement age of 17 or 18 and was replaced by Stan Hood.
The batboys were not paid, but wore the Piston uniform and
worked all the home games. It was a dream position for a young fan.
Asked how he got the job. Hood said he could not remember. He
supposed it had something to do with his father, a city fire-fighter, and
something to do with the fact that he hung around ZoUner Stadium a great
deal. He stayed with the team until it folded in 1954.
The home games were all at night. Players and batboys arrived at
six for batting practice. The batboy's job was to stand near the pitcher and
feed him balls. It was a quick business, "almost like a machine," Hood
said, "And when there was a drive out past the pitcher's mound, it was an
exercise in agility."
As the game drew near, the boys sorted and arranged the bats.
During the game, the batboys alternated, two or three innings at a time.
The one who was not tending to the bats ran to the concession stand for
coffee for the players, and stocked the locker-room refrigerator with drinks
for after the game.
Sometimes the batboys would be sent to the bullpen to help the
pitchers warm up. The pitching was faster than the boys were used to, but
it was a thrill to feel you were part of the game.
By mid-season, the Z's were coasting along unbeaten in league
play and had a 43-4 record. Losses were suffered to Midland (in a non-
league game), Bloomington, Illinois, South Bend Studebakers and the
early season loss to Clearwater and Hunter. Rohrs and Harvey were
unbeaten and five of the regulars were hitting better than .300.
Newcomer Hancock was a pleasant surprise with a .394 average,
alternating behind home plate and in the outfield while Lombardo was a
healthy .367, Hughie, .336 and Robitaille, .301. Even Neal Barille had his
first home run of the season in a 6-2 romp at Rockford, Ohio.
The 3-2 loss to Bloomington happened in a rain-shortened five
innings. The Z's got even when they invited the State Farm team over for
the Fourth of July fireworks show and a stadium crowd of 5500 saw a lot
of sparkle in the Fort Wayne 8-0 win.
All phases of the Knot Hole Gang flourished. Curly Armstrong
was directing the activities for more than 23,000 members in free Knot
Hole admissions, free swimming in the city pools, and play in the Knot
Hole Fastball Leagues.
A midsummer game was at Bridgeport against one of the top
industrial sponsors, Raybestos' Cardinals. Raybestos holds the record for
world's ASA women's softball (ASA) championship and won the men's
world's in 1955 and 1958. Rain shortened Raybestos' misery to seven
innings but MacDonald and West combined for a 5-0 shutout.
In early August Fort Wayne answered a challenge from the
famous squad at Grumann, an aircraft manufacturer, and its star pitcher,
Roy Stephenson. A game was booked into New York's Polo Grounds,
home of the New York Giants, and it attracted a crowd of 17,275, believed
to have been the largest assemblage ever to watch the Pistons play.
Dudley bested Stephenson 3-0 and Hancock had an inside-the-
park home run, maybe the only fastball four-bagger in the Polo Grounds'
history. The following night, Grumann took the Pistons to their own ball
park on Long Island. Fort Wayne never strutted its championship style
any better, whacking out thirteen hits in a 10-0 romp against Stephenson
and Johnston as West struck out 25 in the nine-inning shutout.
As Bemie Kampschmidt remembered it. Bill West was pitching,
but was annoyed that he had not pitched in the big field the night before.
To demonstrate his feelings, he threw hard and extra fast. An extra fillip
to the eastern trip that included New York was that Donnie Turner, the
batboy, was included. The teenagers knew that the trips were financially
advantageous to the batboys. The players were given money for meals
while they were on the road. The boys were included in the handout, but
Stan Hood remembers that the players usually paid for his meals when he
ate with them. The result was money in his pocket, a nice feeling for a
young lad in those days.
Opposition at Altoona, Pennsylvania, was so weak that the Pistons
loaned them three of their own pitchers, and the heavy Zollner bats s till
beat up on them.
The Zollner domination of the sport was leading to complications
as other teams and sponsors got restless. They wanted to be champions
and not just contenders.
The handwriting should have been on the wall with the schedule
slowdown in the National Industrial Fastball League. Several non-league
games were played against Midland. The Pistons ambitiously tried to
revive the national industrial tournament. Ten teams responded for a four-
day event on September 6-9.
Meanwhile, the Pistons breezed through their 23-game NIFL
schedule. Midland, stronger than ever before, finished second with a 20-4
mark; Toledo's Champion Spark Plugs and Briggs tied at 10-13.
Teams were drifting back into ASA tournament play with Detroit
as the host city. Midland re-entered the ASA world's, and won it. It was
the only world's title for the Dows.
After winning the world's, the Dows came as one of the ten
entrants in the Pistons' invitational world's industrial tournament. There
were teams from California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana,
and Illinois. The Hickam Field Flyers from Hawaii were scheduled but
the Army canceled their air travel at the last minute. Midland was fresh
from winning the ASA.
Rohrs threw a no hitter at Summit, New Jersey, 10-0 and West
shut out the Peoria Diesel Caterpillars 1-0 which led to a showdown with
Midland. The Pistons had a two-run lead in the extra-inning ninth on
homers by Hughie Johnston and Ernie Flowers. The Dows threatened
Herb Dudley with two runners on, none out, when Al Linde rifled a shot at
Jim Ramage. Ramage speared it, stepped on second and fired to Johnston
at first, for the Z's first-ever triple play.
Beating Midland 1-0 in the double elimination championship
seemd anti-climactic after that, as Rohrs threw another no-hitter.
They finished their unblemished NIFL season with two wins over
Toledo and three over Midland in the playoffs. And that ended the season,
with 42 wins in a row, a 101-6 record, second best percentage ever in a
season. The best had been 72-4 in 1945.
Rohrs (23) and Harvey (13) were unbeaten, MacDonald was 18-1;
Dudley, 17-2; West, 24-2; and Luken, 6-1. Lombardo had the best
average, .339; Hancock, .328; and H. Johnston, .326. The team hit a
record .256. Flowers broke his own home run record with 20.
The ZoUner business office was never busier, trying to keep
Zollner Stadium busy with the annual outdoor ice show. Holiday On Ice,
and even booking the George Mikan All-Stars agains the Harlem
Globetrotters outdoors on Labor Day night. When Al Busse left for the
Korean War, Rodger Nelson had returned to handle press and radio duties.
The Pistons had to ask themselves what to do for an encore as
they reviewed 1951, which had to be one of peak performances for any
fastball club ever.
Midland, looking for its first championship, had strayed back into
ASA tournament play and had won the world's championship. The team
could beat anyone else in softball, but not the Pistons. Their only four
National Industrial Softball losses were at the hands of the Zollners.
The Dows beat the other clubs in league play twenty times.
Overall, Midland and Fort Wayne played seventeen times during the 1951
campaign, the Pistons winning fifteen of them. This included the National
Industrial tournament, which Fort Wayne hosted.
There were 28 unbeaten games for the Pistons in winning the
regular season and playoffs in the NIFL. Clearwater, 1950's defending
champs in ASA, won one of seven games. That was a no-hit stunner at the
hands of young John Hunter, who was replacing Midland's Clyde Dexter
as the nation's best left-hander.
But the Z's wound up with a 49-game winning streak and this is
what they carried into Clearwater for 1952 spring training. And Fred (The
Raider) Zollner dotted another "i" and crossed another "t" by signing Roby
Crouch, who had helped Clearwater win its first world's ASA in 1950.
Crouch was basically an infielder and was to give Ed Robitaille some
relief at third base. He could also catch and play the outfield.
Within four of their all-time win streak record, the Pistons were
primed to repeat their 195 1 spring debut in Clearwater.
The Bombers were better prepared, however. By Fort Wayne
standards, the spring grind was almost a disaster. They tackled the
Bombers in the very first game and had their winning streak snapped 4-3
by Hunter. It turned out to be the first of five times that Hunter would beat
them during the year.
But the Z's could not get their heavy artillery unleashed. During
one stretch of three games, they had only two hits, an all-time low. That
naturally would have to include a no-hitter, thrown at them by Eddie
Miller of Peerless Woolen Mills of Rossville, Georgia. It was the second
no-hitter ever against the Pistons. The other had been a year earlier by
Hunter in Clearwater.
One of the most famous softball pitchers of all-time was Eddie
Feighner, who was still active in the 1990's. Feighner was an excellent
pitcher and toured the country with his "King and His Court" routine
which included only three other players. The Court would play regular
teams and with his many trick deliveries, Feighner could hold his own on
the exhibition circuit. He would sometimes throw blindfolded or through
On one memorable occasion, Neal "Fast as Lightning" Barille was
on first. He edged away, and Feighner threw behind his back without
looking. Hughie Johnston said, "He had Neal out. It was so fast, the um-
pire didn't even see it."
The Pistons had not played Feighner; he said they were afraid to.
However, on the spring trip, the Pistons booked the strong American
Industrial Sales team for games in Boca Raton and Miami. Herb Dudley
beat the AIS team with Feighner pitching.
The other AIS pitcher, Arno Lamb, set down the Pistons the
following night, 3-1, in Miami. At least the Pistons remained unbeaten to
Feighner, who had been featured in a Life magazine article prior to the
In the 4-3 opening loss to Clearwater, Elmer Rohrs had his
personal winning streak of 29 broken and came out with a sore arm. He
was not used further on the spring trip. Leo Luken, who was cutting down
his playing time to concentrate on his role as production manager at the
Zollner Machine Works, did not make the trip.
Things seemed more ominous when Clearwater beat the Pistons in
a double-header, 1-0 and 4-0, before the Pistons started home. As they
stopped in Canton, North Carolina, their record was 5-5. Two wins in
Canton brought them home at 7-5.
But they had lost their first twin bill since 1948, had a 49-game
winning streak punctured and had been no-hit in Rossville, Georgia. This,
after having lost only six games in all of 1951! Intrasquad exliibitions at
Markle and Zanesville prepped the Z's for their home opener against
Midland's ASA world's champs.
Rohrs was ready again and shut out the Dows 5-1 (his first win of
the year) and Herb Dudley won the second when the Pistons overcame a
three-run deficit to post a 4-3 ten-inning win. A crowd of 2900 filled the
stadium for the Memorial Day event. 2300 more came the next night
when the Pistons beat the Carolina champs, Canton, 3-1 and 1-0. The
southerners looked spunky enough for an invitation to the industrial
The Z's fared better than the parachute jump planned as part of the
opening night festivities. Captain Smiley O'Timmons was scheduled to
land on second base for the flag raising, but he missed second base and the
ball park and landed in some nearby woods. He got back to the park in
time for the second game.
For both the kids and bigger fans, the attractions of Zollner
Stadium included the snacks on sale. An innovation were the Pronto Pups,
later known as corn dogs. Pronto Pups were dipped and fried fresh while
the customers watched. Another new treat also on sale was the sno-cone,
ice with syrup poured over it in various fruit flavors. Kids of the day
Another big baseball park appearance was next for the Zollners.
They played in the Kansas City Blues' stadium in a polio benefit game
against the regional champion Union Wire Rope team. They kept their big
ballpark record clean with a 4-0, 1-0 sweep of the double-header. Dudley
and Rohrs were the pitchers.
The National Industrial Fastball League had its usual personnel
changes, with Detroit Ford asking for a one-year demit. The League
wound up with two four-team divisions: Midland, Detroit Briggs, Pontiac
GMC, and Detroit Hudson in the northern half; Fort Wayne, Cleveland
Schraders, Detroit Steel and Adrian Hurd Lock in the southern half.
By mid- July quite a few things had been happening to the Pistons.
Among them was the loss of the National Industrial Tournament
championship to the Detroit Briggs. In a huge July 3-6 fastball bash, 12 of
the country's best industrial teams came to Zollner stadium. At the July
4th fireworks show, 5639 fans turned out for some fine tournament
fastball, fireworks, and a celebration for Bernie Kampschmidt, Leo Luken
and Jim Ramage, who were cited for their twelve years with the team.
They were the first two major imports that built the fastball
dynasty into world's championship class. Management, on behalf of the
fans, gave each a television set.
The tournament, as usual, was double elimination. In typical,
historical form it boiled down to a triangle finish between Fort Wayne,
Midland and Detroit Briggs. The Pistons had advanced through the
winner's bracket with a 4-2 win over the Aurora Sealmasters, 4-0 over
Buffalo Bell Aircraft and 2-1 over Kansas City Union Wire Rope.
Detroit's Johnny Spring had dropped Midland into the loser's
bracket, 2-0, but the Dows' John Skolnicki kept them alive with a 2-0 win
over Bloomington State Farm. The Pistons and Briggs were the last sur-
vivors in the winner's bracket.
A sacrifice fiy by Art Mueller with the bases loaded was the only
run. Al Wierzbicki was the winner over Herb Dudley. Wierzbicki needed
help from Spring when Billy Jones led off with a double and Rohrs
finished up for Dudley. A 250-foot blast over the left field fence by
Kampschmidt barely went foul, which would have been a game winner in
the seventh. But the Pistons had to come back and play Sunday noon.
They beat Buffalo Bell Aircraft, which had survived by toppling
Raybestos 2-1, by a score of 7-1. Then, in the second Sunday afternoon
game, they blasted Midland, 12-3, rapping Don MacDonald, Dexter and
Al Linde for eleven hits. Rohrs had won both afternoon games, with
Luken and West as helpers.
That put them in the championship finals against Briggs, with
Detroit just one win away from the crown.
In the first game, West beat Wierzbicki, 3-0. The second night
game found Rohrs going against Spring. A tiring Rohrs left after four
innings, reheved by West.
The teams battled through twelve scoreless innings. In the 13th,
Briggs manager Jerry Zarick took things in his own hands and tripled,
sending two runs home. Bill Jones homered for the Pistons in the bottom
of the inning but Spring prevailed. The championship game ended at 2:30
Because of an ankle injury to Hancock, Kampschmidt caught all
sixty-two innings of tournament play, including thirty-four innings
Sunday. The Pistons surrendered their industrial championship crown.
Things went better in NIFL play and they tapped on twenty-four
more consecutive wins in league play, stretching their unbeaten string to
fifty-two games over the two years. In early August, their record stood at
89-10. The hitting leaders were Hughie Johnston (.356), Ernie Flowers
(.319), Jim Ramage (.311), Sam Lombardo (.305), Bill Jones (.301) and
Neal Barille (.283).
In pitching, Luken was unbeaten in eight decisions. Chuck
Shearer had been brought up from the reserve team. His record was 5-0;
MacDonald, 16-1; Rohrs, 18-1; Dudley 18-3; and West 19-4.
Everyone had high performance expectations, however. Frank
Harvey had been 13-0 in 1951, won his first five in 1952, then was
knocked out of the box by Toledo and demoted to the reserve team. With
an 18-1 record, he was no longer on the team.
The others on the 1952 roster were Ed Robitaille, Harry Hancock,
Roby Crouch, Kampschmidt, Billy Johnston and John Palcheff Dick
Szymanski had gone back to Buffalo, and played against Fort Wayne in
the industrial tournament for Bell Aircraft. Later in the year Shearer
would return to the reserve club to help them in their ASA tournament
After the industrial tournament loss, the Pistons went on another
tear, winning 33 straight before Dan Windle stopped them at
Bloomington's State Farm park, 2-1 . In the NIFL, the Pistons went to 29-0
before losing a late season 3-1 game to Midland (Dexter vs. Rohrs). It was
only Rohrs' second loss of the year, the first happening back in early May
That made the league record 65-2 for the two years, including
playoffs. The 1952 playoffs went to Fort Wayne, two straight over the
Cleveland Schraders and then three out of four over Midland. Midland's
playoff win was a solid 10-2 bashing of the Pistons.
For the year, the Pistons wound up 110-14 in all games.
Offensive records were established: team hitting .273 and H. Johnston's
.340. These would be very respectable marks in major league baseball.
Four others were above .300: Flowers .320, Ramage .316, Lombardo and
Jones, both at .302.
On the hill, Rohrs was 25-2; West 24-4; Dudley 24-4; MacDonald
18-3; Luken 9-0; Shearer 5-0; Harvey 5-1. West beat Dudley in strikeouts,
The seasons were ending earlier, with the other teams getting back
into ASA world's tournament play. The 1952 tournament went to Bridge-
port, Connecticut, home of Raybestos. Midland was defending champion.
Detroit Briggs won the world's in 1952, adding it to their national indus-
On the business side, Phil Olofson, a twelve-year veteran with the
Fort Wayne News-Sentinel sports staff, joined Bennett and Nelson in the
Zollner press-promotion department.
Whatever lay ahead for the Zollner Pistons in 1953, the Zollner
management was preparing to meet it head-on. Their star search for talent
Comfortable with winning the National Industrial Fastball League
title again and whacking Midland 3-1 in the playoffs, the Z's major piece
of business was winning back the industrial tournament championship that
Detroit Briggs had taken away from them, and adding solidarity to the
always-shifting NIFL picture.
There were rumors afloat that the Pistons might even reconsider
their ASA stand and return to tournament competition. With the Pistons
on the sidelines, three of their staunchest rivals had won the last three ASA
world's: Clearwater Bombers in 1950, Midland Dow Chemicals in 1951,
Detroit Briggs Beautyware in 1952 at Bridgeport.
The NIFL finals were scheduled around the ASA tournament
The NIFL stayed at six teams with Fort Wayne, Midland, Detroit
Briggs, Pontiac GMC Truck and Coach, Adrian Industries and newcomer,
Muskegon Continental Motors. They would play a 40-game schedule.
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Dipsy-doodling Herb Dudley had returned to Clearwater after two
seasons with the Pistons. He had contributed 24 of the Pistons' 1 10 wins.
Roby Crouch would start late because he was finishing up his college
career at Clemson.
The Zollners signed three budding stars newly out of the service:
infielder Gordon (Jack) Bloomfield, outfielder-pitcher John Marsden, and
pitcher Gene Igou. Before going into the military, Igou twirled for the
Canton, North Carolina, state champs, which were frequent foes of the Z's.
Marsden made the world's all-star team as a pitcher.
Bloomfield had excellent baseball credentials, but the Pistons
talked him into fastball. He would later play baseball for the Chicago
Cubs and in Japan.
Fred Zollner had recently bought an executive DC-3 to transport
his NBA basketball team, and now he loaded the fastballers up for their
third spring training fling in Clearwater. Manager Bernie Kampschmidt
took a full complement to Florida on the plane so he could sort out his
options for the season.
Lowell Duerk had returned from the service and young Chuck
Shearer, who had bounced back and forth with the Reserve Club, made the
travel squad, so it was the largest in Zollner history to start the season.
Bernie stuck with his seasoned veterans for the first game, against
Dudley, who was back pitching for the Bombers. The long-standing line-
up of Kampschmidt, Billy and Hughie Johnston, Jim Ramage, Ed Robi-
taille. Bill Jones, Neal Barille and Ernie Flowers played for a 4-3 win.
John Hunter was the Clearwater pitching star. Teaming him up
with Dudley and Hank McWhorter, the Bombers were aiming to get back
the world's they had relinquished to Midland in 1951. They had finished
runner-up to Detroit in 1952. Eight of the spring games were against the
Bombers. Fort Wayne and Clearwater split them. Hunter winning all four
of his starts against the Z's. This was a reminder of John Skolnicki in
1949, when he beat the Pistons five times and dethroned them in the NFL
playoffs for Midland.
No pitcher in fastball history had ever beaten Fort Wayne in four
straight games. Hunter was of championship caliber and rumor had it that
the Pistons tried desperately to get him on their side.
One thing was certain about the Pistons. They never stopped
trying to better themselves. Manager Kampschmidt said he had tried to
woo Buck Miller from Memphis during Miller's prime. Most of the
negotiations with other potential Pistons were, and still are, of a confi-
dential nature, however. That was Fred Zolhier's method of conducting
The fastball Pistons were still travelling to many games by car.
One regular grouping was Bernie Kampschmidt (driver), Big Bill West,
Neal Barille and Jim Ramage. At six foot two and 230 pounds. Bill was
the biggest man on the team. Neal was the smallest. Everyone knew Bill
was "highly excitable", as Bernie described him.
Sometimes Neal and Bill would have a discussion in the car, and
on one occasion, it got a little more serious. Neal suggested stopping the
car so they could get out and settle the issue. He hopped out, but Bill was
a little slower. As soon as he closed his door, Neal jumped back in and the
car took off. They left Bill to be picked up by another car following
behind. "Bill was like a big kid," says Bernie.
So the Pistons came home from their spring fling bruised and
bloodied but not bowed. They were 9-5. They quickly got back into
rhythm by beating Midland, 3-2 and 2-1 in the Zollner Stadium season
opener, followed by four straight over the NIFL's newest member,
Muskegon Continental Motors, 3-0, 3-0, 10-0 and 4-1.
The Pistons played an exhibition game in St. Joe against a team
from Sechler's pickle factory. A week later, a shipment of pickles arrived
at Zollner Stadium, huge jars, one for each player.
It was the batboy's job to place a jar of pickles in each player's
locker during the game. It would be discovered there when the team came
in to change. Stan Hood remembers that he was not careful enough when
placing the jar in Neal Barille's locker. When Neal opened the door, the
jar fell out and "exploded like a bomb on the floor."
Stan waited for a reaction, but Neil looked at him and smiled. He
said, "If that's the worst thing that happens in your life, you'll be a lucky
Fan support never wavered and Big Charlie Share, of the Piston
basketball team, presided over a flock of 27,000 Knot Hole Gang
members, an all-time high. Other stars from basketball found off-season
work in maintaining Zollner Stadium, in advertising and ticket sales, or
other promotional work for the NBA franchise as it awaited its second
season in the new Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne.
Detroit Briggs, defending industrial tournament champs, suffered
the same fate that had befallen Fort Wayne a year earlier. They were
knocked into the loser's bracket early in a 3-2 upset by Bloomington. The
State Farm entry beat Briggs 3-2, behind the pitching of "Hoke" Wilson, a
native of Marion, Indiana. Briggs, behind John Spring worked their way
back up to the championship game, but Rohrs beat Spring in the fmale 3-0,
with the decisive blow being a two-run homer by Hughie Johnston.
The Z's had marched through the tournament in five straight
games to regain the trophy. They beat Paducah, Kentucky, 3-1; Detroit
Wyandotte Chemical, 4-0; Bloomington, 11-0; Midland, 10-0. Fort
Wayne was on an offensive high; Rohrs was back in fine form and had
credit for four of the five wins.
The ASA world's champs, Detroit, and Midland continued to be
the major league competition for Fort Wayne, but the Z's also had their
eyes on a six-game set rematch with Clearwater. It was set for the Fort
Wayne Stadium in late July.
The Pistons lost only three of their first 1 8 NIFL starts, two to
Dow and one to Briggs and enjoyed a comfortable lead.
The roster of the 1953 industrial tournament champions was: Ed
Robitaille, Jim Ramage, Neal Barille, Sam Lombardo, Elmer Rohrs,
Hughie Johnston, Johnny Marsden, Bernie Kampschmidt, Harry Hancock,
Johnny Palcheff, Chuck Shearer, Ernie Flowers, Bill Jones, Billy Johnston,
Leo Luken, Elmer MacDonald, Lowell Duerk, Gene Igou, Bill West and
The roster of 20 players was the most Fort Wayne ever had on a
championship team. That was changed shortly after the tournament.
Veteran Billy Johnston broke up the Irish brother combination at
first and second, and retired to devote more time to his work. He left
Zollners, where he was assistant to personnel director Carl Bennett, to go
into the investment business. Young Chuck Shearer was returned to the
reserve club, and Lowell Duerk, who had come back from the service but
had pitched only two innings, was released. Both Bloomfield and Palcheff
had proved themselves capable replacements for Billy at second and the
team had plenty of pitchers.
The next assignment, besides league play, was the six-game series
with Clearwater. The Bombers were roaring through the South and had
records similar to the Pistons. Hunter was unbeaten in 21 starts; Dudley
had an 1 8-2 record, and Hank McWhorter was at 24-4.
There was a lot of publicity and fan interest when the Bombers
came to town. Through their three years of feuding the teams had played
19 times. Fort Wayne winning 1 1 . But Hunter had beaten Fort Wayne his
last four starts, the best pitching record ever against the Z's.
The rivalry was very intense, and ended on a sour note. In the
first double-header, the Pistons lost the opener to Hunter, 2-1, for the fifth
consecutive time. After winning the second game, Fort Wayne finally
broke the Hunter "jinx" and, using their most well-tested battery (Leo
Luken and Kampschmidt) beat the Bombers 3-0, giving the Clearwater
star his first loss of the season. The Zollners beat him again in the third
The final game, when Hunter came on in relief, was given to the
Pistons in a forfeit when Hunter was ejected from the game and the
Bomber manager, Eddie Moore, refused to send his team back on the field
because he had run out of pitchers. A renewal of the feud did not happen
later in the season, because the Pistons declined to re-enter the ASA
They had taken care of Clearwater, the ASA champs in 1950,
while Midland (the 1951 champs) and Detroit (the 1952 champs) still
trailed them in the NIFL. They had continued to prove themselves the best
in the business.
But the ASA world's was still disruptive to the NIFL. Because of
teams re-entering the tournament play, the NIFL playoffs had to be
scheduled around the ASA schedule. As it developed, Detroit, Clearwater
and Bloomington finished 1-2-3 in the ASA.
The Pistons took the regular season championship (six games
ahead of Detroit) and won the opening playoff series from Midland, 6-1
and 6-0. John Spring derailed them 7-1 in the opening series with Briggs.
Fort Wayne came back for a 7-0 win and, with the series tied, Detroit had
to take off for Miami and defend its ASA championship.
So the Fort Wayne team closed up the season with an indecisive
finale. Their record for the season was 87-16, the first time in five years
they had failed to win 100 games. In 37 meetings with the world's best —
Detroit, Clearwater and Midland — their record was 25-12.
Fort Wayne ended the NIFL season with a 34-6 record. Midland,
with a late season surge, had tied Detroit for second place and by a coin
flip, lost second place to Briggs. Detroit ousted Muskegon as the Pistons
disposed of the Dows in the first round.
By the time Detroit squared off with the Z's, it was September 1 2
and fall weather intervened as Detroit went south. They won two games in
a row against Clearwater to defend their championship, but the Pistons had
remained idle and it was decided to determine the league championship
with the opening game of the 1954 schedule.
It was an unusual windup of one of the Pistons' most. interesting
seasons. Rookie Jack Bloomfield led the team in hitting (.301 overall) and
had the best mark in the NIFL games (.337). The Pistons hit .254, a new
team high. There would be more changes in 1954.
The National Industrial Fastball League trophy apparently was
only on loan to the Zollner Pistons. It sat in their trophy case since they
had won it in 1952 and, when the 1953 championship remained unsettled,
it remained there until May 29, 1954. That is when Detroit came back to
town to decide the championship.
John Spring had been the hero for Briggs in the ASA tournament,
winning five of the seven games played and giving Briggs their second
straight ASA crown.
Briggs had won four ASA championships. The previous wins
were recorded in 1937, 1948 and 1952. Strangely enough, Briggs dropped
its fastball sponsorship, and Detroit appeared in the NIFL race as the
Detroit Bombers for 1954. It was the same team with a different name,
the same faces too, particularly Johnny Spring and manager Jerry Zarick.
Detroit came to Zollner Stadium for two double-headers on May
29 and 30, which would open the season. Of the four games, the first
would count for the 1953 playoff championship. Spring beat Elmer Rohrs,
2-1. Rohrs had a no-hitter going into the fifth inning but Detroit's Dick
Gazie singled two runs home, enough for the win.
A seventh inning rally by the Z's fell short. Despite singles by
John Palcheff and Sam Lombardo and a double by Neal Barille, a double
play erased the tying run. Fort Wayne won the other three games, but lost
the one that counted for the title. None of the games counted in the 1954
The face of the league continued to change, but seemed as sound
and compact as possible. Muskegon Continental Motors, Pontiac GMC
Truck and Coach and Adrian Industries dropped by the wayside, replaced
by Bloomington State Farm and Aurora Sealmasters. The league then
consisted of Fort Wayne, Bloomington, Detroit Bombers, Midland and the
The opening weekend proved momentous. After playing in the
first game, Ed Robitaille passed out while sitting on the bench in the
bottom of the first inning of the second game. An ambulance took him to
Parkview Hospital, where the diagnosis was heat exhaustion.
A heart condition had kept him out of the 1946 season, so it
proved to be Robitai lie's last Piston game. After the Detroit series, Fred
Zollner and Bernie Kampschmidt met with Robitaille and concluded that it
was best for him to retire, remain on the team as coach and become
supervisor of the Knot Hole program.
Hughie Johnston felt that Robey was the perfect man for the Knot
Hole job. He remembered playing for a city championship in Detroit
years before, and going to pick up Ed for the game. He was not home, but
Hughie was directed to a nearby vacant lot, where he found Ed playing
ball with some kids.
When the Knot Hole softball league was formed, with the Piston
players as instructors, Ed was in his element. "He got the point across to
the kids better than any of us," Hughie said.
Before Detroit left town, there were more fireworks. Detroit and
Fort Wayne had always had a fiery rivalry, particularly when many of the
Piston stars had performed previously for the Briggs. So when the Pistons
rallied in the second game Sunday night to win in extra innings, 3-2, Roy
Lombardo (Sam's brother, playing for the Bombers) got into a brawl at
second base with Hughie Johnston. The riot cleared both benches.
Robitaille's exit put a big dent in the Pistons' lineup, already fairly
well bent by the retirement of Elmer MacDonald and Johnny Marsden, on
top of Bill Johnston's mid-season departure in 1953.
For the first time in years, the Pistons had not added any
newcomers, and, it was left with a versatile 14-man squad.
Kampschmidt and Hancock would share the catching; Bill West,
Elmer Rohrs, Leo Luken and Gene Igou were the pitchers; infielders were
Hughie Johnston, Jack Bloomfield, Jim Ramage and John Palcheff and
outfielders were Neal Barille, Sam Lombardo, Bill Jones and Ernie
Flowers. Bloomfield had proved a keeper by leading the 1953 team in
batting and his home run in the second game of Sunday's double-header
won the extra-inning thriller.
An independent team from Hamilton, Ohio, added spice to the
Pistons' June schedule. Hamilton had picked a few players from the Flint
team, including Cleveland Pendergrass, described as a "slow striding,
swift-pitching husky Negro." The Z's went to Hamilton for a double-
header exhibition, and Pendergrass and Bill West hooked up in a terrific
Pendergrass put 21 Pistons down in a row, but West shut out
Hamilton, too. In the eighth, Johnston got a single, and the Pistons barely
escaped a no-hitter. A Hamilton homer put them ahead.
Hamilton came to Fort Wayne the next Sunday and Pendergrass
beat them again with another 2- 1 one-hitter. To prove it had not been a
fluke, Hamilton won the second game; Wad Fannin came back with a 5-2
win over the Z's in the nightcap.
It was only the fourth time that the Pistons had lost a double-
header in Zollner Stadium. Toledo, the Rochester (New York) Russers
and Midland had been the only teams to win two in one night at the
Most of the players' wives came to the games, and occasionally
children too. Although some did sit in the stands, they could also drive to
the stadium and had the privilege of leaving their cars along the left field
line. The families watched the game from the comfort of the front or back
seat, softer than the bleachers.
Some of the players would join up, with their wives, for a beer
and a sandwich after the game. A group always seemed to show up at
Johnny Eshcoff s Rib Bar on South Calhoun Street.
After 22 games, the ZoUners were 22-6 with outstanding
performances by the longest-serving veterans Leo Luken (unbeaten on the
mound) and Kampschmidt (hitting .341).
After the Hamilton embarrassment, the short-handed Pistons
tightened their belts to win 26 of their next 27 games. They invited
Hamilton back in July, beat that team handily, 8-0 and 6-4, then went to
Hamilton and won 5-0. The second game was rained out.
It preserved the Z's record of never losing a season series to an
opponent. They stood 4-3 against Hamilton and let it go at that.
Injuries to Bloomfield and Barille slowed the Pistons a little.
Harry Hancock also took a 10-day break, to go back to Clearwater to claim
his hometown bride.
There was no national industrial tournament planned for 1954 so
Indianapolis was booked for the traditional Fourth of July fireworks-
fastball twin bill. Some 4000 fans watched the Pistons win a pair, 4-1 and
The only blemish in a fast-paced July was a 4-3 league loss to the
Flint Buicks. It was the only NIFL loss of the season for the Pistons.
Their trophy case was bare. They had lost the NIFL playoff 1953
championship to Detroit in the opening game and had no current industrial
tournament to contest. The Pistons wanted to take another shot at the ASA
world's championship. Fred Zollner and Carl Bennett did not object,
leaving the decision to the team.
This meant going through the state tournament (which they hosted
and won) to qualify for the super regionals at LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Then
they would go on to Minneapolis for the world's competition.
By beating Richmond in the state finals, the Zollners put the
Indiana trophy in their case (Robitaille and Kampschmidt accepted from
State Commissioner Tony Dyer) and headed for LaCrosse. They took care
of Louisville and LaCrosse, but stumbled to Mick Delaney and old NIFL
rival Bloomington 2-0, to fall into the loser's bracket.
They got back into the finals by ousting another NIFL foe,
Aurora, 7-1, then went to the finals against Bloomington again. This was
a team they had handled eight out of 10 times during the season. Wayne
Ward won his first ever game from the Z's 1-0. It knocked the Pistons out
of contention for the world's tournament. The Clearwater Bombers won
the 1954 crown, their second. The Bombers have continued their ASA
tournament play through the years and have now won 1 world's titles (the
most of any team), but never three in a row as the Pistons did in the mid-
The Piston bats were silenced at the wrong time. They had been
enjoying their greatest offensive year, but now entered the first round of
the NIFL playoffs against the Detroit Bombers. The Bombers bumped the
Pistons out in two straight, 4-1 and 4-0, which gave the Pistons a record of
being shut out in three of their last four games.
The 4-0 loss to Detroit was the season finale at Zollner Stadium.
The Pistons wound up with a 56-12 record. The team, batting a
solid .270 was led by Ramage (.323); Johnston (.317); Jones (.303);
Lombardo (.297); and Bloomfield (.281). Flowers had 12 homers,
Palcheff 1 1 . Luken, losing the last game at LaCrosse for his only defeat
(9-1), led the pitchers and had won 17 straight over a two-year span, until
the Bloomington defeat. Rohrs was 19-3; West 18-4 and Igou 10-4.
It turned out to be the last hurrah for the vaunted Z's. After all
those years, Fred Zollner read the handwriting on the wall. The man who
was the corporation and the sport's most zealous fan, and who had done
everything in his power to make softball "major league", disbanded his
The reasons are not entirely clear, and everyone seems to have his
own ideas. Bernie Kampschmidt says some of the players knew at the
beginning of the season that his would be their last. As he said, it took
some of the starch out. Also, the team was aging and the recent recruits, in
his opinion, did not have the ability of the older players. Major changes
would have been on the cards.
The team's long lifespan was one element of its greatness. Bill
Johnston said, "The amazing thing about the team was the combination of
players and their longevity. It was a remarkable feat that they stayed
together so long." It said something not only about the players, but about
Fred Zollner too.
In the September 22, 1954, Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, an eight
column banner headline read: "Zollner Pistons Abandoning Softball,
Dissolving Famous Team."
The story followed:
"The Zollner Pistons, one of the most famous sponsors in the
history of Softball, announced last night the dissolution of their record-
"The announcement was made by Sponsor Fred Zollner who
attributed a declining national interest in the sport' as the reason for
abandoning the sport.
"Thus, the 'Yankees of softball' have been broken up.
"The move ends a 15-year cycle which saw the Zollner Club win
every championship conceivable in softball or fastball, and establish some
marks which may never be broken.
"The Pistons have had playing for them, or have played against
every great player in the past two decades. At one stage of the club's
fabulous history. Sponsor Zollner said he wouldn't trade any player at any
one position for any other player in the country.
"Three of the players who helped build this softball dynasty were
original members of the club and have played every season since the
Pistons outgrew the ranks of local competition. They are manager Bernie
Kampschmidt, Jim Ramage and pitcher Leo Luken, all of whom joined the
"Other 10, 1 1 and 12 year veterans who helped the Pistons pile up
their amazing record of championships through the years include Hughie
Johnston, Sam Lombardo, Ed Robitaille and Neal Barille. They were also
on the club as it bowed out.
"Through the 15 years the Pistons have amassed 1253 victories
against just 189 defeats, for a sensational winning percentage of .869;
that's 8.7 games of every 10 they played against the strongest opposition in
"The Z's have been as nearly 'big league' as any softball team
ever has. They've played from the Atlantic ocean to Arizona and from
Florida into Canada.
"Their record of winning three consecutive world's ASA
tournaments has never been touched. With their entry into the National
Softball League, which subsequently became the National Fastball League
and more recently the National Industrial Fastball League, the Pistons
never once finished below first place in regular season competition. That
started in 1946 and continued through the past season — nine years' worth.
"Every goal the Pistons and their sponsors set out for was
"In 1940, when they started, the dominant softball power was
Bendix Brakes of South Bend. The first goal of the Z's was to conquer
them. They did this within a season or two.
"The next goal became the world's ASA championship. This was
achieved for the first time in 1945. En route the Z's wrapped up a couple
of national industrial crowns.
"The world championships were repeated in 1946 and 1947. As
competition deteriorated in the world's play and with the construction of
Zollner Stadium, one of Softball's brightest showcases, the Pistons
abdicated their world's crowns to concentrate on building a strong
"Teams playing in ASA competition often close their parks in
August to play in the tournaments and the building of Zollner Stadium
prompted the Pistons to leave ASA tournament competion.
"The strength of the league which the Pistons helped build in the
Midwest is evidenced by the fact that that seven world championships in
the last nine years have been captured by league members. Only
championships to escape were the 1949 crown (Toronto Tip Top Tailors)
and 1950 (Clearwater, Fla., Bombers).
"The Pistons originally played their games at Municipal Beach
and their free gates there attracted crowds which have been estimated
upwards to 8,000-10,000. Later, they played at Dwenger Park, while
awaiting the completion of Zollner Stadium.
"Sponsor Zollner built the Stadium as his team's schedule grew, to
relieve the scheduling problems at municipal diamonds.
"In last night's announcement Zollner pointed out that the Stadium
will still be used extensively for an expanded Knot Hole Gang program,
professional wrestling and other diversified entertainment features. The
Stadium schedule may be such that we can invite Little League and similar
activities to play a portion of their schedules there,' he added.
"Many of the players are already fairly well set in their futures.
"'All of them, naturally, have the opportunity of continuing to
work at Zollner Machine Works with all the benefits their seniority will
give them.' Zollner stated, 'but that will be up to each individual.'
"Ed Robitaille will be handling the Knot Hole Gang along with
Bernie Kampschmidt. The latter also has extensive duties in the
production office at the plant.
"Hughie Johnston owns his own tavern while Jack Bloomfield has
been offered a contract by the Detroit Tigers. It's hi^ely that Harry
Hancock will enter the construction business with his brother in
Clearwater, Fla., where he's also qualified as a teacher.
"Johnny Palcheff is a grade school principal in Madison, Illinois,
and Luken is another production official at the Machine Works. The others
may work at Zollners or try their softball futures elsewhere.
"This year the Pistons won 56 of 68 games and failed in their bid
to enter the world's tournament in Minneapolis, which is currently in
"Their best year, percentage-wise, was 1945 when they won 72
games and lost just four (.927). In five of the last seven years the Pistons
have won more than 100 games a season, topped by 114 in 1949. In 1951
they had another amazing percentage of 101 wins, six defeats (.944).
"At one stage of his brilliant curve-balling career, Leo Luken won
53 straight pitching victories, believed to be unparalleled in softball. The
team's offensive records of hitting .273 as a unit in 1951 and .270 this past
season are marks of which offensive-minded baseball clubs could well be
"In a game where home runs are exceptions rather than rules,
Ernie Flowers once belted 20 in a season, another mark that is believed to
be an all-time softball record. Another one which they'll all remember was
the third base play of Ed Robitaille in 1945, when he went through 76
games with only one error.
"In coming to the final decision, Zollner said the policy he is
adopting is becoming the trend with industrial powers all over the country.
He cited examples such as Eastmen Kodak of Rochester, N.Y.; South
Bend's Bendix Brakes; New York's Grumman Aircraft; Pontiac's Big Six
and later GMC Truck and Coach; Continental Motors of Muskegon,
Mich.; Nash Motors of Kenosha, Wis.; and countless others who are
diverting their one-team sponsorship programs into either intramural
recreational programs or community efforts.
"The energies and efforts we have expended for softball in the
past 15 years will now be channeled into different ideas of community
progress, some phases of which we hope to announce shortly,' Zollner
explained. \ want to thank the fans for their loyal interest and believe
they will approve our new community activities.
"Tn dissolving this team I cannot stress too strongly the de[e]p
pride we have all taken in them. Every player who wore the Zollner
uniform gave everything he had and was a credit, not only to us, but to the
entire city of Fort Wayne and to the wiiole sports world. We've been
represented handsomely by a group of very fine gentlemen — the greatest
Softball players that ever played the game.'"
The players faced the problem of what to do next. Those who
could not play elsewhere tried their hand at business; some remained at the
Zollner plant. Hughie Johnston said that one problem many faced was that
the Zollner organization had not included a good retirement plan for the
The following season, Eddie Feighner brought his "King and his
Court" show to Fort Wayne. He played the former Pistons, in a game
organized by Bruff Cleary, a former minor-league umpire who had set up
as a local entrepreneur. Feighner's foursome went against a full contingent
of Z's brought together by Hughie Johnston. The Z's won 1-0, but the low
score indicated the quality of the King's play.
Before the game, Eddie came to Hughie to say that he always
played with a special ball, perhaps a little lighter. Hughie did not mind.
Partway through the game, Eddie came to Hughie to say, "You know, we
only play seven innings."
Hughie replied, "You'll stay till we're finished, then you'll get
In a final outing. Smoky Montgomery arranged a game with the
ex-Pistons at the state school. As Bernie Kampschmidt said, "He thought
he could beat the old fogies, but we smoked 'em."
Perhaps we should leave the last word to one of the Fort Wayne
fans who cared so deeply about their softball team. Don Graham said, "I
became more aware after the fact. I never thought we were playing in big
cities. I realized later it was amazing that we were challenging all the big
money and the big cities. The reason was the Pistons had a powerhouse
pitching staff. They didn't only play well once in a while. They did it
night after night. The fact was, the Pistons were unbelievably good."
National Softball Hall of Fame
The following Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons are in the Softball Hall
of Fame: Fred Zollner, Bemie Kampschmidt, Jim Ramage, Hughie
Johnston, Clyde (Diz) Kirkendall, Bill West, Herb Dudley, Sam
Lombardo, Elmer Rohrs and Leo Luken.
(overleaf) Zollner Piston players who are enshrined in the Hall of Fame in
Oklahoma City are pictured in this montage: top, Bemie Kampschmidt,
Jim Ramage; middle, Hughie Johnston, Leo Luken, Bill West; bottom, Diz
Kirkendall, Elmer Rohrs..
Fred Zollner built two softball diamonds in his career. The first
was a lot at Kenwood and Crescent avenues in Fort Wayne in the mid-
1930's as a place for the neighborhood kids to play ball. One day he rolled
up in his Buick, unloaded nine bats, seven gloves and four regulation bases
and the game was on. Writing for the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette in
1947, Ray Scherer said, "It was the first time the kids had seen a collection
like that outside of a Main Auto or Vim window." Then he would load
up his team and zip them down to Huntington's LaFontaine Hotel for
double chocolate malts and hamburgers with onions.
His second softball diamond was a palace for his world
championship kings of the sport. This was Zollner Stadium.
During their climb to the ASA world's throne in 1945, the Pistons
did not have a home field. As they advanced prestigously in the game,
most of their games were played at Municipal Beach although some
games were shuffled to Memorial or Dwenger Parks because of conflicts
with the city recreational schedules.
When the Zollners rewarded their followers with the world's title,
Fred started making plans for the perfect softball stadium as a home base
and a showcase for the softball world he hoped to build.
Using his engineering techniques and softball expertise, Zollner
and his associates designed the ultimate in stadium construction. The site
was a 36-acre tract on North Anthony Boulevard in Fort Wayne, across the
St. Joseph River from Municipal Beach, where the Z's had drawn their
Construction was announced January 12, 1946, and completion of
the $85,000 palace was planned for the start of the 1946 National Softball
League season. A shortage of materials for the all-steel stands delayed the
opening until May 30, 1947.
Ben Tenny, sports editor of the News-Sentinel wrote : "Taking
their lesson from the mistakes made in building other softball stadiums
and profiting from the advanced ideas at some of these, Mr. Zollner and
his aides planning the stadium believe the setup will be the Nation's finest.
Patterned after, but highly improved, the Stadium will be slightly similar
to the Lakewood, O., Elks Stadium where the National Tournament is
being held. The Stadium will have a seating capacity of 5,000 and will be
Downtown sporting goods stores.
January 12, 1946
so arranged that the capacity can be expanded. The main grandstand,
already ordered, will be all-steel construction and will seat 3,000. Set up
from every safety, comfort and seeing ability standard, the grandstand will
have wide redwood plank seats mounted firmly to the steel structure.
Bleachers will be provided along the left and right field foul lines to
provide 2,000 additional seats.
"The grandstand will be set 30 feet behind home plate, angling in
a half-moon shape to 40 feet behind first and third bases. There will be 20
rows of seats and the first one will be high enough to give fans in it an
excellent view. A four foot fence will inclose [sic] the outfield and will be
about 230 feet from the home plate at the foul lines and about 250 feet in
deep center field.
"...a public address system and an electric scoreboard, to be
operated from a press box on top of and in the center of the grandstand
will be installed."
The press box, located 23 feet from the ground over the main
entrance, was designed for 15 scoring, reporting and announcing seats.
Fastened to either end of the press box were two huge pistons, the largest
cast aluminum pistons ever made, seven feet three inches in height and
four feet three inches in diameter.
Eight 85-foot poles, holding 156 light-bulbs flood the field with
234,000 watts, the light being comparable to many major league baseball
The infield and outfield both were skinned for reliably uniform
playing conditions. The surface of the playing field was composed of two
feet of clay, over a 12-foot bed on gravel inlaid with 5000 feet of tile. The
"mile of tile" was to help ensure quick-drying playing conditions.
The main lobby was 35-by-90 feet with refreshment facilities and
two trophy cases. The home team dressing room, locker and dugout were
at the north end, and the visitors in the east. Between the lobby and locker
rooms, under the stadium, were large storage areas and a refuge for fans in
case of rain. The grandstand had no roof
It was impressive. Even the fans realized it. As Stan Hood obser-
ved, "It was unlike anything we had seen in Fort Wayne. You have to put
it in perspective."
Softball activities in Fort Wayne had always been for a free gate,
but admissions were charged at Zollner Stadium to help defray some ex-
penses in bringing in the league and top flight exhibitions.
Opening night was Memorial Day, May 30, 1947, with a double-
header against the Pistons' arch-rival. Midland Dow Chemicals. Dedi-
cation hoopla, including fireworks, drew an estimated 5000-6000 fans,
overflowing the extra bleachers and selling out the 2804 seats in the
Sam Lombardo had the distinction of getting Zollners' first hit in
the Stadium (in the second inning) and also scoring the Z's first run in the
extra-inning eighth, beating out a hopper in front of Midland's Johnny
Pavoris and then getting the game winner (1-0) in a Curly Armstrong hit.
Midland's Roy Weaver had the honor of hitting the first one out of
the park in the fourth inning of the second game, which the Pistons won,
The home run distances (230 feet at the foul poles and 260 feet in
center) were considered a fair test for the fence busters. Heavy hitting
Hughie Johnston got the first Piston homer in the park and chided Zollner:
"Don't you think those fences are a little too far out?" In typical Fred-
fashion, Zollner replied, "If you can't hit 'em over, I'll get somebody in
here who can."
After Zollner Machine Works' gradual exit from the Fort Wayne
sports scene in the late 1950's, Zollner made a generous deal with Con-
cordia High School. Today, the Zollner Stadium still stands, a monument
to the world's greatest softball team, and now the home athletic field for
the Concordia Cadets.
When Fred started his "Field of Dreams" project, the Pistons had
their first world championship. Because of the delayed construction, they
had their second when the Stadium was opened and then brought home
their third during the Stadium's first year of existence.
The night was February 26, 1941. It seemed like an insignificant
happening on the city's basketball calendar, but it may have been the most
momentous night in Fort Wayne basketball history.
The newspapers treated it with routine coverage. There was no
radio report. The game was sandwiched in a triple-header at the General
Electric Company Gym as the Zollner Pistons, YMCA Industrial League
champions, met International Harvester in a playoff game to determine
who the Fort Wayne entry in the upcoming world's pro tournament at
Chicago's Amphitheater would be.
The paper reported: "The 2,000 fans present were treated to a
triple basketball attraction for the invitational night program." It did not
say whether or not the 2,000 fans were there to watch the Pistons play the
Harvesters, Greiner Garage play the Main Office or the General Electric
Industrials play the Miami Redskins.
Nobody is sure that the GE Club could accommodate 2,000 fans
for basketball, but that was the start of it.
The single column headline in the Thursday, February 27, 1941
To Vie In Chicago Pro
Meet; Miami Team
Nips G.E. Five
Neither the Pistons nor Harvester were pro teams so it was both a
tribute to the caliber of Hoosier-style basketball and the shaky stability of
pro play at the time. The National Basketball League continued to survive
but there were continual sponsor changes, and sports in general were
reeling from the Depression.
Fort Wayne had had its last team in the NBL in 1937-38, but
General Electric dropped its sponsorship after one season.
There is little doubt that Fred Zollner's "quest for the best" attitude
would have sustained his sports ambitions beyond local competition, but
the 37-35 win over Harvester hurried the program along.
The Pistons barely squeaked by Harvester. They trailed at all
stops, 13-9 at the half and 27-17 at the end of the third quarter. But they
rallied to tie the game at 3 1 to send it into overtime.
The Piston lineup for the game included Red Oberbrunner, Dale
Hamilton, Hans Dienelt, Jack Keller, Jim Hilgeman (captain), Johnny
Shaffer, Don Beery and George (Red) Gatton. Hamilton and Dienelt, with
nine points each, led the Pistons while Bob Irons had 14 and Bob Bolyard
1 1 for Harvester.
It was almost ironic, or coincidental, that the following Monday
the famous basketball tourists, the New York Celtics, would be playing the
Indianapolis Kautskys in an exhibition at the Fort Wayne Armory. The
Celtics had Davey Banks as coach and players Bobby McDermott, Nat
Hickey, Pat Herlihy, Bill Resnick and Paul Birch on their roster.
Buoyed by their invitation to the pro tournament and the train trip
to Chicago, the Pistons beefed up their team by adding Irons and Jim Glass
to their roster for their shot at the pros. They also booked an exhibition
against the barnstorming Indiana University All-Stars, the Hoosiers'
The Big Red Machine should have given the Pistons second
thoughts about turning pro. In a shoot-out at North Side Gym, some 2,000
fans saw the Hoosiers wipe the Pistons 63-33. Indiana's lineup included
three from Fort Wayne (Herm Schaefer, Tom Motter and Curly
Armstrong), Jay McCreary and the Menke brothers.
The Pistons drained their bench of 1 1 players. Schaefer's 15 and
Motter's 14 led the scoring while Hilgeman was high for the Zollners with
1 1 . But it was not a good sendoff for the Chicago tournament.
Despite its long history dating back to Naismith, basketball was in
its infancy. The NCAA tournament did not start until 1939. It struggled
for teams to compete when Indiana won in 1940; the center jump was
eliminated in the late 1930's. It had a lot of growing to do. That's why
there was so little differential between the professionals, independents and
The Chicago tournament, determining the world's pro champion,
was a 16-team affair. Competing with the Pistons in 1941 were the
Harlem Globetrotters; Chicago Bruins (owned by George Halas of Bears
fame); Detroit Eagles; Indianapolis Kautskys; Newark (New Jersey) Elks;
Oshkosh All-Stars; New York Reus; Dayton Suchers; Rochester (New
York) Seagrams (later the Royals); Kenosha (Wisconsin) Royals;
Sheboygan Redskins; Toledo White Huts; Philadelphia Hebrews, and
teams from Davenport, Iowa, and Bismarck, North Dakota.
The tournament was single elimination, games played every hour
on the hour. The tournament was the brainchild of Leo Fischer, sports
editor of the Chicago Herald- American, who also doubled as president of
the National Basketball League.
The plum perk of the tournament was that the champion hosted
the College All-Stars the following fall to kickoff next season's basketball
campaign. It was the Herald-American's answer to the Arch-Ward
Chicago Tribune's all-star college football and major league baseball all-
The Pistons drew Lon Darling's Oshkosh All-Stars for the first
game. Oshkosh had just won the National League championship by three
games over Sheboygan and the Akron Firestones. It was a quick knock-
out, but the Pistons were credible in the loss; only 47-41.
The Detroit Eagles zoomed by the Harlem Globetrotters and the
New York Rens to upset Oshkosh, 39-37, for the championship. The
Eagles' roster included such names as Bob Calihan, Ed Sadowski, Buddy
Jeannette, and Rusty Saunders.
The Pistons, just two weeks out of the YMCA Industrial League,
found themselves at the same competitive level as some of the best pro
names in the business. Oshkosh had the fabled Leroy (Cowboy) Edwards,
Bob Carpenter and Charlie Shipp. Sheboygan had Ed Dancker; Jerry Bush
was a sub for the Akron Firestone Non-Skids; Halas' Bruins had Bill
Hapac, Mike Novak, Stan Szukala and Ralph Vaughn; the Akron Good-
years had Marv Huffman, Jake Pelkington and Steve Sitko. Making his
first foray into pro ball was Carlisle (Blackie) Towery, who played this
one outing with the Kautskys on the condition that it would not jeopardize
his signing with anyone else.
The team lists of the Pistons' opponents at this tournament were
filled with names that would one day wear a Piston uniform.
With depression clouds behind and World War II ahead,
professional basketball was in considerable disarray. The Chicago
experience whetted Fred Zollner's appetite. Zollner was moving in the
same pattern he had in softball — pulling away from local competition
and exploring what was beyond. The Zollners were looking for bigger
fish to fry.
Participating at the pro tournament level helped with the
decisions. Leo Fisher's National League seemed to shuffle franchises as
fast as players. In addition, the impending war was to make further
demands on sponsors and players.
After the tournament concluded, Zollner dispatched his manager,
Carl Bennett, and newly-signed player-coach Herm Schaefer to Chicago to
talk about a bigger exhibition schedule with National League teams and
other pro tourists. Fischer followed Bennett and Schaefer back to Fort
Wayne with a better idea: join the league.
This solution made Zollner more respectable and lessened the
problems he might have with his opponents. From Fischer's point of view,
it provided a better class of sponsor when he needed one.
Carl Bennett was named as manager and Herman Schaefer as
playing captain and coach. Schaefer was a former star of the Central High
School squad and had shone with the Indiana University all-stars. He had
recently been featured with a photograph in the News-Sentinel. The
surprising thing about his being the player-coach was that he was fresh
from college and only twenty-two years old.
Prior to moving into the NBL, the Pistons had strengthened their
team by signing Armstrong (Schaefer's teammate) and Carlisle (Blackie)
Towery, "the six-foot-six-inch center who was Ail-American pivotman at
Western Kentucky Teachers College and the player who stole the show in
the collegiate meet in Indianapolis in 1940 (NCAA)." Bud Jeannette
described him as "a big guy who could really give you the ball."
Schaefer had seen Towery play and talked to him about going to
Fort Wayne. Towery hitchhiked from Kentucky to Bloomington, met
Schaefer and the two went to Fort Wayne. They talked to Fred Zollner
and both signed.
Others invited for the October 15 tryouts included Dale Hamilton,
Oberbrunner, Beery, Gatton, Hilgeman, John Shaffer, Phil Bail, Dienelt,
Marv Maderich and Joe Grimme.
Three dropouts and three replacements left the National League
with seven members for 1941-42. The Akron Firestones and the
Hammond Ciesar Ail-Americans dropped out, while the Detroit Eagles
opted to play independent ball. The Pistons, Indianapolis Kautskys and
the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets filled the gaps with returnees Oshkosh,
Sheboygan, Akron Goodyears and the Chicago Bruins.
The first game the Pistons played as professionals was an
exhibition at Marion, Indiana, against an independent team called the
Hoosier Comets. Zollners won 33-28. Elmer Gainer, a six-foot-six star
from DePaul University had been added to the club; Blackie Towery was
out with an injury; Armstrong and Schaefer led the scoring, and other
holdovers, Hamilton, Keller, Oberbrunner and Hilgeman played.
Prior to their NBL opener December 1 against the Chicago Bruins
at North Side High School Gym in Fort Wayne, the Z's walloped Toledo,
66-38, at Berne, Indiana. It was their first test against an NBL foe. Toledo
featured Chuck Chuckovits, an Ail-American from Toledo University,
who would lead the league in scoring with a then-unbelievable 18.5 points
The league opener (Fort Wayne's first official game in organized
pro play) was set for Monday, December 1, 1941, at North Side Gym,
where the Pistons hosted the Chicago Bruins, owned by the National
Football League's George (Papa Bear) Halas. The Bruins featured third-
year star, six-foot-nine Mike Novak, the league's tallest, and had picked up
AU-American Ralph Vaughn from the defunct Hammond club. Vaughn
starred at the Frankfort, Indiana, High School and then went to Southern
Chicago had finished 11-13 the previous year and missed the
playoffs. An estimated 2500 fans showed up to see the launching. The
Piston nucleus was comprised of Armstrong, Schaefer, Towery, Elmer
Gainer and Jim Hilgeman or Dale Hamilton.
The Pistons prevailed for a hard-fought 48-46 win after trailing
25-23 at the half Wibs Kautz led Chicago with 16; Vaughn and Novak
had eight while Armstrong and Towery had 1 1 each for the Zollners. The
Pistons were leading the league after their first start.
After beating the Bruins, the Pistons went to Anderson and lost a
league game to the Indianapolis Kautskys. The Kautskys had a lineup that
included Bob Dietz, Scotty Armstrong, Michigan's Johnny Townsend,
Jewell Young and Bob Dro of Indiana University, who had considered
playing with the Pistons.
The next week Fred Zollner surprised the basketball world by
signing the biggest name in the pro sport, Bobby McDermott. Following
the pattern he had established in softball a year before when he grabbed
three stars from Covington's world champs, Zollner plucked McDermott
from the New York Celtics, the game's most revered team.
It was a perfect fit for the Pistons and McDermott. After winning
their opener, the Pistons had dropped two. Three games into the season
Fort Wayne Gallery Of Sport
FACTOR tHU^ FAR IK lUe
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they knew they needed help. McDermott, tiring of the nomadic Hfe of the
touring Celtics, was anxious to settle down. Friendly Fort Wayne and
Friendly Fred were the answers.
The story in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel on December 1 5 said:
"Bob McDermott, recognized as 'Mr. Basketball' for the past few
seasons, today signed a contract to play with the Fort Wayne Zollner
Pistons for the remainder of the 1941-42 campaign and probably as long
as he continues to be a topnotch player. The former New York Celtic and
Brooklyn Visitation player, generally recognized as the best individual
player on the hardwood sport for quite some time, will make his first
appearance in a Fort Wayne uniform Tuesday night at North Side Gym
when the Pistons take on the Sheboygan Redskins in their fourth NBL
"McDermott, who has appeared here often as a Celtic star, will
become a regular employee of the Piston firm.... He plans to move his
wife and two sons, aged six and two, to this city in January and will make
his home here the year around. It was his desire and that of his wife to
make a permanent home for their youngsters and get away from the nearly
six-month, night-after-night traveling the Celts undergo as well as to
establish himself in an all-around position... He signed early today and
will practice with the Pistons tonight, taking up regular employment with
the firm Tuesday.
"McDermott, now only 26 years old, has been a professional bas-
ketball star for nine years. He joined the Brooklyn five in the American
Basketball League upon his graduation from Flushing, New York, High
and led that league in scoring for four seasons. He has been with the Celts
for the past five seasons, and always has been their high scorer,
establishing a number of brilliant marks....
"He has experience and coolness galore and is one of, if not the
best, long shots in the game. McDermott, five feet 1 1 inches and weighing
around 170 pounds, will advise Player-Coach Herm Schaefer and Manager
Carl Bennett on matters of strategy....
"The Pistons. ..looked good in their first two games but were a
rather disorganized outfit last week against Akron.... Always a favorite
with fans here despite the fact that he wore a Celt uniform, McDermott
probably will boost the Fort Wayne club's following a lot and help in the
sponsor's ambition to give fans here a really capable club to back this and
"McDermott's best known basketball feats were the scoring of 56
points for the Celts in one game at Atlanta, Ga., two seasons ago and
another game he connected on 1 1 straight shots from way out and also
flipped 14 charity shots in a row while getting those fielders.
"He and Curly Armstrong are expected to team as forwards,
Carly[l]e Towery the center and Elmer Gainer and Schaefer the guards.
That will leave Oberbrunner, Hamilton and Keller doing most of the relief
Three games and two weeks into the season, Fred Zollner had sent
his signal that he meant business, and it started to boom right away.
Mac's arrival started the Pistons into a five game winning streak
that got them into the race. The defending champion Oshkosh All-Stars
were the powerhouse. They were anchored by Cowboy Edwards, a Uni-
versity of Kentucky dropout, who was only six-foot-four but was
considered the giant of the league's pivotmen and perennial scoring leader.
He was flanked by Lou Barle, Connie Mack Berry, who doubled in pro
football, the rugged Charlie Shipp, Gene Englund and Bill Komenich.
The Pistons had tried to strengthen themselves further when the
Detroit Eagles opted to go independent rather than stay in the NBL. They
signed Detroit star Bob Caliban, later a coach at Detroit University. He
got into Uncle Sam's khaki before he could play in a Zollner suit. The
Eagles kept Buddy Jeannette; signed Jerry Bush from the defunct Akron
Goodyear Non Skids and lost Big Ed Sadowski to Wilmington in the
Blackie Towery laughs now about the the fact that he was the only
southern boy on the team then. The pace of life in Fort Wayne was faster
than he was used to or liked, and "I wasn't used to being pushed so much."
Also, "they were not used to my way of talking. They'd ask me to do
something and I'd say, T don't mind,' meaning I would, but they'd think I
In retrospect, Fred Zollner gains another unique spot in basketball
history, because he kept the players' financial interests to the fore. He
ensured that the compensation they received was enough. He was not
alone in offering his players jobs in his factory, but he added another
incentive. If there were more basketball receipts than expenses, he put the
money in a communal pot. When the season was over, the money was
divided among the players. Buddy Jeannette spoke highly of this system.
Blackie Towery confirmed, "Mr. Zollner was very liberal. Every ball
player that ever played wanted to come to Fort Wayne after they heard that
This was another reason why the best players were interested in
playing in the smallest city in league, even if it was off the beaten track.
The league schedule was for 24 games, 12 at home and 12 on the
road. The Pistons called North Side home, but had to play some games at
New Haven. There were plenty of exhibition games. The top four teams
made the playoffs using the Shaughnessy system, first place against
fourth, second against third.
After McDermott gave the Pistons their first jumpstart, the league
settled down to Oshkosh leading all the way and a three-way battle
between the Pistons, Akron Goodyears and Indianapolis. Six-foot-eight
George Glamack, the "blind bomber" from North Carolina, had solidified
Akron into a good ball club along with veteran Ben Stephens, Rudy
Debner, Gene Anderson, Floyd Ebaugh and Howard Vocke.
Glamack, who wore glasses and suffered from acute near-
sightedness, developed a powerful hook shot which his opponents said he
"shot from memory."
The Toledo Jim White Chevrolets, grossly underfinanced, were
hoping for a lightning strike by building their entire team around the high
scoring Chuckovits. It turned out to be a disaster as they only won three
games all season (one by forfeit).
The report was that Jim White had the sponsorship because he
gave them two station wagons for transportation and bought the uniforms.
Promoter Sid Goldberg was reported to have borrowed uniforms the prev-
ious year for the pro tournament from an early loser in the bracketing, the
Hoping for a Chuckovits miracle, he got an NBL franchise for
$350 for 1941-42. Chuckovits led the league in scoring with 406 points,
but became discouraged enough that he did not play pro ball anymore.
During the season at least one Toledo game was postponed for lack of a
hall in which to play.
After their 6-2 start, things leveled off for the Pistons and after
two-thirds of the season, they were tied for third with Indianapolis at 9-7.
At this point, McDermott convinced his Celtic teammate, Paul (Polly)
Birch, of the good happenings in Fort Wayne and the former Duquesne
All-American joined the Z's for the stretch drive.
Birch gave the Pistons their second jumpstart. The Pistons won
six of their last eight games to tie Akron for second in the standings with
15-9 records. Oshkosh was 20-4; Indianapolis 12-11; Sheboygan 10-14;
> Jumf} Shots, p 135-6.
Chicago 8-15; and Toledo 3-21. The last Indianapolis-Chicago game was
canceled since it would not affect the final standings.
The Pistons lost the first playoff game at Akron, 46-30, but came
baci<; to win the clinchers, 51-48 and 49-43 at home, and to qualify for the
two-of-three championship series against Oshkosh. The All-Stars had
polished off Indianapolis 40-33 at home and 64-48 at Indianapolis.
Home court was the prevalent advantage in all the playoff games
except Oshkosh's win at Indianapolis. The Zollners won the first playoff
in Fort Wayne 61-43 despite Cowboy Edwards' 22 points. McDermott
had 20 for the Z's.
The next game, at Oshkosh, found Edwards pouring in 35 points
in the 68-60 All-Star win. In the championship game. Fort Wayne put a
defensive fence around Edwards, holding him to a single point, but the rest
of the All-Stars scored enough to win the championship by a score of 52-
It was a good, decent start for the Pistons in their pro experience.
The additions of McDermott and Birch were steps up the ladder. Towery
emphasized how well they played together. "Birch would block for the
outside shot. Bobby would come behind him — you couldn't get past
Birch. Rack up two!"
McDermott, with 277 points, was the second best scorer in the
league. Five of the Pistons scored 100 or more points; the others were
Schaefer (207), Armstrong (198), Towery (163), and Elmer Gainer (100).
Red Oberbrunner got in 19 of the 24 games; Jack Keller 18; Dale
Hamilton 16; Don Beery 11; and Jim Hilgeman played just four, returning
to the reserve squad after the arrival of Mc-Dennott. All the players
participated in the playoffs, McDermott scoring 72 points in the six games
and Armstrong 7 1 .
The Pistons lost out early in the world's pro tournament. Oshkosh
won by sweeping the Reus, Globetrotters and the defending champion
Detroit Eagles. The break-up of the independent Eagles appeared immi-
nent, something that would not escape the eyes of Fred Zollner, Carl Ben-
nett and Bobby McDermott.
When Carl Bennett came back from the organizational meeting
for the 1942-43 campaign, all he could report was that the league would
function with five teams for certain and possibly six.
The Akron Goodyears, tied for second with the Pistons in the
previous campaign, decided to return to amateur ball. Frank Kautsky
thought it best that his Indianapolis team take a leave of absence because
of heavy inroads on player personnel by calls to military service.
George Halas, discouraged by his team's 41-42 showing, decided
not to sponsor the Bruins. But the Chicago Studebaker plant had been
converted to wartime production and with help from the United Auto
Workers Union decided to sponsor the franchise. It was probably the only
time Fred Zollner felt friendly toward a union.
It also was the first move to break the color barrier in organized
basketball. There had been other black teams, but all were independents,
barnstormers like the Globetrotters, New York Rens and Washington
But from the Bruins, Big Mike Novak and Dick Evans, Paul
Sodoky from Sheboygan and a host of Globetrotters found work at the
Studebaker plant. Fort Wayne, Oshkosh, Sheboygan and the Toledo Jim
White Chevrolets were the remnants to start the 1942-43 season.
As Robert Peterson points out in his Cages to Jump Shots: "Dur-
ing the war, Zollner's company was making pistons for military aircraft
and heavy equipment, and so the players, as employees of a defense plant,
were not drafted into service. While other NBL rosters were decimated by
the draft, the Pistons lost very few players."
The Zollners had strengthened their ranks with the signing of pro
veterans Jerry Bush and John (Jake) Pelkington. Both had been with the
Eagles. Bush played college ball at St. John's while Pelkington's alma ma-
ter was Manhattan, so more of the McDermott Eastern flavor was mel-
ding in. Also signed was a promising rookie, Gus Doerner of Evansville.
The Pistons started their October practices with McDermott,
Schaefer, Armstrong, Bush, Pelkington, Birch, Doerner, Towery, Jack
Keller and Dale Hamilton. From the original YMCA Industrial champs
that played in the 1941 world's tournament, only Hamilton and Keller
- li^A ,^
Pwtow basketball squad, 1942-43. Front L to R: Paul Birch, Bob McDer-
mott, Curly Armstrong, Herman Schaefer. Middle L to R: Jack Keller,
Dale Hamilton, Gus Doerner, Carlisle bowery. Back L to R: Jerry Bush,
coach Carl Bennett, John Pelkington
Detroit's leader, Buddy Jeannette, had escaped the Zollner lure
and was working in a defense plant in Rochester, New York. He was
playing for Les Harrison's independent Seagrams-Eber team.
The Pistons were a rock-solid, old-pro-style, play-set ball club.
The burden fell to basically seven players: Towery, Birch, Bush,
Armstrong, McDermott, Pelkington and Schaefer, with Dale Hamilton as
the major reliever. Keller, three years out of high school, appeared in only
nine games. Doemer missed most of the season with injuries.
The season opened with the traditional Pro-College All Star game
in Chicago. The collegians beat Oshkosh, and the Pistons (playing in the
other half of the double-header) beat Camp Grant in an exhibition. Re-
ceipts went to the Red Cross.
Chicago again provided the NBL opener December 1 . The Stude-
bakers, anchored by six foot-nine Novak and, with a lot of ex-Globe-
trotters (Duke Cumberland, Bemie Price, Sonny Boswell, Rosie Hudson),
gave the Pistons a rude awakening at North Side with a seven-point win.
They split a road trip with Oshkosh and Sheboygan and then
whipped the Toledo Chevrolets, 70-51. Toledo had high hopes with
Toledo University's Ail-American Bob Gerber and the acquisition of
veteran Jewell Young, but after Gerber scored 22 points in his first game,
he was drafted and the franchise folded after four games. Gerber had a 22-
point-per game average!
By the halfway mark in the season, the Pistons had started to roll.
After their 2-2 start, they won seven of their next nine and atoned for that
home loss to the Chicago Studebakers by beating them 46-38 on their
January 5 date at North Side.
The League had only four teams left. All would be in the
playoffs, so it was a scramble for position and home court advantage. The
title of "coach" was also a curiosity. With the Pistons it seemed more like
Schaefer was originally designated player-coach and Bennett,
manager. Manager meant doing everything else: scheduling, selling tic-
kets, negotiating contracts, handling equipment and travel. Bennett is
listed in some basketball history books as the coach, as the other business
managers were: Lon Darling of Oshkosh, Carl Roth of Sheboygan, Sid
Goldberg of Toledo and later, Les Harrison of Rochester.
Some memoirs say "coaches McDermott and Armstrong." When
McDermott was signed, he was to help plot strategy with Schaefer and
Bennett. Bennett was always on the bench and had the authority to make
Blackie Towery later observed, "Bobby McDermott ran the ball
club. What Bobby wanted, Mr. ZoUner bought. Bobby brought all these
players. You'd be surprised how many people came to see McDermott
play. They'd come in. They'd just keep coming to see McDermott play."
Whatever it took, it worked, because by mid-season, the Pistons were in
first place in the NBL for the first time.
The Z's finished strong, too, and won the regular league cham-
pionship 17-6, five games ahead of Sheboygan, and six in front of the
defending champs, Oshkosh. The Redskins had beefed up for their stretch
run by signing Jeannette for the final four crucial games in the season for
$500 a game.
It seemed only fitting that the Pistons would clinch their first
league championship at Oshkosh. They were the team that had denied
them the title in the past. The clincher was deemed important enough that
the game was broadcast back to Fort Wayne from Oshkosh February 9,
with the Pistons winning, 47-44.
Bush had one of his better nights with 16 points while Armstrong
and Pelkington had super showings. McDermott, banged up from an
injury suffered against Chicago, saw only part-time service.
Going into the playoffs, the Pistons were heavy favorites with
their strong team and home court advantage. The inspiration of Jeannette
had fired up Sheboygan as he averaged more than 1 5 points in the final
four games. He then led them to polish off Oshkosh in two straight games
in the playoffs.
The Pistons beat Chicago in the first game at North Side, 49-37,
but then played a ho-hum game at Chicago's DuSable High Gym and lost
45-32 to the Studebakers. Back at North Side, the Z's made the
Championship round by knocking out Chicago, 44-32.
The championship playoff was a two out of three game match
against Sheboygan at North Side. In the first game the Pistons jumped to a
27-21 halftime lead, but the Redskins rallied and grabbed a 55-50 win.
Back at Sheboygan, with their backs against the wall, the Pistons led 44-42
but a Jeannette long shot at the buzzer sent the game into overtime, 44 all.
Two baskets by Armstrong, another by Towery gave the Pistons a
50-45 overtime win, and they came back to Fort Wayne. There on Tues-
day night, March 9, perhaps the biggest barnburner in Fort Wayne pro
Let Bob Reed of the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette tell it:
Fort Wayne Gallery Of Sport
NEW VO<?k CELTIC
^TAR To Oo\hi
AS A QUQUESNE i^^^f^ /OLLNGR
voreo tHE BEST ^**--^ V\^ (ONO f
PLAYER To APPEAR m N\AD\50N •
SQOARe G/ARDEM IN 1935
HE IS A
PLAYER AMD AN
^ErriNG UP PLAYS f
"In a wild and almost unbelievable finish, the Zollner Pistons lost
the deciding game of their playoff series with Sheboygan last night before
more than 3500 slightly hysterical fans at North Side.
"The score was 30 to 29. With seven seconds remaining to play
and the Pistons apparently winners in spite of a series of bad breaks, Ed
Dancker, lanky center of the Redskins, took a desperate one-handed toss
over his head from a spot in the corner of the floor. The ball hit the back-
board, dropped through the net and the ball game was over, one of the
most nerve-racking battles ever staged on a Fort Wayne court. It decided
the Naismith Cup, awarded to the National league playoff winner,
although the Pistons were the league champions over the regular schedule.
"...When Curly Armstrong dropped in a free throw with the count
at 28-all it looked as if the ball game was won, especially when Rube
Lautenschlager fouled with 35 seconds to play....
"As the final gun sounded, irate fans swarmed over the floor,
charging Umpire Jim Enright and the portly official from Chicago had
great difficulty getting to his dressing room.
"Fans were incensed by decisions made during the course of the
evening by Enright and Messenger. As things wound up the ball game
was really decided, not by Dancker's fling in the last few seconds but by a
technical decision in a split second at the end of the first half...
"As the first half ended Armstrong got loose under the basket. He
took a fling from underneath and the ball went in just as the timer's horn
sounded. Enright was between the play and the timer and as the ball went
through the net he nodded emphatically that the goal should count.
"Later, in a conference with Messenger and the timekeepers, he
weakened and disallowed the basket. Whether he was right or wrong in
the first place, his immediate decision was so apparent that the fans could
hardly be blamed for getting a little wild when they remembered the
reversed decision finally decided the ball game...."
The officials, with a police escort, had to hide in the principal's
office until the crowd cleared out.
The scene was not as hectic when, two nights later the Pistons
beat the League All-Stars, 49-47. McDermott led the league in scoring
with 314 points and made the first team, along with Armstrong, and Bush
made the second.
One thing for certain: Jeannette was on Zollners' wish list.
Another last- second long shot by veteran Charlie Shipp knocked
Fort Wayne out of the pro-tournament semifinals against Oshkosh, 40-39.
The Pistons had beaten the Indianapolis Oilers, 57-52, and avenged
Sheboygan, 48-40 in the quarter-finals. The Pistons' Armstrong was
named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. After the tournament,
which the Reus won by beating Oshkosh, 43-3 1, Curly Armstrong shipped
out for the Navy. Schaefer also was called into service at Great Lakes.
To replace them, the Pistons filled their wish list by signing
Jeannette and veteran pro star Chick Reiser for a trip through the East. In
a game billed as the "world's all-league championship game" the Pistons
beat the Sphas at Philadelphia, 47-41.
The world pro tournament champion Reus, now playing as the
Washington Bears, were next and in two slugfests in Washington, the
teams split the results. The Pistons broke Washington's 46-game winning
streak in the first game, 27-20, but lost the second, 38-22.
The three-game series moved on to New York, where one of
McDermott's patented high-arching long shots in the closing seconds
sealed a 62-60 result, making it a best two out of three decision for Fort
Wayne. Except for the wild Sheboygan win in the NBL playoffs and
Shipp's buzzer-beater in Chicago, the Pistons truly had their greatest
The blueprint for the world's best pro basketball team was still on
the drawing board. The architect, Fred Zollner, was still trying to finish
the masterpiece, player by player.
Uncle Sam had been lenient until the pro tourney and then enlisted
Curly Armstrong and Herm Schaefer into the Navy. They were two of the
building blocks in the beginning. Both had always called Fort Wayne
It was almost company policy for those who played well against
the Pistons to apply for a job. Buddy Jeannette who helped maneuver
Sheboygan into its playoff championship, had solid credentials. After he
left college at Washington and Lee, he played for the Detroit Eagles,
Rochester Seagrams (later the Royals) and then the Redskins before
starting the season-ending tour with the Pistons.
Jerry Bush and John Pelkington, who had joined the Pistons a year
earlier, urged Jeannette to move to Fort Wayne. Not only was the team an
attraction, the jobs offered at the piston plant meant security and good
money. Jeannette said Zollner "had a pretty good deal." He made the
jump and later observed, "Of all the moves I made, the one to Fort Wayne
was the best."
Another attempt to fill the Armstrong-Schaefer gap was Chick
Reiser, who had played impressively with the Brooklyn Eagles in the
world's tournament. He played at the Pratt Institute in New York and was
the toast of the American Basketball League.
It was a neat fit and gave Zollner a solid seven-man nucleus to
seek the gold that had escaped in 1943.
The professionals at the time were accustomed to eight or nine-
men squads, and there were 12 to answer the first practice bell at the New
Haven gym in mid-October. Paul Kessy, of Milwaukee State Teachers
College, and Vem Yates, of Oklahoma A. and M., sought tryouts, and
Elmer Gainer, after his service stint, returned to try his luck again.
With Schaefer and Armstrong in the Navy, only Blackie Towery
and Dale Hamilton remained from the original NBL entrant two years
before. Evansville's Gus Doerner came back after his injury-ridden year,
but was soon inducted into the service. Eight players survived the final
cut: Bush, Towery, Pelkington, Jeannette, McDermott, Reiser, Birch and
The NBL's "regulars" — Fort Wayne, Oshkosh and Sheboygan —
remained, but the Chicago Studebakers retired. There were rumors of
racial dissension breaking up the Chicago franchise (these are reported in
most NBL and NBA history books) but this was repudiated in Peterson's
Cages to Jump Shots:
"Coach Johnny Jordan, who later coached for many years at Notre
Dame. ..said there was no racial tension on the team. There was no strife
at all,' Jordan said, 'and the blacks were treated well by players and fans
because, you know, people knew the Globetrotters as great ball players.
They were well received.'
"Bernie Price, a five-year veteran of the Trotters when he joined
the Studebakers, agreed with Jordan: We played all year together and
didn't have any problems," Price said. 'The only time we had a break-up
was for the World Tournament at the end of the year. I think it was a
matter of egos. I don't believe it was racial.'"
The Cleveland Chase Brass team filled the Chicago void, and the
NBL was back to four teams. High scoring Mel Reibe, a 5-1 1 pivotman.
led Cleveland. The Brass had not learned the Chuckovits lesson from
Toledo. Riebe would become the league's top scorer, but the Brass lost 12
of its first 13 games. Gainer wound up playing for Sheboygan, backing up
Mike Novak, who had been freed with the breakup of Chicago.
Zollner manager Carl Bennett scheduled several exhibition games
before the Pistons opened their regular league schedule on the road with a
two-game swing through Sheboygan and Oshkosh. The home opener was
set for December 13 against the Redskins, playoff winners the previous
year over the ZoUners.
Midland, playing AAU competition, was no match in three
warmups, but the Washington Bears (formerly the Rens) were an entirely
different story. The Bears had won the world tournament from Oshkosh in
the Spring and were anxious to get even with Fort Wayne for two out of
three losses in post-season activity.
The Bears and Pistons developed an intense rivalry, which
included some locker room brawling. Their December 7 exhibition at Fort
Wayne's North Side gym drew a crowd of 3,000. Washington won 54-48.
The Bears followed with another win 53-46 at Defiance, and the third
straight happened in Toledo, 51-49. The Bears had Fort Wayne's number
and whipped them again in Washington 40-26.
The Pistons gave a big height advantage to Sheboygan since the
Redskins had added Novak to their roster, but precision floor play by Fort
Wayne helped the Pistons cut Sheboygan down to size, 55-44, atoning for
last year's playoff defeat. McDermott led all scorers with 23 points.
He was also one of the most aggressive players. The result, as
Bud Jeannette said, was that "Mac is the one who got in trouble all the
time." Once during a game with the Rens, McDermott was his usual
rough self on the floor. The player he was covering followed the Pistons
into their locker room after the game. Hot words were exchanged and the
Ren threw a punch.
Bud and Paul Birch intervened to make peace. Bud insisted that
only one punch was thrown, but Blackie Towery remembers a few more.
At any rate. Buddy had to take Birch to hospital later with a cut lip.
By early January the Pistons had won six of their first seven
league games, losing only to Oshkosh (at North Side) 53-44. One third of
the way into the season, the Pistons had a comfortable lead.
Military service calls continued to plague the league's personnel,
Oshkosh apparently losing more of their stars than the others.. The All-
Stars had lost Bob Carpenter, Lou Barle, Eddie Riska, Ralph Vaughn and
Herm Witasek from their front liners. The Pistons' new service calls were
for Gus Doerner and Jack Keller, but the Jeannette and Reiser additions
still gave them a rugged pro front line.
There was a lot of distance between the teams with Sheboygan
being the only one to offer any sort of challenge. The Redskins caught the
Pistons 42-29 in an off-night at North Side, but it merely stopped a seven-
game Fort Wayne winning streak.
The Pistons went to 11-2 then finished the season at 1 8-4, four full
games ahead of the Redskins. Oshkosh won only seven (7-15) and
Cleveland just three (3-15). Riebe beat McDermott for the scoring cham-
pionship, 323-306, but the Pistons' overall balance was unstoppable.
After 1943's disappointing playoff loss to Sheboygan, the Pistons
were fired up for this year's action. The championship playoffs were for
the best three-of-five and the first round was the usual two-of-three. Fort
Wayne polished off Cleveland in two straight, 64-47 and 42-3 1 .
For the championship, Fort Wayne chose to play the first two
games at Sheboygan and the final three (if necessary) in Fort Wayne.
McDermott and Bush hit two late baskets to win the first game, 55-53, and
then in an amazing defensive display, the Z's won the second game 36-26,
holding Sheboygan (in their home court) to just six field goals.
The third (and deciding) game became almost a formality. The
Pistons jumped in front 33-1 1 and coasted home, 48-38. They were cham-
pions of the National Basketball League at last, in both the regular season
and the playoffs.
The pro tournament in Chicago was growing in popularity and
Leo Fischer moved it to Chicago Stadium. Fort Wayne did not have any
trouble in its opener, easing by the Dayton Aviators 59-34. The next test
was the toughest assignment, but the Zollners survived the New York
The Brooklyn Eagles surprised the Harlem Globetrotters, 63-41 in
the other semifinal behind the 32-point sharp shooting of Bob Tough. It
looked as if Tough was filling out an employment application with the
Pistons with his long-shot capabilities.
The Pistons coasted by the Eagles. Their first world's champion-
ship was in their grasp. It was the best basketball campaign they had ever
had — and one of the best in the annals of the pro sport.
They had a triumphant return to Fort Wayne, where, in the season
finale, the Z's beat the National League All-Stars for the second straight
year. At half-time of the All-Star game, NBL President Leo Fischer pre-
sented the Naismith Cup to owner Fred Zollner. McDermott was named
the pro tournament's most valuable player.
In total for the season, the Pistons won 42 of the 52 games played,
only four of the losses coming in National League play. They were finally
kings of the hill.
The season had happened as if it were well planned. The seven-
man nucleus held up. McDermott was the individual leader but the others
split up the scoring burdens nearly equally, averaging about six points a
game as Mac was close to a 14-point average.
Dale Hamilton, the eighth man, managed to get in 1 1 of the 22
league games and was a dependable reserve. Jeannette was a spark with
his 184 points. Bush and Pelkington had 132 and Towery 129. Chick
Reiser chipped in with 81 points and Birch, the oldest player at 33, had 71 .
The only major injury came with a sprained ankle to Jeannette in the next
to last game of the world's tournament.
Between seasons, some of the players turned to softball to keep in
shape. Birch, McDermott, Armstrong and Jeannette all played on a Piston
Softball team, either the 'big team' (as Bud called it) or the reserves.
As the new season approached, there was guarded optimism
among the members. The NBL had been firing on about three and a half
cylinders with Fort Wayne, Oshkosh and Sheboygan still the stabilizers.
Basketball was on the upswing in popularity. Ned Irish had made the Nat-
ional Invitational Tournament a big event, more creditable and commer-
cial than the new NCAA. He had popularized college double-headers,
sometimes triple-headers, and the fad grew. The pro tournament was
gaining stature and the game which pitted the pro champs against the
College All-Stars to open the season was becoming a huge happening.
It became an even bigger event when the Zollner Pistons won the
pro tournament and became the team to face the Collegians. Going to the
pro tournament and to the College All-Star game became big social venues
for Fort Wayne-ites as they could easily drive to the Windy City or hop on
the Broadway Limited at Penn Station and be in downtown Chicago in
two and a half hours.
It was vaguely reminiscent of the Fort Wayne scene some thirty
years before when their famous football team, the Fort Wayne Friars,
would have a trainload of pilgrims on hand when they faced their arch foes
of the gridiron, Wabash.
The train was also the principal mode of transportation for the
players. They were familiar with the journeys between the chief cities in
the league. Occasionally the weather would intervene. Once, the team
was stranded for six days in Oshkosh after a blizzard. The only towns
where this was a problem were Oshkosh and Sheboygan.
The trophy room was getting filled but there was a spot for the
College All-Star medal and that became the target. The game was set for
December 1 in Chicago Stadium and coach McDermott assembled his
team for early October practices and then arranged a pre-season swing
through the East to insure the team's readiness.
Gone to military service were two of the Pistons' "originals,"
Blackie Towery and Dale Hamilton. They had been in on the first NBL
tipoff in 1941-42. Zollner and Bennett had already filled those vacancies
with pro veteran Charlie Shipp and independent Bob Synott.
Shipp had started in 1938 with the Akron Goodyears, then moved
to Oshkosh for four years through 1944. It was his last-second shot that
beat Fort Wayne in the 1943 pro tournament. For the six-three Synott, it
was his last chance at pro ball.
Warming up for the College All-Stars found the Z's continuing the
roll with which they finished last season. They beat the American League
champion Wilmington Bombers twice, 37-33 and 38-31, knocked off the
Philadelphia Sphas 33-29 before a huge turnout in Independence Hall. The
Bahimore Bullets fell, 47-31 and Wilkes-Barre, 65-47.
The Dayton Bombers provided another tuneup at Fort Wayne's
North Side gym, beating the Dayton Aviators, 51-38. After this November
28 date, the Zollners headed for Chicago Stadium and the showdown
against the College All-Stars. The collegians had beaten the pro champs
in the four previous All-Star games: the Harlem Globetrotters, Oshkosh
twice and the Washington Bears. A record crowd of 21,500 (basketball's
biggest at the time) saw the Pistons, with their precision ball handling, set
plays and give-and-go offense, beat the Stars, 43-38.
Towery, on furlough from the Army for a couple of games, was
one of the offensive stars. The All-Stars led just once in the game at 21-
20. It was a monumental win for the Zollners and the National League,
who had not been able to beat college's best in four previous tries.
Six-foot-eight Jim Glass, a teammate of Hamilton's with the state
champion South Side Archers of 1938, had returned from service. He had
played with the Pistons when they entered their first pro tournament in
1941. Now, at age 23, he was practically a returning veteran, and he stuck
with the team throughout the 1945 campaign.
The NBL was reorganized with six teams. Military service calls
were still a problem but there were enough holdovers and returnees to
stock the six clubs. Allmen Transfer picked up the Cleveland franchise
while Chicago returned under the flag of the American Gears.
Mel Riebe was still the Cleveland hot-shot and the Allmens were
improved with the signing of Tom Chukovitz, who had played with the
Akron Firestones and Toledo. An independent, the Pittsburgh Raiders,
was made up mostly of local talent. Paul Kessy, who had tried out with
the Pistons two years before, made the early roster.
The six-team league was divided into two divisions: the East had
Fort Wayne, Cleveland and Pittsburgh; the West had Sheboygan, Chicago
and Oshkosh. That eliminated the four-team circuit of the previous two
years when all clubs were in the playoffs. Two of the six would not make
the playoffs in the new setup.
The Pistons opened the league season with a 51-34 drubbing of
Cleveland, highlight of which was Bush and Towery holding the 1944
scoring leader, Riebe, to just one basket. Then it was a two-game swing
into Wisconsin and an opening 55-49 win at Sheboygan. The next night at
Oshkosh, the Pistons lost their first game of the year, a four-pointer, to the
All-Stars. Then they went on to Cleveland for another shot at the
In contrast to their easy win against Cleveland, this was a real
barnburner. Jeannette hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to send the
game into overtime. The Pistons won 48-47.
That started the Zollners on another roll. The league itself had
gained more stability in competitive strength except for the superiority of
the Pistons on the top and the inferiority of the inexperienced Pittsburgh
Raiders on the bottom. The fact that they were in the same division may
have helped in the balance of the other four clubs.
Celtic veteran Dutch Dehnert had taken over the coaching of
Sheboygan and had as his standbys Mike Novak, Ed Dancker, Dick Schulz
and Rube Laudenschlager. Jack Tierney was coach of the American Gears
and they had great offensive strength from a couple of college stars, Stan
Patrick of Illinois, and Dick Triptow of DePaul. Elmer Gainer had gone to
Chicago, and Bill McDonald was an offensive backcourt threat.
At Oshkosh, Lon Darling had added football star Clint Wager, and
Cowboy Edwards was ready for a comeback after his worst year when he
was benched for his rebellious behaviour. Bill Komenich was back in the
fold. Football star Ted Fritsch was a late-roster addition to give the All-
Stars added bulk.
The Pittsburgh Raiders were coached by Joe Urso. The team's
biggest gun was Huck Hartman from Washington and Jefferson.
After the loss at Oshkosh, the Pistons won 14 straight in the
league. They picked up a lot of exhibition wins, too, and 29 games into
the season, including their Eastern pre-season tour and the College All-star
triumph, their record stood at a fat 28-1 .
The league schedule was for 30 games, but the Pistons kept busy
with exhibition games, fanning interest in neighboring communities. They
were a big draw in any area in the country as the reigning National League
and world's tournament champions. Crowds at North Side gym were gen-
erally in the 3,000 category but many became sellouts (3,600-3,800) as the
Pistons generated more acclaim.
When asked what it was like. Bud Jeannette said, "At that time,
North Side was a nice play to play. A nice floor." The only difficult thing
was a wall at one end, which players might run into.
As well as high schools, the teams often played in churches. As
Blackie Towery said, for exhibition games they played anywhere.
The Pistons practised at New Haven High School, as well as
playing an occasional game there. The players did not consider it a hard-
ship practising in one place but playing their home games in another.
Jeannette himself lived near South Side High School and often did
his solo practising there. When asked how that was arranged, he said,
"Oh, I knew everyone in town."
The Pistons did their share of helping the war effort by playing
service teams, and military and Red Cross benefits. On a Southern swing
they played the Smyrna Air Base and exhibitions in Chattanooga, Birm-
ingham and Atlanta. One of their exhibition wins at North Side was
against the Rochester (NY) Pros, 57-49. The club was run by Les
Harrison, who had whetted his appetite in an early pro tournament exper-
ience with the Rochester Seagrams-Ebers. Harrison had his sights on
getting into the National League and had a strong nucleus of Eastern
College stars. When he brought his club to Fort Wayne, the result was his
first loss of the season. Rochester later would avenge this with a 54-49
win over the Z's, one of their few losses of the season. It was a
foreshadowing of a great professional basketball rivalry, as the Royals
joined the NBL the next season.
One of the games during this era of great defenses was a 73-64
win for Fort Wayne at Chicago American Gears. To that time, this was
the highest scoring game in league history, and a portent of what was to
In another sizzler, Cleveland's Allmens nosed out the Pistons 62-
61 even though McDermott scored 36 points. At that time, this was a
league record, eclipsing Cowboy Edwards' 35 two years earlier in a
playoff game against the Z's.
Fort Wayne clinched the NBL regular season championship as
early as February 18 when the Z's beat Sheboygan, 64-52. Of the five
league defeats suffered during the season, two were at the hands of the
Chicago American Gears, one to Cleveland and the other to Sheboygan.
The Chicago losses were 52-50 (Bush out with an injury) and 57-
55; Cleveland beat them 62-61. Sheboygan gave them their worst beating
of the year, 70-53. The Pistons' 25-5 record was 12 games in front of
Cleveland while Pittsburgh trailed in the East with 7-23.
For the first time, Oshkosh failed to make the playoffs. Sheboy-
gan led the division with 19-11. Chicago's 14-16 was two games better
than the All-Stars. Mel Riebe nosed out McDermott as the NBL's scoring
Jeannette had 252 points; Pelkington 246; Reiser 217; and Bush
154. Shipp and Synott played in all the games; Birch missed two and the
youngster, Jim Glass of Fort Wayne, scored seven points in 14
appearances. Big Ed Sadowski came out of military furlough from Wright
Field in Dayton, and played the last games of the season and in the
playoffs. He had been a teammate of Jeannette and Bush with the Detroit
Eagles. His bulky 6-5 frame carried 245 pounds and he was a good scorer.
Fort Wayne knocked out Cleveland in two straight to open the
playoffs, 78-50 at home and 68-51 away. Then came Sheboygan. After
an opening 50-47 loss to the Redskins, the Zollners came home to North
Side and won three straight, 58-47, 58-41 and 59-49.
Fort Wayne's supremacy in pro basketball was never more evident
than in the world's pro tournament when the team cruised to its second title
without breaking a sweat. They beat Oshkosh 62-50 in the opener, wal-
loped the New York Reus, 68-45, and demolished the Dayton Acmes, 78-
52 for the championship.
Jeannette was named the tournament's most valuable player. He
and McDermott were on the all-tourney first team while Bush, Pelkington
and Reiser were selected for the second team. Herm Schaefer had
returned from service to play in the world's tournament. The Pistons
climaxed the season by coming home and beating the National League
The calendar year 1945 had to be Fred Zollner's proudest. His
heavy duty aluminum pistons were helping the United States win World
War II, and he had the best basketball and softball teams in the world.
To put icing on the National Basketball League regular season and
playoff championships, the Zollner softballers had won their first world's
Amateur Softball Association title. And, the basketball horizons were
getting brighter. The Pistons would be hosting the College All-Stars in the
1945 lidlifter at Chicago Stadium November 30.
Coach Bobby McDermott was assembling his new squad. Man-
ager Carl Bennett was looking at an expanded National League, perhaps
more solid than any time in its history.
Coming off their greatest season, McDermott and Bennett had to
keep looking ahead. Veteran Paul Birch's contract was sold to the Youngs-
town Bears, recently transferred from Pittsburgh. At 36 years old. Birch
would coach the team.
Fort Wayne product Jim Glass was released and six-six Bob Kin-
ney was signed. Kinney had been impressive against the Pistons in the
All-Star game. The Indianapolis Kautskys returned to the NBL after a
three-year hiatus and the Rochester Royals became the eighth league
member. The Royals had been, perhaps, the best independent club in the
country and had split two games with the Pistons the previous year.
Big Ed Sadowski was out of the service. He signed with the Z's.
The top-seven nucleus for either of the two years may have been the best
set of pros ever put together. The 1945 record bore this out.
The only major change was Sadowski for Birch, plus Jeannette,
Bush, Sadowski, Reiser, McDermott, Pelkington and Shipp. The bench
was sturdier with Synott and Kinney. Both Armstrong and Schaefer were
expected back from the service, and the Pistons had opted for Bob Tough,
a former Brooklyn Eagle who had scored 32 in one of the pro tournament
games. Tough was still in the service for most of the season.
The season was for 34 games in the league; Fort Wayne,
Rochester, Youngstown and Cleveland played in the east while the
Western Division had Oshkosh, Sheboygan, the Chicago American Gears
and the Kautskys.
The Pistons played six exhibition games before the College AU-
Star game. In an Eastern swing, they beat Hartford, Connecticut, 64-33;
Trenton, New Jersey, 59-53; Troy, New York, 56-32; walloped the
vaunted Philadelphia Sphas, 85-47, and clipped Baltimore easily, 77-47.
They played one exJiibition game at home, in the New Haven High School
gym and nosed out the Chicago Monarchs, 54-50.
Then it was on to Chicago for the College All-Star game, which
attracted 23,912 people to Chicago Stadium.
En route to Chicago McDermott was passing between cars on the
train when the wind blew the door shut against his hand. It went through
the glass and he suffered a severely cut arm. As Carl Bennett observed, he
was the kind of player that simply went to the doctor, bandaged it up and
played anyway. It did not stop him. He led the teams in scoring with 13
points as the Pistons took their second in a row from the country's best
collegiate talent, 63-55. The Pistons retained the honor of being the only
pro team to beat the All-Stars, and they were the toast of the country,
ready to defend their National League championship.
A shadow of what might be ahead loomed when the Pistons
opened the defense of their National League championship at home
against the newcomers from Rochester. The Royals beat them 56-54, one
of the few home losses in Zollner history. One of basketball's most intense
rivalries had begun.
Shaking off the Rochester loss, the Pistons went on to win 14 of
their first 16 games, but the Royals kept pace by winning 1 1 of their first
12. Fortunately for the Zollners, Fort Wayne inflicted that one loss at
The Z's were playing a heavy schedule with at least as many
exhibitions as league games. While their league record stood at 14-2, they
had won 33 of 36 games played. One of the losses was to AAU-status
Midland Dow Chemicals.
Zollner and Bennett were hopeful that the sports bug would hit
Midland, adding another strong industrial sponsor to basketball. Midland
was Fort Wayne's arch foe in the softball realm. The NBL was improving
rapidly but there were still some weak members along the way.
Rochester remained unshakable in the National League and clung
to the lead into the first eight weeks of the season with the Pistons
pressuring them in second place. When the Royals suffered three straight
losses on a disastrous Midwest road swing to Sheboygan, Oshkosh and
Chicago, the Pistons moved back into first place and reasserted their NBL
dominance. As the teams headed into the home stretch. Fort Wayne was
22-4; the Royals 16-6.
Even though the NBL had hired Ward (Piggy) Lambert, veteran
Purdue coach, to be its commissioner at the start of the season, there was
still considerable instability in scheduling with many of the league teams
playing each other in exhibition games. For example, prime rivals Fort
Wayne and Rochester played an exhibition (which the Pistons won 60-53)
in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. It was the first pro basketball match
played in Canada and drew a crowd of 1 2,000.
Another exhibition swing chalked up wins in Chattanooga,
Nashville and two in Atlanta. On the way home, the Z's returned to NBL
play, beat Cleveland but lost to Birch's Youngstown club, 60-57.
In the final eight league games, the Pistons won just four, which
should have sent up storm warnings for the playoffs. They suffered back-
to-back losses to Rochester; Youngstown beat them again; and the
Chicago Gears won their first game in Fort Wayne, 54-46.
The Pistons had secured their fourth straight regular season
championship March 2 and coasted to a two-game margin over Rochester
(26-8 to 24- 1 0). It gave them the home court advantage in the three-of-
five playoffs. Fort Wayne won the first game at North Side, 54-44, but
then lost on their home court, 58-52. Rochester won the next two in
Edgerton Park Sports Arena to knock the Pistons out of the Naismith Cup
The Royals went on to the playoff championship by beating
Sheboygan, 60-50, 61-54 and 66-48. In the Pistons-Royals series, Al
Cervi, of Rochester, held McDermott to 24 points, a six-point average.
Then it was back to the world's tournament. The Pistons were
going after their third straight, but the big news was Chicago's signing of
giant George Mikan, the DePaul All-American, who had led the Blue
Demons to the NIT championship.
Mikan's 20 points-a-game-average in college earned him a five-
year contract worth $60,000 from the Gears' hoop-happy but eccentric
owner, Maurice White. Mikan's professional debut would be in the world's
The Pistons' final warmup before going to Chicago was an
exhibition against Oshkosh, proceeds of which were going to the Fort
Wayne Junior Chamber of Commerce to build a civic auditorium. The
"auditorium" evolved into the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum.
The world's tournament changed its format slightly, working to
Fort Wayne's advantage. The tournament spotlight was as much on Mikan
as on the Pistons for an unprecedented third-straight championship.
Fort Wayne nosed out the Midland Dow Chemicals 65-62 in the
opener then squeaked by Baltimore 50-49 to set up the playoff against
Oshkosh. Mikan's Gears had polished off Pittsburgh 69-58 then nosed
Sheboygan 52-51. That gave them a semifinal spot against Oshkosh. "Old
pro" Cowboy Edwards gave the newly-rich Mikan a lesson in pivot play.
The All-Stars prevailed, 72-66.
The Pistons dropped the first game to the confident Oshkosh club
59-57 but then came back to win the next two, 56-47 and 73-37, to become
the three-time champions of the world's tournament. It was a momentous
win for Fort Wayne basketball, particularly after the Z's had lost the NBL
playoffs to Rochester.
Mikan had made his pro impression. In the five tournament
games, he led the scorers with 100 points, a 20-point average, and was
named the most valuable player. He would be the Gears' anchor in the
The Zollners played a total of 80 games during the season,
winning 64 of them. In their five-year history, they had had 243 wins, just
64 losses and an NBL record that stood at 120-40 plus four consecutive
Curly Armstrong returned from service in time for the pro
tournament; Schaefer was back, and Bob Tough arrived from the Brooklyn
Eagles for the last five games. Closing out the season, Carl Bennett signed
six-foot-eight Milo Komenich, an Ail-American from Wyoming.
McDermott as usual led the Pistons in scoring with 458 points, a
13.5 average, but Bob Carpenter of Oshkosh nosed out McDermott for the
league championship with 473 points. George Glamack, of the up and
coming Rochester Royals, was the only other 400, with 417. Big Ed
Sadowski and Buddy Jeannette were next in line for the Pistons in scoring
for the National League year. At the end of the season, the league media
and other coaches voted McDermott as the "greatest pro player in history."
The 1946-47 season may go down as a pivotal year in pro
basketball history. It certainly was for the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.
World War II had ended, a sports- starved nation awaited and the
horizons of pro ball never seemed brighter. Returning servicemen and
more collegians, matured by college-service competition, were getting into
the pro basketball swing.
The National Basketball League barely survived the war. Fred
Zollner had helped underwrite its existence in 1943-44 when the league
was down to a 22-game schedule and four teams: Fort Wayne, Oshkosh,
Sheboygan and Cleveland.
The NBL was starting the 1946-47 campaign with 12 solid
members, up from eight the previous year. The Cleveland Allmen
Transfers, with a discouraging 4-29 record, had dropped out, but
newcomers included the Syracuse Nationals, Buffalo Bisons, Anderson
(Indiana) Duffey Packers, Toledo Jeeps and the Detroit Gems. Holdovers
were Fort Wayne, Rochester Royals, Oshkosh All-Stars, Sheboygan
Redskins, Indianapolis Kautskys, Chicago American Gears and
The league, still under the guidance of Commissioner Ward
Lambert, opted for a 44-game schedule, up 10 games from the previous
year. Rochester, Fort Wayne, Toledo, Syracuse, Buffalo and Youngstown
were in the Eastern Division; Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Indianapolis, Chicago,
Anderson and Detroit in the West. Buffalo transferred to the Tri-Cities
thirteen games into the season.
Even though the NBL was recognized as the premiere domain of
professional basketball, it was still quite provincial. Syracuse, New York,
was the furthest East that the league had ventured. The Pistons and
Rochester had barnstormed through the East and as far south as Atlanta.
The league had still maintained enough stability to attract the best
On June 6, 1946, about a dozen members of the Arena Managers
Association met in New York and decided to jump into the pro basketball
pond. They were owners, operators or tenants of the country's largest
spectator arenas but were novices in basketball. Anticipating a postwar
sports boom, they wanted to fill their arenas on "dark" nights. They had
been highly successful in pro hockey and college basketball double-
Madison Square Garden's famous Ned Irish had gotten his entre-
preneurial start with college twin bills. Chicago Stadium, Buffalo, Phila-
delphia and Boston had been very successful with the collegians and Chic-
ago had done well with the College All-Star attraction and the world's pro
Five of the six National Hockey League franchise holders
answered the basketball bell: Boston, Chicago, Toronto, New York and
Detroit entered teams. Montreal demurred. Six others came in, many with
franchises in the American Hockey League: Philadelphia, Providence,
Washington, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. They formed the Bas-
ketball Association of America and chose Maurice Podoloff, president of
1946 world champion Zollner Pistons. Standing L to R: coach Carl
Bennett, John Pelkington, Ed Sadowski, sponsor Fred Zollner. Middle
row L to R: Jerry Bush, Chick Reiser, Bob Tough, Charlie Shipp. Bottom
L to R: Buddy Jeannette, Bob McDermott, Curly Armstrong.
the American Hockey League, as their leader. Blackie Towery described
Podoloff s presence in the league: "It's too bad Podoloff isn't commis-
sioner today. When you went in to see him, it was strictly business. He
ran it like Landis ran baseball, with an iron fist."
The BAA drew up an ambitious 60-game schedule, shuffled the
rules a little (moving to a 48-minute game with four 12-minute quarters),
and moved the personal foul penalty to six from five before game ejection.
Strangely enough, there was not a huge scramble for players, perhaps
because of the National League's tight geographic barriers and the
curiosity of pro basketball's move into the huge arenas. The sport had
some growing pains ahead.
The new season would challenge the Pistons in many ways.
Upstart Rochester had knocked them off their NBL perch in the playoffs,
but there was redemption in winning their third world's pro tournament
title. Rochester did not participate.
Coaching challenges lured Ed Sadowski and Buddy Jeannette
away from the Zollners. Sadowski went as player-coach to the Toronto
Huskies in the new league (BAA), and Jeannette returned to his East coast
environs to play for and coach the Baltimore Bullets in the American
In early October, amidst the flurry of new basketball activity,
coach Bob McDermott assembled his squad: Chick Reiser, Charlie Shipp,
Jerry Bush, John Pelkington, Bob Tough, Curly Armstrong, Bob Kinney,
Milo Komenich, Carlisle (Blackie) Towery, and himself.
As the new season dawned, much of the focus was on Chicago's
"$12,000 baby," giant George Mikan. He had played in the pro tourna-
ment with the American Gears and despite Chicago's third place finish,
had scored 100 points and was the most valuable player in his pro debut.
The Pistons had never faced Mikan but he became part of their
agenda because he would be playing for the College All-Stars against the
Z's on November 29 in Chicago Stadium. Fort Wayne, the only pro team
to beat the All-Stars, needed a win to retire the trophy with three straight
As well as the All-Star game, the Pistons wanted to regain their
National League supremacy after losing in the playoffs the previous year
Carl Bennett booked a heavy schedule of pre-season games to
tune up the Pistons for their big Chicago date with the College All-Stars.
He later explained that the exhibition games were a form of training and
getting in siiape for the regular season. Exhibition games for charity,
which are common now, were more unusual then.
Midland surprised them in the first exhibition (on an Illinois-St.
Louis swing) by beating the Pistons 48-39, but after that, the Z's
barnstormed their way through nine straight non-league foes.
League play started early because of the expanded schedule of 44
NBL games, and Fort Wayne opened November 17 by beating Youngs-
town, 61-53. Paul Birch was no longer coach at Youngstown, having
moved on to the new BAA as coach of the Pittsburgh Ironmen. The
Pistons made it three in a row in league play, beating Detroit, 60-44, and
Indianapolis, 57-55, in Fort Wayne.
Then they went to Anderson and were upset by the Packers, 55-
52. Anderson was coached by Fort Wayne's Central High legend, Murray
Mendenhall. He had guided two of Fort Wayne's prize players. Curly
Armstrong and Herm Schaefer, who became pros after helping Indiana to
its first NCAA championship in 1940.
So the Pistons were 12-2 overall and 3-1 in the NBL when they
went to Chicago in quest of their third straight win over the All-Stars. The
game drew the biggest basketball crowd up to that time and the 24,000
fans were treated to one of the best-ever in the Pro-Collegian series.
The 6 foot 10 Mikan and college's best prevailed in a 57-54
thriller. There was some consolation when the Pistons' McDermott set a
tournament scoring record of 21 points in the defeat.
It was back to business in the NBL and serenity prevailed in Fort
Wayne as the Zollners methodically won the next two league games,
beating Detroit 62-39 in Fort Wayne and the Jeeps in Toledo, 64-60. In
early December they were 5-1 in the league and 15-2 overall.
The rest of pro ball was experiencing some lumps. Mikan was
involved in a contract dispute with the American Gears' owner, Maurice
White, and pouted for the first month of the season. The highly publicized
five-year $60,000 deal for Mikan turned out to be $7,000 a season plus
$50 a time for personal appearances for the American Gear Company.
$7,000 was the NBL maximum at the time. An unusual kicker was a bonus
to Mikan for $5 a basket and $2 for a free throw in games which the Gears
In Robert W. Peterson's Cages to Jump Shots, Gears' star Bob
Caliban remembered: "We had a crazy owner. After Mikan quit the team
with his contract dispute, the owner came up with a plan to pay us $6 a
basket, $3 for a free throw and $3 for an assist, but only if we won. If we
didn't win, we didn't get that bonus. We got our salaries, but this was a
bonus for winning." So much for team play!
The Fort Wayne team played at its business-as-usual gait, won a
pair of exhibitions in Bremen, Indiana, and Champaign, Illinois, before
going to 6-1 in the NBL. Then, inexplicably, the wheels started to fall off.
In the worst stretch in Zollner history, the Pistons went on the
road and lost four in a row: to Indianapolis, 65-39; Chicago 47-40;
Sheboygan 65-56, and Oshkosh, 71-50. Then, Fort Wayne got back on
track by beating Oshkosh 72-60 in North Side Gym.
The Pistons took a 7-5 league record east and came away battered
and bruised by Rochester, 55-51, and by Syracuse, 61-47. Fort Wayne
was 7-7 in the league, which was, for them, unprecedented. They had
dropped six of their last seven NBL battles. They had lost in overtime to
the College All-Stars. There was a simmering unrest in the ranks of the
defending world pro tournament champs.
It boiled over with a player brawl in the men's lounge on the New
York Central's overnight sleeper during the trip to Fort Wayne from
The players sometimes unwound over a beer in the lounge. There
were lingering bad feelings over the Z's current status. McDermott and
Charlie Shipp had a disagreement with Milo Komenich over the rookie's
play in Syracuse. McDermott let fly at Komenich. Both ended with cuts
on their faces.
Carl Bennett had retired for the night but Curly Armstrong called
on him to break up the fracas. He sent Shipp and Komenich to bed, and
heard McDermott's version of events. Later he listened to the other two.
Back in Fort Wayne, he discussed the matter with Fred Zollner. It
was obvious that something had to be done to resolve the resulting high
emotions within the team. Fred Zollner had overlooked problems with
McDermott in the past, but now it seemed time for him to move on. All
three players were suspended.
McDermott and Shipp left for other clubs, while Komenich was
later reinstated by the Pistons.
The Zollner company magazine. The Rocket, called it "one of the
most sensational shake ups in the history of professional basketball." It
continued: "Carl Bennett.. .emphasized that not because of any game
A photo from The Rocket December 1946. The original caption reads:
"Milo Komenich and Curly Armstrong tangle with College All-Star cagers
during the annual game in the Chicago Stadium. Despite a hard-fought
battle that went into overtime, the Pistons lost, 57-54. "
losses but as a result of insubordination, three Piston players were
suspended. McDermott, termed by many as the greatest individual basket-
ball player of all time, has since signed with the American Gears of
Chicago, following his outright release from the Pistons."
McDermott immediately became the playing coach with the
Gears. Bennett assumed the coaching responsibilities with the Pistons. At
the same time as McDermott's move to Chicago, Mikan ended his feuding
with owner White and put his Gears uniform back on.
In five short years, McDermott had become the Pistons' living
legend. He was, and still is, Fort Wayne's "Mr. Basketball". In Cages to
Jump Shots, Robert Peterson summarized Mac very well:
"The king of the set shooters was Bobby McDermott, the greatest
long distance shooter in history, according to many old professionals.
"McDermott, a speedy 5-foot 11 -inch guard who came off the
New York City sandlots in the early 1930s, led all American League
scorers twice and the NBL's once. Like all two-handed set shooters, he
needed a second to set up by bringing his feet together. Then he would
lean slightly backward and fire a high arching shot. Statistics were not
kept on shooting percentages in those days so we must rely on the
memories of old players. They were unanimous in marvelling at
"Al Cervi, one of the era's best guards, believes that with today's
three point shot, McDermott would be among the scoring leaders of the
National Basketball Association. 'We're talking about 30 points a game,'
he said. Cervi continued:
"T played against him three years and I made my credits playing
him. He was my best rooter. He could run like hell but he couldn't jump. I
could outjump him.
"The first time I saw him. I had just got out of service and joined
Rochester.... We were in Fort Wayne and in the dressing room Les
Harrison told me, "You've got McDermott." The other players looked at
me and said, "Better you than me."
"'Before the game started he was putting on an exhibition. He
made 10 for 10 out here, 15 for 15 here. The crowd is clapping. I'm
clapping too and asking myself "Doesn't the sonuvabitch ever miss?"
"'You couldn't let him get the ball. I remember a game in the
Chicago Amphitheater, which had the longest court in the United States —
1 12 feet. He scored three baskets from the midcourt line — that's 56 feet
— on me that night and two flicked my fingers. Oh, he could shoot! If he
Fort Wayne Gallery Of Sport
VIAS PCoVeN Tto
8e vALOAste ro
THe PISTONS —
shot 10 times from 30 feet, I'd guarantee he'd make eight in game
The McDermott-sparked Pistons were the best teams in National
Basketball League history. They won three championships, three world's
pro tournaments and beat the College All-Stars twice. After McDermott's
firing, the Zollners never won another championship.
After the train incident, Piston pride prevailed and the team beat
Sheboygan 69-57 at North Side gym. They lost a 67-65 overtime
barnburner to Rochester at home. Buffalo had moved to Tri-Cities
(Moline) and Fort Wayne won there, 52-47, and then lost a road game at
Toledo, 68-67, leaving them still at .500 with 9-9 on the books. It was
time to regroup.
Sheboygan veteran Ken Buehler signed on. Former Notre Dame
star Richie Niemiera, who was coaching the Irish freshmen, came aboard.
Local favorite Hans Dienelt moved up from the Zollner Reserve club.
Butler's Jerry Steiner, Indianapohs Shortridge High coach, came in to play
part time. Charlie Shipp had gone to Anderson and the Packers' Frank
Gates, out of Sam Houston State University, came to Fort Wayne. Ben
Gardner came up from Anderson for one game then dropped out of
basketball. Complications arose in filling out the roster when veteran
Jerry Bush asked for his release and finished out the season at Anderson. It
was his last before being named head coach at Toledo University.
It was a far cry from three years before when just eight players
made up the roster for the entire season. In all, 17 different players suited
up in games for 1946-47.
With the remaining nucleus of Curly Armstrong, Towery,
Komenich, Kinney, Reiser, Pelkington and Tough, the Pistons fared
reasonably well the rest of the season. Down the stretch they won 16 and
lost 10 for an all-league record of 25-19. This was a solid second in the
Eastern Division, six games back of the Rochester Royals.
Toledo and Syracuse deadlocked at 21-23, 10 games back tied for
third and the Pistons were paired against Toledo in the playoffs, Rochester
The Western Division was a tighter fit. The Chicago American
Gears, after a 9-12 start, had pulled themselves together under Bobby
McDermott and George Mikan to win 17 of their last 23 games, the
playoffs and the championship.
The McDermott-Mikan combination got the Gears back on track
but not fast enough to win the Division. Steady Oshkosh (Bob Carpenter,
Gene Englund, Cowboy Edwards, Eddie Riska) stood at 28-16, and beat
out Indianapolis by a game. Sheboygan tied Chicago at 26-18 for third.
Those four went to the playoffs.
Mendenhall, in his first pro coaching outing at Anderson, missed
the playoffs by two games while hapless Detroit helped the other teams to
good records with their 4-40 showing.
, Mikan played 25 games after his contract dispute, averaging 16.5
points to lead the scorers, and McDermott kept up his 1 1.5 point average.
None of the Pistons managed double figures; Reiser (410), Armstrong
(388) and Pelkington (383) topped the scorers.
Rochester knocked out Syracuse three games to one, while it took
Fort Wayne five games to beat Toledo, the finale being a decisive 64-46
victory in Fort Wayne. The division championship went to Rochester, two
games to one, the clincher a 76-47 whipping at Rochester's Edgerton Park
It took the Mikan-powered Gears five games to beat Indianapolis
in the Western opener, then they took Oshkosh in two straight, 60-54 and
61-60, to qualify for the playoff championship series against Rochester.
The Gears won the playoff title, beating the Royals three of four,
with Mikan leading all scorers with nearly a 20-point average.
The Indianapolis Kautskys won the pro tournament, dethroning
the Pistons in the process. Fort Wayne being knocked out in the semifinals
by Toledo. The Kautsky roster was formidable with Leo Klier, Gus
Doerner, Bill Closs, Bob Dietz, Arnie Risen, Herm Schaefer and Ernie
The Pistons, their all-veteran lineup now sadly depleted, were
looking for fresh new stars from the college ranks. Before the pro
tournament the Zollners added two of the famous University of Illinois
"Whiz Kids", Jack Smiley and Ken Menke, and one of Indiana
University's all-time best scorers, home-towner Ralph Hamilton. Later,
they would add Walt Kirk, Jr., considered the sixtn man of the Whiz Kids.
Two of the other Whiz Kids, Andy Phillip and Gene Vance, signed with
the Chicago Stags.
The pro sport was still struggling for stability and survival. The
National League lost Youngstown. Two businessmen, Max Winter and
Ben Berger, bought the struggling Detroit Gem franchise for Minneapolis.
The NBL, in a show of strength, drew up an ambitious 60-game schedule.
The BAA lost four of its starting 1 1 franchises, Detroit, Toronto,
Pittsburgh and Cleveland, but picked up the American League champs,
Buddy Jeannette's Baltimore Bullets. That left them with an eight-team
league, reducing their schedule to 48 from 60 games.
Suddenly there was a dream that turned into a nightmare. The un-
predictable Chicago Gears' owner Maurice White, flushed with his Nat-
ional League championship, decided to start a league of his own. It was
one of pro basketball's more bizarre events. White called it the
Professional Basketball League of America. It began with the following
franchises: Chicago Gears, St. Paul Saints, Grand Rapids (Michigan)
Rangers, Louisville Colonels, Omaha Tomahawks, Kansas City Blues,
Waterloo (Iowa) Hawks, St. Joseph (Missouri) Outlaws, Houston
Mavericks, Atlanta Crackers, Birmingham Skyhawks, Tulsa Ranchers,
Chattanooga Majors, Oklahoma City Drillers, New Orleans Hurricanes
and the Springfield (Missouri) Squires.
It was a disaster. The Gears won their first eight games. White's
$600,000 trial balloon burst early and the league was disbanded. A few
players were dispersed throughout the NBL. Minneapolis had already
signed Jim Pollard, Stanford and Herm Schaefer, an ex-Piston. Then they
were dealt a winning hand by being assigned Mikan.
George Ratkovicz went to Rochester, Dick Triptow to Tri-Cities,
Price Brookfield to Anderson and McDermott to Sheboygan while
newcomer Flint, sponsored by Dow AC, picked up Caliban and Stan
The Pistons had signed their Big Ten stars in the spring: Walt
Kirk, who had been Illinois' most valuable player in 1945; Jack Smiley,
Indiana's leading scorer and MVP in 1947; Ralph Hamilton and Ken
Menke, another of the Illinois "Whiz Kids." The Z's had a chance to sign
Andy Phillip, which he wanted, but a knee injury during his senior year
made them reluctant, and he went to the Chicago Stags with teammmate
Fort Wayne went into the new season with four rookies to go with
these veterans: Blackie Towery, John Pelkington, Curly Armstrong, Bob
Tough, Milo Komenich, Richie Niemiera and Bob Kinney. Armstrong
was playing captain and Carl Bennett, coach.
The 60-game schedule was the most ambitious in NBL history, it
was natural the teams would want to play fewer exhibitions. With Chic-
ago fragmented, Minneapolis replacing Detroit and the Flint Dow ACs
picking up the Youngstown vacancy, the NBL had 1 1 teams set for the
The Eastern Division had Rochester, Anderson, Fort Wayne,
Syracuse, Toledo and Flint while the West included Minneapolis, Tri-
Cities, Oshkosh, Indianapolis and Sheboygan. The top four finishers in
each division would qualify for the playoffs.
The BAA's Eastern Division had Philadelphia, New York, Boston
and Providence, but was so overloaded with the "Eastern Establishment"
that Baltimore and Washington had to fill out the Western Division with
the Chicago Stags and St. Louis Bombers. They had started to pick up
more college stars but in player personnel, the National League still
The accent was swinging to big men with the arrival of Mikan,
Don Otten and Arnie Risen. The six-foot-eleven Otten came from
Bowling Green and played for Tri-Cities. Risen was six foot nine and
from Ohio State; he went to Indianapolis. The Pistons were shy in this
area. Komenich was 6-7, Pelkington and Kinney 6-6, but they were the
tallest players on the team.
However, the Pistons presented a well-balanced attack and spread
the scoring well. Early on, it became obvious that Komenich was no
longer a good fit and he was bartered to Anderson. The Pistons bought
Triptow from Tri-Cities.
The deals were good for both clubs. Rochester was the obvious
team to beat in the East; Minneapolis, in the West. The Royals were
cemented by Bob Davies, Al Cervi, Red Holzman, Fuzzy Levane, Arnie
Johnson, Bobby Wanzer and Bill Calhoun. Midway in the season, man-
ager Les Harrison picked up valuable insurance by buying Risen from
Fort Wayne native Murray Mendenhall had assembled a run-and-
shoot offense at Anderson of John (Shotgun) Hargis, Charlie Black (a
Kansas Ail-American), Frankie Brian from LSU, Brookfield and veterans
Charlie Shipp and Ed Stanzcak. The last had played had at Central
Catholic High School in Fort Wayne.
McDermott had been dealt to Sheboygan, where he immediately
became coach, but after nine games, he was traded to Tri-Cities as Doxie
Moore came in to coach. When Tri-Cities gave Mac the coaching job, it
distinguished him as having coached four teams in the NBL within a year
and half: Fort Wayne, Chicago, Sheboygan and Tri-Cities. He still
averaged more than 12 points a game in his 37 games with the
The Pistons had a respectable year. There was a cautious, feeling-
out process early on as the rookies Hamilton, Kirk, Smiley and Menke
worked their way into the meld. The basic starting lineup usually had
Hamilton and Towery at the forwards, Pelkington at center with
Armstrong and Tough at the guards. It was also a good bench with
Kinney, Niemiera, Triptow, Smiley and Kirk.
Heated rivalries developed between the Zollners and the Lakers
and Royals. Anderson also became involved because of the Fort Wayne-
Mendenhall connection. The Pistons began to jell after the Christmas
holidays with a 1 5-3 run and they were contenders down to the wire.
A home winning streak buoyed them into a 40-20 season record,
which seemed enough to win a title, but Rochester stayed ahead at 44-16.
Anderson was 42- 1 8. Minneapolis won the West with its 43- 1 7 record.
Fort Wayne's loyal fans made the North Side gym a formidable
ally to the Pistons. A decade later, George Yardley was a Fort Wayne
(and later, Syracuse) star. He never played at North Side, but he heard
"People always talk about the home court being an advantage.
You know the way the ball bounces, about the basket, of the lighting. I
think it's baloney. Fan support is what makes the difference. Especially
when you are younger, enthusiasm is contagious. At North Side, the fans
were so close to the floor, [the Pistons] had a huge advantage. Players
from other teams told me, they hated coming here."
Later, Minneapolis' Slater Martin was quoted on the courtside
seating at North Side: "I never really saw the fans get physical with the
players. I had them pull the hair on my legs, though. But there's always a
cure for things like that. They had a smart guy in Fort Wayne like that.
We'd take the ball out, see, and since there wasn't much room between you
and the fans, they could reach out and pull the hair on your legs. But the
next time down the court, you'd just have a guy stand in front of him and
then he'd move away real quickly and you'd hit the guy with the ball right
in the face and that was over with."
One night the Lakers walloped the Pistons, 91-64, with Mikan
setting a league record of 42 points. Pelkington was out with a broken
nose, suffered by an elbow from Oshkosh's Cowboy Edwards. Hamilton
missed the game because of the flu. But the following night, Fort Wayne
returned to friendly North Side and shellacked Oshkosh, 62-46.
The 21 -game home winning streak was broken at the most
inappropriate time: the first game of the playoffs against Rochester, 65-56.
The Pistons won the next game in Fort Wayne, 68-64 with Towery and
Kinney getting 14 apiece, but Rochester won the next two, 64-47 and 70-
62, with Arnie Risen scoring 25 in the finale. This moved the Royals into
the division finals.
Anderson knocked out Syracuse in three straight but lost to
Rochester in the next round. The Lakers won the title by eliminating Tri-
Cities and Oshkosh then winning three of four from the Royals. Mikan
averaged 24.4 points in the playoffs; Pollard 12.3, and ex-Piston Schaefer
The world's pro tournament was down to eight teams. 1948 would
prove to be its final year. Fort Wayne was surprised in the opening round
by Tri-Cities, 57-50. The Pistons had won four of six from the Hawks in
the regular season. Minneapolis went on to win the championship, beating
the New York Rens in the title game, 75-71, as Mikan poured in 40 points.
Sweetwater Clifton had 24 in the Rens' loss.
During the regular season, Pelkington led the Pistons in scoring
with 495; Armstrong had 435; Towery, 407, and Kinney 390. Mikan's
1 195 points was the most-scored in pro ball, while seven-foot Don Otten
(with Tri-Cities) was the only other National Leaguer over 900 points
Fred Zollner's Pistons had missed another championship quest.
Mikan and Minneapolis were the new leaders.
Since their entry into pro ball in 1941, the Fort Wayne Zollner
Pistons took great pride in their "major league" status. They always
wanted to compete in the highest echelon of the sport. Perfectionist Fred
Zollner would not have it any other way.
When the pro championship was decided by the world's
tournament in Chicago, that is where the Pistons went, and won it three
straight times, unparalleled before or after.
When the National Basketball League was the major league, the
Pistons went there and dominated. When the Basketball Association of
America came into being, postwar, with the nation's biggest playing sites,
there was a competitive stir. On the surface there was peaceful coex-
istence between the NBA and BAA, but there were heavy undercurrents
The NBL unquestionably had the best players and, with lower
overheads, more stability. The BAA was shaky, having lost four of its
original 1 1 franchises the first year and dropping from a 60 to 48-game
schedule the second year. Crafty BAA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff
knew that Fort Wayne was the rock-solid foundation of the National
League through the years, and the Zollners would be a valuable ally for
pro basketball's survival kit.
Carl Bennett was responsible for programming the Piston sports
programs. He always had been Fred Zollner's representative on the NBL
board of directors and from confidential meetings with Podoloff, which
were never made public nor confirmed, the blueprint for what would
eventually become the National Basketball Association was drawn up.
Podoloff visited Fort Wayne in the early spring of 1948, and at a
meeting in Bennett's home, made a proposal which would have Fort
Wayne, Minneapolis and Indianapolis jumping from the NBL to the BAA.
Minneapolis, with basketball's biggest name, George Mikan, was the key.
Indianapolis fit because the general manager was president of the NBL.
The vast potential of the BAA's big arenas was the lure.
The proposal was significant because it would make the BAA the
big league. The next year would be a shake-out year (1948-49) and the
BAA could pick up the survivors. So the NBA may have been launched
officially on August 3, 1949, but it really started at a private meeting
between Podoloff and Bennett in the spring of 1948. The proposal was
approved by Fred Zollner in confidence the next morning and was
formalized May 10, 1948, at a joint meeting between the two leagues in
By the May 10 date, owner Les Harrison of the Rochester Royals
had cajoled an invitation from the BAA, so it was a four-team jump to the
existing eight-team BAA lineup. Both Oshkosh and Toledo applied for
BAA franchises but their bids were tabled.
It may have been pro ball's most hectic single day. NBL Commis-
sioner Ward (Piggy) Lambert resigned; Leo Ferris of Tri-Cities replaced
Paul Walk as National League President; Doxie Moore, former Sheboygan
coach, was named NBL commissioner and Carl Bennett was named to the
executive committee of the BAA.
When the dust cleared on May 10 the BAA had New York,
Providence, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston in the
Eastern Division; Minneapolis, Rochester, Chicago, St. Louis, Fort Wayne
and Indianapolis in the West.
The National League was left with Oshkosh, Sheboygan, Toledo,
Anderson, Tri-Cities, Syracuse, Flint and a pending Chicago application.
Al Cervi, who had jumped from Rochester to Syracuse as player-
coach, thought the manoeuver saved the BAA from going out of business.
He said that the real strength in basketball had been in the NBL, and that
the BAA was merely a junior version. It had been tottering and was saved
by the four teams which jumped leagues.
Ben Tenny, writing in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel of May 12,
1948, said that the Zollners "had become sick and tired of the wishy-
washy manner in which the NBL operated, the insecurity they always felt
in its operations and the squabbles which usually featured NBL sessions.
The BAA and its big-time business way of conducting meetings and all of
its operations offered surcease from that constant jumpy feeling they had
in the NBL."
Bennett said: "Now that it's over, we have no regrets at all that we
made the move to the BAA.... We know where we stand at all times in the
BAA and that's something we never did in the NBL."
Indianapolis, still strapped for cash, sold the contract of its highest
scorer, Leo Klier, to Fort Wayne as the Pistons revved up their player
personnel for the new league. Shortly after the deal, Frank Kautsky, one
of the pro game's pioneers and the man for whom the Indianapolis team
was named, sold his interest and the Kautskys became the Indianapolis
Ike Duffey, owner of the Anderson Packers, succeeded Ferris as
the NBL president. In July Podoloff and Bennett met with Duffey to stop
the feuding between the leagues. Podoloff thought he had worked out a
tentative agreement of interleague cooperation, but as Podoloff later
Robert Peterson, ( V/^t' v to Jump Shots, p. 1 66.
"After Mr. Duffey had left the room, Mr. Bennett found on one of
the tables in the room, the following in Mr. Duffey's hand-writing: 'Mern-
bers, Executive Board, National Basketball League: No possible chance
agreement with BAA stop Consider yourself free to operate as you see fit
in contacting and signing any of their players stop Ike W. Duffey,
There was little warfare on contracts as most teams had their
rosters fairly well set, but the BAA banned the NBL teams from their
arenas and forebade BAA teams to play them. The battle was effectively
over, but the NBL would not throw in the towel.
The BAA schedule was back to 60 games, which the Pistons had
played the previous years in the NBL. The difference was that BAA rules
called for 48-minute games (four 12-minute quarters), ft was eight
minutes more per game than the Zollners had encountered before.
The Pistons started out the season with a roster of Jack Smiley,
Bob Tough, Curly Armstrong, Richie Niemiera, Klier, Dick Triptow,
Blackie Towery, Walt Kirk, Bob Kinney, John Pelkington and Ralph
Hamilton. Whiz Kid Ken Menke had opted to take a high school coaching
job at Galesburg, Illinois. In the off-season the Pistons also hired a full-
time trainer, Stan Ken worthy, for both the Softball and basketball teams,
home and away. It is believed that they were the first basketball team to
have a full-time trainer.
Even though travel expenses would be up, the Pistons kept their
ticket prices the same, $1.75 and $1.50, $50.75 and $43.50 for season
tickets to the 29 home games. Each team in the league chipped in one
home date to give to the Chicago Stags for their double-headers.
Eight pre-season games against the Chicago Stags and Indian-
apolis Jets prepped the Pistons for their BAA premiere, which saw New
York at Fort Wayne on November 3. The Knicks had one of basketball's
great names as coach, Joe Lapchick, familiar to many Fort Wayne fans
when he toured with the New York Celtics.
New York won the game at North Side, 80-76. It started a
downhill slide in the Pistons' big league debut that would lead to the worst
season in Piston history. They went to St. Louis and lost to the Bombers,
65-55, and came back to North Side for an upsetting loss to Buddy
Jeannette's Bahimore Bullets, 78-77. Ex-Piston Chick Reiser poured in 20
points to help Bahimore, the defending champs of the BAA.
A three-game road schedule lay ahead and the Z's were whipped
by Providence and Boston. When the team pulled into Washington, there
was a telephone call awaiting Carl Bennett from Fred Zollner. Zollner
relieved Bennett of his coaching responsibilities, named him athletic direc-
tor and chief scout and appointed Curly Armstrong as player-coach. It
was a deeply disappointing start for the whole Zollner organization, which
had worked so hard to make the jump to the BAA a significant part of Fort
Wayne basketball history.
Zollner's official statement was conciliatory, but Bennett realized
that his duties were being diluted. "We have had a change such as this in
mind for some time," Zollner explained, "And perhaps the decision has
been hastened by the amazing display of strength of other teams in the
BAA. We need someone to devote much of his time to the scouting of
new talent. We need to keep pace with the other BAA clubs who have had
scouts out for two years, resulting in strong ball clubs now bearing the
fruits of these efforts. In our other league perhaps we were too complacent
with our position. For that reason we thought a change should be made
now rather than wait until later in the season or the end of the year. A
change now allows us to start our scouting program immediately with the
start of the college season. In the meantime we will make every effort to
strengthen this year's club."
Armstrong debuted November 13, in Uline Arena against the
league-leading Capitols. Washington won 80-71; the Caps were 6-0, and
the Pistons returned to North Side Gym last in the league with a 0-6
record. It was the most games the Pistons had ever lost in succession.
A hurry-up call went out to bring in Ward Williams, Indiana's
MVP in 1948. Williams had been drafted by the Pistons but had opted not
to play pro ball. He arrived for the November 14 game against Indian-
apolis and chipped in five points as the Pistons won their first BAA game
over Indianapolis, 79-73.
Souvenir program sales must have been good for the Piston
concessionaires. That's about the only way the fans could keep up with
roster changes. Keeping Fred's promise, the Zollners were making every
effort to keep up the BAA pace.
Within a month after the coaching change the Z's had brought in
Western Michigan star Dillard Crocker for a trial. He lasted one road trip
of three games and later wound up in the National League with Anderson.
Big John Pelkington, a six-year fixture for Fort Wayne, was traded
to Baltimore for Leo Mogus, back from service after starring for
Youngstown in the old NBL. In a blockbuster deal, the Pistons sent
veteran Blackie Towery (one of the original Pistons), Walt Kirk and home
town hero Ralph Hamilton to Indianapolis for six-foot eight John
Mahnken and the Jets' player-coach, Bruce (Slick) Hale. BAA publicist J.
Walter Kennedy called it the biggest player deal that had happened in the
Before leaving town, Towery had made another first for Fort
Wayne. Podoloff fined him $50 for touching Referee Jim Biersdorfer. It
was the first player fine in the league.
Still trying to strengthen their big men, the Pistons lured six foot
ten Bill Henry, an All-American from Rice, into a Fort Wayne uniform.
He had been selling insurance and playing independent ball since
Midway in the season, in a move which owner Walter Brown said
helped save the Boston franchise, Bob Kinney's contract was sold to the
Celtics and a week later the Pistons bought Charlie Black from the Indian-
The National League jumpers had proven their point of having the
best basketball talent when Rochester (45-15) and Minneapolis (44-16) led
the regular season standings. The Pistons never adjusted from their 0-6
start and went through 1 9 players as they tried to get back on track. Fort
Wayne had its worst year of basketball (22-38), eight games below .500
and missed the league playoffs for the first time.
The previous year they were only four games back of Rochester
and three back of Minneapolis. Indianapolis fared worse (18-42). The
Providence Steamrollers brought up the rear, 12-48.
Big George Mikan led all scorers in the league with 1698 points, a
28.2 points-per-game average. Next was Philadelphia's Joe Fulks. In the
playoffs, Mikan had 42 in one game against Washington and averaged
30.3 PPG as Minneapolis stormed to the championship in 10 playoff
Washington eliminated Philadelphia in two; Rochester beat St.
Louis; New York defeated Baltimore, the defending champs, and the
Lakers whipped Chicago. In the semifinals, Minneapolis beat Rochester
two straight and the Capitols disposed of New York, two out of three. The
championship series went to the Lakers over Washington, four games to
Meanwhile in the National League, Murray Mendenhall's
Anderson Duffey Packers raced to the championship. The NBL wound up
with Anderson, Syracuse, Hammond, the Dayton Rens, Oshkosh, Tri-
Cities, Sheboygan, Waterloo (Iowa) and Denver. The Rens had filled out
the season for the Detroit Vagabond Kings, who had lasted only 19 games.
Mendenhall's lineup consisted of Ed Stanczak, Milo Komenich,
Howie Schultz, Frankie Brian, Boag Johnson, Bill CIoss, John (Shotgun)
Hargis, Frank Gates, Dillard Crocker and Bud Mendenhall, names that had
been or would be very familiar in Fort Wayne.
In the playoffs, Syracuse beat Hammond; Tri-Cities beat
Sheboygan and lost to Oshkosh; Anderson beat Syracuse, 3-1, and
Oshkosh, 3-0, the finale an 88-64 romp at Anderson.
The dismal Fort Wayne season was brightened by two memorable
wins over Minneapolis. In early December George Mikan set a North
Side scoring record with 44 points, but the rest of his Laker team only
added 30 more and Fort Wayne beat them, 84-74. In late January, Mikan
was held to a season-low 14 points and the Pistons whipped the Lakers,
74-50. The crowd enjoyed Mikan's friendly gesture by walking to the Fort
Wayne bench to congratulate Henry on his fine defensive job, after Henry
had fouled out.
Despite a slow start when the Pistons could not sell out even for
their BAA opener, and despite their ugly won-lost record, the Piston
management announced an eight percent increase in attendance figures,
indicating that the Fort Wayne fans liked the BAA.
The BAA hurried up the college draft because of the feuding over
players with the NBL. The Pistons' top five draft picks were, in order:
Bob Harris, Oklahoma A&M; Johnny Oldham, Western Kentucky; Fred
Schaus, West Virginia; Jerry Nagel, Loyola; Dal Zuber, Fort Wayne and
Toledo U. In all, the Pistons selected negotiation rights to 16 collegians as
they desperately sought to rebuild their club with younger talent.
Fred Zollner saved his biggest surprise until six weeks after the
end of the season. On April 26, he announced the signing of Murray
Mendenhall as head coach. Curly Armstrong stepped down to devote his
full attention to playing. Mendenhall, veteran mentor at Fort Wayne's
Central High School, was riding high after leading the Anderson Duffey
Packers to the 1948-49 championship.
Zollner insisted Armstrong's decision was made at the end of the
season and was not made public because it might hamper the Zollner
search for a new coach.
His statement read: "After due consideration, we felt Curly was
right because he's still too valuable a player to be burdened with the extra
duties of coaching. After careful screening of several of the leading
coaches whom we believed we could obtain, we decided that we could not
make a better choice than to bring Murray Mendenhail right back where
he had long been recognized as one of the finest coaches of the game.
When we learned from him that his contract there was expiring and that he
wanted to join us, there no longer was any doubt but that was the correct
The move was very popular in Fort Wayne, but it probably did not
help the simmering feud between the NBL and the BAA. The Pistons had
stolen the coach of the NBL champion Packers from Ike Duffey, owner of
the franchise and the president of the National League. The National
League countered by giving a franchise to the University of Kentucky
stars (Ralph Beard, Alex Groza, Cliff Barker, Wah Wah Jones) and leased
Butler Fieidhouse out from under the BAA Indianapolis Jets. The new
team was to play as the Indianapolis Olympians, a name symbolic of their
collegiate success winning the 1948 Olympics.
Nineteen players wore Zollner Piston uniforms in 1948-49, a far
cry from the days when eight players carried the whole season five years
Pro basketball's off-court battling practically upstaged the on-
court play. There were even some procedurals in court.
A contract settlement dispute launched by George Glamack forced
the Indianapolis Jets into bankruptcy. The National League had snagged
the Indianapolis Olympians and that may have proven the trump card as
both the BAA and NBL tried to work out their differences.
The battle for players' contracts was proving financially futile.
Confusion was rampant. Notre Dame star Leo Barnhorst signed a BAA
contract without a team designation, assuming there would be a franchise
in Indianapolis. Alex Groza, already a partner with the NBL Olympians,
signed a BAA contract then returned it saying he "didn't understand the
legal implications." It was chaotic.
After fruitless negotiations in May and June, white flags began to
fly in July from both the NBL and BAA camps. The NBL had streng-
thened its position by signing two of the Chicago Stags' top draft choices.
Dike Eddleman of Illinois and Jack Kerris of Loyola, to Tri-Cities
contracts. These, plus the coup setting up the Indianapolis Olympians,
caught the attention of the BAA.
Tri-Cities' Leo Ferris, Anderson's Ike Duffey and Sheboygan's
Magnus Brinkman offered the olive branch. They suggested merging the
two leagues. Finally, Commissioner Podoloff had herded all the teams
under one tent, 10 from the BAA (leaving the Indianapolis Jets out) and
eight from the NBL (with the Indianapolis Olympians in). Lon Darling of
Oshkosh considered moving his franchise to Milwaukee but later decided
to withdraw, giving the new National Basketball Association a 17-team
league. It was curious that the merger eliminated two of pro basketball's
pioneers. Darling and Frank Kautsky.
Drawing up a schedule for a league that stretched from Boston to
Denver was a nightmare.
Podoloff was named president of the NBA; Duffey was elected
chairman of the Board of Governors. The executive committee was
Walter Brown of Boston, Ned Irish, Carl Bennett and Leo Ferris.
The 17 teams were split into three divisions. In the Eastern
section were New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston
(from the BAA) and Syracuse from the NBL. In the Central division were
Minneapolis, Fort Wayne, Rochester, Chicago and St. Louis. The Western
division entirely consisted of former NBL teams, Indianapolis, Denver,
Waterloo, Anderson, Tri-Cities and Sheboygan. The Official NBA Basket-
ball Encyclopedia described the playing arrangements this way: "The
schedule was complicated. The new clubs would play the 10 holdovers
from the 1948-49 BAA season only twice each and each other seven times
each for a total of 62 games. The Eastern and Central teams would play
each other six times each, which meant 68 games. But Syracuse, Ander-
son, Tri-Cities and Indianapolis added a couple of extra games among
themselves, giving them 64 apiece. Furthermore, Syracuse, even though
playing a Western schedule, was listed in the Eastern Division standings
— a division in which it played only 10 games."
The Pistons went about the business of transforming the lost
mystique of McDermott through the ministry of Mendenhall. Bruce Hale
did not fit into Mendenhall's plans and his contract was offered for sale or
trade. Indianapolis grabbed it.
The team's official practice did not start until September 27, but
for those players in town there were secret workouts in late summer.
Several players had summer work either at Zollner Stadium or in Piston
promotional jobs. Of the draftees, Schaus, Oldham and Zuber had played
service basketball with Armstrong at Great Lakes Naval Station.
Schaus, the number three pick, was considered a steal because
Bennett tcnew that he was wiihng to forego his last year of college
eligibility at West Virginia to turn pro. Veterans Leo Klier and Bob
Tough were holdouts, which had been an unknown word in the Piston
vocabulary. Klier signed before the nine-game exhibition schedule and
Tough's contract was peddled to Baltimore.
Rookies Wendell Beck of Manchester College and Dick Williams
of North Illinois Teachers College were the first rookies cut. Next to exit
were Fort Wayne natives Dal Zuber and Lloyd (Lefty) Doehrman and
Charlie Parsley of Western Kentucky.
Six-year pro veteran Clint Wager, who had formerly been with
Oshkosh and Hammond, signed on for a tryout. Mendenhall continued to
mold his own team and cut Jack Smiley and popular Dick Triptow from
the squad. Smiley caught on with Anderson and Triptow, a seven year pro
veteran, played a few games with Baltimore, then retired.
The next signee was veteran Bob Carpenter, who was a star at
Oshkosh when the Pistons broke into the league in 1941. The left-hander
from East Texas State played in the shadow of Cowboy Edwards at
Oshkosh and had recently become free, having played with the defunct
Hammond NBL club.
That left Mendenhall with only six players left over from the
1948-49 club: Black, Niemiera, Henry, Armstrong, Klier and Mahnken.
The four freshmen were Schaus, Oldham, Harris and Nagel, plus the 'new'
veterans, Wager and Carpenter. The latter two were almost family, having
played together so long and against the Pistons so often.
Mendenhall's start as coach was a little rocky as the Z's lost their
first four exhibition games. But after the player tryouts and newer
acquisitions, the Pistons smoothed out and won their next five and settled
in for the opener of a 34-game home schedule against the New York
Knicks on November 3.
Rookie Schaus led all scorers in the nine exhibition games. Fans
responded well to the renewed spark of the ZoUners and tickets, still
priced at $1.75, $1.50 and $1.25, became premium items. It was a
turnaway crowd for the Chicago Stags in the second game after New York
fell in the opener, 85-75.
In fact, the Z's won four of their first five games and by November
21, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel had a headline "It's No Dream! Pistons
Mendenhall's youth movement continued. After the win over the
Chicago Stags (87-70), Jack Kerris became available from Tri-Cities and
the Pistons grabbed him in exchange for veteran John Mahnken. Kerris
had led Loyola to the NIT championship and had been a prize draft pick.
Kerris had chosen the Blackhawks of the National League over Chicago of
the BAA when he turned pro. Kerris often laughed about getting an extra
$1,000 in his contract for his NIT play against Kentucky's Alex Groza, a
game which later turned out to be one of the Kentucky "point shaving"
games, for which Groza and Ralph Beard would be banned from
By early December the Pistons' fast start enabled them to keep
pace in the Central Division, acknowledged as the toughest of the league.
At 9-5, they were third behind Chicago (14-5) and Minneapolis (11-5),
but ahead of Rochester (10-6) and Syracuse (9-9).
Generally, things around the league were not smooth. Showboat
officiating, too many fouls, huge home court advantages and the
domination of Mikan-sized big men were creating a lack of customer
Podoloff blew a shrill whistle on his referees, telling them to, "cut
the ham actions which belong more properly on the burlesque stage." Up
to 100 fouls were being whistled in games and the fourth quarter was an
endless parade to the 15-foot stripe. An emergency Board of Governors
meeting was called. The board recommended a five-minute rule in the
fourth quarter to decrease fouling (a jump ball after successful free
throws), putting two defensive players closest to the basket on free throw
attempts, and widening the free throw lane from six to 12 feet.
The first two recommendations were accepted on a 30-day trial
basis, but the strong lobby of the Minneapolis Lakers prevailed and the
foul lanes stayed at six-feet. It would be another two years to get that
Bennett, a member of the NBA's Executive Council, along with
New York's persuasive Ned Irish, did not like losing the widening-of-the-
lane-rule. Irish said: "This will open up the game. Right now all the
teams use a collapsible defense to eliminate cutting and driving, the most
interesting part of the game to spectators, is almost vanishing."
The Pistons played three exhibition games in Huntington, Wabash
and Peru, putting tape on the floor for a 12-foot foul lane and liked the
result. Slater Martin, back court star in Minneapolis, told of the Lakers
reaction: "They were always trying to make rules to get Mikan out of the
game.... We experimented with this twelve-foot basket and couldn't even
throw the ball up there. From the free throw line, you couldn't get it up
there. You can't imagine how much arch you gotta put on the ball to get it
up twelve feet."
By Christmas the Pistons were still hanging tough, sharing the
Central Division lead (14-8) with Rochester. Chicago was third with 18-
11 and Minneapolis fourth at 16-10. Mikan and Groza were battling for
the league scoring lead with Big George ahead 741-729. Fort Wayne's
Schaus was 1 1th with 350, a 15.2 average, the highest points-per-game in
The persistent Lakers went on a 12-2 run and were chasing
Rochester for the Central Division lead as the teams passed the midway
point in the schedule. The Fort Wayne-Anderson player shuttle started
anew as the Pistons traded Charlie Black and Richie Niemiera to the
Packers for Howie Schultz and Boag Johnson on January 1 8.
Schultz, former Brooklyn Dodger and Philadelphia Philly first
baseman, and Johnson had both played for Mendenhall when Anderson
won the National League championship. In an ironic twist, in his swan
song Charlie Black had helped the Pistons beat Sheboygan, 73-72. After
the game, Black and Niemiera were told of the trade. In Fort Wayne-
Anderson dealings the past few seasons eight players had worn both
uniforms — Black, Niemiera, Charlie Shipp, Milo Komenich, Frank
Gates, Elmer Gainer, Walt Kirk and Jack Smiley. Johnson was from
neighboring Huntington College and had blossomed into a pro star under
Black and Niemiera were popular players and there was consid-
erable skepticism over the trade, particularly when the club went 5-8 to
drop into fourth place. The Pistons bought from Denver the contract of
Duane Klueh, former Indiana State star, and sold 6-foot- 10 Bill Henry to
Tri-Cities. Klueh perked up the Pistons in a sensational 92-84 win at
Rochester. It was the first Zollner win there since the 1945-46 season and
one that broke the Royals' 23-game home winning streak. Klueh scored
1 points in the upset.
The Central Division had a peculiar finish. Rochester and Minne-
apolis finished in a first place tie with 51-17 records. Fort Wayne and
Chicago tied for third with 40-28. Single game playoffs resulted in
Minneapolis beating Rochester and the Pistons took third with an 86-69
win over Chicago, sending the Lakers against the Stags and the Zollners
against the Royals.
Cliarles Salzberg, From Sei Shot /<> Slam Dunk, p. 70.
Fort Wayne stunned Rochester 90-84 at Rochester and a 79-78
overtime game in Fort Wayne eliminated the Royals. Minneapolis took
Chicago out in two straight. The Lakers then knocked Fort Wayne out in
the Central Division finals, 93-79 and 89-82. Anderson won the Western
Division playoffs, Syracuse the East and Minneapolis eventually won the
NBA's first championship winning four of six from Syracuse in the title
Fred Schaus became the first Fort Wayne player to score more
then 1,000 points in a season (including five playoff games). His total was
1,085. Schaus was named Rookie of the Year and to the all-NBA team.
Again, 19 players had worn the Zollner uniform during the campaign:
Schaus, Carpenter, Schultz, Armstrong, Johnson, Kerris, Harris, Klueh,
Klier, Oldham, Wager, Nagel, Mahnken, Black, Niemiera, Tough, Henry,
Englund and Smiley. Zollner had the rights to Gene Englund, but released
them to the Boston Celtics.
The Pistons started gearing for the next season by buying the con-
tract of Johnny (Shotgun) Hargis from the Anderson Packers.
On April 10 Anderson withdrew from the NBA. Podoloff had
requested all franchises to post a $50,000 performance bond, specifying
they would open the 1950-51 season. On the deadline date Denver, She-
boygan and Waterloo quit, too, and contemplated returning to a National
League with Doxie Moore as commissioner.
In the college draft the Zollners drafted George Yardley, the
stunning Stanford star; Jim Riffey, Tulane; Art Burris, Tennessee; Billy
Joe Adcock, Vanderbilt; Carl Henningson, Northwest Mississippi; Ed
Jones, Tennessee; Ed Thompson, Kent State; Bob Metcalfe, Valparaiso;
and Lee Rzeszeski, Indiana State.
In those simpler days before long-distance telephone calls were
common, the players heard the news of their draft via telegram. The
message sent to Yardley at Stanford was brief:
"Fort Wayne of the National Basketball Assn. drafted
you. Please call me collect late Tuesday or Wednesday at Harrison
9426 or Anthony 3264. Also advise Coach Dean of our choice.
Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons Carl Bennett."
There were still a lot of growing pains ahead for the National
Basketball Association as it wobbled into its second full season. Fort
Wayne's Zollner Pistons were encouraged by Murray Mendenhall's first
year as coach of the Z's. After their dismal debut in the Basketball
Association of America two years before, Mendy got them back on the
winning track in the NBA inaugural year with a 40-28 mark.
The Pistons had finished fourth in the unwieldy 17-team NBA
compared to 10th in the BAA's 12-team league in 1948-49. The best four
teams in the NBA, Syracuse, Minneapolis, Rochester and Fort Wayne,
were refugees from the old National Basketball League and had trimmed
all the big-arena rivals.
When the $50,000 cash performance bond was invoked, cash-and-
carry Fred Zollner was the first to ante up. He did not want his Pistons on
the small town side of the ledger. Commissioner Maurice Podoloff s
sifting had already erased Anderson, Sheboygan, Denver and Waterloo.
By mid-summer St. Louis had folded its tent and the new twelve-team
schedule was drawn up with Abe Saperstein, owner of the Harlem Globe-
trotters, pondering the purchase of the Chicago Stags.
Mendenhall was continually shuffling his roster in an effort to
keep the winning momentum. Jerry Nagel, 12th man the previous year,
was released. He had played in only 14 of the team's 73 games in 1949-50
but was kept on the squad, dressing only when other players were on the
Center Howie Schultz opted to go to the National Professional
Basketball League near his hometown, St. Paul, as part owner and coach
of a new franchise and Clint Wager was put on waivers. The college draft
had not been helpful. The number one pick, George Yardley, decided to
play with the AAU Stewart Chevrolets of San Francisco. He was up soon
for a military call and, by staying amateur, would have a shot at the 1952
The NBA's growing pains mounted when Saperstein backed out
of his deal to buy the Chicago Stags. This happened in early October.
Tickets were sold, schedules printed for a 12-team season, but the Board
of Governors had to regroup, start over again and come up with a 66-game
schedule for 1 1 teams: Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Syracuse,
Washington and Baltimore in the East; Minneapolis, Rochester, Fort
Wayne, Indianapolis and Tri-Cities in the West.
Dispersal of the Chicago players was a big help in strengthening
the manpower among the 1 1 remaining clubs. The Pistons got Larry
Foust, a six foot nine bloomer from LaSaile. He and the six foot ten Char-
lie Share were the biggest plums in the draft, but Share, Boston's number
one pick, had signed with Waterloo in the NPBL.
Share remembered, "I was attending Bowling Green in Ohio when
the Celtics drafted me. I found out when I read it in the Toledo Blade. I
was contacted by Boston and I signed, I forgot for how much. Then I was
contacted by a team from Waterloo, Iowa, that played in the National
Professional Basketball League. They put $2500 on the table and said, Tf
you sign with us, you can take this money with you now.' I was engaged
and $2,500 was a lot of money, so I signed with them, too. I even played
with Waterloo for a month, then the league folded.
"My rights went back to the Celtics, and Auerbach sold me to Fort
Wayne. ...I had to sit out the rest of the 1950-51 season anyway."
With all of the front office excitement about folding franchises,
the start of the new league, and hassles over player contracts, integration
moved into the NBA with little fanfare. An unofficial straw vote among
the Board of Governors showed a 6-5 rejection of signing black players
into the NBA. This was partially in deference to Abe Saperstein, who
thought he had exclusive rights over the black players. To act against him
would have alienated basketball's best draw, the Globetrotters. Some of
the owners were also apprehensive about African-American players being
good for the NBA turnstiles and predominantly white fans.
The decisive action of the Knicks' Ned Irish eventually changed
things. According to Carl Bennett, Irish told the Board of Governors that
he wanted approval to buy Sweetwater Clifton from the Globetrotters. He
said that the new players would help win ball games. Another unofficial
vote reversed the figures, 6-5 in favor. Thus the color line was crossed
after this 1950 meeting. Irish signed Clifton; Boston drafted Chuck
Cooper of Duquesne; and Bones McKinney, Washington's coach, took
Earl Lloyd of West Virginia State in the draft. The first black player to
take the floor in the NBA was Lloyd in Washington against Rochester on
October 31, 1950. The other two made their debuts in Fort Wayne's North
Side Gym the same week — Cooper with Boston and Clifton with the
Knicks. It went practically unnoticed in the press, nothing like the huge
quoted in Terry Pluto, Tall Talcs, p. 1 07.
Robert W. Peterson, ( a^es lo Jump Shots, p. 1 70-7 1 .
to-do when Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson up to the Brooklyn
Dodgers in 1947.
Blacks had played in the old National League — Dolly King and
Pop Gates for Rochester and in 1948-49, Gates brought his entire New
York Rens team to finish out the season for the Dayton Gems when the
The first black to play for Fort Wayne was in 1955 when Jesse
Arnelle, of Penn State, was the Pistons' top draft choice. He played only
Bennett lined up a tough training schedule of 12 exhibition games.
Training camp boiled down to this roster: Curly Armstrong, Art Burris,
Bob Carpenter, Larry Foust, John Hargis, Bob Harris, Al Henningsen,
Boag Johnson, Jack Kerris, Leo Klier, Duane Klueh, Johnny Oldham, Jim
Riffey and Fred Schaus. Midway into the exhibition schedule waivers
were asked on Klier and he eventually wound up with Anderson in the
The Pistons won just four of the 12 exhibitions and pared down to
the limit of a 12-player roster by releasing Rookie Al Henningsen prior to
a league opener at home against Boston. One of the interesting exhibitions
was a game against Anderson of the NPBL as the NBA waived its non-
competitive rule for interleague play because it was practically an
"alumni" game. Ex-Piston Frank Gates was coaching Anderson and four
other Fort Wayners — Charlie Black, Milo Komenich, Bob Kinney and
Richie Niemiera — started the game against the Pistons. Fortunately for
Menden-hall, the Pistons coasted to a 87-74 win, leading by as much as 24
in the fourth quarter.
The November 1 opener against the Celtics had some historic
significance. Besides Chuck Cooper (one of three to break the color line)
playing his first NBA game, it was also the first NBA game for Bob
Cousy, whom Terry Pluto in Tall Tales called "the first piece of the Celtics
Dynasty." Neither Cousy's team-leading 16 points nor Cooper's
appearance rated a mention in Bob Reed's account of the game in the
November 2 Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette. Plenty was said about the
Pistons, who set a North Side team scoring record in brushing Boston,
107-84, with rookie Larry Foust's 21 points leading five others in double
An Historic Game
Mendenhall was a run and gun, hurry-style Hoosier coach. On
Thanksgiving Eve (November 22, 1950) the Zollners invaded
Minneapolis. Mendy told the Pistons to put on the brakes and "see what
What happened, and quite inadvertently, was a historic game in
pro basketball annals. The defending NBA champion Lakers had not been
beaten at home in a year, and had won 29 in a row. They were in a tight
scuffle in the Central Division. They had beaten the Pistons seven straight
times in Minneapolis and on this occasion attracted their biggest crowd of
the season, 7012.
The Pistons won 19-18. It is secure in the NBA record books as
the lowest score in National Basketball Association history and it became
the catalyst for the 24-second clock, considered the most significant rule
ever made by basketball, both for spectators and competitiveness.
Fred Schaus remembered that one of the main factors was the
narrow court in Minneapolis. Facing George Mikan, Vern Mikkelson and
Jim Pollard (The Kangaroo Kid), the Pistons could not get in. The idea
was to force the Lakers to come out. "They didn't come out, so we didn't
go in." Foust handled the ball most of the time. Slater Martin recalled that
the Lakers were ahead at half-time, and pressed the Pistons to play a more
regular game. The Z's stuck to their plan, however, and continued to hold
The fans were furious. At some point, they began to throw things
on the court, and shout at Mendenhall. Schaus laughed later, "Mendy was
a tough little competitor. He loved it."
President Podoloff called for a probe. Countercharges by both
teams accused the Lakers of using an illegal zone defense, but there was
no rule against stalling. Robert W. Peterson in Cages to Jump Shots points
out that "within days the NBA instituted a rule calling for a technical foul
for obvious stalling, thus making the 19-18 game safe in the record books
for all time as the lowest game score in the NBA."^'
Pistons playing in the freak, historical game were Schaus, Jack
Kerris, Foust, Bob Harris, Johnny Hargis, Boag Johnson, John Oldham
and Curly Armstrong. Mikan scored 15 of the Lakers' 18 points, getting
^° Terry Pluto, Tall Talcs (1992), p.25.
all four of the Minneapolis baskets. Fort Wayne had four baskets, too,
with Foust, Hargis, Oldham and Armstrong each getting one.
The Pistons were ahead after the first quarter. Minneapolis led
13-11 at the half and 17-16 at the three quarters. There were only four
points in the fourth period, one free throw by each club until Foust hit the
winning basket with four seconds left. Oldham's five points led Fort
Wayne's scoring, and for trying five shots, his mates kiddingly called him
Kerr is f
(from The Journal -Gazette, 'No\Qmbcr 22, 1950)
The 19-18 game opened a two-night series. The second game was
in Fort Wayne Thanksgiving Night (November 23) and the Zollners had
their first sellout of the season with the interest pumped by the 19-18 game
the previous night. People even came to the train station to meet them
when they returned from Minneapolis.
Fort Wayne whipped the Lakers 73-63 despite a 32-point
performance by Mikan, and took the lead in the NBA's Western Division.
Always looking for help in the big man department, in December
Fred Zollner got his billfold out again and bought the contract of the well-
traveled Don Otten from the Baltimore Bullets and threw Hargis into the
deal. At six foot eleven, Otten was the tallest man in the game. Menden-
hall and Bennett thought that he would be a good fireman to back up Foust
In the front office, publicity director Al Busse was drafted and
Rodger Nelson returned from his sports editor's job in Columbus as
assistant athletic director.
The nomad trail of Fort Wayne's "Mr. Basketball," Bobby
McDermott, had led to Grand Rapids in the expanding NPBL. On Nov-
ember 20, 1950, he was banned from the league by Commissioner Doxie
Moore for unbecoming conduct. His team had lost a 73-72 game to Den-
ver in Casper, Wyoming. The Journal-Gazette 's Bob Reed said the reason
was, "repeated profanity to the officials" and ripping the doors off lockers
in the dressing room after the game.
Reed wondered in his column. Sports Roundup, "Will this be the
final chapter in the brilliant though often stormy career of Bob
McDermott, basketball's greatest all-around player?" " Mac died in 1963
and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987.
An 1 1-game home winning streak, which allowed the Z's to be in
the thick of the Western Division race, was abruptly halted in mid-
December when Dike Eddleman, brilliant All-American from Illinois,
broke all of North Side's scoring records when he led the Tri-Cities Black-
hawks to a 103-99 win. Eddleman's 48 points broke the 44-point record
held by George Mikan. Ben Tenny of the News-Sentinel hailed it as one
of the greatest individual offensive displays ever seen in basketball.
On December 20 the Pistons purchased the contract of Charlie
Share from the Waterloo Hawks of the NPBL in the "biggest deal in the
history of the pro cage sports." Two days earlier the Zollners had shipped
popular Bob Harris to Boston for "cash and Dick Mehen."
These were the days of private negotiations, confidential player
salaries and no player had an agent, so what transpired between the
Zollners, Celtics, Waterloo, the NPBL, President Podoloff and the NBA
Board of Governors may never be known, but it was not as simple as Fort
Wayne buying Charlie Share from Waterloo.
Later, Red Auerbach said that there had been some money
involved, but that he received the rights to Bill Sharman and Bob Harris in
Carl Bennett summoned a special Board of Governors meeting
after Podoloff disapproved the deal for taking an NPBL player without
21 November 1950, p. 19.
NBA prior approval. Bennett had worked out the details with Waterloo
and the NPBL. It seemed to boil down to the small-city — big-city friction
within the league. The Pistons had the tallest team in basketball but the
least clout in the league. The other NBA owners were emphasizing that
they were not going to let Fred Zollner buy his way to a championship.
The Pistons got the rights to Sharman when the Washington Caps
folded in January, but the future Basketball Hall of Famer also played
baseball in the Brooklyn Dodger chain and instead of reporting to the
Zollners, went back to California to get ready for spring training. Feeling
he had lost Sharman to baseball forever, Bennett gave the Sharman rights
to Boston, instead of the number one pick in the 1951 college draft.
Auerbach, with a $14,000 bonus sweetener, eventually brought Sharman
back to basketball the next season and the famous back court duo of Cousy
and Sharman was born.
Share remained in Fort Wayne and tried to stay in shape with a
pick-up team called "Share's All-Stars," playing prelim games to the
Pistons and exhibitions in surrounding towns. Charlie Share was the high
scorer for Share's All-Stars.
Fred's cash outlay was never made public, but Waterloo was one
of the few teams to survive the whole NPBL season. The tottering Boston
franchise had enough cash to give Sharman his $14,000 bonus. The Share
controversy and the front office battles with the NBA brass apparently
unnerved the ball club. After winning 11 of their first 12 home games,
they won only six of the next 12 at North Side Gym. The Z's had dropped
from a contending position with Minneapolis and Rochester into a third
place scrap with Indianapolis.
A "Curly Armstrong Appreciation Night" was held February 7,
honoring his 18 years of basketball excellence from Fort Wayne grade
schools through the NCAA championship at Indiana and the pro career
that started in 1941 with the Zollners.
On February 12 the Pistons put it all together at North Side Gym,
walloping the New York Knicks, 120-96, the most team points ever scored
there. Fort Wayne beat the player trading deadline by buying Ken Mur-
ray's contract from the Baltimore Bullets.
To get to the 10-player limit, with which they would finish the
season, Mendenhall assigned Art Burris and Jim Riffey to their version of
a farm team. Share's All-Stars.
The team record stood at 25-28 and the final roster had
Armstrong, Oldham, Johnson, Klueh, Schaus, Mehen, Kerris, Foust, Otten
On March 2, the NBA staged its first East- West All-Star game at
the Boston Garden. The turnout of 10,094 was heartening to a league that
was barely averaging 3,000 in its 10 surviving cities. Fort Wayne's
leading scorers, Fred Schaus and Larry Foust, were chosen for the West
All-Stars. The East won the game, 111-94. The Most Valuable Player
award went to Boston's Easy Ed Macauley for his 20 points and for
holding Mikan to four baskets. Schaus had eight and Foust two for the
West. Indianapolis' Alex Groza had 17 points and 13 rebounds for the
The Indianapolis-Fort Wayne fight for third place went down to
the last day of the season. The Pistons won it by beating Tri-Cities 95-82,
as Rochester beat Indianapolis 91-79, giving the Z's a one-game lead.
Their season was 32-36, Indianapolis, 31-37.
That set Fort Wayne against Rochester and the defending champ
Minneapolis against the Olympians. Both series went the three-game
limit. Fort Wayne losing to the Royals 1 10-81 in the opener, winning the
second in Fort Wayne 83-78, then losing the finale at Rochester, 97-78.
Rochester upset Minneapolis in the semifinals, winning three of four
games while New York made the finals in two upsets, beating Boston and
The championship went to Rochester. The Royals won three
straight, lost three and won the deciding game back in Rochester, 79-75.
It was a disappointing season for Fort Wayne, eight games behind
their 1949-50 pace. The road record of 5-29 went with a home record of
27-7 and did not meet the expectations of Fred Zollner. The season ended
March 24 in Rochester. Two weeks later Zollner bought up the remaining
year of Murray Mendenhall's contract. It ended the 29-year coaching
career of Mendenhall, who had never before gone through the experience
of being fired.
One of the consolations of the season was the fact the Pistons
were the only team to win the season series from the champion Lakers, 5-
3, thanks to the epic, history-making 19-18 game in November.
Schaus became the first Piston to score more than 1 000 points in
the regular season. He had 1028 in 68 games, a 15.1 PPG average. Foust
wasnext with 915, 13.5.
On March 28, Curly Armstrong announced his retirement from
both the basketball and fastball teams. Tri-Cities owner Ben Kemer
reported a loss of $25,000 for the season. On April 3, Ben Tenny of the
News-Sentinel wrote an unconfirmed story reporting that the Pistons had
purchased the contract of Tri-Cities leading scorer, Frank Brian. Brian's
purchase was confirmed a month later. The contracts of Dick Mehen and
Howie Schultz, who had played with St. Paul in the NPBL, went to the
Hawks in the deal.
Frank was pleased with the deal. "Everybody wanted to be in Fort
Wayne," he explained, "They travelled first class. I was ready to go."
Brian was a graduate of Louisiana State and had not planned to
play pro basketball. He was heading for a job with Phiico when Murray
Mendenhall, then at Anderson, convinced him to come up for a game or
two. He talked him into staying. "I just couldn't turn him down," Brian
Brian had later moved on to Tri-Cities, but this deal looked as if it
would reunite him with his old coach, Mendy.
By the time he arrived, Paul Birch, veteran of Fort Wayne's world
championship teams, came back to Indiana to coach the Zollner Pistons.
The dismissal of Mendenhall and the hiring of Birch had the
surprise element that Zollner seemed to enjoy. In actuality, Bennett and
Zollner had met with Birch in Toledo on April 7 and worked out the
The following day, Mendenhall was summoned to Zollner
Machine Works, where Bennett had to give him the bad news. The story
was saved for Ben Tenny, sports editor of the afternoon News-Sentinel and
a friend of Mendenhall. There were two days in which to speculate on
Mendenhall's successor. Plenty of names bandied about, including Buddy
Jeannette, Nat Holman, Clair Bee, Jerry Busch, Burl Friddle, Herm
Schaefer, Red Holzman, Bobby Davies, Bones McKinney, Howie Schultz
and even Bobby McDermott.
An upset Tenny warned in a column: "The final choice had better
be a good one. In a league as tough as the NBA, it's not easy to develop or
buy a championship."
More rule changes lay ahead, as the NBA continued to try to
improve its product. After several years of lobbying, started by Bennett
and Mendenhall, the twelve-foot foul lane was adopted. Minneapolis and
Mikan were finally outvoted and a better game resulted.
Birch started his new career by scouting the championship series
between Rochester and New York. The same fate that befell the Pistons
four years later hit New York. The team could not play its championship
game in Madison Square Garden because of a circus booking. It had to
play Rochester in the Seventh Street Armory. They were beaten 4-3 in the
After the playoffs came the college draft, which had slim
pickings. With the tallest team in the land (Otten 7', Share 6'1 1", Foust
6'9"), Birch and Bennett went to the back court and selected Zeke Sinicola
of Niagara, Jack Riley of Syracuse and Jake Fendley of Northwestern. The
prize plum in the draft was Mel Hutchins of Brigham Young, chosen by
Birch scheduled a get-acquainted spring training camp for mid-
May to assess his roster talent and acquaint them with his style of
After he left Fort Wayne in 1946, Birch had gone on to Youngs-
town in the National League, to Pittsburgh in the Basketball Association of
America, then back to Youngstown. His team won the conference there,
before he moved to Erie of the American league. In between, he had
helped Dudie Moore coach at his alma mater, Duquesne.
Birch's hold-up-the-ball style in the BAA led to the "No zone
defense" rule in the 45 minute game, just as the Pistons' 19-18 win over
Minneapolis had caused the "no stall" rule in the NBA. Birch's Pittsburgh
team beat Washington in a 48-42 game in 1947, the lowest score in the
pros until Fort Wayne's historic effort against the Lakers.
On 10 May, Curly Armstrong found work as coach of the Wabash
College team, whose season would open against Notre Dame. Duane
Klueh announced his retirement to go into high school coaching in Terre
Haute, cutting Birch's spring training squad to Schaus, Oldham, Foust,
Kerris, Johnson, Riffey, Burris, Share, Brian and Otten.
Simultaneously, Commissioner Doxie Moore waved the white
flag and said the National Professional Basketball League was through.
Only Anderson, Sheboygan and Waterloo survived the season. St. Paul,
Kansas City, Grand Rapids and Denver had folded their tents.
The three Zollner college draftees, Sinicola, Kiley and Fendley,
were named to the College All-Star team which would face the NBA
champion Rochester Royals in the annual game in October at Chicago
Stadium. The game was revered by Fort Wayne, whose Pistons had won
two of three in the mid-forties as the professional champs before some of
basketball's biggest crowds.
In his role as entrepreneur, Carl Bennett took a cue from the
successful outdoor ice shows at Zollner Stadium and the portable
basketball floors carried around the world by the Harlem Globetrotters.
He decided to combine the opening of the fastball season with the closing
of basketball spring training in an unusual outdoor mix on Memorial Day
weekend. Some 6,000 fans were rained out on the Saturday night date,
but, despite another washout on Monday, the unusual double-header took
place on 2 June.
The intrasquad game took place before an estimated 4,200 fans.
The Zollners (Schaus, Johnson, Foust, Kerris and Brian) beat the Pistons
(Oldham, Riffey, Share, Burris and Bob Garrison, a draft tryout) 47-36. It
was the Fort Wayne debut for Tlash' Brian, who made 1 7 points.
In July, Herm Schaefer was named coach of the Indianapolis
Olympians. Murray Mendenhall lost out in his bid to become supervisor
of NBA officials to veteran Pat Kennedy. The Pistons' last purchase from
the previous year. Ken Murray, went into the service.
Encouraged by the outdoor Memorial Day turnout for basketball,
Bennett booked the Globetrotters into Zollner Stadium against an All-Star
team coached by George Mikan in early September. The game attracted a
large crowd, 6723.
Johnny Oldham had been on the bubble about his pro future and
decided to return to Bowling Green, Kentucky, to coach high school ball,
with a connection to the University of Western Kentucky. He would later
become W.K.'s head basketball coach and athletic director.
In an important move, the Tri-Cities franchise was transferred to
Milwaukee, where a new 10,000 seat coliseum had been built.
Five Piston players who had finished the 1950-51 season were no
longer on the scene: Armstrong, Klueh, Murray, Oldham and Dick Meh-
en, who had been traded to Milwaukee in the Brian deal. Bennett had
lined up an eight-game exliibition schedule, two each against Western
Division foes. The Z's had bought some insurance from Boston in the
form of Eddie Ehlers' contract. He was another of those multi-talented
athletes who had options of basketball, baseball and even football. He sat
out the previous year as he worked for the New York Yankees, but had
decided on another fling in pro basketball.
While 16,805 fans watched, the Rochester Royals beat the College
Ralph Beard and Alex Groza were arrested for shaving points in
the collegiate days at Kentucky. They were the blood and guts of the
Indianapolis franchise and part owners of the team. The offenses had
taken place during their college days and had not affected their
professional games, but they were expelled from the NBA anyway. Pro
ball kept its skirts clean. The college sport was severely bruised by the
scandals which had now embraced 34 players on seven different teams.
On 1 1 October, the Pistons sold the contract of Howie Schultz to
Minneapolis. Birch's first game as coach was at Troy, Ohio, as the Lakers
mauled the Pistons 77-58. It was the opposite in Kokomo the next night
with the Pistons winning 85-54.
The Z's split the rest of their exhibitions with Rochester,
Milwaukee and Indianapolis. When the Pistons cut to the NBA player
limit, both Jim Riffey and Ehlers were dropped.
The opening NBA game for coach Birch was at Syracuse's new
Onondaga War Memorial Coliseum, where 4520 fans watched the Nats
spank the Zollners 90-75. Charlie Share's 21 points were encouraging.
The Zollner Pistons, while anchored in Fort Wayne, would win only one
game in the Syracuse Coliseum.
Fort Wayne finally broke the ice with an 84-75 win over New
York in North Side gym. But their woes continued. Zeke Sinicola was
drafted and the Pistons bought the contract of Bill Closs from Phila-
delphia. They lost nine of their first eleven games.
Ticket prices remained at $1.50 for reserved seats, $1.20 and 60
cents for students. There were few sellouts.
Don Otten's contract was sold to Milwaukee. In December, the
Z's won their first road game, 91-88 at Boston. Bob Cousy had 32 points
and Brian responded with 29.
The slow start was frustrating. Twenty-four games into the
season, the Pistons had won only six games. Brian, Foust and Schaus
were carrying the double-digit scoring load.
The won- lost record had backed the team into an unusual corner.
Foust's fine play made him a necessary ingredient if the Pistons were to
win games, but that slowed the development of Charlie Share. The
league's enforced idleness the previous year had taken its toll in con-
ditioning and Share, who was the Pistons' biggest investment, was unable
to get enough playing time.
Birch's ball-control style had given the Pistons the second-best
defensive record in the league, but also the league's second-worst offen-
At the halfway point of the season. Fort Wayne stood at 12-21.
Both Brian and Foust were selected for the West in the second annual All-
Star game at Boston on February 12. The other players were Mikan, Vern
Mikkelsen of Minneapolis, Rochester's Bob Davies and Bob Wanzer, Leo
Barnhorst and Lefty Walther of Indianapolis, Jim Pollard of the Lakers
and Dike Eddleman of Milwaukee.
Going into the All-Star break, the press started calling them "the
Paradoxical Pistons." In the three games prior to the All-Star game. Fort
Wayne lost two at home and won one away. They lost to Philadelphia at
North Side 105-91, with Jumping Joe Fulks returning to his familiar form
with 36 points. The Pistons went to Minneapolis and beat the Lakers 70-
67, their first win there since the 19-18 game fourteen months before.
Then they returned to Fort Wayne and lost to Baltimore 87-77. Former
Piston Chuck Reiser, coaching the Bullets, used only five players the
entire 48 minutes in the upset win.
Prior to that, the Pistons had pulled to within two games of
Indianapolis, but were frustrated by a home upset against lowly Minne-
apolis 75-64. Don Otten played the whole game for the Hawks and had 24
points. Share, used sparingly, had four.
Continuing to make the biggest deals in basketball, Fred Zollner
purchased the contract of Dike Eddleman from the Hawks on the eve of
the All-Star game.
Eddleman had scored 48 points to set North Side's scoring record
against the Pistons. With his famous "kiss shot", Dike was the greatest
athlete turned out at the University of Illinois, winning eleven varsity
letters in football, basketball and track. He was also a high jumper in the
1948 Olympic games.
Growing up in Centralia, Illinois, he had been aware of the Pistons
and their star players, McDermott, Shipp and Pelkington. "I remember
those guys way back when," he says, "What a great pro team."
While he was in the service, he had taken part in a college all-star
game against the Z's, an exciting moment for a young man to play his
boyhood heroes. He later said that his ambition had always been to be a
Piston, and now he had the chance.
He learned his trademark "kiss shot" from A.L. Trout, his high
school coach in Centralia. Trout would not allow any one-handed
shooting, so Dike developed a two-handed shot, bringing the ball up near
his nose, so that it looked as if he kissed it before he let fly.
Art Burris' contract went to Milwaukee, plus cash estimated in the
Larry Foust injured his foot in Minneapolis and missed the All-
Star game. He was replaced by Rochester's Arnie Risen. The East,
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watched. Paul Arizin was the game's most valuable player, with 26 points,
matching Mikan's total. Fort Wayne's Brian had 13.
Carl Bennett put in Fort Wayne's bid to host the 1953 All-Star
game in the Allen County Memorial Coliseum, which was under
construction and would be ready for a fall opening.
Rochester and Minneapolis were in a heated contest for first place
and a $2500 team bonus in the Western Division, but the Pistons were
unable to catch Indianapolis for third place. They were assured of a play-
off berth, being comfortably ahead of fifth-place Milwaukee.
In an unusual promotion gimmick. Fort Wayne and Boston played
a midnight basketball game on February 21 in Boston Garden so people
who worked on the night shift could watch. The game followed a perfor-
mance of Ice Follies. It must have been past the Pistons' bedtime, as they
lost to the Celtics 88-67.
Rochester clinched the division championship 86-84 in Fort
Wayne in the 65th game of the season. That set the Royals against the
fourth place Pistons in the playoffs. Rochester knocked out Fort Wayne in
two successive games, 95-78 and 92-86.
The Lakers took two from Indianapolis, then dethroned the Royals
three games to one, to go into the NBA championship playoffs against
New York. The surprising Knicks had eliminated Boston and Syracuse en
route to the finals.
The series went the full seven games, including two overtimes,
but the Lakers won back their championship with an 82-65 romp in the
The Pistons wound up with a 29-37 record, three behind the pace
of 1950-51. They still had woes on the road, winning only six of thirty
away from home and one of three on neutral courts. Their North Side
record was 22- 1 1 .
Fred Schaus made a partial explanation for the Pistons' road
record by comparing North Side with the other venues in the league. Each
court had its own characteristics. Among other things, the fans at North
Side sat almost on top of the players. While the Pistons were used to it,
the other teams were not.
Although the court in Boston was very short, most of the others
were larger. Schaus said, "We loved it there at North Side High School.
We didn't know what we were doing on those big courts."
Brian nosed out Foust by four points in the scoring, 1051-1047 (a
15.9 point per game average). Both beat Schaus' Fort Wayne scoring
record of 1 028 set the previous year.
As the season ended, Ralph (Boag) Johnson announced his
retirement and signed on as head basketball coach at neighboring
Columbia City. The Pistons, with their eighth place finish, would pick
third and thirteenth in the upcoming NBA college draft.
Fred Zollner's patience had to be wearing thin. True to his word,
when he and Carl Bennett signed Paul Birch as coach, there would be no
panic. Fort Wayne would begin the rebuilding process.
In fact, instead of rocking the boat, Zollner tried to fill it up. Three
of the biggest deals in pro history had brought Charlie Share aboard (from
Waterloo via Boston), Frankie Brian (from Tri-Cities, where he was
scoring leader) and Dike Eddleman (from Milwaukee).
The club had won three games less than two years earlier. That
was when Mendenhall was axed when Fort Wayne missed the playoffs for
the first time.
Birch shrugged off the 1952-52 campaign as "our sacrifice year."
"We knew it would take some time to build the club back up to be
a contender," he said in a post-season interview, "This building would be
entirely in my hands. We've come a long way. We'll improve a lot more
"Most of the players had not played anything but fast-break
basketball all their lives. They knew little about give-and-go and defense,
which I think is so important to a club that's going to be a champion or
"In efforts to get run, run, run out of their systems, we perhaps
'over-emphasized' the deliberate style of play."
Statistics tended to show the gradual improvement. The Z's won
22 and lost 19 after the Christmas break, only two-and-a-half games
slower than the 24-19 records of the division leaders, Minneapolis and
Syracuse (24-16). New York was 24-17; Rochester, 23-18; Boston 23-19.
But the lazy start still left them eighth in a ten team league, which
would mean better draft picks. Fighting over college players had presum-
ably ended when the National Pro Basketball League folded, but a new
worry was the AAU teams, particularly the Phillips 66 Oilers and Peoria
Caterpillars. They were threat enough for Commissioner Podoioff to offer
them NBA franchises.
Phillips had signed Kansas' Clyde Lovellette, who had led the
Jayhawks to the NCAA championship.
Larry Foust's exceptional sophomore year had earned him second-
string on the all-NBA team, but had also stymied the development of
Share. The all-league team had George Mikan (Minneapolis), Paul Arizin
(Philadelphia), Bob Cousy (Boston), Bob Davies (Rochester), with Dolf
Schayes (Syracuse) and Easy Ed Macauley tied for the other spot on the
first team. Vern Mikkelsen (Minneapolis), Jim Pollard (Minneapolis),
Bob Wanzer (Rochester), Andy Phillip (Philadelphia) and Foust were on
the second team. It was worth one hundred dollars for Foust.
It was a dandy draft for Fort Wayne. Prime picks were six-foot-
seven Don (Monk) Meineke, Dayton's three-year record scorer, and
Dazzling Dick Groat, who had shattered all of Duke's scoring records and
led all college scoring in 1952 with 831 points.
Groat was also a brilliant baseball player, and his reputed signing
bonus (of $75,000) with Branch Rickey of the Pittsburgh Pirates
apparently frightened other clubs away. He was still available for Birch
and Bennett when their thirteenth draft choice came up. Bennett had been
outmaneuvered by Boston's Red Auerbach in Bill Sharman's baseball-
basketball dilemma before, so he was willing to take the chance with
Others drafted were: Bob Clifton (Iowa); Bill Carlson (Fordham);
Hal Cerra (Duke); Leo Corkery (St. Bonaventure); Lee Terrill (North
Carolina) and Jim Ranstead (Stanford).
Fort Wayne outbid two AAU offers and Meineke apparently got
his $5000 signing bonus after Louisville coach John Drommer called him,
"the best-looking center to come down the pike since Alex Groza." Groat
stepped from Duke's campus directly to starting shortstop for the Pirates.
Once the baseball season ended, arrangements were being made for Groat
to commute from Duke to Fort Wayne for as many games as he could
work into his classroom schedule.
In other basketball news, Doxie Moore was named supervisor of
the NBA officials. Former Piston Buddy Jeannette signed on as coach of
Georgetown University. Most importantly for Fort Wayne, the NBA
decided its third annual All-Star game would be played in the spanking
new Allen County War Memorial Coliseum on January 13, 1953. The Z's
had outbid Minneapolis and Milwaukee for the honor.
AMD POT€MT PISTON
The league, stabilized by the same ten returning teams, drew up a
70-game schedule with 33 home dates and two games thrown in the
double-header pool. Practice was to start September 22. Ticket prices at
the Coliseum remained at the old rate: $1.75, $1.50 and $1.25, still the best
bargain in the NBA.
Bill Closs announced his retirement on September 13, to go into
the sporting goods business in California. Dike Eddleman was pondering
an offer from the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League to
become their punter.
With the prospect of expanding activities in the new Coliseum,
Phil Olofson joined Carl Bennett and Rodger Nelson in the publicity
promotion department of the Pistons. He was a young but experienced
sportswriter at the News-Sentinel.
Holiday on Ice, The Biggest Show with King Cole, Sarah
Vaughan, Stan Kenton and Gene Autry had already been booked as early
attractions at the Coliseum.
The idea of an outdoor summer ice show was a novelty. Bennett
approached Fred Zollner one day while he was watching batting practice
to broach the subject. Fred stood tapping his foot with a bat while Bennett
talked. He was a little skeptical, but Bennett was sure it would work.
Finally he said, "Well go ahead, but if it loses money, I'll have to break
this bat over your head."
Holiday on Ice turned out to be the biggest money maker they
had, with every booking but one sold out. Bob Hope was booked twice,
and also turned a large profit for the organization. It was useful, too, for
neither of the teams made money.
The first basketball match in the new arena would be a double-
header sending Minneapolis against Milwaukee, and the Pistons against
Indianapolis on October 19. A week later, the Harlem Globetrotters would
be one-half of a double bill, with the Z's meeting Rochester in the other
Birch drilled a veteran team of Foust, Schaus, Kerris, Share,
Brian, Kiley, Fendley, Eddleman, and the rookie, Meineke. Two other
college draftees, Ted Tomlin, a Navy veteran, and Tom Bowman of
Tulane, were trying to make the club.
Schaus missed all ten exhibition games with early season back
problems, which seemed to be an annual problem. He was used sparingly
in the league opener at Rochester.
The back problems stemmed from a pre-season exhibition game
some time before. At Fort Campbell in Kentucky, Fred had a collision
with George Mikan, who connected with the side of Schaus' thigh. It
twisted his back. He was flown back to hospital in Fort Wayne and
surgery was considered, but he seemed to recover. The back problems
which began then still bother him. The effect in Fort Wayne was to
relegate him to back-up.
The Zollners won five of the pre-season games. In their home
opener they lost to Milwaukee 71-67 after the Lakers had thumped
Indianapolis 101-72. The first basketball game at the building drew 4821
fans. George Yardley came the following season, so he and the Coliseum
were new together. Asked later how he felt about playing there, he said,
"There was nothing compared to it. The lighting was excellent."
Dazzling Dick Groat made his debut at the same time, scoring
nine points. After Groat had led Pittsburgh in hitting during the baseball
season with .285, Branch Rickey had nixed the idea of his playing
basketball during the winter season. He relented because Groat's military
call had a January deadline on it. It appeared that Groat would be
available for about twenty of the Pistons' games.
What did the other players think about Groat fiying in for a game
or two and then leaving again? "That guy could do a lot of things," said
Dike Eddleman, "I was amazed that he could come in on weekends and
play basketball with us. He added a lot, he was so quick."
Two college All-Star games were scheduled in Chicago and New
York against the pro champion Lakers. Groat and Meineke both played
for the Stars. Groat scored 15, Meineke 13 as Minneapolis won 80-69.
Meineke was chosen most valuable player in both games.
Trying for an extra edge, the Pistons decided to get more rest by
fiying to their NBA opener against the Royals. This was unusual for Fred
Zollner, who was an apprehensive fiyer, but anything was worth trying if it
It did not work. Rochester won 75-62.
The previous week. Fort Wayne had had its first Coliseum win
over the Royals 74-70. It was an exhibition, coupled with an appearance
by the Globetrotters which attracted 9419, a new high for a Fort Wayne
basketball audience. It was so successful that the Piston management
brought the Globetrotters right back five nights later and packed in 8723
Fort Wayne shored up its ranks by signing veteran Ray Corley and
coaxing Boag Johnson out of retirement for a couple of games.
Smarting from the twelve-point loss at Rochester, the Pistons
came back on a charter fiight for their home opener against Minneapolis.
They stumbled again 81-69, despite Foust's 19 points and 20 rebounds.
The crowd for opening night was 5683, but only 3300 came out four
nights later as Rochester beat the Z's 84-64.
Groat was flown in for the next game and his 1 1 points helped
spark the Pistons to their first win, 74-71. The Olympians turned the
tables 78-63 in Indy two nights later, leaving the record at 1-4.
Groat made his most profound impression on November 1 6, when
he poured in 25 points, inspiring the Pistons to a 1 12-83 win over the New
York Knicks. Four nights later they fell back into the western division
basement in an 89-81 loss to Minneapolis. Mikkelsen got 31 points and
Late in November, after the Z's won only three of their first ten
games, Zollner reached for his checkbook and bought the contract of All-
Star Andy Phillip from the financially struggling Philadelphia Warriors.
Phillip had turned out to be the best of the famous Illinois Whiz Kids. He
was in his sixth year as a pro and had led the league in assists the last two
Mel Hutchins later described Phillip as "a court general. He'd
rather pass than shoot."
Ray Corley was released and waivers were asked on Jack Kiley.
Continuing to make headline news and basketball history, Fred
Zollner made another memorable purchase, this time in the equipment
line. The 'Buying Z' bought a 'Flying Z'. Zollner announced the purchase
of a DC-3 to transport his pro sports teams on their arduous schedules. The
plane was the first in sports history to be used for transporting an entire
team to games in various cities. In the Zollner fashion, press conferences
were rare. The formal announcement came from the Pistons plant:
"You can call them the Flying Z's now. In a revolutionary move
in the athletic world, the Zollner Pistons have announced the purchase of a
21 -passenger airship for transporting the Zollner athletic teams around the
"The Douglas DC-3 has been purchased from United Airlines and
until this week was one of its regular commercial passenger-carrying craft.
"Fred Zollner, president of the company, stated the purchase of
the Zollner DC-3 plane will serve the dual purpose of bringing our
organization closer to our manufacturing customers and also will provide
fast and dependable transportation for our athletic teams.
"The ex-United Mainliner gets into duty today (Dec. 5) when it
takes off from Baer Field at 1 p.m. It takes off with the Zollner basketball
squad and their date with the Indianapolis Olympians at Butler Fieldhouse
tonight. After the game tonight the team will leave directly for Baltimore,
Md., and their Saturday night date with the Bullets.
"And when the Baltimore game is completed the team will hustle
to the airport and hop the plane which will return them to Fort Wayne
early Sunday morning in plenty of good sleeping time for their Coliseum
date Sunday night against the New York Knickerbockers.
"The plane is equipped with two fourteen-cylinder Pratt and
Whitney engines of the latest type.
"It marks the first time in sports history that a plane has been
purchased for the transportation of entire teams to the scenes of their many
"Many major league baseball and football owners have private
planes for their personal use, but they have not been used for transporting
complete teams. Permitting the Pistons to fly this year has been a sharp
reversal of policy for Zollner teams of the past. Only in isolated instances
were players (and never a full team) allowed to use air travel as a mode of
"Mr. Zollner accompanied the team on several charter flights this
year and became completely sold on the airplane-type travel and to assure
speed, safety and the most rest for his ball players, decided to buy a
company plane which they could use.
"This became practically a necessity because of the frequent
unavailability of 21 -passenger charter equipment on various trips. So the
Piston owner invoke a deviation of the old sports axiom, 'if you can't beat'
em, buy 'em'."
Perhaps this more than anything else shows Fred Zollner's busi-
ness sense in action. Despite his own feelings about flying, he recognized
what the future held and acted early. His ability to anticipate trends and
needs stood him in good stead in both business and sports.
The plane had a practical effect for the players. They were used to
playing somewhere one night, taking an overnight train back to Fort
Wayne and playing a home game the next day. For tall basketball players,
the train's constricted berths were not entirely suitable. Bigger players
were known to sit up all night instead of trying to fold themselves into the
bed. This problem, combined with occasional difficulties when the
weather prevented the train for getting in on time, the players were often
forced to play when they were tired.
The plane enabled the team to return home late after a game, sleep
in their own beds and be ready for action the following day. Every player
asked about the Flying Z had an enthusiastic response.
George Yardley described the inside. There was a galley up front,
with a card table and four seats beside it. A little further back, there were
another pair of tables, each with four seats. Then there was a partition
which led into Fred Zollner's part of the plane. In the back were lounge
seats and a sofa.
Yardley found there was a little space behind Fred's chair. "He
let me sleep there on the floor, but I never did sit on the sofa."
The card tables were well used. Frank Brian told how he had
learned from Murray Mendenhall during his days in Anderson. "Men-
denhall taught all his players how to play bridge. The eleven years I
played, all the teams played bridge." He said that none of them gambled,
however. You might play for matches, but that was all.
The year's disappointing start put the Pistons behind the eight ball
in the western division. However, the steadying influence of Phillip and
more appearances by Groat helped the team to do a little flying of its own.
In December they strung together six wins, their longest streak
since the 1947-48 season. One of the stunners was a 95-64 blowout of
Philadelphia before 14,000 fans in the first half of a double-header in
Madison Square Garden. Unfortunately, they were humiliated 89-66 by
Boston in front of the regular season's biggest home crowd of 8055.
The Z's came to the All-Star break climbing over the .500 mark at
18-17, which left them eight games back of the Lakers and six back of the
Royals, but nonetheless comfortably safe in third place ahead of
Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
Hosting the third annual NBA All-Star game became the greatest
big-league event in Fort Wayne sports history.
The 1953 All-star Game
Fort Wayne, usually a whistle stop, became Grand Central for pro
basketball when it threw out its welcome mat for the All-Star game. The
two-day caucus of basketball's brass included a 4 a.m. takeoff by Zollner
in his "Flying Z" to pick up sports writers and broadcasters in Boston,
New York and Rochester, then bring them to Fort Wayne. Twenty top
George Craig took the oath of office as governor of Indiana at
noon Monday in ceremonies in Indianapolis. One of his first proclam-
ations named "Indiana Basketball Week" in honor of Fort Wayne hosting
the NBA. The league's Board of Governors held a special meeting
Monday night at the Van Orman hotel.
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A civic luncheon on the playing floor with the twenty all-stars, the
Board and the other Zollner players attracted 350 fans who watched
Mayor Harry Baals give Commissioner Maurice Podoloff the key to the
Foust and Phillip were selected to the West All-Star team. They
were joined by Mel Hutchins, Milwaukee; Vern Mikkelsen, George Mikan
and Slater Martin, Minneapolis; Bobby Wanzer, Bob Davies and Arnie
Risen, Rochester; and Leo Barnhorst, Indianapolis. The coach was John
Kundla of Minneapolis.
The East was coached by New York's Joe Lapchick. The players
were Harry Gallatin and Carl Braun, New York; Dolph Schayes, Paul
Seymour, Syracuse; Ed Macauley, Bill Sharman and Bob Cousy, Boston;
Don Barksdale and Fred Scolari, Baltimore; and Neil Johnston, Phila-
delphia. (Billy Gabor of Syracuse replaced an injured Fred Scolari when
The East had won the previous two All-Star games, which had
taken place in Boston.
The game had tremendous coverage from the media. A total of 73
newspaper and radio writers covered the game in person, with fourteen
radio stations and seven cameras for newsreels, television and the movies.
It was the first step for the NBA in the new medium, as the league signed
its first television contract with Dumont during the next season.
The game, the production, the attention and the show put a new
glow on pro basketball's outlook. At the NBA governors' meeting, some
franchises had needed propping up. There were discussions of
Philadelphia merging with Baltimore and Indianapolis with Milwaukee.
Doxie Moore resigned as supervisor of officials.
Indianapolis was promised some financial aid and more double-
headers to stay in business, and the ten teams were ready to go on for the
On game night, fans started pouring in at six for the eight o'clock
pregame festivities, and an 8:30 tipoff. The Coliseum was jam-packed
with 10,322 fans. It was the largest crowd to attend an All-Star game to
They were treated to a superb basketball game. The West won
79-75. George Mikan was the most valuable player with 22 points. Fort
Wayne's Andy Phillip had nine points and eight assists, and gained 16
points in the MVP voting, next to Mikan's 23. Bob Davies had a great
spurt of eight points in the last quarter to help the West win.
The game gave Fort Wayne headlines from coast to coast.
Ike Gellis wrote in the New York Post: "There may be as good an
all-star game in the future, but the third one staged here last night will
never be surpassed. For a city of only 135,000, Fort Wayne gave the pro
game a big time touch. It was Phillip's feeding of his Western mates that
made the difference."
In the Rochester Times-Union, Matt Jackson said: "It was a
Hollywood production, big league from start to finish. Anyone who inher-
its next year's All-Star contest will find it like singing after Caruso to
match the efforts of the hard-working Zollner crew. Not a trick was
missed in presenting the world's greatest basketball stars to the record
"It was the greatest shot in the arm professional basket-ball has
had since the inception of the sport. Every player lived up to all the
glowing advance reports. It was a great show, performed by outstanding
artists and staged in a perfect setting by the perfect host, Fred Zollner. It
did a lot for the cause of pro basketball."
In the hometown Journal-Gazette, Carl Weigman boasted: "Ned
Irish, who runs the biggest basketball emporium in the league, Madison
Square Garden in New York, said that he'd hoped to have the classic in
New York next year, but after seeing this promotion, perhaps he'd better
wait a few years."
To make it even more official, the Journal-Gazette printed an
editorial which summarized the whole event. It offered an opinion about
the future and congratulations to the organizers: "[Fort Wayne] can expect
to see other events of similar quality in the future, for the reputation of this
city as a sports center has gone up many degrees this week.
"Of course, it would not have been possible to hold this much-
sought-after All-Star event here except for the Memorial Coliseum with its
great seating capacity and its fine facilities. The Coliseum has become an
outstanding center of community events since its dedication. It has
contributed much to the reputation of Fort Wayne throughout the country.
"Neither would holding the All-Star game here have been possible
but for the all-out efforts of Fred Zollner through the years to give Fort
Wayne the best in sports. Mr. Zollner has been a pioneer in many fields
and his efforts have been appreciated by the sports lover. ...Fred Zollner
and his organization deserve a big hand."
As the All-Star dust was settling, rumors were rife that Zollner
was once again ready to open his checkbook. Roger Barry, of the Boston
Patriot-Ledger, said: "There isn't any doubt but that Fred Zollner will go
All-Star Game Box Score
MINS FGA FGM FTA FTM REB AST FLS PTS
MEVS FGA FGM FTA FTM REB AST FLS PTS
TOTALS 240 97 33 18
("from The Journal-Gazette, ]dnmry 14, 1953)
62 26 23 79
to any length to give the league's smallest city a championship. He fed
Les Harrison of Rochester offers of $50,000 for Davies and Wanzer, and a
blank check to Boston for Cousy, and was told, 'You can't have him for
Dick Groat and your plane.'"
The Pistons, with their new respectability, perked up and won
thirteen of their next twenty-two games to sail to a 31-26 record, but they
had started too far back to catch the high-flying Lakers and Royals. Groat
left for the service in early February, and Buckshot O'Brien was
reactivated to fill out the squad.
The Z's added more all-star talent when they beat the trading
deadline on February 17 by mere hours, dealing Jack Kerris, O'Brien and
cash to Baltimore for Fred Scolari and Don Boven.
Overriding some fan skepticism because of Birch's public
relations shortcomings, Fred Zollner more or less said, "A deal's a deal," in
his typical style. He rehired Birch when the Pistons were assured of
finishing the season at a better than .500 pace.
"When Paul accepted the position of coach," Zollner explained,
"He realized the intense competition in the National Basketball Assoc-
iation, particularly in the Western division. He asked for two seasons to
bring the team above the .500 percentage mark. This has been accom-
"He has produced a team that cannot — and will not — be
counted out of any ball game. We are now known throughout the circuit
as one of the 'Big Six' and one Eastern paper has given us the compliment
of the 'always trying Zollners.'
"We have become an outstanding road attraction and our road
victory record this year is the most impressive in our NBA history."
The team's final standing was 36-33. Included were 25 home
wins, eight road wins and three victories on neutral courts. Losing nine of
ten to Minneapolis and seven often to Rochester left Fort Wayne ten and a
half games back of the Lakers and six and a half behind Rochester. That
sent the Pistons into the playoffs in a best two-of-three series against the
Royals. Minneapolis took on Indianapolis.
The Piston- Rochester series was perhaps wilder than any other in
recent years. The Z's won the first game, 84-77, in a huge upset at
Rochester, and then lost their edge when Rochester returned the
compliment 83-71 in Fort Wayne. The Pistons had thought they would
use their home-town advantage to win.
Buoyed by a flood of more than a hundred fan telegrams and the
momentum of winning their last three games in Rochester, the Pistons
achieved the impossible dream by beating the Royals 67-65 to move into
the semifinals against the Lakers.
Before that last game, six-foot Jake Fendley told Birch the baskets
were too low because he could dunk a shot. Dunking was unusual during
the games in those days, although Charlie Share remembers the players
would dunk shots during warm-up to excite the fans.
The Pistons asked referees Jocko Collins and Arnie Heft for a
measurement, and found one basket was three inches short of the ten-foot
level and the other, two inches shy. The difference of even two or three
inches could throw off expert players who were used to gauging their
throws to the standard often feet.
The Pistons protested the game before the start; Rochester
counter-protested; frantic calls were made to Commissioner Podoloff. The
game was delayed twenty minutes and the arguing continued.
Dike Eddleman suggests that someone in Rochester had made the
adjustments purposely, simply to cause a fuss. As for Podoloffs vacil-
lating on this occasion, Dike remarked, "I don't think he made a lot of
At the start of the second half, there was another twenty minute
delay. To Podoloffs relief, the game ended with a last-second basket by
Fort Wayne's Frank Brian. Several hundred fans were at the airport to
meet the Pistons when the Flying Z touched down at 3 a.m.
It was the only time that Rochester had lost four straight at home
to any team. It also had to be one of Fred Zollner's most exhilarating wins.
Then it was on to Minneapolis for the best three-of-five semifinal
series. In the first two games, the Lakers whipped the emotionally drained
Pistons 83-73 and 82-75. The Pistons had now been beaten in eleven of
the past twelve games by the defending champs. They returned to Fort
Wayne and tiptoed to the edge of becoming Destiny's Darlings by staying
alive 98-95 and 85-82.
At least a hundred cars formed a headlit motorcade to Baer Field
from the Coliseum for the Z's return for the decisive fifth game in
Minneapolis. Inevitably, the cream came to the top, and the best team in
basketball, the Lakers, delivered a first quarter knockout punch 23-9. The
Pistons could not recover and the final score was 74-58. The Lakers then
went on to defend their championship against New York, bouncing the
Knicks in five games 4-1 .
Larry Foust had a tremendous playoff series, averaging better than
19 points in the eight games, allowing his season total to reach 1111
points. He was the first Piston to reach more than 1 100 points in a season.
Looking back, Andy Phillip said, "Larry was the second or third
best big man at the time. He was a good scorer, but not a guy who wanted
the ball all the time. He got his share of rebounds and points." He con-
cluded by suggesting that he has always thought Foust deserved more
recognition than he has had.
Scolari continued the high-scoring pace he had set in Baltimore
and his total for both Pistons' and Bullets' games gave him 937. Dick
Groat's 26-game average of 11.9 points made him third best in the
It was a redemptive finish for an inspirational season, and there
seemed to be a lot of blue sky on the horizon as the ZoUners quickly
drafted Columbia's great Jack Molinas and anticipated the signing of
Stanford's sensational George Yardley. Yardley's Los Alamitos Naval Air
Station team had recently beat Dick Groat's Fort Belvoir team for the
Don Meineke was the choice as NBA Rookie of the Year. Phillip
was selected to the second All-Star team.
The first team consisted of George Mikan, Minneapolis; Neil
Johnston, Philadelphia; Ed Macauley, Boston; Bob Cousy, Boston; Dolph
Schayes, Syracuse. On the second team were Phillip; Bob Davies; Bob
Wanzer, Rochester; Bill Sharman, Boston; Vern Mikkelsen, Minneapolis.
Unlike the fastball players, the basketball team members did not
have positions in the piston plant to fall back on during the off-season.
Some may have chosen to rest during that time, but many had other jobs.
Charlie Share and Jack Kerris, for instance, were on the clean-up squad at
Zollner Stadium. Andy Phillip spent one summer as a sales rep for a local
beer distributor, once again proving that everyone in Fort Wayne knew the
Pistons. Having had early ambitions to play baseball, he was part of the
Cardinals organization, playing AAA ball in Winston-Salem and else-
After the first year in the Allen County Memorial Coliseum,
excitement and optimism were at an all-time high for the Pistons getting
back into the championship arena.
The way the Pistons had beaten the Royals in the playoffs led the
Fort Wayne faithful to expect great things in the new season. Although
the Lakers had beaten the Knicks in the finals. Pistons' fans remembered
how their team had controlled New York during the regular season.
In the first season, the Pistons had become the Coliseum's best
tenant. At the end of the basketball season, they had promoted seventeen
days of roller derby, boxing and wrestling, featuring such big names as
Chuck Davey and Vern Gagne. As a warmup for the 1953-54 season, they
attracted more than 8000 outdoor fans to Zollner Stadium for a Harlem
Globetrotter — College All-Star basketball exhibition.
The high hopes escalated when Fred Zollner bought the contract
of Mel Hutchins from the financially strapped Milwaukee Hawks in
August. It was believed to be the biggest player purchase in pro history to
that time. He was later described by George Yardley as "the best defen-
sive player in the league."
Ben Kerner needed the cash, so he asked Fred Zollner which
players he wanted. Fred said he wanted Mel Hutchins. "You can't have
him," Kerner replied.
Fred shrugged. Hutchins was the only one he wanted. The deal
went through, for an amount that is still not known. Kerner had promised
Hutchins part of the price, but he did not receive it.
Mel later said, "What they needed was someone to homogenize
the team — rebound, give the ball up, play tough defence, someone to do
that. That's what Fred got me for." After he arrived in Fort Wayne, Fred
and Carl Bennett had a meeting with Hutchins to explain his new place on
the team. "Pull the team together and don't worry about the statistics."
Because his first years in the NBA were with the Hawks, an
expansion team, Hutchins said he played 47 minutes of every 48 minute
game and was learning all the time. He had even grown an inch after
graduation from college (to six foot six)! He was glad to have had the
chance to hone his skills. He now looked forward to playing with the
Pistons, where "everything went first class."
Hutchins thought that Bennett was behind his move from
Milwaukee to Fort Wayne. "He was the instigator in my trade, I think."
His opinion of Bennett was high. "A first class manager, he did more than
people knew. He had class. He was real good at it."
Carl Bennett had already lured George Yardley from the AAU
and service basketball. Yardley had seemed to be indifferent to pro ball,
rejecting the Pistons' initial $6000 offer. When the bidding went to $9500,
Yardley had broken Hank Luisetti's long-held scoring record at
Stanford and played on a national champion AAU team, Stewart Chev-
rolet. He missed the 1952 Olympics because of a broken hand, but had a
spectacular career with the Los Alamitos Naval Air Station team while in
the military. He was, perhaps, the most talked-of newcomer in the league.
He later said that dallying while the price went up may not have
been as calculated as it seemed. In fact, he wanted to play at Fort Wayne,
but he hated training camp. He spent a little extra time in California,
playing volleyball on the beach, and by the time he was ready to head east
he was earning some extra money.
With the Z's number-one draft pick, Ail-American Jack Molinas,
Don Meineke, and veterans Fred Schaus, Larry Foust and Charlie Share,
the result was the prospect of the Pistons having the best in-depth front
line in the business. Ken Murray was returning from the service. Others
at the late-September first practice call were Frank Brian, Fred Scolari,
Andy Phillip, Dike Eddleman, Don Boven and, another draft pick, Jim
Bredar from Illinois.
Coach Paul Birch, armed with a new two-year contract, may have
had the toughest assignment of all in training camp. Which stars of the
talent-loaded squad would he be forced to cut?
The outlook for the NBA should have been brighter. Competition
from the AAU had dwindled. Many bright college stars were coming into
the league. Minneapolis had signed Clyde Lovellette away from the
Phillips Oilers; seven-foot Walt Dukes had left the Globetrotters to join
New York's Knicks; the Indianapolis franchise folded and players were
distributed to other clubs around the league.
This left the league with an unwieldy mix of nine teams. Five
were in the east: New York, Boston, Syracuse, Philadelphia and
Baltimore. The four in the west were Minneapolis, Rochester, Fort Wayne
Basketball's biggest problem was the management of the game
itself, despite the waiting audience in the arenas. One problem was the
slowness of constructive rules changes.
Carl Bennett had recommended the widening of the foul lane to
fifteen feet in 1948, in Basketball Association of America days. This was
rejected as being formulated against George Mikan (which it was). The
owners viewed Mikan as "Mr. Basketball" and would not consider a rule
directed against him. Only in 1951 was the foul lane widened to twelve
feet. Mikan himself later admitted the lane widening was the best thing
that had happened to the game.
Not since the famous 1950 game when Fort Wayne beat
Minneapolis 19-18, the catalyst for the 24 second rule, had the rulers of
basketball come up with a satisfactory solution to keep games from
becoming yawners or slugfests. The BAA founders were basically hockey
promoters, encouraging several good fights to stimulate the turnstiles, but
there did not seem to be a happy blend for basket-brawl and basketball.
Most players found they liked things under the new rules. The
new foul lane gave more people a chance and the 24-second clock speeded
the game up.
Not everyone agreed. Andy Phillip had an interesting take on the
faster game. "It gave more opportunity to manoeuver, and opened up the
defense. It increased fan interest, but it turned it into a YMCA game,
everything was run-and-shoot, run-and-shoot. Nobody can see what's
In those early days, the rules changed in response to specific
situations on the court or in the boardroom. Mel Hutchins remembers that,
at the end of his rookie year, commissioner Maurice Podoloff called him
in for a meeting. He told Mel that there was going to be a rule change, and
he was the reason. In the future, players would not be allowed to touch the
ball in the cylinder, tipping in errant shots. Because Mel could jump, he
had been able to do this. The rule changed in college as well as pro ball.
Whatever he thought about the change at the time, he knows now it was a
good idea, given the big men who followed him.
The NBA now had a new opportunity to be major league with its
first television contract. On the other hand, officiating was indecisive and
inconsistent, with charges of intimidation. The term "bush league" kept
In a Rochester-Fort Wayne game early in the season, 77 fouls
were whistled, 48 against the Royals, 29 against the Pistons. The Pistons
won the game 68-65 by scoring only eleven baskets and hitting 46 of 61
free throws. A year earlier, in the Syracuse-Boston playoffs, 107 fouls
were called in a game that went into four overtimes. Bob Cousy had
scored 50 points, 30 of them at the foul strips.
Officials did not know whether to "let 'em play or call 'em close."
Podoloff waffled. Chuck Chuckovits, who worked both NBA and college
ball, recalled that the officials were reminded that the players had been
Ail-Americans and the college rulebook would be used. Following this
directive, Chuckovits and Jim Enright refereed a game in Fort Wayne with
around 80 fouls. The following day, they received a telegram from
Maurice Podoloff charging them with using a high-school standard and
suggesting they need not be so technical. The following night they called
only three fouls, which also displeased the higher-ups. Both Enright and
Chuckovits eventually left for the more moderate world of the Big Ten.
Podoloff himself and referee Chuck Solodare needed a police
escort to leave Boston Garden following a Celtic-Knick barnburner. Sid
Borgia and John Nucatola needed a 1 5 to 20 man police escort to leave the
court in Syracuse when owner Dan Biasone and coach Al Cervi incited the
crowd after a Nucatola call against Nats star Dolph Schayes.
When Nucatola recommended thousand dollar fines against
Biasone and Cervi, there was no response from Podoloff. Nucatola told a
New York Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association luncheon that the
integrity of the game depended on its officials. He did not receive any
assignments for several weeks and resigned from the NBA."^"^
In addition to the difficulties of poor leadership and inadequate
rules, the NBA compounded its problems with an unwieldy 72-game
schedule consisting of 27 home games and an expanded double-header
program with which it hoped to lure more patrons.
Fred Zollner had his own expansion agenda. He scheduled five
games in Florida at Coral Gables and the new Miami Beach Auditorium,
all with east coast teams (Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia).
With the NBA down to nine teams, the Board of Governors had to
experiment with a new playoff system. The first round was to be a round
robin among the top three teams in each division. They hoped to make the
home court advantage somewhat less, but it also eliminated some of the
excitement and hence, the gate receipts. Philadelphia's Eddie Gottlieb
observed that the teams needed the $20,000 to $30,000 playoff money to
Despite the optimism of Fort Wayne fans, the two best teams in
the NBA were the 'Mikanized' Lakers and the slicker-than-oil Royals. The
question was whether or not the Lakers or Royals were slowing up while
Fort Wayne's talent search speeded up. In four years of NBA play, the
Pistons had trailed the regular season leaders by eleven or twelve games.
In the last season, they had come within eight games of the second-place
Evidence of the quality of Piston players came when one of the
first squad cuts included Dike Eddleman. He was a fan favorite, who had
a 12.1 scoring average in four seasons of NBA play and had held the Fort
Robert W. Peterson, Cages to Jump Shots, p. 1 77-1 79. Nucatola eventually returned the NBA
Wayne scoring record of 48 points in one game. Ironically, it had been
won while he played for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks against the Pistons at
North Side gym.
He had no warning of the impending cut, but was ready because
there was a barrier between him and Birch. "If he didn't like you, he didn't
like you," he observed. As a result Dike had not been playing much.
Eddleman retired and went to work for Central Soya, first in Fort
Wayne and later in Gibson, Illinois. He served seventeen years in the
personnel division before returning to head his alma mater's grant-in-aid
program at the University of Illinois.
An upbeat spirit prevailed as the Z's breezed through their pre-
season games undefeated, winning three from Baltimore and four from
Milwaukee. They were the only unbeaten team in the NBA's exhibition
When the season started, the Pistons continued their fast footing
with home wins over Milwaukee and Boston, extending their winning
streak to nine games. It was the most consecutive wins they had had in
NBA play. One of their most gratifying early season successes was a 78-
62 stunner over Minneapolis as part of a double-header at Milwaukee. The
Z's front line held Mikan to three points, his all-time low (and perhaps the
Pistons' all-time high).
The squad had sifted down to twelve players in November. Zeke
Sinicola returned from service. Molinas was rejected at his draft call for
being over the army's six foot six inch limit. By mid-November the Pis-
tons were ahead in the western division with a 5-3 record.
Returning servicemen were given a thirty-day trial period during
which teams could adjust their rosters. Sinicola's return allowed the
Pistons to extend their mandated player limit to eleven players by
December 1 and ten by December 7. In the shuffling, Schaus was farmed
out for a few games, eventually returning when Sinicola was released and
Murray was placed on standby playing local independent ball.
That left the ten-man roster at Hutchins, Meineke, Yardley,
Molinas, Foust, Share, Phillip, Scolari, Brian and Schaus.
Did the constantly changing personnel have a negative effect on
the ability to mold a team? Dike Eddleman did not think so. "Most of the
guys knew everybody. By the time you get into pro ball, it instinctively
An example of the recrossing paths of players in the NBA were
Larry Foust and Charlie Share. They had played as regular opponents in
college, then as teammates on the Pistons and later again as opponents in
the pros. In one of their youthful meetings, Charlie recalled, Foust had
accidentally "knocked four of my teeth out on the boards."
One of the brightest spots of the young season came on November 19.
Ironically it was during a losing effort at Syracuse, where Fort Wayne
Early in the third period, the Pistons trailed 40-20. Yardley sprang
off the bench and the team rallied around his ten-point third quarter. Then
rookie Molinas poured in twenty points in the third quarter and the Nats
ended by barely nosing out the Zollners 79-76. It was an historic period
high score for any Fort Wayne player.
One thing that Fort Wayne could not control was Minneapolis.
The Lakers hung up a ten-game winning streak and started distancing
themselves from Fort Wayne and Rochester. Through the first twenty
games, the Pistons' 12-8 was third best, behind Minneapolis (14-4) and
New York (13-5).
Fort Wayne remained pro basketball's best bargain. Fan support
was growing and it was little wonder when a December 13 double-header
at Memorial Coliseum packed in a crowd of 9306. It featured the four best
teams in the NBA, Minneapolis against Rochester and Fort Wayne against
New York. Ticket prices were still $1.50, $1.25 and $1.00. Rochester
moved into second place that night when the Royals snapped Minneapolis'
winning streak and the Pistons lost a 69-68 sizzler to the Knicks.
Foust was proving himself one of the league's best big men,
leading the team in scoring and rebounds. On December 6, he missed
tying the Coliseum's scoring record by one, getting 33 against Syracuse.
Fousfs excellent play and Fort Wayne's win record allowed the
Pistons to unload Charlie Share gracefully, thus ending a frustrating three
years for both parties. Playing in Foust's shadow. Share never had the
opportunity to develop into the star he had been projected to be when he
came out of Bowling Green University.
He was a big man and consequently not as quick as some of the
other players. "Big men then didn't move as well as they do today," Dike
Eddleman said, "George Mikan himself would have had the same
difficulty. But they would learn to do it differently."
The other side of the coin was that big men had the advantage in
the small courts, especially before the foul line was altered to twelve feet.
Share said he had difficulty himself with the leading big man, George
"Every time he knocked me down," Charlie remembered, "He got
two free throws. I had trouble understanding it."
A Pistons public relations event: Bill Johnston, Neil Barille, Charlie
Share, Rodger Nelson.
Mel Hutchins also saw this side of Mikan. "He wasn't too much
fun, " he began.
Mel found he could face Mikan and block his shot because he
could jump so high. When Mikan moved in closer, he used his little half-
hook, but Mel found he could block that, too. "Hey, rookie," Mikan said,
"Block the jump shot, but stay away from the hook."
Naturally, Mel did not listen, but decided to block the hook shots
anyway. The next time he tried. Big George went up for the shot, and as
Mel says, "He took us all up — himself, the ball and me, too. I landed in
the third row of the bleachers and they called a foul against me."
Mel laughs about it now and says, "Later we got to know one
another better, and he was more fun."
Smaller, quicker players later made a difference. Charlie Share
thinks that Bill Russell was the one who changed things. "When Russell
came into the league, his jumping ability made others move away from the
hoop. You had to shoot from outside." Speed became essential.
In the bizarre dealings which led to Share donning a Pistons
uniform, Fred Zollner had bought his contract from Waterloo of the
National Basketball League, traded the player rights of Bill Sharman and
sweetened the pot to Boston because Sharman was considering a baseball
career. The Waterloo contract was voided by the NBA and Share sat out
half a season before he became eligible in 1951-52. He became the Pis-
tons' highest-priced commodity before he had played a game.
Share had a 3.9 scoring average in 1951-52 and 5.6 in 1952-53.
When he was traded to Milwaukee there was relief on both sides. Share
wound up with a ten-year NBA career and had a championship ring as
captain of the 1957-58 Hawks in St. Louis (where they moved from Mil-
waukee). He later did public relations work for the team before going
into the corrugated box business.
Share was traded for veteran Max Zaslofsky, the third highest
scorer in NBA history behind George Mikan and Joe Fulks.
Shortly after the Share deal, Fred Schaus was sold to New York
and Ken Murray returned to the active roster. Schaus played a year with
the Knicks and then went into collegiate coaching at his alma mater. West
The Schaus-for-cash deal was a unusual experience for Zollner.
Rarely, if ever, had he outright sold a player's contract for cash. He was a
buyer, not a seller, in his quest for championships.
Molinas was playing well enough that, in early January, he was
selected to play in the NBA's fourth All-Star game in Madison Square
Garden. The talent-laden Pistons also landed Mel Hutchins and Larry
Foust on the west team and there was some grumbling that Andy Phillip
had been excluded. Phillip had been hailed as the runner-up most valuable
player in the 1953 All-Star game.
Phillip finally made the All-Star roster, but not in the manner
anyone wanted. He replaced Molinas, who was suspended from the
Pistons and then by Commissioner Maurice Podoloff from the NBA for
The Molinas bubble burst on January 10, when he admitted to
betting on Piston games through a New York bookmaker. It ended a
month-long investigation on Molinas. He had been named to the All-Star
team only four days before his suspension.
Don Meineke, Mel Hutchins and Molinas roomed together. Mel
said, "Jack was raised with gambling. He would bet on anything. He
wanted a place to gamble. But what he did had no influence on the way
the game was played. No influence."
While it was only a footnote in NBA history, Molinas' suspension
came as a severe blow to the aspiring Pistons. There had been no question
of his fixing games, but he had to go. Aside from the personal shock —
Frank Brian, for one, found him a personable companion — there was the
waste of what everyone thought would be a dazzling career. Brian said,
"He had everything, he was going to become a ball player. It was
terrible." Some years later Molinas served a prison term in a college
There was some discontent within the team regarding Paul Birch's
coaching techniques. Owner ZoUner had to squelch published rumors that
former Piston Jerry Bush, who was coaching at Toledo University, would
Dike Eddleman summed up Birch's difficulties with his players by
saying, "Birch didn't see eye-to-eye with anyone, not even himself"
As for Fred Schaus, he respected Birch's "good basketball mind"
and the "Chick Davies stuff the coach brought to the team, but he
continued, "I've never run across a guy who treated people like he did."
As an example, he said that when the team lost. Birch might make them sit
in the dark on the Flying Z coming home.
There was more than one point of view about Birch. Andy Phillip
saw him as a coach from the old school. He was tough and he treated the
players the same way. For him coaching was no popularity contest.
It was not easy controlling a team of young, active men, especially
on the road. Asked if there were hijinks in the hotels away from home,
Phillip agreed there was. He remembered Fred Schaus and Dike Eddie-
man patrolling the halls draped in bedsheets, looking for their friends after
curfew. When Birch spotted them, he demanded they return to their room.
"Deep down," said Andy, "He was okay about it all."
He did have a reputation for expressing himself physically. He
threw orange peels and liked kicking things to emphasize a point. The
team knew this, in one game where they were losing at half time. They
gathered in the locker room, ready for the peels to fly.
Trainer Stan Ken worthy always carried an oxygen mask in a small
bag, ready for emergencies. The bag looked like any player's kit bag, so
the team placed it in the middle of the floor, knowing that Birch would not
be able to resist it. Sure enough, he kicked it, but the oxygen tank inside
resisted more than a bagful of clothes would have.
Even George Yard ley, whose career had been held back by
Birch's attitude toward him, said, "I think Birch was as good a coach as I
played for, a great disciplinarian. I don't think you have to like somebody
to have a winning team." Professionals can play with anybody, not only
The Pistons were in a dogfight for second place in the western
division behind the dominant Lakers. However, Molinas' slot remained
empty until February when the Z's bought the contract of Leo Bamhorst
from Baltimore. Charlie Share added some insult to injury when he came
back to Fort Wayne's Coliseum and scored 22 points in a game which Fort
Wayne fortunately won 72-71 .
The Pistons made their national television debut on February 6
when the Dumont Network aired their game in Syracuse. The Nats won in
overtime 93-87. It was one of a fourteen game schedule, which opened a
tenuous trial marriage between network television and basketball. Boston,
after four games, cancelled their viewing contract, claiming it was hurting
their regular Sunday afternoon attendance.
By early February the Pistons had inched to a half-game lead over
Rochester, but that was their last hurrah. The Royals pulled away in the
final six weeks and almost caught the Lakers. Fort Wayne's 40-32 record
was respectable, but remained six games behind Minneapolis and four
games back of the Royals.
In the unusual round-robin playoff which followed, the Z's lost at
Rochester, came home and lost to the Lakers 90-85, then flew to Minne-
apolis and another loss 78-73. Back in Fort Wayne, they were spanked by
the Royals 89-71. It was a far cry from their 1953 finish. Minneapolis
knocked out Rochester in a two-of-three series and then beat Syracuse for
the championship in a seven-game set.
The Pistons, in a season-closing promotion, had the fans vote on
an all-time Piston team. There were more than 19,000 votes cast, selecting
Bobby McDermott, Curly Armstrong, Mel Hutchins, Larry Foust and
The Pistons' final game with Rochester was on March 2 1 . After a
March 27 meeting, Paul Birch resigned, ending his three-year term as
coach. It was apparent that Fred Zollner was not going to keep Birch, but
he gave him the dignity of allowing him to resign.
Birch's statement read as follows: "It has been a pleasure to work
with Mr. Zollner these past three seasons and I do feel that the record of
the team shows steady improvement in that period, particularly in road
"After the Molinas incident and the subsequent investigation, the
players worked hard to overcome this handicap as well as the handicap of
a difficult schedule late in the season. Had it not been for these two handi-
caps, I believe we would have finished in second place in the Western
Division and in a better position to compete in the playoffs.
"Unfortunately these handicaps were too great to overcome and I
feel that it is best to bow out of the picture."
Zollner's statement also eliminated Carl Bennett from the basket-
ball scene and placed himself in Fort Wayne's seat on the NBA Board of
"I wish to compliment Paul for his all-out effort and for his integ-
rity. I'm sorry that situations developed with which he was unable to cope.
My first job will be the careful selection of the best available man to coach
the team. I am now considering three men who have never worn a Piston
uniform and I expect to contact these men during the early part of April.
"It is also my intention of giving the new coach full authority, and
in line with this, Carl Bennett is retiring from all phases of basketball. Carl
has been overworked and will now concentrate all of his time on Zollner
Productions presentations such as ice shows and Bruff Cleary Sports
Promotions including professional boxing and wrestling, in addition to his
regular work at the plant.
"With this new setup, I will represent the Pistons on the NBA
Board of Governors and the new coach will have full authority in all other
phases of the team operation."
Thus the 1953-54 campaign, which had opened with such optim-
ism and enthusiasm, ended on a rather drab note with the question of who
would be the next coach. Fred Zollner's quest for the best and thirst for
Within three weeks, non-gambler Fred Zollner rolled the dice and
named Charley Eckman, veteran college and NBA referee, as head coach
and turned the basketball program over to him.
The announcement of a three-year contract stunned the Fort
Wayne community and startled the basketball world. It had been Zollner's
best-kept secret. Eckman's name had never entered any speculation. Carl
Bennett was probably the most surprised. He had been Zollner's number
one liaison with sports for fourteen years, but had no inkling of these
Fred Zollner derived great enjoyment from doing the unexpected,
pulling a big surprise, keeping a dark secret. His secret of hiring Eckman
was probably the biggest of his sports life.
It was another Zollner surprise for Eckman when he was offered
the job. Charley recalled it for a story by Alan Goldstein for the Balti-
more Sun in June, 1990.
"I'm sitting at home in Baltimore," said
Eckman, "when the operator said she was putting through
a call from Golden Beach, FL, where all the millionaires
went for a sun tan. It was ol' man Zollner. He wanted me
to come down for a job interview. He said his was
looking for a coach.
"It sounded crazy at first, but then I
figured I had nothing to lose. I had $38 to my name after
spending all winter running around the country officiating
high school, college and pro games. I also had a wife and
three kids with big appetites. Why not take a shot at it?
"So I borrowed $20 from the corner
grocer and hopped a plane for Fort Lauderdale. By the
time I got there, I was down to $12. But there is a
chauffeur-driven Cadillac waiting for me at the airport.
He drives me to a fancy beach-front hotel. I ordered a
fifth of Canadian Club from room service. When I got
hungry, I had the chauffeur drive me to Wolfie's for a hot
dog. Then I went to bed.
"At 10 a.m. the next morning, Mr.
Zollner is knocking on my door. He says, 'Charlie , can
you coach my team?' I say, 'Absolutely. I can win a title
with your guys.' And he says, 'I think you can, too.'
"So he calls a hotel stenographer and
draws up a two-year contract that is going to be worth
$ 1 0,000 a year. Even if I get fired after the first year, the
second is guaranteed. Plus, I got an extra $1,500 for each
playoff series that we won! I wound up making $4,500 in
bonus money those first two years. Making $14,500 in
those days was a lot of money for a coach, and I could
thumb my nose at Red Auerbach in Boston and Joe
Lapchick in New York."
Bob Renner, in the News-Sentinel, pointed out that "Eckman's
only coaching background was as a recreational director in the Air Force
during the war." Bob Reed, sports editor of the Journal-Gazette, said,
"Searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack might present a
comparatively easy task compared to putting a finger on the person who
knew all along that Charley Eckman would be the next Zollner Piston
Zollner's official statement read as follows: "Charley Eckman
was my no. 1 choice from the very beginning. It's now obvious why it was
necessary to wait until the playoffs concluded.
"He meets all of our qualifications for the position. He has a thor-
ough knowledge of basketball as it is played in the National Basketball
Association because of his first hand association with all the teams in the
league over a seven year period.
"Eckman has the respect for the players and owners in the league
because of exemplary service as a official and for the same reason by fans
throughout the league.
"He has developed a keen and analytical knowledge of players in
the league which will be invaluable to us in the coming seasons. His
college officiating over a 12-year period will be extremely helpftil in
developing rookies for the NBA's caliber of play.
"Charley has signed a three-year contract and will take over
immediately with full authority, beginning with the player draft meeting in
New York this week."
Eckman's reaction was quoted in the News-Sentinel. "I know I
haven't had much coaching experience but I know I can get along with
both the players and the fans. That's the big thing in coaching anyway,
getting the boys to play together and keep them in a happy frame of mind.
How much can anybody teach these players today, everybody is an Ail-
American and knows the game backward and forward?"
It was the second time that a referee had been named coach. The
other occasion had also occurred in Fort Wayne, when the Hoosiers in the
old American League (1929) hired Lou (Doc) Sugarman as coach.
The Journal-Gazette's Bob Reed wrote: "So, the precedent of a
referee as coach had a precedent in big league pro basketball here 25 years
ago. Charley Eckman, however, is a vastly different type from Doc Sugar-
man, although it's questionable if he knows as much basketball. The good
doctor was surpassed by none at that time in his knowledge of the game."
The optimism of the previous year turned to skepticism as the new
season rolled in.
With classic Zollner timing, Eckman's appointment enabled him
to join Fred at the NBA Board of Governors meeting and to participate in
the annual college draft. The board meeting was historic in adopting the
24 second shot clock rule, and a firm fouling rule, limiting teams to six
fouls per quarter, after which bonus foul shots were given to the offended
The Associated Press reported that the NBA attacked the fouling
situation with 'dramatic vigor', and that Fred Zollner had led the charge.
Zollner was quoted as saying that the six foul limit would elim-
inate butcher-boy tactics and the 24 second limit would assure the defen-
sive team that the offensive team would not be able to stall. It was an
impressive debut for Zollner on the Board of Governors.
Eckman supported Zollner's initiatives, telling AP that everyone
had been in favor of the new rules. The vote had bene unanimous and the
discussion without animosity. He declared that the regulations would be a
shot in the arm for professional basketball, and so they were.
The genesis of the 24-second shot clock was the Pistons' famous
19-18 stalling win over Minneapolis in 1950. The impact of the change in
1954 was immediate. Team scoring jumped an average of 14 points per
game; personal fouls fell from an average of 59 per game to less than 50.
Boston became the first team to average more than 100 points a game.
The players were happy at the change, too. The faster game put
an end to the habits of players who held the ball so long you could, as
Dike Eddleman said, "almost go to sleep."
The first Eckman-Zollner college draft consisted of Dick
Rosenthal (Notre Dame); Arnold Short (Oklahoma City College); Bertram
Bom (Kansas); Mel Thompson (North Carolina State); Clarence (Butch)
Burch (Pittsburgh); Charlie Kraak (Indiana); Bemie Janicki (Duke); Don
Bielke (Valparaiso); Phil Larsen (Brigham Young); Forrest Jackson
(Taylor) and Joel Hittleman (Loyola of Baltimore).
Eckman made his first visit to Fort Wayne as coach after the NBA
meeting, and spent a week talking to the press, radio and fans. He
appeared on three Fort Wayne radio stations and WKJG-TV, and visited
stations in Kalamazoo, South Bend, Lima, Indianapolis and Muncie. He
covered a thousand miles in the week, then started a cross-country swing
to contact draftees and make a personal visit to each of last year's squad
The best tactical move Eckman made was to choose to make these
visits to Birch's leftovers. Team morale was at an all-time low. The reac-
tion to Birch's hard-nosed tactics surfaced and it was up to Eckman to turn
Eckman later stated that he knew Birch had a reputation as a wild
man. Eckman also had a high opinion of George Yardley, whom Birch
disliked. He told the players he would set a new standard, without yelling
and with no set plays. He felt that the players were experienced and able
to organize play on their own. By emphasizing the positive, Eckman tried
to make them happy. His first choice was George Yardley.
The reaction was exactly what Eckman had hoped for. As
Yardley said, "Charley's greatest attribute was that he treated us like
human beings." Yardley's career soared.
Eckman was said to have come to the team knowing only two
plays. "If that's the truth," Frank Brian said, "He didn't let us know it.
Anyway, two's enough. You have to have an offensive system that you
can run, not plays. The system is what you need. It wasn't like having a
Mel Hutchins remembered that Eckman had a basic instruction for
the team: "If you need a basket, give the ball to Yardley or Hutchins."
Rosenthal, the number one draft pick, signed in June and brought
all of the Notre Dame scoring records with him. Eckman made a fruitless
quoted in Terry Pluto, Tall Tales, p.42-43.
trip to Pittsburgh in an attempt to talk Dick Groat into returning to Fort
Wayne to play basketball during baseball's off-season. Groat was willing,
but Branch Rickey of the Pittsburgh Pirates nixed the idea.
The Western Division seemed to be evening up when George
Mikan retired from the Lakers, perhaps through a combination of bad
knees and apprehension of the 24-second shot clock.
Fred Scolari was the only veteran to send back an unsigned
contract, asking to be traded. Eckman's first call for practice was October
1, and thirteen candidates responded: Murray, Phillip, Yardley, Hutchins,
Foust, Meineke, Rosenthal, Leo Corkery, Red Owens, Joel Hittleman,
Zaslofsky, Zeke Sinicola, and Brian. Corkery, Owens, Hittleman and
Sinicola were released during the seven-game exhibition schedule against
Philadelphia, Baltimore and Minneapolis.
Veteran Paul (Lefty) Walther bought his way out of his Phila-
delphia contract and signed with Fort Wayne. Jack Kerris signed a con-
tract for emergency purposes on a home game basis only. Although Kerris
could not travel, he would be available for home games if needed. At six
foot six, he was an asset. Rosenthal missed some of the training sessions
as he was on the College All-Star tour against the Globetrotters, where he
was voted the most valuable player on the coast-to-coast run.
Before the season opener, Murray was traded to Baltimore for Jim
Fritsche, a second year player from Hamline University. The ten man
squad of Foust, Phillip, Zaslofsky, Yardley, Hutchins, Walther, Fritsche,
Rosenthal, Meineke and Brian opened with a 91-72 win at Milwaukee.
The home opener, a 90-86 win over Boston, drew less than 3000. The fans
were only mildly curious and still skeptical.
The Pistons made their Fort Wayne national television debut on
the NBA's game-of-the-week on November 6, and beat the Knicks 90-83.
The game was blacked out locally and drew only 1000 paying fans plus
2000 free Knot Hole Gang members. A Sunday night win over Rochester
gave the Z's four straight and the western division lead. Even with the
winning streak, only 2273 showed up the following Thursday when Syra-
cuse broke it by nosing out Fort Wayne 88-86.
Scolari's contract had been traded to Boston for the rights to Bob
Harris. Harris had broken in with the Pistons originally as an Ail-Amer-
ican under coach Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M. He had been dealt to
Boston in 1950. His career with the Celtics lasted three years. This time,
he elected to stay retired.
Fort Wayne's fast sprint out of the chute gave them the western
lead immediately. They lost it by a few percentage points to Minneapolis,
but it quickly returned. In late November the national television cameras
came back to Fort Wayne for the NBA game-of-the-week. The Lakers
themselves were the foe and the game decided the western lead. Hutchins
scored 22 points and the Pistons had a huge 38-point fourth quarter to
thump Minneapolis 98-81.
The turnaround in the Pistons' performance against the Lakers this
season was substantial. Aside from the changes in their own organization,
the absence of George Mikan on the other side made a big difference. As
Carl Bennett commented, when Mikan was present, "he dominated the
game." Without him, the Lakers were a team the Pistons could face on a
more equal footing.
As for the players' perception of televised games, according to
Andy Phillip they did not think about it much. "We were out there to have
fun and make a living. No one perceived the marketing value of
television." Broadcast sports at the time usually meant boxing, wrestling
or roller skating. However, every-one soon learned the importance of the
new medium when sports on television mushroomed.
The tottering Baltimore franchise finally collapsed and the players
were parcelled out to the surviving clubs. The Pistons got Al Roges. The
other teams picked up Frank Selvy (to Milwaukee); Don Henrickson
(Rochester); Bob Houbregs (Boston); Connie Simmons (Syracuse); ex-
Piston Ken Murray (Philadelphia). Bob Leonard, who was in the military,
went to Minneapolis. Al McGuire and three others were not drafted.
Eckman had been hopeful of getting Simmons to help spell Foust.
A new schedule was planned to assure the full 72 games, but three
weeks later the league backtracked. They decided not to count the games
Baltimore had already played, which shuffled the standings and individual
scoring slightly. The situation did not affect the Pistons' lead, which now
stood at 18 wins in 23 games, and nine straight in the Western Division.
Fan approval of the Pistons' new look continued to be slow in
arriving. In early December, Jim Costin wrote in the News-Sentinel the
Z's were exciting "all NBA cities but Fort Wayne."
He continued, "Of the eight cities participating in the National
Basketball Association, seven are excited about the 'new look' Zollner
"The eighth, Fort Wayne, can't seem to get too enthused about pro
basketball, despite its quality, or as was the case Thursday at the
Coliseum, quantity." The Thursday crowd was 3832 for an NBA double-
header in which the Pistons won their sixth straight 1 16-98 over Boston,
and Milwaukee beat Minneapolis 177-108. Ben Tenney had said the
crowd was "far short of what is needed to foot the bill for a double-
Costin went on, "Proof of this year's 'new look' popularity and
crowd-pleasing style of play was best exemplified in New York last
Tuesday, just following a 92-90 victory over the Minneapolis Lakers.
"Some 9200 fans were in the Garden that evening and after the
Fort Wayne club had come from far behind to edge the defending champs,
the entire crowd saluted it and Charley Eckman with a standing ovation.
Even in Rochester the following evening, many Rochester natives cheered
the Pistons' style of play and spirit.
"No less than 1 7 New York newspaper and radio men visited the
Piston comeback win over the Lakers."
Fred Zollner finally got a break in a player dispersal when another
franchise folded. Bob Houbregs, originally Milwaukee's first draft choice,
was assigned to Boston and the Celtics elected to hang on to hometown
favorite Tony Palazzi. All-American Houbregs was put on waivers. For
the $500 waiver price, the Pistons found 'a million dollar baby in the five
and ten cent store.' He was vital to Fort Wayne in the following years.
With Houbregs signed, Eckman cut Jim Fritsche and Al Roges.
Fred's mother, Margaret Zollner, died on December 11, 1954,
while visiting at her son's Florida vacation retreat.
By December 22, the Pistons had a comfortable five-game lead
over Minneapolis. Fred Zollner's stunning move of naming a referee to
coach his team was reaping huge dividends. Assured of first place by
January 1, Eckman earned the head coaching job for the Western Division
for the fifth NBA All-Star game, which would take place January 18 in
New York. Al Cervi had to wait until December 30 to cinch the eastern
head coach job, his Syracuse Nationals having a slim game-and-a-half
margin over New York.
Despite the advantages of the Flying Z, the players still spent a lot
of time away from home in hotels. Asked what they did to keep amused,
Andy Phillip said, "We got into groups and went to the movies. Or slept."
As the season neared the halfway mark, Foust and Yardley were
leading the Fort Wayne scoring with more than 16 point averages.
Hutchins, Brian and Phillip were all in double figures.
Yardley, Phillip and Foust were named to the All-Star team. The
rest of the western division stars were Vern Mikkelsen, Jim Pollard and
Slater Martin from Minneapolis; Frank Selvy and Bob Pettit of Mil-
waukee, and Bobby Wanzer and Arnie Risen of Rochester. The eastern
squad had Carl Braun, Harry Gallatin and Dick McGuire (New York);
Dolf Schayes and Paul Seymour (Syracuse); Paul Arizin and Neil
Johnston (Philadelphia); Ed Macauley, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman
(Boston). Schayes, Cousy and Selvy were unanimous selections.
The east beat the west 100-91 before 13,148 fans at Madison
Square Garden. Eckman, having blown the whistle in a previous All-Star
game, set a personal record. He is the only man to have officiated and
been a coach at an All-Star game.
Through 42 games of the 72 game schedule, the Pistons kept
pulling away from Minneapolis. The Lakers straggled five-and-a-half
games back and Rochester trailed by eleven-and-a-half As the Z's picked
up steam, so did fan support. Elkhart opened a new high school gym and a
Minneapolis game there attracted 6200. The Piston civic committee
staged a Piston Appreciation Night at the Coliseum, drawing 6653 to
watch Fort Wayne smother Rochester 105-84.
Zollner was presented with a plaque and the players received
watches and gold basketballs.
A slowed-down Bob Davies of Rochester had missed being
named an All-Star for the first time; he announced his retirement at the
end of the season to coach Gettysburg College. The Pistons took the
opportunity of this special occasion to present their longtime foe with a
plaque commemorating his brilliant play against them through the years.
As the Pistons steamrollered their way to a first-place finish in
their division, Fred Zollner's championship dreams seemed in sight. The
big disappointment was attendance at home games. When the fans' apprec-
iation night for the best team in basketball could not pack Memorial Colis-
eum, it may have foreshadowed the future move to another city.
Take, for example, a series with second-place Minneapolis. The
Lakers were scrapping to stay in the race and drew 7400 fans for the
Saturday night game, which the Pistons won. The following night in Fort
Wayne, only 3700 showed up for another Z's win which, in practical
terms, cemented the Pistons division championship.
At one point the Zollner lead was seven games, but leg injuries to
both Yardley and Phillip cut the roster to eight players for a time and the
Pistons played .500 ball through the final 28 games. Yardley missed
twelve games, Phillip eight.
The NBA dropped the round-robin playoff system adopted the
previous year. Instead, there was a best of three elimination round be-
tween the second and third place finishers in the division, followed by a
best three-of-five series against the regular season champs. The final
series (east versus west) would be on a four-of-seven series. The team
with the highest regular season record would have the home court
advantage for the championship playoffs.
A problem for the Pistons was the fact that they did not have a
home court to play on. The American Bowling Congress moved into the
Coliseum in early March to build 38 bowling alleys for the annual national
tournament, which would attract thousands of tourists to Fort Wayne for a
two-month period. The Pistons played their final Coliseum date on March
4 and clinched the title two days later.
It looked as if Al Cervi would find himself in a familiar situation.
In the old National League battles, he was virtually the only player in the
league who could stop Fort Wayne's Bobby McDermott. Now he was
coaching the Syracuse Nats who were a sure winner in the eastern division
and contending with the Pistons for home court advantage in the playoffs.
A seven-game winning streak near the end of the season allowed
the Nats to tie Fort Wayne's mark of 43-29. Syracuse had been the Zoll-
ners' nemesis in regular season play, winning seven of the nine games
between the teams. The Pistons kept a clean slate in Syracuse, never
winning a game in the Onondaga Coliseum.
The Syracuse jinx was almost unbelievable. Fort Wayne had man-
handled the defending champion Lakers nine out of twelve times and
Rochester eight out of twelve times during the campaign. They still went
2-7 against the Nats.
At this time the Piston team was handcrafted by Zollner, almost as
if it had come off the drawing board at his aluminum piston plant. Fred
had handpicked each player after assessing their skills elsewhere. Only
Foust and Brian could be regarded as Piston originals in the NBA. The
shocking hiring of Eckman proved to be the icing on the cake.
Eckman's loose and good-humored approach, his tendency to
depend on the knowledge of his veteran players and the weakened state of
their great rivals in Minneapolis and Rochester, led the Pistons to the top.
The Pistons and Nationals waited in the wings while the
semifinals determined the division finalists. The Lakers eliminated Roch-
ester. Boston was a mildly surprising winner over New York, beating the
Knicks 11 6- 109 in the deciding game.
Playing at Elkhart, the Pistons opened with a 96-79 win over the
Lakers and the series moved to the Indianapolis Coliseum. An estimated
3000 saw the Elkhart game. A weird 98-97 overtime win for Fort Wayne
in Indianapolis sent the Pistons two-up. The Z's shut out Minneapolis in
the overtime period and Phillip's free throw with 1 :02 on the clock was the
Zollner Pistons, 1954-55. Top L to R: Don Meineke, Frank Brian. Middle
L to R: trainer Stan Kenworthy, Dick Rosenthal, George Yardley, Jim
Fritsche, Mel Hutchins, Larry Foust, Andy Phillip. Front L to R: Max
Zaslofsky, Lefty Walther, coach Charley Eckman
The third game, in MinneapoHs, also went into overtime. The
Lakers won this one 99-91. Whitey Skoog hit two clutch free throws in
the last five seconds to send the game into an extra period. Yardley had 25
points and Skoog unexpectedly led Minneapolis with 24.
The Pistons won the division championship with a convincing
105-96 fmale at Minneapolis. Dick Rosenthal chipped in 21 points to
match Hutchins for scoring honors. Syracuse marched through Boston in
three of four games to set up the Piston-Nat playoff for the title.
The irony in Fort Wayne playing Syracuse for the NBA cham-
pionship lay in the fact that the two smallest cities in the league were
vying for the title. Big city fans laughed about Fort Wayne being a
whistle-stop in the west, and Syracuse being a truck-stop near the Arctic
The arenas in those big cities had the most seats, but the old
National League teams drew the fans to fill them. Up to 1954, all four of
the NBA championships had gone to Minneapolis and Rochester, and
another looked like it was going to go west as well.
The Zollners still faced the problem of not having their home
court to play on. The NBA turned down a request to return to their
original home, the North Side High School gym, because the floor was not
large enough for NBA specifications.
As in the semifinals, the Indianapolis Coliseum would have to be
Fort Wayne's "home" court, and their hometown fans would have to go to
Indy to support the team. The Nats had won the right to the home court
advantage by beating the Z's seven out of nine times during the regular
The odds board was tilted heavily for Syracuse. The Pistons had
lost 24 straight times there. The club owners had little in common. Danny
Biasone owned some bowling alleys while Zollner was a wealthy
industrialist. According to Eckman, Fred had loaned the NBA money in
the early days to stay alive; his capital had enabled the league to struggle
to its feet. Biasone, on the other hand, began the playoffs by launching a
fundraising drive to ensure the Nats could keep going in 1955-56.
The two things Fred and Biasone had in common were that they
both liked to sit on the players' bench and they wanted their teams to be to
basketball what Green Bay was to football.
Years later Johnny Kerr, the big Syracuse center, would quip,
"When Fort Wayne got tossed out for the bowling tournament, all I could
think was, 'Thank god Danny Biasone owns his own bowling alley, so we
don't have to worry about the bowlers kicking us out of Syracuse.'"
So the truck stop and the whistle stop rolled out the ball on March
3 1 at Syracuse for the opening game. It was less than a year since Eckman
had turned in his striped shirt to become the Piston coach. This was Fred
Zollner's most important series.
More than 7500 Syracuse faithful filled Onondaga Memorial
Coliseum. The Pistons lost their 25th straight game in Syracuse 86-82.
The Nats took an early twelve-point lead but by halftime the Z's had pulled
within four points.
With seven and a half minutes to go, Fort Wayne led 75-71, but
Red Rocha and Earl Lloyd sparked the Nats' driving finish. Foust with 26,
Hutchins with 14 and Yardley at 13 paced the Z's; Rocha had 19 and Paul
Syracuse went two-up two nights later with an 87-84 win. The
Nats started early, leading 49-38; the Pistons caught them in the third
quarter. Frankie Brian had 1 5 points in the second half and 20 in the
game. Yardley had 21 and Hutchins 14.
The third game at Indianapolis drew 3200 fans and the Pistons
won 96-89. The Z's rolled to a 15-point lead in the third quarter and five
players wound up in double figures: Hutchins, 23; Foust, 17; Brian, 16;
Bob Houbregs, 12; Andy Phillip, 11.
Fort Wayne evened the series in the fourth game in one of their
best offensive shows of the year. At one point they were 1 8 points ahead
and wound up winning 109-102. A disappointing 261 1 fans turned out on
a spring-like evening. Seven ZoUner players were in double figures:
Brian, 18; Hutchins, 17; Foust and Phillip, 15; Yardley and Meineke, 12;
The Pistons moved to within one game of the champion-ship in
the fifth game, nosing out the Nats 74-71. The explosive Z's once again
zoomed to a 1 5 point lead in the third quarter, but came close to losing it
after a furious finish by Syracuse in the fourth. The Nats pulled
themselves up to 72-71, but Brian made two last-second free throws for
Mel Hutchins later paid tribute to Brian's ability to put the ball
where it needed to go. "He was strong and fast. He would go through a
wall if he thought the ball was there. He did't give off many assists, but
when he went for the basket, get out of the way."
That sent the series back to Syracuse. Fort Wayne was within one
game of the title, but they would have to do it in 'never-never land', where
they could not seem to win.
True to their playoff form, the Pistons jumped to an early lead, 27-
19 at the quarter. A brawl erupted when Houbregs and Syracuse's Wally
Osterkorn scrambled over a loose ball. Police had to break up the melee
and technicals were given to both benches, but there were no player
ejections. The Piston lead was whittled down to two (55-53) at the half.
Going into the last quarter, Fort Wayne led 84-78. Hutchins fouled out at
9: 15. With seven minutes to go, the Pistons led by four. Syracuse caught
up 103-103 with two minutes on the clock, and went on to win 109-104.
This sent the series into a seventh game. Yardley was brilliant, getting 3 1
points and 12 rebounds. Brian had 24 points and eight assists. Schayes'
28 points and 12 rebounds led the Nats.
The playoffs could not get much closer. In six games, the Pistons
had scored 549 points to Syracuse's 544. Schayes led all scorers with 120
points; Yardley had 101 . Brian had 92; Foust 87 and Hutchins 83.
The final game went right down to the wire. It was a finish
worthy of the movies. Bob Reed described it in the Journal-Gazette:
"George King of the Syracuse Nationals dropped in a free throw with 12
seconds remaining and thus beat out Fort Wayne's Pistons by 92-91 this
afternoon for the world's championship of professional basketball.
"It was the all-time heart-breaker for the Pistons, who were within
1 :22 of the finish line still holding a lead and who at one time in the first
half had held a 17-point lead.
"A crowd of 6697 saw the title game and went wild at the Nats
were presented the championship trophy by league president Maurice
Fort Wayne had outshot Syracuse from the field, but the Nats hit
40 of 49 free throws and the Zollners 25 of 34. Foust led all scorers with
24; Brian had 19; Hutchins 13 and Phillip 10. King had 15 for Syracuse.
Describing the last twelve seconds of the game after King's free
throw, Johnny Kerr remembered: "Andy Phillip had the ball for Fort
Wayne and he dribbled into the corner against Paul Seymour. When he
did, George King left his man and then he and Seymour double-teamed
Phillip, King stealing the ball. That was the ball game." ''
The Pistons flew home on the Flying Z. A tumultuous welcome
awaited them when they touched down on the evening of Easter Sunday.
Some 4000 fans greeted them as heroes at Zollner's hangar.
^^ Journal-Gazette, \^n\ 10, 1955.
Terry Pluto, Tall Tales, p.'
The players' pool for the series awarded $1400 to each Syracuse
player, $1250 to each of the Pistons. Yardley later said that Fred Zollner
had promised each team member a $500 watch if they won.
Nonetheless, Fred did present Charley Eckman with a substantial
bonus for bringing the Pistons to the divisional championship and also
raised his salary for the coming season.
Heart- warming as the welcome home ceremonies were, the Pis-
tons were emotionally and physically drained. They felt their pockets had
been picked, either by George King or the officials. They had proved
themselves as the best team in basketball, until the last twelve seconds.
One of the Pistons observed, "The officials evened it up. It was a
lousy game and on TV, so they made a game out of it. It was uncalled for.
Sometimes if the game wasn't working, the officials would tend to over-
look things and let it even up."
At one point during the season they had a seven-game lead over
Minneapolis in the West and Syracuse in the East. The Z's had blown a
1 7-point half-time lead on a Syracuse floor, where they had never won a
game, and lost the championship.
There was the predictable moaning and groaning — the "we-wuz-
robbed" wailing. A post-game column by Bob Reed, the conservative
sports editor of The Journal-Gazette, may have had more impact on Fort
Wayne's future in the NBA than anyone realized at the time.
"May the Better Team Win"
"Sunday noon, just before the final battle in Syracuse, we were
sitting in the coffee shop of the Onondaga Hotel in a group that included a
few Piston players. Maurice Podoloff, president of the National Basket-
ball Association, who had just finished his lunch at another table, came
over to exchange a few pleasantries and departed with the well-worn
expression of any sports executive in a similar position:
'"May the better team win.' And he added: 'That doesn't always
"We wondered if he remembered that about five hours later as he
was presenting the championship trophy to the Syracuse Nationals. Be-
cause his words turned out to be so strangely prophetic. For the better team
The curtain fell on the 1954-55 season when Zollner and Eckman
had a meeting with the players at the piston plant. All the players were on
hand except Max Zaslofsky who had hitched a ride back to New York
from Syracuse. The thoughtful Zollner prepaid the players their share of
the runner-up loot from the NBA pool so they would not have to wait for
their checks from the league.
The new look of the Pistons had come full circle since Eckman
had been named basketball chief a year before. As the world champion
softballers had disbanded in September, 1954, there was no athletic
business office at the plant. Publicist Al Busse had moved on to work in
Madison Square Garden's promotion office, and Carl Bennett and Rodger
Nelson had departed the scene, leaving Phil Olofson as Zollner's chief aide
on the business side and Eckman in charge of the team. Zollner became
more personally involved in the executive end of the franchise and was
actually calling every shot.
The business office had moved downtown to the Keenan Hotel.
The major ticket accesses were no longer Vim Sporting Goods Store or
Bud Fisher's Harrison Hill Drug Store or the personnel window at Zollner
Machine Works. Zollner's private family sports dynasty was going more
public and welcomed community participation in, among other things, a
season ticket sale drive.
Pro basketball was reaching a new plateau. The 24-second clock
had been an astounding success, providing a running game, a higher
scoring game, exactly what the NBA founders had in mind. Scoring
jumped from an average of 79.5 to 93.1 points per game. The minimal
television exposure had had a big effect in a few scattered games in the
season and the championship playoffs. Television suggested new things
on the horizon.
Things were humming at the Zollner plant with Fred's hand-
picked executives, management, engineers, draftsmen, craftsmen and
staffs well-geared, ft allowed Zollner the luxury, for once, of less hands-
on management and more enjoyment of a Golden Beach, Florida, vacation
retreat which would eventually be his home.
He was persistent in his basketball dreams of making pro basket-
ball a national sport just as he had spread the gospel of Softball through his
"major league" efforts. He pursued the idea by announcing his basketball
team would have pre-season training, as the softball and baseball pros did.
It would be 'fall training' in late September or early October, and would
include some exhibitions with other pro teams. The Pistons also scheduled
two more regular season trips for the Forida fans even though the previous
two seasons' trial runs had not been fruitful.
One of the Florida junkets included a league game against Boston
in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a St. Louis home game in New Orleans.
The Flying Z's engines had barely cooled off from the historic
homecoming before the propellers whirred away again to start the 1955-56
season. After the team meeting in Fred's office, Zollner, Eckman, Olofson
and a couple of media persons were on board to go to New York for an
NBA board meeting and the college draft.
There was a lot of speculation about what might happen to the
NBA runners-up. Paul (Lefty) Walther already had announced retirement.
There was speculation about veterans Frank Brian and Max Zaslofsky.
Yardley, who led the team in all games with a seventeen-point average,
usually had a summer reluctance for commitment or early practice. Dick
Rosenthal was headed for the armed services.
So the draft was important, perhaps more than usual. Eckman
passed up Notre Dame's Jack Stephens for Jim Horan, six-foot-eight center
from Dayton, as Fort Wayne's first choice. Second choice was Jesse
Arnelle, of Penn State, a rugged six-foot-five 225-pounder who also had
been drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the National Football League.
Dick Groat was starring for the Pittsburge Pirates in baseball, but
still yearned to play basketball for the Pistons. The Pirates' Branch Rickey
was reluctant to give that permission.
Despite many rumors of new franchises, the league remained
stable, but some teams were shaky financially. After teasing about moving
his team to Indianapolis or Des Moines, the restless and opportunistic Ben
Kerner got the governors' appoval to move to St. Louis, which proved to
be a money-wise decision.
Besides approving Milwaukee's move to St. Louis, the Board of
Governors' meeting was significant in showing that the NBA was getting
on the right track. The league split up its first network television money
($40,000). The Pistons' share was $3,000 for one home game. Rochester
and Minneapolis had not had a televised game and Zollner graciously gave
the Lakers and Royals $1000 each.
The player draft was opened to the press for the very first time.
Top pick was Tom Gola of LaSalle, who went to the Philadelphia War-
riors. Because of their home-town draw, players whose colleges were
within a fifty mile radius of the franchise became preferential bonus drafts.
George Senesky, former Warrior star who had succeeded Eddie Gottlieb
as coach at Philly, now had a formidable lineup that included scoring
leaders Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin. It boded well for them in the
The Pistons' Larry Foust was named to the NBA All-Star team
along with Milwaukee's Bob Pettit, Arnie Johnson, Boston's Bob Cousy
and Dolph Schayes of Syracuse. No Pistons made the second team, which
included Slater Martin and Vern Mikkelsen, of Minneapolis; Paul Sey-
mour, of Syracuse; Bill Sharman, of Boston; and Harry Gallatin, of New
Gottlieb welcomed the idea of his Warriors playing the training
games in Florida and the expansive Zollner said he hoped to take a couple
of games out of the Miami area, perhaps to Havana, Cuba.
Rochester was building a new Coliseum and was awarded the
NBA All-Star game in January. The league settled for the same 72-game
schedule starting November 5th. The Pistons did not get a chance to sign
their number two draft pick, Jesse Arnelle, who was lured to the Harlem
Globetrotters by their summer European tour.
In early June, prime draft pick Horan had signed and owner
Zollner gave Eckman a new three-year contract through April of 1958.
Eckman said, "A nice increase in pay was included and I certainly
am happy of the faith shown to me by the move. I hope I can justify that
new pact by fine showings with the Z's the next few seasons."
The Pistons strengthened their back court by purchasing
Philadelphia's second draft choice, Walter (Corky) Devlin, of George
Washington. Eckman was worried about the back court, having lost
Walther to retirement, Brian "on the bubble," and Rosenthal to the service.
Zollner's coach was also trying to make a trade for Don Meineke.
Fred Zollner's own front office was changing. He hired Marjorie
Bowstrom as his personal secretary. Replacing a retiring secretary would
be quite routine normally, but Mrs. Bowstrom, with her experienced
background as administrative assistant and corporate secretary to the
Washington, D.C., Armory Board, was exceptional. She became an
integral part of the Zollner operation.
Her responsibilities increased through the years and, later, she
became Fred's assistant in 1967 when he was named chairman of the board
and CEO. She was elected to the Zollner board of directors in 1976, then
assistant chairman and assistant CEO in 1978. When Zollner died in 1982,
Mrs. Bowstrom was elected chairman of the board and CEO, a position
she held until her retirement in 1990.
Zollner Corporation chief executive officer Marjorie Bowstrom
An active sports fan, Marjorie particularly enjoyed her association
with the basi^etbali team, both in Fort Wayne and Detroit, until Zollner
sold the team to Bill Davidson of Detroit in 1974. One of her fervent
hopes had been to see Fred Zollner inducted into the Basketball Hall of
Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, for his indelible contributions to prof-
Reality and practicality prevailed over the fantasy Florida training
plan. It was replaced by a rigorous sixteen-game exhibition schedule, with
St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Syracuse providing the competition. Sand-
wiched in would be a Memorial Coliseum date with the College All-Stars,
Fort Wayne's only home showing before the season started. The All-Stars,
one of whom was the Pistons' Corky Devlin, scheduled meetings with six
NBA clubs during the pre-season.
Branch Rickey vetoed another Piston plea for Dick Groat's part-
time service in basketball. Frank Brian announced his retirement in early
October. Meineke was traded to Rochester in a straight player deal for
The University of Louisville's Chuck Noble came in for a tryout
after spending one season with the Akron Goodyears in AAU play.
The Piston Civil Action Committee would up its season ticket
sales campaign and fell slightly short of the 2,500 goal; public figures
were never disclosed. But selling more than 2,000 season tickets was still
a hallmark figure in the NBA. Rumors persisted about moving the Fort
Wayne franchise to a larger city but Zollner's pat answer remained, "If the
fans prove they want us we have no plans to move."
Eckman called the team's first practice for October 5th and with
only four veterans and ten rookies answering the opening bell, the
ambitious 'play-into-shape' exhibition schedule seemed more appropriate
than the original Florida training plan.
The veterans were Andy Phillip, Max Zaslofsky, Bob Houbregs
and Odie Spears (with previous experience at Chicago and Rochester).
The rookies were Jim Horan, Don Bielke, Connie Mack Rae, Corky
Devlin, Chuck Noble, Mack Williams, George Glasgow, Farleigh Dick-
inson, John O'Boyle, Charlie Mock, and Tom Mixon. Foust, still unsigned,
was on hand in street clothes. Within a week, Foust signed, and Yardley
and Hutchins had joined the club.
Eckman called the first two exhibitions against St. Louis practice
games and used rookies extensively. The College All-Stars came to Fort
Wayne on October 20th and the Pistons came to life for a 97-93 victory
before a disappointing turnout of only 2524 fans. The Zollners had ruffled
a few NBA feathers by insisting on one of the All-Star dates and the News-
Sentinel sports editor Ben Tenny wondered if the Pistons had made a
Noble looked good enough to Eckman that the Pistons bought his
contract rights from Philadelphia. Compared to their flying start a year
ago when they were undefeated in pre-season games, 1955-56 was a
disaster. The Z's lost two to St. Louis, five of six to Philadelphia and split
six games with Syracuse. The eleven players to survive the final cuts were
Phillip, Spears, Noble, Zaslofsky, Yardley, Horan, Foust, Bielke, Hou-
bregs, Hutchins, and Devlin.
The weekend of November 5-6 v/as set as the opener for the NBA,
labeled the toughest league in pro history. The Pistons opened against the
league champs at Syracuse. It was an overtime thriller before nearly 3800
noisy Nats' fans and the Z's managed to blow a five-point lead with 2:04
left to play and lost 114-113. Rookie Jim Tucker of Duquesne hit the final
shot with two seconds on the clock to give Fort Wayne its 29th straight
loss in Syracuse.
Fort Wayne set an opening night home record of 6535 the
following night at Memorial Coliseum and were outdueled by Minne-
apolis, 96-95. The Lakers were almost wire-to-wire win-ners, losing the
lead just once (67-66 in the third quarter). Clyde Lovellette, off to a fast
start, led the winners with thirty-one points. Foust had twenty-five for the
Z's but the Pistons paraded to the foul line for sixty shots, making only
forty-three of them. Opening weekend found Fort Wayne as the only team
with two losses.
The two one-point losses jolted Fort Wayne fans into the reality
that only six of last year's championship runners-up were still on the
Zollner roster: Hutchins, Yardley, Foust, Phillip, Zaslofsky and Houbregs.
The five newcomers were melding in. Gone were Rosenthal, Meineke,
Brian and Walther.
The next weekend found the Z's slipping to 0-3 when they lost to
Rochester, 84-79, in the first half of a double-header at St. Louis, losing a
14-point halftime lead in the process. Bobby Wanzer, now coaching the
Royals, had twenty-five points.
Then it was back to the Coliseum for another double-header and
another shot at the champion Syracuse club. New York tumbled Roch-
ester in the opener 94-91 and the Pistons charged into the win column by
whomping the Nats 93-79, this time coming from behind with a four-point
deficit at halftime. Houbregs led the way with twenty-two; Foust had
nineteen, and Yardley fifteen. The Bird was sensational off the glass,
grabbing seventeen rebounds. Rookie Devlin chipped in with eleven.
The scenario worsened when the Pistons were whacked by New
York 110-88 in the opening game of a doubleheader on the jinxed Syra-
cuse floor. They reverted to their old form of losing the close ones, a 104-
102 loss at Boston and then came home November 20th to tackle the
Fort Wayne's record dipped to a frightening 1-6 as New York took
an overtime 119-115 win in front of 4413 fans. At one point the Z's had a
sixteen-point lead. In the free scoring battle Foust had thirty, Spears had
his best high with eighteen, tying Yardley; and Zaslofsky popped in
twenty-one. Harry Gallatin's twenty-five and Sweetwater Clifton's twenty-
three lead the New Yorkers.
Even with a 104-93 Thanksgiving night game over Rochester
before a crowd of 5535, the Zollners were last in the league at 2-6. Atten-
dance was running thirty- five percent ahead of the previous year.
With such a slow start, roster changes were inevitable. Almost
unnoticed, a milestone was passed when the Zollners signed Jesse Arnelle,
the first black ever to ink a Fort Wayne contract. Although he had not
signed after being their number two draft choice, the European tour of the
Globetrotters was over and the Penn State six-foot-five star wanted to take
a crack at the NBA. He played in the November 24th game at the Colis-
eum, hitting one of eight shots and fouling out.
To make room for Arnelle, Don Bielke was released. The ensuing
road game at Philadelphia was also Max Zaslofsky's final pro game. The
ten-year veteran was released in a surprise move since he was averaging
nearly ten points a game. Jim Holstein, released by the Minneapolis
Lakers, was signed to fill the Zaslofsky slot.
After Holstein signed, Eckman finally abandoned his number one
draft choice, Horan. Horan was given his outright release after several
trade potentials. One rumor had Zaslofsky and Horan traded to St. Louis,
the Hawks' Charlie Share to Minneapolis, and Slater Martin, of Minne-
apolis, to Fort Wayne, but it did not happen.
By the December 1 deadline, the team had pared down its person-
nel. The Pistons finally crawled out of the cellar as 4909 fans enjoyed a
11 1-90 win over the Celtics at the Coliseum. All ten players scored and
the win gave Fort Wayne a 5-8 record, tying Rochester for second behind
St. Louis and ahead of Minneapolis's 5-1 1 mark. Arnelle had a good night
with eleven. Fred Zollner flew in from Florida to see his new team.
Consecutive wins over Syracuse, 90-88 at St. Louis, and 105-94 in
Fort Wayne gave Fort Wayne its longest winning streak of the year at
three, and finally shot them into contention. In the latter game at the
Coliseum, Noble had his best pro night with twenty-eight. A 117-116 loss
at Rochester and a 96-91 win over Philadelphia tightened the race. In mid-
December the standings looked like this:
Rochester 9 9 .500
Fort Wayne 8 9 .471
St. Louis 8 9 .471
Minneapolis 5 14 .208
The Pistons promptly lost their momentum, dropping three
straight, two as opening doubleheaders in the East and the third, a
nationally-televised game from Fort Wayne. New York won the Saturday
afternoon game 90-85, before 2985 fans at the Coliseum and a national TV
audience. It was the lowest turnout of the year for the Z's for a home
game. There was some speculation that people stayed home to see the
novelty of basketball on television.
The Lakers followed New York into the Coliseum the next night.
Fort Wayne stopped its slide and beat the Lakers, 96-86. While in town
Minneapolis picked up the contract of Jim Horan from the Z's for $500.
The number one draft pick played against his former teammates, being
shut out in a brief appearance.
The Pistons used the win over the Lakers as a springboard for a
six-game winning streak which shot Fort Wayne into the division lead for
the first time this season. It happened in Rochester in the first part of a
December twin bill over St. Louis 83-67, giving Fort Wayne a slim .002
percentage point lead over the Hawks. Four nights later in Lansing, the
Z's beat the Hawks, 90-89, assuring Eckman the Western Division
coaching job for the All-Star game.
The first Sunday matinee of the season drew 5531 to watch the
Zollners win their sixth straight 85-68 on New Year's Day and pull away
to a three-game lead in the Western Division. The Lakers broke the streak
two nights later in a double bill in St. Louis, 95-89, despite twenty-five
points by Foust.
Hutchins, Yardley and Foust were named to the Western Division
All-Star team with Mikkelsen, Lovellette and Martin, Minneapolis;
Maurice Stokes and Bobby Wanzer, Rochester; and Bob Pettit and Bob
Harrison of St. Louis. The Eastern squad had Dick McGuire, Carl Braun
and Harry Gallatin, New York; Jack George, Neil Johnston and Paul
Arizin, Philadelphia; Dolph Schayes, Syracuse; and Bill Sharman, Bob
Cousy and Easy Ed Macauley, Boston. The game was set for January 24th
at Rochester's new coliseum, where attendance had been lagging. One
game had drawn less than one thousand spectators.
In mid- January George Mikan came out of retirement to help the
dawdling Lakers. The largest Minneapolis crowd in three years, 7122
turned out to see his return as he helped the Lakers to a 1 17-94 romp over
the Pistons. George scored eleven. The Pistons got even the next night in
Fort Wayne, 104-99, as Mikan scored ten. Fort Wayne's centers, Foust
and Houbregs, managed forty between them, Hoobs getting twenty-three
Devlin received his army draft call and Eckman immediately
talked Frank Brian out of retirement and into joining the team in time for a
southern swing. There were games in Charlotte and Miami Beach plus a
game in New Orleans against St. Louis to attract Bob Pettit's Louisiana
Boston beat the Pistons 91-85 in Charlotte and 90-85 in Miami
Beach, during which Jesse Arnelle suffered a broken nose and went to a
Miami hospital. Brian came back and had six and fourteen points in the
two games. Meanwhile, Devlin was rejected by the Indianapolis draft
board for a chronic back problem. Eckman signed NBA veteran Chuck
Cooper, who had just been released by St. Louis. The roster scramble
gave a temporary college scouting job to Jim Holstein, injured reserve
status to Arnelle and the ten-man roster now included Cooper, Devlin and
Some 5171 turned out when the Z's finally came home to face
Rochester on January 22nd. Wins over St. Louis and the Warriors gave
them an even break on the road. They thumped Rochester 1 1 1-93 in their
homecoming. Devlin, now fighting for his job, had a good game scoring
eighteen, while Cooper had nine and Brian had eight.
Fort Wayne welcomed the All-Star break, enjoying a four-and-
one-half-game lead over Rochester, five-and-one-half over Minneapolis.
They were eight games ahead of St. Louis. The All-Star game drew 85 1 7,
the largest crowd at an indoor sporting event in Rochester. The West,
under Eckman, won 108-94. Pettit led all scorers with twenty; Foust had
nine; Hutchins, eleven; and Yardley, eight. Johnston led the East with
At the NBA Governors' meeting, player representatives asked for
five contract and rule changes: (1) No automatic $15 fine for speaking to
referees; (2) Severance pay for sold or transfered players; (3) Moving
expenses for players traded to other clubs; (4) No more than three banquet
or party appearances per player during the season, excluding news
interviews and charity events; and (5) A limit of twenty exhibition games
before and during the season.
After the All-Star Game, Fort Wayne picked up the pace and won
five straight, giving them seven in a row including the wins over St. Louis
and Philadelphia at the end of their southern excursion. Their division
lead ballooned to seven games over Minneapolis and St. Louis before the
Hawks snapped the string by 98-90 in St. Louis on February 2nd. Arnelle
remained on the injured reserve list; there was no spot open for him.
Arnelle finally made a road trip to Rochester when Hutchins
suffered a sprained ankle but that was the end of his pro career. He played
thirty-one games and achieved a 4.7 point scoring average.
As Fort Wayne spread-eagled the Western Division, Philadelphia
was doing the same in the Eastern half. The Warriors had made the jump
from last place in 1954-55 to first place this season. There was some irony
in that the Pistons had patched up their back court with two good draft
purchases. Corky Devlin and Chuck Noble, who were prime assets in the
Pistons' division title run.
Philadelphia clinched the Eastern crown March 7th. A day later
the Pistons won the Western title with a 100-82 win over the Lakers The
biggest scramble was for playoff spots in the Western Division. St. Louis
and Minneapolis finally tied with 33-39 records; Rochester fell two games
short and was out of the playoffs for the first time in their history.
There were tie-breakers in both divisions. Syracuse beat New
York 82-77 to get third place in the East and Minneapolis earned the home
court advantage with a 103-97 victory over St. Louis in the west. It was an
unusual season with only three clubs finishing over .500: Philadelphia 45-
27, Boston 39-33, and Fort Wayne 37-35. The Pistons, having started
slowly, were six games back of their 1954-55 pace.
The division semifinals went to Syracuse over Boston and St.
Louis over Minneapolis. Neither of the teams won at home in the two-
out-of-three series. That set up the Hawks against Fort Wayne in a best-
of-five playoff for the Western Division title and a spot in the World
Even though Hutchins held Pettit to seven points, St. Louis won
the opener 86-85 before 3491 disappointed fans. The series moved to St.
Louis for a national television date and the Hawks went two up with a 84-
74 win. Yardley had twenty-three in the opener while Foust had sixteen in
the second game loss.
Fort Wayne got back in it 107-84 in a Sunday matinee as 4800
cheered. The series moved back to St. Louis March 26th and the Z's won
this roadie 93-84. Yardley continued to be the Pistons' offensive star, and
Hutchins was still paralyzing the league's best scorer, Pettit.
Dick Shippy, writing for the Journal-Gazette, called the back-to-
the-wall win at St. Louis "the greatest, the mostest and the bestest."
The finale in Fort Wayne on March 29th packed the rafters with
9261 fans. Only the 1953 NBA All-Star game, with special seating
arrangements, outdrew this one. The Pistons won the division crown 102-
97, and moved into the World Series against Philadelphia, a three-of-five
winner over Syracuse.
Fort Wayne established a NBA record of being the only team to
win a five-game playoff series after losing the first two games, ft still
Opening game of the championship series was set for another
nationally televised Saturday afternoon date in Philadelphia. Things
looked good for the Pistons when they spurted seventeen points ahead in
the second quarter but Philadelphia's great offensive power finally wore
them down 98-94. Yardley continued to sizzle with twenty-seven points.
The following Sunday matinee was another barnburner with Fort
Wayne evening the set 84-83. Yardley's thirty bettered Arizin's twenty-
seven. The turnstiles spun another huge crowd, 6957.
More than 1 1,000 turned out in Philly for the third game, which
the Warriors won, 100-96. A sluggish third quarter and Arizin's twenty-
seven points spelled the doom. The series returned to Fort Wayne where
Philadelphia had never won a game in the Memorial Coliseum, the same
jinx Fort Wayne had in Syracuse.
Philadelphia broke the jinx, taking a 3-1 series lead with a 107-
105 win before 7852 fired-up patrons. Arizin continued his spectacular
series with thirty points. A Corky Devlin basinet at the end of the game
barely missed the buzzer.
Philadelphia clinched the world championship in convincing
fashion 99-88. Unheralded Joe Graboski poured in twenty-nine points,
giving the Warrior forwards fifty-five points with Arizin adding twenty-
six. Yardley sparked again with thirty points, but the Pistons were run-
ners-up for the second straight year.
"We must build our club to meet the challenge of this Philadelphia
power and all of the NBA clubs," chorused both owner Fred Zollner and
coach Eckman after the loss.
Surprisingly, none of the Pistons made the NBA All-Star teams.
Pettit was the top vote getter. Other first team selections were Arizin and
Johnston, Philadelpha; and Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman of the Celtics.
Second-team honors went to Dolph Schayes, Syracuse; Maurice Stokes,
Rochester (who was also Rookie of the Year); Clyde Lovellette and Slater
Martin, Minneapolis; and Jack George, Philadelphia.
Chuck Cooper was given his outright release. Eckman went to
Chicago to referee the College All-Star — Harlem Globetrotters game, and
the Pistons awaited the 1956-57 season, which would start with the NBA's
Yardley was the Pistons' leading scorer with 1233 points (17.4
average). Foust, who had been the team's leading scorer for the past five
years, had 1166 points for a 16.2 average. Including the playoffs. Fort
Wayne finished the NBA season at 4 1 -4 1 .
Before departing for their off-season haunts, Houbregs and Odie
Spears became the first to sign their 1956-57 contracts.
The basketball pendulum finally had swung back East. Although
Syracuse, a year earlier, was in the Eastern Division, the team was con-
sidered more 'western' because of a previous National Basketball League
affiliation. The Nationals' 4-3 win over the Pistons had continued the
string of former NBL teams dominating the championships of the NBA.
Philadelphia's lacing of the Pistons was convincing evidence that
the old Basketball Association of America forerunners had caught up with
the NBL. When Fort Wayne, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, and Rochester
jumped from the NBL to form the NBA with BAA survivors, it was on the
basis that the NBL had the big time players and the BAA had the big time
The addition of Tom Gola to the high-powered offense generated
by Paul Arizin and Neil Johnston had given Coach George Senesicy the
combination that now was considered one of the greatest clubs in pro
history. The Pistons did not seem as frantic in their loss to the Warriors as
they were in the controversial defeat by Syracuse a year earlier.
The ZoUner monthly employee magazine, The Rocket, wrapped
up the season with an eight paragraph story headlined "The Big One Got
Away Again." "The big one got away again, but the Pistons already are
formulating plans to see that it doesn't happen a third time... A summing
up for the 1955-56 season can only be a pleasant one. The Z's attendance
increased sharply and tremendous interest in the playoff games (more than
24,000 saw the last three games at home) pointed toward another increase
The college draft pool was shallow. Boston's coach Red Auer-
bach became an instant genius when he got three of the plums. Fort
Wayne picked sixth and took DePaul's Ron Sobieszcyk, but immediately
traded him to New York for Gene Shue, a two-year veteran who had
played college ball at Maryland.
Eckman's trade of Ron Sobie turned in Fort Wayne's favor. Sobie
wound up with a decent four-year career, but Shue became one of the
bigger stars, lasting six of his ten-year career in the Piston organization.
He became one of the NBA's more successful coaches.
Rochester, last in the standings, made Sihugo Green of Duquesne
the number one pick. St. Louis selected Bill Russell, who had led San
Francisco to two NCAA championships and fifty-five consecutive
In the prearranged deal, Russell went to Boston for Cliff Hagan
and Easy Ed Macauley, who was happy to return hom where he had
starred for St. Louis University. The Celtics then added Russell's
teammate, K. C. Jones, and already had selected Holy Cross' Tom
Heinsohn as their territorial draft.
Neither Russell nor Jones would be available until December
because of the Olympics in Australia in November, but it was worth the
wait, ft took a $25,000 signing bonus to keep Russell away from the
St. Louis plucked Willie Naulls of UCLA. Other Piston draftees
were Bob Kessler, Maryland; Bill Thieban, Hofstra; Charley Slack,
Marshall; Joe Leiber, Holy Cross; John Schlimm and Harris, Tennessee
Tech. The last was chosen on the recommendation of Johnny Oldham, a
former Piston star who was now his college coach.
The draft pool was so skimpy that it lasted only seven rounds.
There would be bigger and better drafts ahead.
With so little activity from the college draft, a lot of interclub
trading was in the offing. Eckman had a delicate choice when George
Mikan, now general manager of the Lakers, offered Vem Mikkelsen and
Slater Martin for Mel Hutchins.
After releasing Cooper, Eckman had said Andy Phillip did not
figure in his plans since Dick Rosenthal was coming back from the
service. Phillip retired, but was called by the Celtics. He spent two years
with them, then became a probation officer in California.
The league meeting, in conjunction with the draft, turned down a
serious franchise application from Washington, feeling that a nine-team
circuit would be unbalanced. The NBA stood pat with its eight teams and
a 72-game schedule. Boston was awarded the All-Star game on January
Cal Christensen, former Toledo University star and four-year
NBA veteran, asked for a tryout. Frank Brian confirmed his retirement.
The Piston front office was optimistic and predicted a new
attendance record for the season with 1700 season tickets sold by early
September. Then the Z's dropped a bombshell on the community with a
new radio policy: no home games would be broadcast and twenty-five to
thirty-three of the road games would be heard over WO WO, Fort Wayne's
50,000 watt station. Hilliard Gates, at WKJG, had done the home and
road telecasts throughout all the Piston years and was widely known as the
"voice of the Pistons." He was practically one of the family, sharing
player and management confidants.
"We never considered radio as a revenue until WOWO came up
with this offer. Boston had a similar policy in television, telecasting road
games but no home games. The offer surprised us, and we couldn't turn it
down," business manager Phil Olofson said later.
The official Zollner announcement stated, "The Pistons' assoc-
iation with WKJG and Hilliard Gates, one of the nation's finest basketball
announcers, has been an enjoyable experience, one which, we are con-
fident, has been beneficial for all parties concerned.
"However, expansion of the Piston radio audience, and the 'satur-
ation' schedule of radio broadcasts, must take precedence as part of a new
Piston coach Charley Eckmau, broadcaster HiUiard Gates, Voice of the
Pistons, and team owner and sponsor Fred ZoUner. They are reviewing a
story concerning the Pistons in Sports Illustrated magazine.
radio policy which the Pistons believe is more in keeping with our current
Fred Smith, a former color analyst for Gates, would do the play-
by-play. The change in broadcast policy may have backfired in not
showing the Pistons in their best light. Fort Wayne wound up as the
second worst team on the road, winning only seven of thirty-one on
foreign courts and twenty-three of thirty-one at home. They were 4-6 on
The transformation cycle was nearly complete. Even the Knot
Hole Gang, which kept Zollner Stadium busy in the summer, switched
from Softball to baseball.
Fort Wayne's pre-season plans included opening practice October
1st, four exhibition games against the St. Louis Hawks, and several intra-
squad skirmishes in surrounding towns. The official NBA season would
open in Rochester on October 27th. The home opener at Memorial
Coliseum against Minneapolis would be the following night.
The Z's bought the contract of Bill Kenville from Syracuse to
bolster the back court. The four-game exhibition schedule was an abrupt
change from last year's tiring fifteen-game exhibition, which Eckman said,
"just made us tired."
Don Bieike, Bob Mays, and Joe Liebler were the first cuts. When
the Z's played their first intra-squad game at Dunkirk, Eckman had fifteen
players on the roster: Houbregs, Christensen, Corky Devlin, Chuck Noble,
Bill Bales, Fritz Schultz (Fort Wayne South Side and Tulane), Bob
Yardley (George's younger brother) and Dan Moran. Hutchins was still on
the West Coast, awaiting the birth of a baby.
After the first exliibition loss to St. Louis, 1 19-100, at Auburn, the
squad was cut to eleven. Released were Bales, Bob Yardley, Atha,
Christensen, Moran and Schultz.
The players knew that it was inevitable that their teammates
would come and go. "Every team I played with had a bond between the
players," Frank Brian said, "When somebody was traded, it hurt." They
had to make the best of the tough facts of life. "I was there to do a job, so
you worried more about doing that job."
Eight-year veteran Alex Hannum checked in for a tryout. He
chipped in five points at Bluffton the next night when the Z's won 104-92.
Next move for the Pistons was buying the contract of nine-year
veteran Ephraim (Red) Rocha from Syracuse, which Eckman described as
'pennant insurance.' A ruptured disc put Houbregs on the injured reserve
list for five games.
Eckman started the season opener at Rochester with Yardley,
Hutchins, Foust and the new guard combination of Kenville and Shue. The
Pistons lost 88-85. Rocha managed twelve points as Eckman used all
eleven players. In the Coliseum opener the following night Fort Wayne
beat Minneapolis 94-88. Yardley's 27, Fousfs 24, and Shue's 18 led the
way. After losing the next two, 116-81 at Philadelphia and New York at
home 96-88, the Pistons put Odie Spears out on waivers and brought
Houbregs back off the injured reserve list.
A home split with St. Louis left the Pistons at 2-4 and they were
the trailers in the Western Division. In November the Pistons were still
last in a tightly bunched race. Their 8-10 record was only two games back
of Rochester's 1 1-9 mark while Boston sailed away in the East with a nine-
game winning streak (13-3). Bill Russell had not reported back from the
Olympics yet. Fort Wayne broke the Syracuse floor jinx November 29th,
winning 92-87, the first win over the Nats in Syracuse since 1948 in the
old National Basketball League. A slow start by Syracuse cost Al Cervi
his coaching job. He was replaced by Paul Seymour November 25th.
Bill Thieben, the only rookie to make the roster, was optioned out
on December 1, but kept under contract as the NBA ten-player limit came
The Pistons went head to head with Rochester at the Memorial
Coliseum and had a chance to take over the Western Division lead
December 9th but faltered in a 101-100 overtime thriller. It was a bigger
disappointment when only 3006 fans showed up. When Boston over-
whelmed the Z's two nights later, 113-97, Fort Wayne fell two and one
half games off the pace.
Off-court action was starting to heat up. Slater Martin, who had
been traded to New York for Walt Dukes, was re-traded to St. Louis for
Willie Naulls. Russell, back from the Olympics, turned down a $30,000
offer to give Boston its much-needed defensive backbone.
On the home front, Eckman stirred up speculation again about
moving the Fort Wayne franchise. In a speech in Indianapolis December
13th, Eckman said, "There is a good chance the club may be relocated in
another city by next season." It was the first public hint that had surfaced
since the end of the 1955-56 season.
Zollner quickly denied any commitment to move the team:
"Professional basketball has arrived as a big time sport. Metropolitan
thinking is that three franchises in the National Basketball Association,
including Fort Wayne, should be transferred to larger cities.
"We have made no commitments and sincerely hope that the loyal
fans in this area through their interest and attendance will help us keep
Fort Wayne on the map to occupy the same position in professional
basketball that Green Bay does in professional football."
The Pistons placed Alex Hannum on waivers and put Thieben on
the active list for the following Sunday game against New York. Fort
Wayne won 84-80 but the attendance of 3100 was an unfortunate answer
to the appeal for more fan support.
The NBA was having a hard time getting away from the bush-
league label. New York columnist Milt Gross had used the term in con-
nection with the ill-advised round-robin playoffs three seasons back and
referee John Nucatola had been critical of the league when the front office
did not back up its officials.
Eckman complained about the cross-country jumps on
consecutive nights. Eddie Gottlieb, long-time schedule maker, seemed to
penalize the Fort Wayne club because they had the luxury of their own
aircraft. The Z's usually travelled more miles than any other franchise.
Bill Russell had led the United States to the Olympic gold medal
in basketball. His appearance jump-started the turnstiles all around the
league. His initial appearance in Fort Wayne was December 23 when Fort
Wayne set an single-game attendance record of 8108 fans. The Zollners
whipped the Celtics, 95-87. Rookie Bill Theiben had his best night with
17 points, behind Yardley's leading 22, while Russell was held to five.
Two nights later in a Madison Square Garden appearance, Russell wowed
the crowd of 18,036 even though Boston lost again 89-82 to Philadelphia.
He kept perennial NBA scoring champ Neil Johnston pointless for 40
minutes and grabbed 1 8 rebounds.
Eckman lost his All-Star coaching job to Rochester's Bobby Wan-
zer when the Royals had a half game edge over Fort Wayne in the Western
Division standings by January 1, the determinant date for All-Star
coaching honors. Red Auerbach was the East coach, with a four-game
Boston lead over Philadelphia.
Dick Rosenthal returned from the service and joined the team
immediately. Because of his military status, the Pistons were allowed 1 1
men for 30 days. It came at an appropriate time, with Larry Foust out with
a back problem. Rosenthal chipped in with seven points in his debut and
helped Fort Wayne overcome a 21 -point deficit in beating Minneapolis,
104-102 on January 2. Yardley had 33 points before a disappointing
crowd of 2730, the lowest of the season.
The Zollners finally got to first place January 5 with a 109-96
stomping of the New York Knicks. The nationally-televised game from
Memorial Coliseum attracted 4360 fans. The lead was short-lived as the
Z's lost to Boston, and Rochester beat St. Louis in Sunday games. Roch-
ester was back on top by a half-game.
Yardley and Hutchins were named to the Western Division All-
Star team with Maurice Stokes, Richie Regan and Jack Twyman, of
Rochester; Ed Macauley, Bob Pettit and Slater Martin, St. Louis; and
Clyde Lovellette and Dick Carmaker, Minneapolis.
If there was a chance that the Pistons were going to move from
Fort Wayne, Fred Zollner guarded the secret like an application for a
Rumors surfaced January 10 in the News-SentinePs Ben Tenny
column. Maurice Podoloff, president of the NBA said: "I have never
heard any sentiment at all among the Board of Governors of the NBA
about Fort Wayne being asked to drop out to make way for a larger city....
Fred Zollner has been of much help in recent years in making the league
stronger and he can have a franchise in Fort Wayne for as long as he wants
to have one. How long that will be only he can decide."
Bill Russell came back to town for his second appearance and
with the Z's fighting for first place, Boston whipped Fort Wayne, 98-81.
Russell grabbed 23 rebounds, scored 15 points and blocked several shots
in 43 minutes of action. A weeknight crowd of 4265 showed up.
Two days later the Journal-Gazette headlined: "Zollner Piston
officials 'explore' Detroit as possible site for team". In previous spec-
ulation only Louisville and Milwaukee had been mentioned.
Otto Adams, company treasurer, and R. J. Roshirt, Zollner assis-
tant from Detroit, looked at Olympia Stadium and the University of Det-
roit Fieldhouse. Adams said, "We are no different from several other
NBA cities — Minneapolis, Rochester and Syracuse — which are looking
around for future sites because present attendance suggests such action."
The Pistons, in 15 home dates, had attracted 61,600 patrons, an
average of 4106 per game. Fort Wayne was still the bargain basement
attraction in the league, with a $2.50 top on their ticket prices.
The Zollners finally got back in the West lead by the All-Star
break. The standings, as of January 15 were:
The East beat the West 107-97 before 1 1,178 in Boston Garden,
but the biggest trade coming out of the All-Star game seemed to be Fort
Wayne's Memorial Coliseum for Detroit's Olympia Stadium. The move
seemed imminent when Podoloff gave his blessing to the move. Fred
Zollner said: "Basketball has grown so fast that we feel it is now a
metropolitan attraction. We considered Louisville but decided negatively.
We now are studying the possibility of moving to Detroit and so far every-
thing is very favorable. We should know by March."
Zollner emphasized that attendance the rest of the season would
not influence his decision. He did not want to pressure the Fort Wayne
fans at all. The News-Sentinel reported: "It was indicated that if the
move is negotiated, the Pistons will still play seven games, one with each
other league member, at the Memorial Coliseum. If nothing else, this
might prevent any other team such as Rochester or Minneapolis from
moving its franchise to Fort Wayne."
Zollner's remarks from Boston concluded: "Fort Wayne is a
wonderful city. However, I feel a club can do better in a metropolitan area
of two million people than an area of 200,000."
The Piston basketball club, not knowing whether or not they were
orphans, dropped a couple of road games to New York and Syracuse, and
nearly lost first place. When they came home on January 22 against St.
Louis, it would be their first home appearance since the Detroit
speculation arose. The Z's had a $1 sale (all tickets) but only attracted
January 16, 1957, p.28.
2315 fans, the smallest home turnout of the year. The Pistons won 97-87
and held on to a one-game lead over Minneapolis and Rochester.
Fort Wayne came home for a national television date against
Philadelphia. 4237 turned out to watch George Yardley's 32 points spark
the Z's to a 101-98 win. The next afternoon, still at home, the Pistons
nosed the New York Knicks 103-102 and Yardley, well on his way to a
season scoring record, had 26. Rosenthal's furlough was up and Eckman
tried to trade him to Minneapolis for Dick Schnittker. When Minneapolis
nixed the deal, the Pistons farmed out Rosenthal's contract.
At the end of January, Fort Wayne led St. Louis by two games,
Minneapolis by four and Rochester by four and a half. Yardley's 20.4 per
game scoring average was seventh best in the league. Bob Pettit of St.
Louis, was the leader with his 27.6 average.
Negotiations with Detroit's Olympia Stadium continued and
Zollner set February 1 1 as the final date for a decision. Quoted in the
Detroit Free Press, the Piston owner said: "If it was a 50-50 bet that we
would bring pro basketball to Detroit when we opened business nego-
tiations, it is a 75-25 proposition now."
Cincinnati applied for a franchise, and Fort Wayne and Rochester
played a game there to test the waters. More than 6300 fans turned out to
watch the Royals beat Fort Wayne 96-80.
With the exception of a brief one-day tie in early February, the
Pistons enjoyed first place for a month. St. Louis and Fort Wayne had
identical 24-25 records as of February 4. The Hawks collared them March
8 at 32-36 and took over first in an all- Western Division double-header at
Memorial Coliseum when St. Louis beat Rochester and the Zollners were
edged by Minneapolis 101-97. Ex-Piston Charlie Share had one of his
best nights as a pro, getting 30 of the St. Louis points while Yardley piled
in 31 more points for the Z's. All the hubbub about moving to Detroit
apparently had taken the zing out of the Z's. In the next-to-last game of
the regular season. Fort Wayne clinched its playoff berth by beating
Rochester 100-96, but the second lowest crowd of the season (2358) was
little help to the Zollners' morale.
The Western Division wound up in a three-way tie, necessitating a
one-game round-robin playoff Fort Wayne was pushed into third place
by losing at St. Louis 115-103, and would meet the loser of the Hawk-
Laker game in a two-of-three playoff for survival in the playoff series.
St. Louis beat Minneapolis, placing the Lakers and Pistons
together for the Division semi-finals, which were best two of three. In a
free-scoring fray before only 1467 fans the home court Lakers went one-
up 141-137 as George Yardley continued his sensational scoring with 34
In what proved to be the final NBA game for the Fort Wayne
franchise at Memorial Coliseum on March 19, 1957, the Z's put on a
dazzler but only 2212 fans showed up for it. The Lakers edged the Zoll-
ners 1 10-108 with a rebound basket by Clyde Lovellette and a free throw
by Dick Schnittker in the last 10 seconds sealing the win. The Lakers thus
moved to the Western finals against St. Louis and Fort Wayne had no
place to go except to Detroit. Larry Foust had the distinction of scoring
the last Piston basket in Fort Wayne as part of his 30 point contribution.
The pendulum swing to the Eastern Division was never more evi-
dent. All four Eastern Division teams had better records than the three-
way tie for first in the West:
New York 36
St. Louis 34
Fort Wayne 34
Rochester 3 1
Fort Wayne's love affair with Fred Zollner's basketball team broke
up February 14, 1957. To the die-hard fans it was a funny Valentine. To
Zollner and the NBA it was a practical business decision that was
necessary if the Zollner Pistons were to keep pace in a league that was
becoming more metropolitan with each passing season.
In a brief press conference in Detroit, Zollner announced that he
had signed a six-year contract to play 22 nights a year at Olympia
Stadium. He also named Otto Adams, treasurer for the Zollner Cor-
poration, as his general manager and handed Charlie Eckman a three-year
contract as coach.
"It's not so much that we're unhappy and unwanted in Fort Wayne.
We're simply moving to the market," Zollner explained. "But it's just like
moving across the street. I believe a major sport must be located in an
area of more than a million population. In Fort Wayne, we have the high-
est per capita attendance in the league. But it's not enough....
"Let's say that we have been division champions for two years and
are now leading the league and still we have 6,000 empty seats. What
would happen if we were trailing?"
Zollner said Adams, as general manager, would not be based in
Detroit full time, but would be doing a great deal of commuting. Other
personnel from Detroit and Fort Wayne would be named later. The Det-
roit office was scheduled to open April 1 .
When Fred's veil of secrecy was lifted, he laid all his cards on the
table. Backstage, Zollner had orchestrated the plan for a long time and, in
some measure, had stunned the town again just as he had done with his
announcement three years before when he named the referee as his coach.
Zollner, who often operated on a handshake, thought it was the
gentlemanly and decent thing to do to tell the public his plans. He had the
option of taking a few of the remaining games, even the playoffs, to
Detroit for a test run, but fulfilled his commitments to Fort Wayne fans
and Memorial Coliseum to play out the string there.
The decision to go public was a nightmare for the business office.
They used every gimmick they could think of to help fill the seats.
Ben Tenny wrote in the News-Sentinel: "The ones who are sore
are venting their feelings in no uncertain terms. Around some, it's not
popular right now to even mention the names of Zollner, Eckman or others
connected with the move.
"At the risk of having some of that ire directed my way, I would
like to point out, however, that the industrialist who is ending the long era
of athletic promotions here, does not deserve only condemnation at this
time. It was his right to call it quits here any time he so chose, though
most of us had thought he would do so only when he tired of being a pro
"What also should be remembered are these facts: He did give
Fort Wayne a lot of entertainment, a lot of valuable publicity, through the
sponsorships of softball and basketball....
"On top of that, it might be pointed out that thousands of dollars
have been used to give hundreds of Fort Wayne youngsters pleasant hours
News-Sentinel, 14 February 1957, pl^:
in swimming, skating and playing through the extensive Knot Hole Gang
setup the organization has sponsored. That alone deserves the city's
thanks. Chances are those projects long will be part of his program here,
even though he has decided to try to be 'big time' in a 'big city' in his
Detroit's pro basketball history was worrisome. Ten years before,
Olympia Stadium had had a direct tie-in with the Detroit Falcons of the
old Basketball Association of America. The team finished last, folded,
and lost $50,000. That same season the Detroit Gems were in the old
National Basketball League, lost 40 straight games, folded, and lost
Detroit Free Press columnist Tommy Devine offered: "If Fred
Zollner does move here, he had better come in with both his eyes and his
purse wide open.
The most comprehensive statement of the entire move came in
The Rocket, the Zollner Corporation's employee magazine :
"Fred Zollner recently announced that next season the Pistons will
operate as the Detroit Pistons, playing most of their home games at the
Olympia Stadium in that city. He further stated that the franchise was
being transferred with regrets, due to the friendship and loyalty of the local
fans, but the move was necessary in order to successfully compete with
teams from the larger cities of the Nation.
"The Pistons are already receiving a warm welcome from the
sports fans of Detroit, and the press, television and radio representatives
are happy to have the National Basketball Association franchise in their
"Detroit has long been one of America's great sports centers and
the Detroit Pistons will round out a program of having a pennant contender
in professional basketball to go along with the Detroit Tigers, Detroit
Lions and Detroit Red Wings.
"We have received personal best wishes from the management of
these three Detroit Major League Sports activities, who stated that our
addition to the sports program is very desirable in that it makes their city
one of the few that has Major League sports in baseball, football, hockey
quoted in Ben Tenny's column, News-Senlinel, 29 January 1957, p. 14.
" March 1957.
"Professional basketball as played in the National Basketball
Association is now recognized as a major league sport and has received
public acceptance and support throughout the country. The game-of-the-
week is carried on NBC over 140 television stations; national magazines
are carrying weekly articles and capacity crowds attend the games in
"In addition to being able to compete more successfully with
teams from the larger cities, moving the franchise to Detroit will place our
name and the activity in the center of the automotive world, which should
be beneficial in promoting the use of our manufactured products by
leading passenger car and truck companies.
"The Piston management sincerely hopes that arrange-ments can
be worked out to play a few regularly scheduled con-tests in Fort Wayne,
and the Detroit ticket office will be instructed to provide the best available
tickets to attend games in Detroit for all Fort Wayne people visiting that
city for business or pleasure.
"Please note that the change involves only the Piston professional
basketball team and does not affect in any way the Knot Hole Gang, ice
shows and other activities which Fred ZoUner sponsors. All employees
will continue to have the same privileges on these attractions."
While the uniform makers were changing the lettering on Piston
shirts to Detroit, St. Louis and Boston hooked up in a blistering final
playoff for the NBA Championship. The Hawks had mowed down
Minneapolis in three straight for the Western crown. Boston did the same
thing to Syracuse in the East.
The finals went the full seven games and the decider was a double
overtime 125-123 white-knuckle Boston win.
Les Harrison moved his Rochester Franchise to Cincinnati and the
NBA stayed at eight teams.
Yardley speculated that it was league pressure that finally
determined the move to Detroit. The other teams did not enjoy travelling
to Fort Wayne, which was off the beaten track, and hotel accommodations
here were not to the standard they found elsewhere.
Hughie Johnston, who may have had a closer personal
relationship with Fred than any of his other athletes, said that the
Memorial Coliseum management had taken some of the basketball dates
and replaced them with hockey, which was growing in popularity. This
may have caused the Piston management some concerns about their future
at the arena.
For the players themselves, the move offered a great change in
their way of life. George Yardley said of Detroit, "It was the worst place
to play." Their new home court did not compare to the state-of-the-art
Memorial Coliseum and there was little initial fan support. The early
games were poorly attended.
But even more was the fact that some of the players had come to
see Fort Wayne as home. Yardley described it as "a fantastic city that
took you to heart, made you feel you were one of them." He and his wife
Diana had grown up in California and returned to live there later, but they
found their Christmas card list was packed with Fort Wayne addresses,
and they still return here once every year for the Mad Anthony tournament
and to renew old acquaintances.
Many hard-core fans were blaming Eckman for stirring up the
move to Detroit, particularly after a Ben Tenny column which said, "Char-
ley, by the way, still won't take any of the Detroit move blame in talking to
the writer and others around our fair city which is a far cry from the
attitude when he's away from here. He was overheard on the Z's last trip
to Philadelphia to tell NBA prexy Maurice Podoloff, 'You can give me 95
percent of the credit for that move to Detroit.'"
So there were a lot of dry eyes in Fort Wayne when Eckman
lasted just 25 games in Detroit. The team stood at 9-16.
Referee Norm Drucker described Charley Eckman's last day with
the Pistons, saying that Charley told how Zollner called him into a
meeting.. He said he was going to make a change in his department. Char-
ley realized with a start that he was the only one in his department.
The restless, ambitious Zollner replaced him with Red Rocha,
who steered the Z's into the playoffs. Their 33-39 record tied Cincinnati.
Fort Wayne favorite George Yardley became the first NBA player in
history to score more than 2000 points in a season, and became the first
Piston to win the league scoring championship.
The league had come a long way in the few years since it was
founded. With the new television audience, the stars were recognizable to
everyone. They played in big arenas to ever-larger crowds. Basketball
was truly major league.
The curtain dropped on Fort Wayne Zollner Piston basketball —
from the YMCA to the NBA, every major league step of the way.
The Knot Hole Gang
One of Fred Zollner's finest legacies in Fort Wayne still lives on.
The Knot Hole Gang was established in 1948, the second season at Zollner
Stadium, and was wrapped up in 1957 when the athletic offices moved to
The objective of the Knot Hole Gang was to stimulate interest
both in the Zollner Pistons and the game of softball. Zollner envisioned a
major league of softball, with industrial sponsorship, equivalent to major
All the grade school children in Fort Wayne were eligible. To
enable everyone to have access to the cards, they were distributed through
the public and parochial school systems. The students were issued a mem-
bership card which gave them the chance to attend at least one Piston
game a week without charge. Attendance prizes of sports equipment were
given on Knot Hole nights, and grand prizes of sports equipment and
games were offered on the last Knot Hole night of the season. Lloyd Hyde
won an erector set at one half-time draw, which delighted his family for
It was natural that the children had a favorite player. Asked who
hers was, Mary Ellen Johnston answered immediately, "Elmer Rohrs. But
don't ask me why!"
The first year showed 9987 members. Merle J. Abbett, the
superintendent of the Fort Wayne schools, observed, "Thousands of boys
and girls have been stimulated by this activity and encouraged toward
healthy living. It has been successful in every respect and a genuine
Buoyed by the reception of the first year, the Pistons expanded the
membership into all of Allen County in 1949 and the membership jumped
to 14,000. Lawrence E. Foote, superintendent of the county schools,
noted: "Among the proudest possessions of the boys and girls of Allen
County are the cards which signify membership in an organization
devoted exclusively to them — the Zollner Piston Knot Hole Gang. The
year-round activities sponsored by Fred Zollner make a real contribution
to the welfare of our small children."
In 1950, a new city administration was elected, and among the
changes they considered was a charge to youngsters who swam at the
cities three municipal pools, Swinney, Memorial and McMillen. Fred
Zollner took exception to charging kids and worked out an arrangement
with the Board of Park Commissioners to pay a fee for all the Knot Hole
Many of the children swam every day in the municipal pools. The
city was much smaller and everyone could walk or bike to the pool of their
choice, meet their friends and spend most of the day.
Most children did not have funds to spend on amusing themselves.
If they could swim in the daytime, and then bike to the stadium to watch a
Softball game, it was a ftill life.
22,400 cards were issued in 1950 and Fred's kids enjoyed 57,000
In 1951, membership jumped another thousand when the Pistons
started the Knot Hole softball leagues. There were two divisions, the Red
and the Blue, one for boys under ten and the other for ages eleven to
The players were given a free T-shirt and baseball hat. This
followed a Zollner tradition, for even before he founded the Knot Hole
Gang, Fred had assisted boys who organized their own softball league by
supplying shirts and hats through Sappenfield's sporting goods store.
Zollner used his players as coaches and instructors. The teams
were named after Piston players. Later, the divisions were named after
leading pro baseball teams. The coaches thrilled the boys by demon-
strating how the Pistons played the game. Every boy who applied was
assigned to a team, and everyone on a team got to play in every game.
There were no benchwarmers in the Knot Hole Gang League. The motto
was "Everybody Plays." Four hundred boys participated in the first year.
Some of the administrative work was done by Charlie Share, who was
sidelined from his basketball career for half a year.
Charlie enjoyed paying visits to the schools as part of his job.
Since he was so tall, he would pick out "the smallest kid I could find," and
put his sports jacket on him. He also invited questions from his audience.
One little boy asked if really was six foot ten and weighed 270 pounds.
Charlie said yes. "Then," the little lad continued, "What size shoe do you
"Fifteen," said Charlie.
"Fifteen!" the boy remarked to his neighbor, "I could take two
steps in that!"
Membership continued to grow: 25,000 in 1952, 27,000 in 1953
and 31,000 in 1954. There were 87,474 free swims.
There were Knot Hole nights for Piston basketball games at Mem-
orial Coliseum. In the winter, skating parties were arranged, overseen by
Bernie Kampschmidt, Jim Ramage and Ed Robitaille. Lois Williams, who
had skated with Holiday on Ice, was the skating instructor. More than
5100 children enjoyed the skating. To make the Coliseum accessible to
everyone, Rogers Friendly Markets and the transit system combined to
provide free transportation.
When the Piston softball team was broken up in 1954, Fred
Zollner gave up his softball dream. He even switched to baseball for the
Knot Hole League players in the 1956 season.
This meant more equipment. To the T-shirt and cap, the players
added baseball bats, balls, helmets and catchers' riggings.
Baseball showed it popularity immediately, jumping from 324 in
1956 to over 600 in 1957. Bernie Kampschmidt, Jim Ramage, Terry Coo-
nan and Tom Lallak were the supervisors. There were three divisions:
Midgets (6-8 years); Intermediates (9-11) and Seniors (12-14). They
operated on a ten-game schedule, lasting for seven innings or one hour,
whichever came first. They were guaranteed to lay at least one night game
a week at Zollner Stadium.
The Knot Hole Gang hit a home run in its last at bat, going out in
grand style. Membership had peaked at 35,000, and there were more than
100,000 free swims in the last season, 1957. The final Knot Hole
activities were the ice skating sessions in the 1957-58 season.
As the curtain came down. Fort Wayne's mayor, Robert E.
Meyers, said, "Many thousands of boys and girls in Fort Wayne and Allen
County have reaped rich benefits from the free program of activities
designed and sponsored for them by Fred Zollner. The lessons in good
citizenship and sportsmanship which the Zollner Piston Knot Hole Gang
has taught have value beyond estimation."
Dr. David Bleeke recalls with pride playing under the coaching of
Dick Szymanski, reserve catcher, and cherishes his small Zollner Piston
flag and an autographed softball.
Don Weber played on a championship team in the Knot Hole
Gang league. His brother Dick was six years younger and had to
accompany him everywhere he went. He would take Dick to the games
with him, seat him in the bleachers and tell him not to move, he would
return to pick him up after the game.
During the game, Don was rounding the bases, collided with the
third baseman and sustained a charley horse. He was in a lot of pain and
could not walk. Some adults carried him into the dressing room, where
the Pistons' trainers took care of him, spraying his leg with something
which made it feel icy. He remained there for the rest of the game and
forgot about Dici<.
Only later, when the game ended, an usher found Dick weeping in
the stands because he did not know what had happened to his brother.
Jerry Snyder remembers the fun, but also that, once the boys
reached the stadium, "we never had any money. You could smell the
popcorn, com dogs and everything, and be starved to death till you got
Virginia Simone Wyman served on the safety patrol at St.
Patrick's school. For their services, she and other patrollers were taken to
a special appreciation day at Zollner Stadium in 1951. She remembers
there were hot dogs and games. She laughingly adds an afterthought,
"And Softball too. It's the hot dogs I remember."
The Knot Hole Gang membership card was a cherished item to the
children of Fort Wayne forty-five years ago. Oddly enough, not many of
them have survived. Chuck Suder explained that most children wore only
their bathing suits and carried a towel to the pool. The only place for the
card was in the sole of their shoe, where it would quickly show signs of
The deep impression made by the Knot Hole Gang is still evident
today, in Dale McMillen's Wildcat Baseball League, one of the Summit
City's favorite summertime diversions for the youngsters.
The Wildcatters picked up on Zollner's "Everybody Plays" theme,
which means that every player, regardless of size, age or ability, gets to
make an appearance in every game.
Mr. Z's Knot Hole Gang started it, and Mr. Mac's Wildcat League
carries it on in perpetuity.
Fred Zollner: The Afterglow
This is a more personal comment.
After chronicling the story of the Zollner Pistons through its
seventeen years of major league history, my memory bank overflows. The
story will not be over until Fred ZoUner's name is put on a plaque in the
Basketball Hall of Fame.
His credentials for election to the Hall of Fame are impeccable.
Every move he made was for the good of the game, rules and organization.
The historic 19-18 win over the Minnesota Lakers in 1950 not
only stands in the National Basketball Association record books as the
lowest scoring game, but was the precursor of the 24-second shot clock,
considering by some the most valuable rule change in the history of the
Zollner and his top aide, Carl Bennett, pushed for the six fouls per
team per quarter rule. Early on, Bennett and coach Murray Mendenhall
played experimental games in practice with twelve-foot and fifteen-foot
foul lanes to open up play under the basket and take the height advantage
away from the tall players. These rules were eventually altered and are
still effective in the game today.
Zollner was a missionary. He pioneered pro basketball in Canada
and Florida. Pro ball was not yet in full bloom and the big city franchises
were struggling. He also considered an exhibition game in Havana, Cuba.
Zollner's record in pro basketball was one of persistence and
patience. He stayed the course during the infancy of the National
Basketball League, and helped bankroll the sport when it fell to four teams
in the 1942-43 season.
His teams have played straight through the league seasons ever
since, collaborating with the Basketball Association of America in a four-
team jump from the National League in 1948-49, and completing the
merger of the remaining National League teams to form the National
Basketball Association in 1949-50. Fred's performance bond check was
the first to reach the NBA, making Fort Wayne the first member of the
Zollner himself assumed a seat on the NBA board of governors in
1954-55. He remained financially generous to the other teams in the
league, some of whom were helped in troubled times. Andy Phillip has
suggested that the motive behind his own purchase from Philadelphia was,
at least in part, to bolster the tottering Warrior finances.
From my perspective, the three most gut-wrenching decisions
Zollner had to make in Fort Wayne were the dismissal of Bobby
McDermott, the firing of Jack MoHnas in a gambling scandal and the
startling surprise hiring of Charley Eckman as coach.
Player-coach McDermott was one of Fred's favorites as he led the
Pistons to the championships, but Fred handled the final situation adroitly
Zollner conducted a personal investigation of Molinas when the
gambling rumour surfaced. When commissioner Maurice Podoloff kicked
him out of the league, it shattered part of Zollner's dream to have another
The hiring of Eckman was another dilemma. The announcement
stunned the basketball world, rankled the owners, irritated the coaches and
mystified the other referees.
The brash Eckman came to town saying he only knew two plays,
but with his cheerleading enthusiasm and a well-coached stable of stars,
the Z's stormed to the western division champion-ship.
As this is written in 1995, nobody faults Zollner for moving the
franchise to Detroit. The Fort Wayne market was simply not large enough
to support a major league enterprise.
Zollner remained persistent in Detroit. In typical Zollner fashion,
Fred stayed the course and answered the bell every year until he sold the
franchise to Bill Davidson in 1974.
His teams never had a winning season in Detroit until the last one,
when they finished 52-30 under coach Ray Scott, and then lost to the
Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.
In 1992, when the Fort Wayne Pistons held a reunion, Detroit
Piston president Thomas S. Wilson wrote,
"Fred Zollner was a man with a vision. A dreamer with an
adventurous spirit who had such a passion for basketball, he
would do anything in his power to see that his team, the Ft.
Wayne Pistons and the league they played in succeeded.
"I don't think he could have imagined the effect his game would
have on the world. I also suspect that he couldn't have imagined
that his team, the Ft. Wayne Pistons, would eventually go on, as
the Detroit Pistons, to win consecutive NBA titles in 1989 and
"Roots are what give a tree its foundation. If this is true then Fort
Wayne can definitely be called the root of what is the Pistons
At the NBA's Silver Anniversary All-Star game in Phoenix in
1975, Fred Zollner was honored as "Mr. Pro Basketball". His name was
attached to an annual award given to the team with the best record in the
He served on the board of trustees of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Fred Zollner served as the mayor of Golden Beach, Florida, and
died there in 1982. He never won the championship ring he so wanted.
Posthumous induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame would be a great
tribute to his unassailable contributions to professional basketball.
Rodger Nelson was born in
Columbus, Ohio, attended Ohio
State and still 'bleeds Scarlet and
Gray' for his beloved Buckeyes.
He began his journalistic career
at the age of 13, so he has enjoyed
sixty years of writing, editing and
promoting sports. This includes
stints in Cincinnati, Tucson and
He was publicity director and
assistant athletic director of the
Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, 1947-
From 1958 to 1983 he was gen-
eral manager of Allen Dairy
Products in Fort Wayne.
A founding member of the Mad
Anthonys pro-am golf classic he
was named "Mr. Mad Anthony" in
In 1966 he was presented with
the Sagamore of the Wabash
award, Indiana's highest civiUan
Zollner Piston logo
^'The Pistons were a major league 'sports oi
nization playing in a small city. There we weri^
traveling in Fred Zollner's airplane, playing the
number one cities in the country,
'^The players idolized Fred, It was not his
money. He did something no one else could have
done — playing major league sports in a minor
league city. He has not yet been appreciated
enou2l^r JL^^^^^ ^
^g^ -^"^i^pl^liy^teliHiard Gates, broadcaster
^'Fred Zollner brought respectability to profes-
sional basketball. By doing so, he did more for
the game in the first twenty years than anyone
else. Why he is not in the Basketball Hall of
Fame is one of the great travesties,'^
- George Yardley, player
We were a group of guys that really didn't
need any management. They knew their position,
they could think real well. They could win a
game, Fred Zollner used to say we were the best
round ball team in the world. Thanks for the
- Hughie Johnston, player
^^They didn't only play well once in a while.
They did it night after night. The fact was, the
Pistons were unbelievably good, "
- Don Graham, fan