Credit: Sports Team History
Before the Detroit Pistons were based in Detroit, before they were even in the NBA, the Pistons were based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, known as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. From 1941-48, the Zollner Pistons would be a part of the NBL teams.
The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons was founded by Fred Zollner, the owner of Zollner Pistons Corporation, a supplier of pistons. The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons was named after himself and his company if you didn't already notice.
When the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons first started, Zollner only paid $2,500 to his players (1940-50s). Not $2,500 per player, but for the entire team! That doesn't sound like much, but if we account for inflation, in 2021, the team would share $37,300.
There were 11 players in the 1941-42 Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, so players were making $3,390 for a season of play, so even accounting for inflation, no one can live off this amount of money. As a result, most players were employed at Zollner's factory.
In Zollner's defense, this was 5-7 years after the Great Depression, and World War 2 was on the horizon. Also, athletes were not paid much back then. Athletes earned $50 per week in the 1940s.
While researching Fred Zollner, it seemed like he had no experience in professional basketball besides owning a professional basketball team. Even so, Zollner was nicknamed "Mr. Pro Basketball" due to his contribution to the sport, such as:
Helping to arrange the merger between the NBL and NBA.
Advocated for the 24-second shot clock, six-foul rule, and the widening of the free-throw line.
Constantly gave financial support, transportation, and personnel for the league to stay afloat.
The first owner to hire a bench coach.
When Zollner reminisced on his experience with the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, he remembered how "instead of making friends, we made enemies, because no one could beat us."
He's not wrong. Obviously, teams beat them, but they were one of the most successful teams in the NBL. For the nine seasons that the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were in the NBL, the Zollner Pistons would make the Playoffs each time!
Now, enough about Fred Zollner! Here is the overview of each of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' seasons in the NBL. Considering that they made the playoffs each time, there will be a lot more to talk about than other NBL teams that we've discussed.
Sidenote: The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' mascot looked like Iron Man if he was made out of trash cans.
Table of Contents:
1941-42: The Beginning
In the 1941-42 NBL season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' first season in the NBL went 15-9 (62.5 W/L%). There were no conferences this season, so the Zollner Pistons were second overall. The season started with seven NBL teams, but by the end of the season, only five teams were remaining:
Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons
Akron Goodyear Wingfoot's
As long as you were not the worst team in the league, you would make it to the playoffs. Sorry, Sheboygan Redskins.
The best player on the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, and arguably, the best player in Zollner Pistons history, was Robert McDermott. Nicknamed, 'Mr. Basketball Man,' in the 1941-42 NBA season, he averaged:
5.5 Field Goals
2.2 Free Throws, 3.8 Free Throw Attempts
Not another player in the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' nine-season stint in the NBL would average better numbers than McDermott. No one.
In the 1941-42 NBL season, McDermott would be selected to the All-NBL First Team. Just so I don't have to repeat myself, for the five seasons that McDermott was on the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, he would make the All-NBL First Team EVERY SEASON.
That's not all. Not only was McDermott the best player in Zollner Pistons' history, but he was also probably the best coach in Zollner Pistons' history! From 1941-46, McDermott was the head coach of the Zollner Pistons and was Coach of the Year TWICE (1943-45)!
Besides McDermott, the next best player on the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons was Herm Schaefer. Although he was nowhere near McDermott's level, Schaefer would still make the All-NBL Second Team and averaged:
3.5 Field Goals
1.5 Free Throws (Attempts Unknown)
In the 1941-42 playoffs, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would make it to the Finals but would lose to the Oshkosh All-Stars, 1-2. This should have been a winnable Championship as many players exceeded expectations:
Curly Armstrong: 8.3 Points --> 11.8 Points
Blackie Towery: 6.8 Points --> 7.8 Points
Paul Birch: 5.3 Points --> 6.2 Points
Unfortunately, the top to leading scorers, McDermott and Schaefer, played worse:
Robert McDermott: 13.2 Points --> 12.0 Points
Herm Schaefer: 8.6 Points --> 5.2 Points
Although they didn't win the Championship, for their first season in the NBL, making it to the Finals was already an accomplishment.
1942-43: Another Finals Appearance
In the 1942-43 NBL season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would go 17-6 (73.9 W/L%). This time, the Zollner Pistons were first overall.
In the 1941-42 NBL season, I mentioned that if you wanted to make the playoffs, all you had to do was not be the worst team in the NBL. This season, even if you were the worst team in the NBL, you would make it to the playoffs.
This is because there were only FOUR NBL teams in the 1941-42 NBL season. There were originally five, but the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets (yes, the car manufacturer) disbanded four games into the season.
This season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were first in PPG (51.1). This was due to their newest addition, Jake Pelkington. Although I did say that McDermott was, without a doubt, the best player in Zollner Pistons history, Pelkington is a close second.
In the previous season, Pelkington was on the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, but the Wingfoots disbanded after the 1941-42 NBL season. Thankfully, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were able to snag Pelkington, who would play for the Pistons for the next six seasons!
In the 1942-43 NBL season, Pelkington averaged:
3.6 Field Goals
3.0 Free Throws, 4.3 Free Throw Attempts
For some reason, Pelkington wouldn't make the All-NBL First or Second Team. However, Curly Armstrong, who was also on the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, was selected to the All-NBL First Team, yet he averaged:
2.9 Field Goals
2.1 Free Throws, 2.8 Free Throw Attempts
But I digress as Robert McDermott would be crowned the 1942-43 NBL MVP. Like his All-NBL appearances, just so I don't repeat myself, McDermott would win NBL MVP for FOUR SEASONS in a ROW (1942-46).
No NBA player has won the MVP award four times in a row. The only players to win three consecutive MVPs are Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, and Bill Russell.
The 1942-43 Playoffs ended the same way as the previous playoffs. Instead of losing to the Oshkosh All-Stars, they lost to the Sheboygan Redskins.
Everybody played worse than how they played in the regular season. The only player that played better was Curly Armstrong. He averaged:
3.3 Field Goals
3.2 Free Throws (Attempts Unknown)
If All-NBL teams also consider a player's playoff performance, then it makes sense that Armstrong was selected to be a part of the All-NBL First Team. However, I still don't know how Pelkington didn't make it...
1943-45: Back to Back Championships
In the 1943-44 NBL season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons went 18-4 (73.9 W/L%). In the following season, the Zollner Pistons would go 25-5 (81.8 W/L%). In both seasons, the Zollner Pistons were first overall.
The 1943-44 NBL season, like last season, only had four teams: the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, Sheboygan Redskins, Oshkosh All-Stars, and Cleveland Chase Brassmen. However, last season, at least the teams were good. This season, the only other decent team was the Sheboygan Redskins:
Sheboygan Redskins: 14-8
Oshkosh All-Stars: 7-15
Cleveland Chase Brassmen: 3-15
As I said earlier, all four teams were guaranteed a playoff spot. No matter how bad they did.
A team that went 3-15 was going to the playoffs. Hypothetically speaking, an NBL team in the 1943-44 NBL season could not try at all in the regular season and go 0-18 and still make the playoffs.
If I managed an NBL team back then, I would have just told my players to rest in the regular season and go all out in the playoffs.
This also happened to be the smallest roster the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons ever had. The team only had eight players. This may have been due to World War 2 or simply because of money.
However, they still had Robert McDermott, so the Zollner Pistons were fine. As said previously, McDermott would win Coach of the Year TWICE! This season was when he won his first Coach of the Year award.
Besides McDermott, Buddy Jeannette and Jake Pelkington were also selected to be a part of the All-NBL Team. Jeanette was on the First and Pelkington on the Second.
In the season prior, Jeannette was actually on the Championship-winning Sheboygan Redskins. However, he only played four games, so I don't know if that counts as being a Champion.
With the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, Jeannette averaged:
3.1 Field Goals
2.2 Free Throws, 3.0 Free Throw Attempts
As for Pelkington, he averaged:
2.3 Field Goals
2.0 Free Throws
For some reason, Pelkington did WORSE than last season, yet was selected to be a part of the All-NBL Second Team. That would be fine, but Pelkington wasn't on the Second Team last year...
The playoffs would be an absolute cakewalk. In the first round against the Cleveland Chase Brassmen, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons won, 2-0. In the Finals against the Sheboygan Redskins, the Zollner Pistons won, 3-0. Just like that, they swept the competition and won their first Championship!
Although the league just being awful was a massive contribution to their first Championship, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' played well this time around. Only one player averaged less than six points in the playoffs:
Robert McDermott: 13.4 Points
Buddy Jeannette: 6.8 Points
Chick Reiser: 6.8 Points
Jake Pelkington: 6.4 Points
Gerard Bush: 6.2 Points
Blackie Towery: 6.2 Points
The 1944-45 NBL season introduced two new teams, the Pittsburgh Raiders, and the Chicago American Gears. With six teams in the NBL, that means that there were enough teams to divide the NBL into two conferences again (East and West).
As said earlier, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would go 25-5 (83.3 W/L%) this season. This would be the Zollner Pistons' best regular-season W/L%.
Once again, Robert McDermott was a part of the All-NBA First Team, MVP, and Coach of the Year. However, McDermott decided to go above and beyond this season.
This season, McDermott averaged:
8.6 Field Goals
2.9 Free Throws, 4.3 Free Throw Attempts
This doesn't sound like a lot, but this was the first time in NBL History that someone averaged more than 20 points in the regular season. During the 1944-45 NBL season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' PPG was 56.9. That means that McDermott alone was scoring 35.3% of the team's points.
If McDermott played in 2021, he would be averaging 44.2 POINTS!
2021 Regular Season PPG: 112.1 / 1945 Regular Season PPG: 50.8 = 2.2
2.2 x 20.1 = 44.2 Points
Besides McDermott, Buddy Jeannette would make the All-NBL First Team, and Jake Pelkington make the All-NBL Second Team. McDermott, Jeannette, and Pelkington were the Fort Wayne Zollner PIstons' Big 3 between 1943-45.
Although there were two more teams this season, like last season, everybody besides the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and Sheboygan Redskins was awful:
Sheboygan Redskins: 19-11
Chicago American Gears: 14-16
Cleveland Allmen Transfers: 13-17
Oshkosh All-Stars: 12-18
Pittsburgh Raiders: 7-23
The playoffs were essentially the same as last season. However, this time, the Finals would be more difficult. In the first round, the Zollner Pistons would beat the Cleveland Allmen Transfers (previously known as the Chase Brassmen), 2-0.
The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were once again up against the Sheboygan Redskins in the Finals. However, instead of sweeping them, the Redskins took the Zollner Pistons to five games. In the end, the Zollner Pistons were crowned victorious, winning 3-2.
Unlike last season, this series went to five games due to the Redskins' star player, Edward Dancker. In their previous Finals matchup, Dancker only averaged 7.8 points. In this Finals matchup, Dancker averaged 13.6 points! In addition, the Redskins' had other good players like:
Dick Schulz: 9.5 Points
Mike Novak: 8.0 Points
Robert Holm: 5.6 Points
From 1941-45, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons always ended their regular season with a record that was one win less (or one loss more depending on how you interpret it) than their expected W/L record:
1945-47: The Downfall
In the 1945-46 NBL season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons went 26-8 (76.5 W/L%). In the following season, the Zollner Pistons would go 25-19 (56.8 W/L%). In the 1945-46 NBL season, the Zollner Pistons were the first seed in the Eastern Conference and the second seed in the following season.
1945-46: New Kid in Town - Rochester Royals
In the 1945-46 NBL season, the NBL added two new teams, the Youngstown Bears and the Rochester Royals (now the Sacramento Kings). Although the Youngstown Bears were good, the Rochester Royals were a problem. It was the Royals that led to the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' demise.
This season, the Rochester Royals went 24-10 (70.6 W/L%). Although their regular season was worse than the Zollner Pistons, this wouldn't last for long.
As for the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, they "added" one new player. The "added" is in quotation marks because this player played exactly ONE game for the Zollner Pistons last season.
This player was Ed Sadowski.
Ed Sadowski played ONE game for the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons in the 1944-45 NBL season, where he scored ten points. I don't know why he only played one game, but he would come back in the 1945-46 NBL season and was the second-best (possibly even THE best) player for the Zollner Pistons. He averaged:
3.6 Field Goals
2.4 Free Throws, 3.5 Free Throw Attempts
This was nowhere near McDermott's 13.5 Points, but I'll elaborate further on why Sadowski could be considered the best player for the Zollner Pistons this season.
This season, Jake Pelkington was no longer on an All-NBL Team. Only McDermott and Jeannette were selected to the All-NBL First Team. Sadowski retrieved the Pelkington treatment. Although Sadowski played better than Jeannette, Sadowski wasn't selected for the First or Second All-NBL Team.
Now, this is where it starts getting interesting
In the first round of the 1945-46 NBL Playoffs, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would face the Rochester Royals. This team was different from that trash Cleveland team. The Royals were good. As a result, the Zollner Pistons would lose, 1-3, against the Royals.
How did the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons perform so poorly? It's a combination of the Zollner Pistons' being awful and the Royals playing amazingly.
The original Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' Big 3 looked like garbage, including McDermott:
Robert McDermott: 6.0 Points
Jake Pelkington: 5.3 Points
Buddy Jeannette: 4.8 Points
This was a career-low for all three players.
The only Zollner Pistons' players that played well were Ed Sadowski and Chick Reiser:
Ed Sadowski: 14.3 Points
Chick Reiser: 8.5 Points
This is why I said Sadowski might have been the better player this season.
On the other hand, the Rochester Royals' players played phenomenally. FOUR players averaged more than TEN points this game:
George Glammack: 12.6 Points
Bob Davies: 12.3 Points
Red Holzman: 11.6 Points
Al Cervi: 10.0 Points
Although Robert McDermott played awful in the playoffs, amongst NBL coaches, players, and sports editors, McDermott was voted as the Greatest Player of All Time. We have countless conversations about who the GOAT is, and McDermott was officially recognized as the GOAT in the 50s.
1946-47: Goodbye Robert McDermott
In the 1946-47 NBL season, the NBL would add FOUR more teams. The Toledo Jeeps, Syracuse Nationals, Anderson Duffey Packers, and Detroit Gems. Although the NBL added these four teams, the team to worry about was the Rochester Royals.
For the first time since their first season in the NBL, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were the second-seed in the Eastern Conference. In addition, if we take into account all of the NBL teams this season, the Zollner Pistons would only be the sixth-best team in the NBL.
While the Eastern Conference had THE best team in the NBL, the Rochester Royals (31-13), the Western Conference was STACKED. The top four Western Conference teams had a better W/L record than the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons:
Oshkosh All-Stars: 28-16
Indiannpolis Kautskys: 27-17
Chicago American Gears: 26-18
Sheboygan Redskins: 26-18
Even the fifth-best team in the Western Conference was only one win behind the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons:
Anderson Duffey Packers: 24-20
If the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were on the Western Conference, they would NOT have made the playoffs this season.
Not only did the league get A LOT better, but the Zollner Pistons parted ways with Buddy Jeannette, Ed Sadowski, and most importantly, Robert McDermott. The best player and coach the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons had was now gone.
McDermott played 14 games with the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons this season but left to join the Chicago American Gears alongside George Mikan, the new GOAT of the NBL/NBA.
Although it sucks that McDermott left, it was a genius move as the Chicago American Gears would win the Championship this season.
For the first time since the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons joined the league, not a single Zollner Pistons' player was a part of either All-NBL Team.
Although the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons lost three of their best players, the Zollner Pistons would still make it past the first round and beat the Toledo Jeeps, 3-2. However, in the second round, the Zollner Pistons were stopped by the Rochester Royals and lost 1-2.
This was the first time a Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons' player didn't average more than 10 points in the playoffs. The player with the highest PPG was Chick Reiser, with nine points.
1947-48: The End
In the 1947-48 NBL season, the least season that the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would be in the NBL, they went 40-20 (66.7 W/L%). For the first time in nine seasons, the Zollner Pistons were the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
For some reason, the Anderson Duffey Packers, who were on the Western Conference last season, were on the Eastern Conference this season. If it weren't for this unexpected change, then the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would probably be the second seed.
The competition this season was much tougher than last season. Last season, there were a lot of good teams. This season, there were not a lot of good teams, but some AMAZING teams:
Rochester Royals: 44-16
Anderson Duffey Packers: 42-18
Minneapolis Lakers: 43-17
Out of the four teams with more than 40 wins, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons were the only team without a player who averaged more than 10 points during the regular season. They were also the only team without an All-NBL player.
It's kind of surprising that the Zollner Pistons were able to make the playoffs. They didn't have a star player, but they did have eight players average more than five points in the regular season:
Jake Pelkington: 9.3 Points
Curly Armstrong: 8.2 Points
Ralph Hamilton: 7.9 Points
Blackie Towery: 6.9 Points
Bob Kinney: 6.7 Points
Richie Niemiera: 5.6 Points
Bob Tough: 5.1 Points
Jack Smiley: 5.0 Points
As usual, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would lose to the Rochester Royals in the first round of the playoffs, 1-3.
The best Zollner Pistons player in this series was Bob Kinney. He averaged:
5.0 Field Goals
0.8 Free Throws, 2.0 Free Throw Attempts
After the 1947-48 NBL season, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons would be a part of the NBA in the 1950-51 NBA season as the Fort Wayne Pistons. In 1957, the Fort Wayne Pistons would move to Detroit, becoming the now known as Detroit Pistons.