Finding historical sports items at ACPL can be fun adventure

Allen County Public Library Senior Director of Special Collections Curt Witcher shows off some of the dozens of boxes of Fort Wayne Pistons memorability stored in the facility's basement. (By Blake Sebring of
Two Zollner Pistons banners from the mid-1940s are among the memorabilia stored at the Allen County Public Library. (By Blake Sebring of
There are also various team photos from both the softball and basketball Pistons. (By Blake Sebring of
These softballs are believed to have signatures from players on two of the Pistons' three world championship teams. (By Blake Sebring of

For several decades, there have been rumors of a secret Fort Wayne sports memorabilia stash hidden somewhere deep in the Allen County Public Library. It was locked away so tightly that Tom Cruise and the Impossible Mission Force, even disguised as Indiana Jones, couldn’t find a crack to shove their way in.

They just didn’t know whom to beg for a tour.

Curt Witcher, the library’s senior director of special collections, has wandered the building for 39 years, and from the looks of his tanline, most of those have been spent underground in the bowels of the repository. After making sure his guest initially donned a blindfold and earplugs to ensure keeping the destination secret, and after bouncing his victim down various hidden staircases, Witcher provided a tour of the Fine Book Room a couple weeks ago.

(Actually, upon request, the library gives dozens of Fine Book Room and Lincoln Collection tours each year. This guest was just particularly suspicious looking and a known troublemaker.)

Except for a fireplace and candles which are forbidden, the actual room feels like it could be the midieval repository for a band of caretaker monks living in isolation on a hidden European mountain. Surrounded by straight-backed wooden chairs decorated with ancient faces, there’s even an antique wooden table used for displaying the ancient tomes and texts.

The secret stash turns out to be mostly Fort Wayne Pistons memorabilia, both softball and basketball items from the 1940s and 1950s. There are three softballs thought to be signed by members of a championship team. The autographs include such great players as Bernie Kampschmidt, Jim Ramage, Leo Luken, Bill West and Elmer MacDonald. There are also pennants, tons of pictures and dozens of scrapbooks. There’s even an autograph book that includes signatures from the Komets, both Pistons franchises and the Fort Wayne Daisies of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team.

A couple of Witcher’s favorite items include a record with radio recordings of games and some old film of games.

After winning world championships in 1945, 1946 and 1947, the Pistons softball team dissolved Sept. 22, 1954, ending a 15-year run that saw the team go 1,253-189 or an .869 winning percentage. It won the regular-season title in the National Fastball League nine years in a row from 1946 to 1954.

The basketball team won world championships in 1944, 1945 and 1946 and was the primary reason why the Memorial Coliseum was built in 1952. An original member, the team played in the NBA from 1949-1957 when the Pistons moved to Detroit. They played in the NBA Finals in 1955 and 1956.

The Continental Basketball Association’s Fort Wayne Fury honored the basketball Zollner Pistons with a 1992 reunion that included 21 former players, and some offered their collections to the library. Now there are more than 25 boxes of scrapbooks, photos and other souvenirs which were organized a few years ago by Marge and Don Graham. No, they aren’t monks. She is a cornerstone of the Genealogy Department and he’s a Fort Wayne sports historian who is spending his retirement scanning his immense collection of Daisies, Pistons and Komets material into the library’s digital archives.

It’s not that the ACPL is hiding these items away to keep them from people, but instead, the real eventual goal is to be able to share them with everyone on the library’s website in the future.

“This is part of the community’s history, and a big piece of special collections is focused on local history,” Witcher said. “In 100 years from now, we’d like people to be able to go to the virtual community album a the library’s website and see what was going on in manufacturing, in sports, education and religion. We have over 100,000 digital assets in the community album.”

Part of that progress depends upon finding volunteers willing to help with the digitization and finding foundations or other philanthropists who have an interest in sports history who might be willing to make donations.

It would be a dream to be able to sneak down into the dungeon to sit and browse for days, flipping through the scrapbooks to read the articles and commit the pictures to memory. Research could be done on such topics the 1953 NBA All-Star Game and the Pistons’ 19-18 win in Minneapolis that forced the NBA to adopt the 24-second shot clock.

If members of the general public would like to see individual parts of the collection, they need to make a request through the genealogy department.

Then the overworked, ink-stained monks will send up the information.