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Charley Eckman
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Coaching the Fort Wayne Pistons: 1955-56

Second Year as Coach

The Pistons won their first Western Division championship

Mr. Zollner and Charley set off in quest of glory and found it in the 1954-55 team.  The Pistons won their first Western Division championship even though forced to play all playoff games on neutral or opponents' courts due to the presence of the American Bowling Congress tournament at Fort Wayne Coliseum, then the Pistons' home base. 

Charley and Family

The summer of 1955 was filled with requests to be a guest banquet speaker, Master of Ceremony, opening Little Leagues, American Legion awards and more.

Basketball men are Vice President E. William Zola, center in front attending cage clinic now on at New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Left to right, Charlie Eckman, coach of the Fort Wayne Zollner's; Dudley Moore of Duquesne University; Adolph Rupp of University of Kentucky, Mr. Zola, Col. Nelson Dingley, III superintendent of NYMA; City Manager William Kennedy, and Claire Bee, NYMA athletic director

 

 

 

 

Coaches of the college and professional basketball realm gather with Newburgh Chamber of Commerce Executive prior to make plans for next Friday's session in Hotel Newburgh.  Basketball men are Vice President E. William Zola, center in front attending cage clinic now at New York Military Academy in Cornwall-on-Hudson.  Left to right, Charlie Eckman, coach of the Fort Wayne Zollner's; Dudley Moore of Duquesne University; Adolph Rupp of University of Kentucky, Mr. Zola, Col. Nelson Dingley, III superintendent of NYMA; City Manager William Kennedy, and Claire Bee, NYMA athletic director. Newburgh paper, NY (Connolly)

1955-56 Season Begins

"But things seem to be going right...and how!"

"But things seem to be going right...and how!"

Left to right: Front: Coach Charley Eckman, Captain Andy Phillip, Odie Spears, Chuck Noble, Max Zaslofsky; back: George Yardley, Johnny Horan, Larry Foust, Don Bielke, Bobby Houbregs, Mel Hutchins and Corky Devlin All dressed up and some place to go - The immediate some place was to Syracuse to get their 1955-56 campaign under way but  Fort Wayne's Pistons, seen on right, Friday night as they get ready for their initial trip, also believe that some place is to the NBA crown this year.  Left to right: Front: Coach Charley Eckman, Captain Andy Phillip, Odie Spears, Chuck Noble, Max Zaslofsky; back:  George Yardley, Johnny Horan, Larry Foust, Don Bielke, Bobby Houbregs, Mel Hutchins and Corky Devlin.

The season began slowly.  In November, the Pistons were in third place but they got hot and ended the losing streak.  By December 12th they were in second place and in first place at the end of December.   

Left to right, Larry Foust, Dick Rosenthal, Coach Charlie Eckman (with pen), George Yardley and Captain Andy PhillipSome of the members of  'our' new pro basketball team, the Ft. Wayne Pistons, are shown here being greeted by Mary McLeod, desk clerk at the Hotel Severin.  Left to right, Larry Foust, Dick Rosenthal, Coach Charlie Eckman (with pen), George Yardley and Captain  Andy Phillip.

Police Guard Team After Threatening Phone Calls, Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette reported:  Al Cervi, coach of the Syracuse Nationals and Bobby Wanzer, player-coach of the Rochester Royals received calls from unidentified men before a game last week and Charley Eckman of the Fort Wayne Pistons received two such calls this week.

Charley took a phone call at the Piston office in Hotel Keenan.  When he got off the phone he was informed that his team must win by six points.  If so, he would be rewarded handsomely, if not, it would be too bad.  Two minutes later he received a phone call from Minneapolis.  The speaker,  who identified himself as Goldstein, said the orders had been changed. The team should either loose by two or win by seven. As a precaution extra police were called.  The players were not informed until between halves.

December 1955 - Few men work as hard at their job as Charley Eckman.  The human dynamo just goes and goes. Eckman has made countless public appearances in behalf of the Pistons during the last 15 months and had acquired an enviable reputation for his repartee at banquets.  He has dedicated himself to the one task of making the Pistons successful on the court and accepted at the box office. Charley also has whole-hearted interest in the welfare of his players and the player's families.  To that extent, Wilma Eckman has been a great help to Charley.  Mrs. Eckman works just as hard accomplishing the task as her more publicized husband.-  Gatesway to the Pistons, by Hilliard Gates

January 12, 1956: George Mikan, Mr. Basketball, ends retirement returning to the Minneapolis Lakers and Fort Wayne Piston rookie, Corky Devlin received his notice to report for Army duty.  Charley calls back Frankie Brian.  Eckman comments of Mikan's return, "I think it's great for the game.  I've always liked George personally and I hope he's doing the right thing.  His return will help the league and it will definitely help the gate at Minneapolis.  I don't think it will affect us too much because I can't see how they can play Mikan and Lovellette at the same time."

Larry Foust and George Mikan

"Fort Wayne's Larry Foust and George Mikan seem hesitant to grab hold of the basketball."

"Devlin Rejected from the Army and returns to the Pistons."

Ben Tenny, Sports Once Over:  Things NOT to Look for in 1956...Eckman to wear a tie or talk two minutes without using, "Be my guest!"

Eckman to wear a tie or talk two minutes without using, "Be my guest!"

Fort Wayne's Charlie Eckman eyes coliseum seating arrangements with Paul Buck and Cray Johnson.  Professional Basketball comes to Charlotte, NC. 

Bob Quincy, Charlotte News Sports Editor. Why doesn't Charlotte get into the pro league?  Don't waste any time with idle thought unless you have a good wad of dough.  It would be impossible unless an industry helped finance it. Top salaries, in the case of Fort Wayne, shoot up to $13,000 per individual.  Bob Cousy of Boston, the game's biggest draw earns $20,000 per season.  Few players get under $6,000.  Then there is transportation, equipment, rental, medical expense.  It cost Fort Wayne somewhat better than $1,500 per day to operate.

January 17, 1956: Charlotte Observer.  Pistons, Celtics Play in Charlotte.  Eckman, former professional baseball player with Mooresville and married to a Mooresville girl, was named pro coach of the year in his first season as Fort Wayne skipper last winter. "It'll be a great game," says Eckman.  "No humpty-dumpty exhibition stuff - this one will count in the standings and be for blood."

From Referee to Head Coach: Charlie Eckman Kept it Simple-. Eckman's most hazardous journey, however, came while he was coaching the Pistons and flying in Zollner's private plane from a game with the Lakers in Minot, ND back to Ft. Wayne. We took off in almost blizzard conditions.  The pilot kept telling us he had almost zero visibility and wanted to turn back.  But there was no airfield in sight.  Everyone but Zollner is starting to panic.  Jocko Collins, another referee, has pulled out his rosary beads and is on his knees praying. But Zollner says, "Don't worry, I'll take care of the weather."

And now he starts chanting, "Hello, D. this is Z". And he says this over and over.  Collins, who is white as a sheet, says, "Mr. Zollner, who are you talking to?" - Mr. Zollner, tells him, "The Devil, of course.  When the weather is this bad, you know God had nothing to do with it."  Well, 10 minutes later we get a message that the storm is over and we can land in Fort Wayne.  Mr. Zollner, he thought of everything!-  1990 HOOP Magazine, NBA Yesterday

 1956 All-Star Game

From left, Larry Foust, Bob Harrison, Charlie Eckman, Bob Pettit, Bobby Wanzer and Maurice Stokes.

West is West - Members of the NBA West squad listen to their coach during pre-game conference. From left, Larry Foust, Bob Harrison, Charlie Eckman, Bob Pettit, Bobby Wanzer and Maurice Stokes.

Charley plays out his part of court jester for Fort Wayne owner Fred Zollner to the last laugh, even referring to himself as 'Chattering Charley.'  He acts like a cheerleader on the bench.  He imposes no curfew on his squad and even kids about their staying out far beyond the hour athletes should be in bed.  He insists there's nothing he can tell a pro and nothing he can show them about the sport in which they earn their living.  Still, it is a peculiar circumstance that players cast off elsewhere have done wonderfully well under Eckman.
"Charley," said Collins, "brings out the best of them.  He cracks jokes and tries to be one of the boys, but he never stops being a coach first.  Some of the people in the league may not think he's funny, but nobody can deny that he's been effective."

Coach Charlie Eckman of the Fort Wayne Pistons and Coach George Senesky of the Philadelphia Warriors hold trophy

Coach Charlie Eckman of the Fort Wayne Pistons and Coach George Senesky of the Philadelphia Warriors hold trophy to be awarded Tuesday night to the outstanding player in the East-West All-Star game.

January 24, 1956 - Charley coached the 1956 WEST ALL-STAR Team to a 104-94 Victory. 

January 24, 1956 -“ Charley coached the 1956 WEST ALL-STAR Team to a 104-94 Victory. 

Charley Eckman, Baltimorean who coached the West to a 108-94 victory over the East in the Sixth Annual National Basketball Association all-star classic at Rochester, NY last night, is hailed by winning players.  Left to right: Bobby Wanzer, Eckman and George Yardley. 

The following was quoted from SIXTH ANNUAL ALL-STAR GAME Program:

Charley earned another go at the All-Star coaching berth, and this year he brought home the bacon with an underdog squad.  The Westerners ran the highly touted Eastern Division squad right off the court, and set a new record scoring 41 points in one quarter.  If anyone was surprised, it wasn't Eckman.  He had predicted the victory loud and clear during the All-Star luncheon earlier in the day.  At the recent All-Star game in Rochester, Charley used this talent to the utmost and had the Eastern team off balance and faltering most of the way.
Some observers figure the reason Eckman's teams do as well is that they'd rather listen to him yell happily than unhappily, because even happily he's a terror.  His 'Get it back', or 'Get me that ball' is the signal for his team to move, or expect a more heavily spiced vocabulary.

As the West lined up while the East's Neil Johnston shot a foul, Charley bellowed at Stokes, "Grab it, Maurice.'  Short pause, 'And I don't mean Podoloff." Whether or not Charley's wit had anything to do with it, Johnston missed the shot.

In hiring Eckman, Fred Zollner, owner of the Pistons, said: "Charley can handle men.  He has proved that time and again.  Handling men is the key to success in this league."  So what has the 34 year old Eckman done about Zollner's appraisal, just made him look like a thousand per cent correct, that's all.

"Most Valuable Player, Bob Pettit following the NBA All-Star game with Charley Eckman

Most Valuable Player, Bob Pettit, St. Louis forward is shown admiring the trophy he received following the NBA All-Star game with Charley Eckman, coach of the West team.

Rochester Democratic Chronicle by Dave Warner.  CASEY STENGEL OF BASKETBALL. Eckman's ability to match players gives West victory.  Holding court in the dressing room before his West team upset the East 108-94, Charley (The Tongue) Eckman, honored for the second straight year as a coach in this star-spangled spectacle of the NBA was masterful in plotting strategy. 
"We've got to fight 'em off the boards," began cheerleader Charley, the reformed referee, a nine-point looser last year in his maiden voyage as an All-Star coach.  "We've got to make this a concerted team effort.  I'm sick of hearing all these eastern guys talk about all their wins in the series, (the East has won four of six games played) and I wanna beat 'em."
So what happens before the biggest crowd ever to watch an indoor sports event in this city, a turn away turnout of 8,517!  Eckman and his underdogs were made to look like supreme strategists, that's what.
"In the dressing room after the game, a man asked Eckman, "How'd you win it?"  "Rebounds," was the simple reply. "I moved Hutchins in with my other three big men, Foust, Lovelette and Pettit and we killed 'em. You've got to play my style of winning basketball." comical Charley kidded. "Did your team practice at all before the game?", a bystander asked. "No," Charley shot back. 
In the pre-game introductions, Eckman had been introduced along with the players in a colorful display that had a spotlight playing upon each as he crashed through a star-covered paper entrance.  When it came Eckman's turn, the public address announcer introduced him as the Casey Stengel of Basketball. Eckman responded by blowing a kiss to the crowd.

Charlie's a pygmy among giants, standing a mere 5-8 and readily chortes "When I'm in a huddle with the boys they have to send out a search party to find me!"

Milton Gross writes, I flew back from the All-Star game with Jocko Collins, the NBA's supervisor of referees, who is on a constant tour of the circuit. Next to Al (Al Cervi, Syracuse coach), Collins said, Charley's the best substitute in the league.  His combinations and match ups are always good.  He always seems to be able to get down toward the end of the game with five fresh men on the floor and he never gives up.

(left to right) Bobby Wanzer, George Yardley, Maurice Stokes, Mel Hutchins and Larry Foust.

"All that Glitters is Silver...Coach Charley Eckman touches Most Valuable Trophy held by MVP Bob Pettit.  Others in mob scene are (left to right) Bobby Wanzer, George Yardley, Maurice Stokes, Mel Hutchins and Larry Foust."

 

 

Now to finish the 1955-56 Season

"Pistons Make It Seven Straight..."

"Pistons Make It Seven Straight..."

Feb. 9, 1956 - Letter to Charley after being Speaker for the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce luncheon.  "Just to let you know we thoroughly enjoyed your remarks at yesterdays luncheon.  Therefore I am in hopes you will accept an invitation to speak to the 135 members of our Sports Committee the next time you are in town on a week day." 

February 9, 1956 -  Basketball Game's Patriarch Philosopher, Connie Mack is Dead (one of Charley's favorite men). He was a philosopher as well as a leading sports figure. Here are some of his comments compiled throughout the years:

"I feel that mistakes are a thing of the past and belong to yesterday.  Look with optimism at the future."
"My 1910 team was my best.  I won four pennants in 1910, 11, 13 and 14 and should have won five.  The players lost the pennant in 1912 because some of them felt they had accomplished all there was to accomplish and became dissipated."
"The way to stay young is to diet, never smoke, nor drink.  Leave the table hungry."
"My advice to any manager is to treat your men as friends, but remember you must have their respect."
"Do not brood over yesterdays game. When a game is over, it's in the records.  You cannot replay it.  Today's ball game is the one that counts."
"Not enough people have time for good humor today; all they think about is money."
"Maybe our government spoils people with pension programs and social security.  Now when a man is 65 he is supposed to understand that he is too old to work and should get a government pension. That's pampering."
"Education is the basis for the young man's progress today.  Schooling lays the groundwork for young people to get ahead.  Sports teaches them how to  move along, to live a clean, healthy life, to play fair, to be a good winner and - above all - to be a good loser."

"Relax, Charley, It's in the bag!

Relax, Charley, It's in the bag!  Fort Wayne's Pistons laugh it up in their dressing room Thursday night as they learned that St. Louis, like Minneapolis, had been mathematically eliminated and they were Western Division champs for the second straight season.  Coach Charley Eckman, happy that the race was over and only the playoffs now were the big worry, and George Yardley were the big gag makers during the celebration.  Others, left to right: Front: Bobby Houbregs, Chuck Cooper and Larry Foust; back: Chuck Noble, Corky Devlin and Andy Phillip. Fort Wayne News Sentinel

Eckman coached the Fort Wayne Pistons to a 37-35 record in 1955-56 for Western Division Championship 

March 2, 1956 "Piston's Eckman - And His Four Aces"  

Pistons Loose to the Philadelphia Warriors in five out of seven games

1955/56 Season Review:  In two years as a professional mentor, the effusive Eckman has won two Western Division championships, the only titles accumulated by the Pistons in their NBA history.  Eckman came to Ft Wayne when Piston fortunes were at a dangerously low ebb.  He lifted spirits on a squad picked to finish third or fourth to such an extent that it ran away with the Western Division race, after winning 17 of it's first 22 games, faster start ever for an NBA team. 

Critics were silenced by his success but the hard losers looked to "Next year." So did Eckman and he continued to confound the experts as he steered the Zs to their second straight Western title. And their playoff showing has been just short of phenomenal.  They carried Syracuse to seven games in 1955, losing the title game by one point.   
Eastern writers were lavish in their praise of Eckman's 1956 All-Star Game showing.  He saw his Western stars fall behind 19-5 in the first quarter and then thrust Mel Hutchins, his 6-6 forward, into the line-up as a guard. It was the turning point and the West rallied for an overwhelming victory, (108-94) outscoring the Eastern Squad, 103-75 in 40 minutes.
And the general impression around Fort Wayne fostered by the limitless Eckman, seems to be...."YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHIN' YET!

March 25, 1956- Charlie Eckman, well known basketball coach and sports figure, is guest speaker at the Notre Dame Spring Athletic Banquet, South Bend, Indiana.