Charley in Charge

Charley Eckman was head coach of the Pistons during their first year in Detroit.

Former ref led Pistons to new heights as team’s first head coach
Charley in Charge

by John Maxwell

It would seem more than a little strange if a referee traded in his whistle for a clipboard in today’s NBA. But that was the case more than 50 years ago, when Charley Eckman made just such a transition, accepting the job as head coach of the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons.

Eckman was a three-sport star as a youngster, excelling in baseball, basketball and track. His father died in World War I when he was 12 years old, and he and his mother struggled to make ends meet. Among the odd jobs Eckman did to raise extra money, he officiated basketball games.

Baseball was Eckman’s primary sport, however. In those days, it was the only professional team sport of any note. He was drafted by the Washington Senators after graduating from Baltimore City College and played in their farm system, but never made it to the majors. In 1942, Beckman was 21 years old, married, working at Bethlehem Steel Coke Ovens during the day and officiating local basketball games night in the Baltimore Basketball League, where he gained as much notoriety as the athletes.

“One of the brightest starts in the Baltimore Basket Ball League is not even a player. He’s a referee, and his name is Charlie Eckman,” said a December 1942 article in the Baltimore Sun. “The capacity crowds that jam the Fourteen Holy Martyrs gymnasium every Wednesday and Sunday evening think he’s about tops too. For young Eckman is a show all by himself, scampering all over the court every one of the forty playing minutes. He’s in on every play, watching the ball with one eye, and all ten contestants with the other . . . What makes Eckman’s performance all the more unusual is his rare flair of showmanship, a quality so sadly lacking on so many present-day officials . . . To see him call a foul on a player and then re-enact the scene is a real treat.”

Eckman’s career got sidetracked for two years when he enlisted in the US Army Air Corps in late 1943, but he continued to keep his eyes in shape by refereeing the Reserve intramural basketball games. Upon his discharge in 1945, Eckman moved his wife and newborn son to Arizona, where he had been stationed. He continued to officiate basketball games, this time with the American League West Coast, while working for the Phoenix office of the War Assets Administration.

The American Basketball League’s Hollywood Shamrocks called in 1947 and hired him to officiate a number of the team’s games; two years after that he began refereeing games for the Basketball Association of America.

The BAA merged with the National Basketball League in late 1949 and became the National Basketball Association we know today. Eckman was ranked as one of the top officials in the NBA during his time in zebra stripes – until 1954, when Pistons owner Fred Zollner signed the 32-year-old Eckman to a three-year coaching contract. Zollner explained the stunning hire to the Baltimore News American on April 20, 1954:

“‘Eckman was my first choice from the very beginning. He meets all our qualifications for the position. He has a thorough knowledge of basketball as it is played in the NBA because of his first-hand association with all the teams in the league.’ Zollner said Eckman enjoys the ‘respect of the players and owners in the league because of his exemplary service as an official. For the same reason he is highly regarded by fans throughout the league.’”

The Pistons already had put together some respectable teams, reaching the postseason in the five seasons prior to Eckman’s arrival, including a Western Division Finals appearance in 1952-53. Success came quickly to Eckman’s charges as the Pistons finished with a 43-29 record – tops in the Western Division – and lost a hard-fought seven-game Finals to the Syracuse Nationals. The first-year head coach was honored as NBA Coach of the Year.

The following season, the Fort Wayne faithful witnessed another division crown, albeit with a 37-35 mark, and another trip to the NBA Finals where the Pistons fell to the Philadephia Warriors, 4-1.

The Pistons posted the best record in the Western Division in Eckman’s third season, too, but this time they shared that distinction with two other teams, all of whom finished under .500 with a 34-38 mark. A loss in the semifinals to the Minneapolis Lakers ended the Pistons’ season – and the team’s run in Fort Wayne. The announcement that the team would move to Detroit had been made earlier in the season. Although Eckman was personally against the move because of his fondness for Fort Wayne, he packed his bags for the Motor City.

Unfortunately for Eckman, his stay in Detroit didn’t last long. He was relieved of his coaching duties just 25 games into the season following a 9-16 start. He eventually returned to officiating and later became an award-winning radio sportscaster, handling color commentary for the Baltimore Bullets, Orioles and Colts. He also returned to his first passion, baseball, scouting for the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Braves. He recounted his life and litany of athletic vocations in a book written by Fred Neil titled, “It’s a Very Simple Game – The Life & Times of Charley Eckman.”

This entry would not have been as detailed as it is without information provided by the website The site contains moutains of additional information on Eckman, and those who are interested in Eckman’s life are encouraged to visit the site.