Basketball, Soap Box pick up speed

Soap Box fans
News-Sentinel photo by News-Sentinel file photo

Soap Box fans
The All-American Soap Box Derby in Fort Wayne drew thousands of fans to Bueter Road, which later became South Coluseum Boulevard.
By BLAKE SEBRING of The News-Sentinel

The 1930s were a time of transition for Fort Wayne sports as the city started to change its focus from baseball to basketball.

The decade began on a sad note for area sports fans. On July 12, 1930, the Central League Baseball Park on Calhoun Street burned down and arson was suspected.

"The dry wooden grandstands burned like tinder and firemen could do little except keep the blaze confined to the park," The News-Sentinel reported the next day. It was believed the fire was started by an irate fan who argued with park officials earlier in the day about returning two balls that were hit into the stands.

The destruction of the ballpark seemed to start a downward spiral for Fort Wayne's baseball dreams and teams.

But the decade was not without its baseball highlights: Former World Series hero and Fort Wayne native Bill Wambsganss retired from Major League Baseball and returned to Fort Wayne to manage the Chiefs, the city's Central League team. The Chiefs had such a huge lead in the Central League by May that the entire league folded late in the season.

Fort Wayne joined the Three Eye League – Indiana, Illinois, Iowa – in 1935, but that league folded after the season, ending a 65-year tradition of professional baseball in Fort Wayne.

Amateur ball took over as king of the local diamonds, thanks in large part to Edward "Red" Carrington, who became president of the Federation League – a division of local amateur teams – in 1936.

Carrington, Fort Wayne's "Mr. Baseball," also helped found the American Amateur Baseball Federation. The city named Carrington Field at City Utilities Park after him in 1978. That field recently was moved across Coliseum Boulevard to IPFW.

But the decade wasn't devoted to baseball alone.

* Fort Wayne hosted its first official All-American Soap Box Derby in 1934 on Bueter Road, which later became South Coliseum Boulevard. The race would be suspended during World War II, but eventually it would draw more than 10,000 fans.

* South Side High School junior Dan Zehr competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. The 16-year-old swimmer finished fourth in the 100-meter backstroke.

* Fort Wayne produced two Golden Gloves welterweight champions: King Wyatt in 1935 and Jackie Jarr in 1939.

* In professional basketball, the Fort Wayne Hoosiers met the Brooklyn Visitations in the playoffs of the 1930-31 American Basketball League season. The final game was at Brooklyn, but WOWO was there to broadcast it back to Fort Wayne – making it the first professional basketball game ever broadcast. Brooklyn won the series 4-2 for the championship.

Though later Hoosier teams were not part of an organized league, they continued to play exhibitions throughout the decade. They were replaced in professional basketball by the Fort Wayne General Electrics, who started play in the Midwest Basketball Conference in 1935. The conference changed its name to the National Basketball League in 1937. The General Electrics folded in 1938, but the Zollner Pistons began play in 1939. In the decade to come, the Pistons would be sold and moved to Detroit, where they still play.

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