Pistons dominated in softball, began basketball legacy

By BLAKE SEBRING of The News-Sentinel

Fred Zollner may have been Fort Wayne's largest sports fan ever. The owner of Zollner Machine Works encouraged his employees to participate in sports and in 1937 began sponsoring softball teams in local industrial leagues. Zollner brought in pitcher Leo Luken, catcher Bernie Kampschmidt and shortstop Jim Ramage from the world champion Kentucky Booster team. By 1945, the Pistons were recognized as one of the nation's top teams and won the first of two straight National Amateur Softball championships.

In 1947, construction was completed on Zollner Stadium, now the site of Concordia Lutheran High School football games, and the Pistons won a third national championship. During the 1949 season, they finished 68-4 and in 1951, they went 101-6.

During the 1946 world tournament, Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau offered contracts to Ramage and Hugh Johnston, but they decided to remain with the Pistons.

The Pistons moved from the Amateur Softball Association to the National Fastball League in 1948 and won the league title six of seven years. It was not uncommon for Pistons games to draw crowds of 8,000 fans.

The Pistons won four straight National Softball League titles from 1950 to 1953 before disbanding in 1954, because fans in other cities lost interest and the league folded. They won 1,253 games over 15 years, losing only 189. In 1955, Zollner and the Pistons' Kampschmidt, Clyde Kirkendall, Bill West Johnston and Ramage were enshrined into the National Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

Zollner was also a huge basketball fan and sponsored a shop league team that began play in 1939. During their last year in the Industrial League, 1940-41, the Pistons won the league title. The Pistons joined the National Basketball League for the 1941-42 season, and the squad finished second.

That was the start of a basketball dynasty, as the Pistons won the league title the next four years, and won the World Professional Basketball tournament in Chicago during 1944, 1945 and 1946. The stars of those teams included Curley Armstrong, Herm Schaefer, Bobby McDermott and Paul Birch.

They joined the Basketball Association of America in 1947, which evolved into the National Basketball Association in 1948. The NBA was formed in the home of Fort Wayne's Carl Bennett, the longtime sports director of Zollner who later became president of the NBL. The NBA was formed from teams in the BAA and the NBL.

Fort Wayne's history in the NBA included several highlights. The Pistons were involved in the lowest-scoring game in NBA history, a 19-18 win over George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers that led to the creation of the 24-second shot clock.

The Pistons played for the NBA title in 1955 against the Syracuse Nationals, but Fort Wayne's home games had to be played in Indianapolis, because Memorial Coliseum had been booked for the national American Bowling Congress tournament. The Nationals won in seven games. The Pistons also played for the title in 1956, losing to the Philadelphia Warriors in five games.

Fort Wayne also hosted the 1953 NBA All-Star Game at Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 13. That game featured such players as Mikan, Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman. Andy Phillip and Larry Foust represented the Pistons. Fort Wayne set a record for the largest crowd to see an All-Star Game to that point with 10,322 fans.

Under pressure from large-city members of the NBA, the Pistons moved to Detroit in 1957. McDermott and former Piston George Yardley were later inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

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