I’ve been trying for some time to think of a way to WRITE about pistons and make them interesting. But since my mechanical ability fits on the head of a pin—with room left over—and I don’t have a graphic to illustrate how a piston works—you’ll have to come see Allen County Innovation when it opens to find that out. So I’m going to talk in this blog post about sports. Not that I’m an expert on that either but I know more about sports than I do about pistons.
Robert D. Parker wrote a piece in the Old Fort News, Volume 46, Issue 4, 1983, entitled “A Piston Report…Zollner Corporation”. The article relates the history of the Zollner family and its contribution to Allen County industry and the automotive industry in particular. The company created and produced an automotive piston which was superior to those manufactured by the automobile companies themselves. At one time, the company was “highly recognized for the fine quality of its pneumatic tool parts and especially for its automotive pistons….”.
Eventually the company decided to concentrate solely on pistons. “So good were these pistons that most leading engine manufacturers were demanding them regularly.” In 1945, some of those pistons were made in a building at 312 East Main Street. This is now the area where the Auer Center is located.
So what do pistons have to do with sports?
Well, Fred Zollner loved sports and he loved kids. In 1948, Zollner created the Knot Hole Gang, a group of 30,000 boys and girls who had free use of Zollner Stadium for softball games, free swimming and ice skating. Zollner Stadium was on North Anthony Boulevard and now is the home of the Concordia High School teams.
From “The Zollner Piston Story” by Rodger Nelson (courtesy of http://www.archive.org/stream/zollnerpistonsto00nels/zollnerpistonsto00nels_djvu.txt)
“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 anyone 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 (note: Fred’s father)
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.”
Fred Zollner loved softball and basketball and recruited employees who were good at both to work for his company.
“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.”
Star players became managers in the company. “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.”
But onto basketball.
From http://www.sportsecyclopedia.com/nba/ftwayne/fwpistons.html (we’ve shortened the list so if you love sports stats, see the website).
1941/42: Automobile-piston magnate Fred Zollner launched the club in the National Basket ball League and christened it the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.
1942/43: The Zollner Pistons were even stronger in the second season as they finished the regular season in first place with a record of 17-6.
1943/44: The Zollner Pistons continued to fire on all cylinders winning their second straight regular season title with an 18-4 record. In the playoffs the Pistons captured the NBL Championship.
1944/45: The Zollner Pistons captured their second straight NBL Championship.
1945/46: Seeking their third straight Championship the Zollner Pistons again finished in first place posting a solid record of 26-8. However, in the playoffs the Zollner Pistons Championship reign would come to a sudden end as they are beaten by the Rochester Royals.
1946/47: The NBL begins to lose talent to the newly formed Basketball Association of America, as the Zollner Pistons fail to win the division for the first time in four years.
1947/48: The NBL continues to lose talent to the BAA prompting talk of a merger. Among the people leading the calls for a merger is Pistons Owner Fred Zollner….Following the season the Pistons would be one of four teams, along with the Minneapolis Lakers, Rochester Royals and Indianapolis Jets to join the BAA as the first step of a merger between the two leagues was initiated.
1948/49: Joining the BAA the Pistons are starting over again as they drop the Zollner from their nickname. However, Fred Zollner remained a virtual part of the development of the league as he helps provide transportation arrangements for the entire league. In their first year in the BAA the Pistons would struggle finishing in fifth place in the Western Division with a record of 22-38. Following the season five more NBL teams would join the league, which would be rechristened the NBA as the merger was completed.
1949/50: Playing in their second season in the NBA the Pistons would finish third in the Central Division with a record of 40-28. Following the season six former NBL teams would leave to reform the league. However, it would never get off the ground.
1950/51: Back in the Western Division the Pistons struggle again finishing in third place with a 32-36 record. Along the way the Pistons made history winning a November 22nd game in Minneapolis over the Lakers by a score of 19-18, setting a record for the lowest scoring game in NBA history.
1951/52: The Pistons continue to struggle finishing in fourth place with a poor record of 29-37.
1952/53: After two straight losing seasons the Pistons post a winning record finishing in third place with a record of 36-33, as Larry Foust leads the team in points and rebounds.
1953/54: The Pistons continue to improve finishing in third place with a solid record of 40-32. However, the Pistons would not win a game in the playoffs.
1954/55: The Pistons capture the Western Division with sharp shooter Larry Foust leading the NBA in shooting percentage. (The team went onto the NBA Finals.)
1955/56: After their trip to the NBA Finals the Pistons again finish in first place despite only finishing two games above .500 with a record of 37-35. In the playoffs the Pistons would overcome a 2-0 deficit to beat the St. Louis Hawks for a return trip to the NBA Finals. However, in the finals the Pistons would be beaten by the Philadelphia Warriors in five games.
1956/57: After a second straight NBA Finals defeat the Pistons would be part of a three way tie in the Western Division to make the playoffs with a mediocre 34-38 record. In the playoffs the Pistons would make a quick exit as they are beaten in two straight games by the Minneapolis Lakers. Following the season Fred Zollner determined his team could no longer compete in the small market of Fort Wayne, Indiana. So he moved his team to Detroit a growing city built around the automobile industry.