The Detro... Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons


The Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons

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:

  • Oshkosh All-Stars

  • Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons

  • Akron Goodyear Wingfoot's

  • Indiannpolis Kautskys

  • Sheboygan Redskins

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:

13.2 Points

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:

8.6 Points

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:


10.3 Points

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:


8.0 Points

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:


9.8 Points

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.


1943-44

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:


8.4 Points

3.1 Field Goals

2.2 Free Throws, 3.0 Free Throw Attempts