Not a lot of hoopla greeted Pistons 60 years ago
Hank Aaron hit .393 for the victorious Milwaukee Braves in the World Series, gas was 24 cents a gallon and a car with tailfins cost $2,750. The Russians launched Sputnik and the Detroit Lions were about to win the lone National Football League championship that would have to last them for the next 60 years.
The year was 1957 and a genius inventor, manufacturer and millionaire sportsman named Fred Zollner, totally uninvited and coolly received, moved his pride and joy Zollner Pistons pro basketball team to Detroit from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and renamed them after their new adopted city.
“I make pistons, you see,” The Z calmly explained when I asked him why on earth he thought Detroit needed or would support a pro basketball team.
“It just makes sense for me. Pistons. Motors,” he added, softly. “Motors. Detroit.”
For Fred Zollner, most things in life — business, sports, whatever — boiled down to simple logic. See a challenge, confront it.
See a void, fill it. And above all, never give up.
These were the pre-glory days of the young National Basketball Association, you understand. Oh, there were franchises in the big eastern metro areas like New York, Boston and Philadelphia where any kind of basketball sold.
But the upstart NBA was trying to shuck the hick image of playing in rural outposts like Syracuse, Rochester, Moline and, yes, even Fort Wayne.
So more populous metro areas, like Detroit, were sought for expansion.
Money was no problem. The average player salary was roughly $10,000 for 10 months. Training camp was a high school gym.
Dues for the new NBA Players Association formed by a group headed by a young Boston Celtics player named Bob Cousy were $10 a year. And Cousy had to threaten to resign to get his fellow members to pay that.
Fries with that?
When the teams hit the road for games, most of them lived in fleabag hotels. Players got $7 a day for meals out of town.
In some respects the Pistons had it better than some ball clubs, but worse than others.
The Z was the only NBA owner who owned his own airplane, a twin-engine World War II era DC-3 that he had converted with couches, easy chairs and even a table with a picture window. The radio call-sign: 22 Zebra, Zollner’s lucky number.
Nicknamed the Flying Z by those few of us sports writers who traveled with and covered the team in those early days, the plane was both a bonus and a curse — with a few thrills and chills thrown in.
Because the Pistons didn’t have to rely on commercial flights, the league gave Zollner a game schedule with the worst winter travel connections.
To take the edge off the inevitable heavy loads and frequently snow-covered, short runways in the far north winter, the Flying Z’s pilots often ordered two JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) bottles strapped to the aircraft’s underside — just in case.
The team the Pistons brought north the summer of 1957 had done fairly well in Fort Wayne under head coach Charley Eckman, a colorful former basketball referee.
The star was George “The Bird” Yardley, a former Stanford two-time All-American and graduate engineer whose nickname stemmed in large measure from his ability to fire his accurate two-handed jump shot while soaring through the air at precipitous angles.
The cigar-chomping Eckman was nothing if not brutally frank about life and work. Questioned about his coaching philosophy, Eckman smiled.
“I’m a referee, not a coach,” he explained. “What am I gonna teach these guys? How to comb their hair?”
Like his boss Mr. Z., Eckman was pragmatic when it came to personnel.
Shortly before their arrival in Detroit, the Pistons — who had an all-white roster coming north — acquired Walter Dukes, a 7-foot center from Seton Hall and NYU law school who had spent time both with the Harlem Globetrotters and the Minneapolis Lakers.
Smart, I thought. At least one black player in the team’s sea of white.
A short time later another former Globie, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, was acquired from the New York Knicks. Explained Eckman, matter-of-factly: “We needed somebody to room with Walter.”
Opening Night for Detroit’s newest sports franchise on Oct. 23, 1957 was carefully planned, but not all that well executed.
To build crowds and save money in those early days, the NBA often staged doubleheaders — sometimes with entertainment between games.
The Pistons’ opener at the old Olympia Stadium on Grand River and McGraw had the St. Louis Hawks playing the New York Knicks in the first game, with the Pistons hosting Bob Cousy and his popular Boston Celtics in the main event.
The crowd was announced at 11,000 — many of whom, I surmised, came disguised as empty seats.
Glide and collide
High humidity in the Olympia, home of the Detroit Red Wings at the time, turned the basketball floor into giant a slip-and-slide and when the basketball/free skate was over, the Pistons had lost a 104-94 decision in their debut.
Ever the optimist, The Z took the opening loss in stride.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “Professional basketball is going to be very big in Detroit. Wait until TV catches on!”
Detroit TV in 1957 pretty much was limited to four local stations and a lot of test patterns.
Sportscaster Bill Flemming, who later moved on to fame and fortune as a starring regular on ABC-TV’s Wide World of Sports, was doing Tuesday Night Fights at the old Arena Gardens and an evening sportscast on the WWJ-TV Channel 4, which was owned by The Detroit News.
When I asked him if his station was interested in televising the Pistons, who were drawing smaller and smaller crowds and had fired Eckman after he won only nine of the first 25 games, Flemming grinned.
“The Z wants a three-year TV contract,” he said. “We’re struggling to find enough sponsors for one-year.”
Eventually a contract was negotiated and Flemming was assigned to do some home games. After a few weeks I asked him how the Pistons’ TV ratings were doing.
“Actually,” Flemming responded, “the Pistons’ rating is a minus 3.”
“But how can that be?” I asked. “How does a TV show get a minus rating?”
“Well, when we canvassed our viewers we found that no one was watching the Pistons,” he said. “Then we asked those who had their sets turned off, if they had had their TVs on, would they be watching the Pistons? And they said no!”
None of this ridicule, of course, deterred the indefatigable Mr. Z’s dogged determination to sell his pistons, spelled both with a capital and a lower case P.
In time, however, the thrill of the chase dulled and The Z began to spend more time in his Golden Beach, Florida home. After 17 years without a championship he sold the team in 1974 to another millionaire industrialist, Bill Davidson.
Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame member Pete Waldmeir’s collection of columns from The Detroit News, “Little Beads of Blood,” is an ideal gift for all ages of readers. To order a personalized autographed copy, email email@example.com.