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1955_02_19--030_SP Coaching the Pro

112 THE SATURDAY EVENING POST February 19, 1955 confides. "Maybe he isn’t a rah-rah and was the playing manager of the locker room and found they all re boy. How could he be, after nine years stalwarts representing La Mesa Stables. spected him.” in this rat race? I put myself in his "Remember to mention we won the Meanwhile, relations between Birch place. Max isn’t the big star he was a championship,” he says. " I don’t want and the Pistons deteriorated so badly few years ago. He thinks his job is in people to think I ’m a green pea in the last year that Zollner, the head of a danger if he doesn’t play regularly. If masterminding department.” manufacturing business that grosses you pat him on the back and tell him Basketball officiating was Eckman’s $14,000,000 a year, had to fly to Min you’re saving him for a crucial spot, meal ticket as he drifted from dis neapolis to avert an open rebellion. The he won’t give you any trouble. Show patching buses to managing a poolroom situation improved after Birch heard Max a little consideration and he’s no in Yuma. The steady jobs he was quali the players air their grievances. The headache. Handling a pro basketball fied to hold were no more attractive team won five straight, but then Birch team is like any other job. You’ll do when he moved back to Baltimore with alienated the men all over again. Fort fine if you know how to get along with his expanding family. He was an um Wayne fans staged a testimonial game people.” pire in the Tri-State League, but the for Dike Eddleman, but Birch did not That is Eckman’s chief asset and he working conditions were so grubby that use him until the last four minutes. has been exploiting it ever since he he quit after three weeks. Forced to re Zaslofsky twice was yanked from a began to scramble for a living at the turn to Westinghouse in a subordinate game in Miami after playing thirty sec age of fourteen. After the death of his position, Eckman would have been in onds before a large delegation of tourists father, who had been gassed in World severe straits without the money he from New York, his home town. "What War I, Charley worked at night on a picked up refereeing high-school and am I, a Yo-yo?” the incensed Zaslof laundry truck to help support his college games. His competency brought sky yelled at Birch. mother. During the day he attended a staff appointment in the pro league in " I decided by midseason to get rid Baltimore City College, a high school, 1947, and two years later his worries of Birch,” Zollner says, "but I didn’t and played on the baseball and basket further were relieved when he was hired want to make the change then because ball teams, but his ingratiating per as a sales-tax investigator for the state anyone else would have been a stand-in sonality was a springboard to easier of Maryland. for Eckman. I couldn’t approach him: money when he was seventeen. He The recent improbable turn of events It would have been unethical while started to referee basketball games in dates back to a certain night in Mil he still was refereeing games involv the C.Y.O. and Municipal leagues, and waukee in the winter of 1951. A heavy ing my team.” his work was so satisfactory that pres snowstorm had stalled transportation When the two finally did get to ently he was getting nineteen assign after a double-header in Milwaukee, gether, the news that Eckman had ments a week at two dollars apiece. and a group of basketball people, in signed a three-year contract to coach " I ’ll never forget my mother’s bewil cluding the Fort Wayne owner, Fred the Pistons can be described conserva dered look when I dumped thirty-eight Zollner, met around a convivial water tively as a bombshell in Fort Wayne. dollar bills in her lap,” he recalls. ing hole in the Schroeder Hotel. George Zollner previously had announced that " 'W h y ,’ she said, 'this is more than Mikan, who had just scored twenty- Birch’s replacement would be a man your father ever made in the grocery seven points, was in a benign mood. who had been associated with the store.’ It was a long time since she’d "That wasn’t a bad game you worked N.B.A. for many years, and everyone seen so much money in one lump. My tonight,” he said condescendingly to assumed he was negotiating with an father was an invalid for six years be Eckman. established coach or a veteran player. fore he died, and we had to get along on " I called a better game than you big The reaction to Eckman’s appointment his Government pension of ninety-five oafs played,” Eckman snapped. "Some was decidedly cool, but he broke the dollars a month. My mother’s remark day I’d like to coach you monkeys and ice with a disarming quip at a boosters’ gave me a new slant on refereeing as a teach you new tricks.” dinner. " I ’ve been booed by the best career. I dreamed up stunts to make " I t was one of those flip answers fans in the world,” he said. " I hope games dramatic and entertaining for Eckman always pops,” Fred Zollner re you were among them.” the fans. Let’s face it. I hammed it up lates now, "but something in his voice The Pistons’ spectacular opening calling fouls, but the fans seemed to like convinced me he was serious. I wasn’t surge under Eckman has posed a curi it and I got a lot of work.” in the market for a coach. Birch had ous dilemma that is touching off trem Charley also fancied himself a base just signed a three-year contract, and ors throughout the still-struggling ball player, and following graduation there were no complaints against him N.B.A., which has yet to get on as from high school in 1940, he signed with yet. I filed Eckman’s crack for future stable a footing as the baseball and Mooresville, North Carolina, as an in reference. The more I thought of it the football big leagues. Indiana is the fielder. A .200 batting average against more sense it made. If I ever needed a traditional hotbed of basketball, and Class D pitching in the North Carolina new coach I would choose someone Fort Wayne has been drawing more State League disabused him of that thoroughly familiar with the league, than 4000 admissions at home games. foolish notion, but he was offered a con and a referee knew the players and A special "Appreciation Day” in Jan tract for the next season. In those early the styles of the teams as well as any uary brought out 6653. This is good days of the military draft, ball clubs one. attendance in relation to population — had use for all youths who bore a vague "During the next two years I made a better than the turnouts in some of resemblance to professionals and were point of bumping into Eckman and the much larger cities. But, still, willing to work for $125 a month. Char chatting with him. He didn’t suspect I league owners are beginning to wonder ley was a great one for laughing it up was scouting him. I discussed every whether such a small city ever can and keeping the team’s morale higher thing except basketball to get an idea of do right by a big-league franchise. than its standing in the league, but the his philosophy and attitude toward There are several straws in the wind management thought his enthusiasm people. I listened to players talk in the indicating that Zollner doubts it too. was an excessive expense when he was side-lined by a leg injury. He returned to Baltimore with an other Mrs. Eckman to support on the twenty-nine dollars a week he earned as a stock clerk. He had married Wilma Howard, a Mooresville girl. The out break of war eased the financial strain temporarily. He was put in charge of the Westinghouse Company’s local storerooms at eighty-five dollars a week, and inflation jacked up his basketball fees to a giddy $7.50 a game. In 1942, Eckman enlisted in the Sig nal Corps and was sent to a civilian code school at night, an arrangement that permitted him to stay on at West inghouse and referee on weekends. When he was called up for active Army duty eight months later, he transferred to the Air Force for pilot training, but he washed out of the course and fin ished the war as a physical instructor at Yuma, Arizona. There, after his dis charge in 1945, Eckman had brief prep aration for his present eminence. He organized an amateur softball league Wealthy sports nuts absorb losses in the hope of being identified with a win ner, but Zollner is beyond that stage. He was the industrial sports tycoon of America ten years ago, when basket ball and softball teams representing his company captured world cham pionships. The basketball team topped the old National League from 1943 to 1945, and the softball outfit had the remark able record of 1253 victories in 1442 games, an average of .869 against all comers in the United States and Can ada. The team was disbanded last Sep tember, a victim of major-league base ball broadcasts that killed interest. The $150,000 softball stadium that Zollner built will be used in the future by the Knothole Gang, now his favor ite community project, with a mem bership of 31,000 children. Zollner has trimmed his basketball budget so sharply that it is clear he no longer is lavishing money on the Pis tons as a civic enterprise. He willingly accepted inevitable deficits when the team played in the North Side High School gym, which accommodated only 3800 spectators. Since 1952 the Pistons have been playing in the new Memorial Coliseum, with a capacity of 9500, and Zollner is miffed that a winning team is not drawing consistently the 4700 admissions a game he needs to break even. " I ’ve dropped more than three hun dred thousand dollars in pro basket ball during the last fifteen years,” he said a few weeks ago. " I t never both ered me until this season. I ’ll be honest and admit the team does not cost me a nickel personally. I write off the loss as a tax deduction for consumer adver tising. I’ll also concede the team is priceless publicity for my company. It offends me as a businessman, though, to lose money with a good product of fered in fine facilities.” We asked Zollner point-blank if he was thinking of abandoning the fran chise. He pondered the question and corrected a scribbled statement before he answered. " I expect to continue basketball during my reasonably active fife. Fort Wayne is my home town, and I intend to play as many home games as the community wants. It may be, however, that a community of this size cannot support more than one home game a week. In that event, it may be necessary to review the situation.” Charley Eckman was too far up in the clouds last month to be disturbed by rumblings of an upheaval at Fort Wayne. The crowded Eckman house hold was jumping with the master’s ebullience. "We’re having the time of our fives,” Mrs. Eckman said. " I love being able to root my head off for the Pistons. I always had to watch games like a bump on a log because people would get funny ideas if a referee’s wife was partial to one side. Charley’s like a kid with a new toy. I know coaching must be more of a strain than refereeing, but he never shows it.” This is a swell setup,” twelve-year- old Barry agreed. "When pop wins we collect a little.” Handing out quarters regularly to four kids runs into money, but Eckman feels like a millionaire on a salary of $7500. "We’re really living it up,” he chortled as his Pistons rode high. We’ve got meat on the table every night, and my tigers are tearing the opposition to pieces. I’m too young to get an ulcer worrying how long it will keep up. If I fall on my kisser, I can always go back to blowing the whistle. One way or another, I’ll be around stirring up excitement.” t h e e n d "Be glad when the trout season opens. THE SATURDAY EVENING POST


1955_02_19--030_SP Coaching the Pro
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