Team Spirit

Fort Wayne is rich in sports history

It rained in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1871.

A trivial detail on the surface, for sure, but if it didn’t rain in our nation’s capital on that day – of all days – Fort Wayne might be just a little side note in the annals of sports history. A little forgotten “what if?” or bit of barstool trivia only us locals would maybe talk about, much less remember.

But it did indeed rain in our capital on May 4, 1871, forcing Washington’s Olympics of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players to cancel a scheduled game with the Boston Red Stockings.

And despite threatening weather looming here, the Fort Wayne Kekiongas of that same league played on. At the “Grand Duchess” ball park – now thought to have been located in Camp Allen just two blocks south of Main Street near downtown – the hometown Kekiongas beat the Forest Citys from Cleveland 2-0 before 200 fans.

It marked the first professional league game played in baseball’s history.

“To be at that game . . . wow,” said Bill Griggs, a Fort Wayne resident and baseball historian who has worked tirelessly to pinpoint the exact location of the Kekionga’s playing grounds, which has been in dispute for years.

We are a city with a deep sports history. Not just in baseball. And we take pride in our teams, which have provided residents of all ages countless hours of entertainment, some cheap thrills and, yes, a little heartbreak here and there.

But every season, we haul ourselves out to the stadiums, the ballparks and the hardwoods to root on our teams and mingle – and maybe enjoy some excellent tailgate food, as only we can.

The Mad Ants and basketball lore

Most people know the Detroit Pistons didn’t originate in the Motor City.

Originally called the Zollner Pistons and a product of Fred Zollner’s Fort Wayne-based corporation – which made pistons – the team played during the 1940s and 1950s in the old North Side High School gym, which back then had sturdy brick walls just across the out-of-bounds marker along the sides of the court.

What a lot of people might not know is that Zollner is credited with being a key figure in merging the National Basketball League and Basketball Association of America into the National Basketball Association. Essentially, Fort Wayne helped birth the NBA.

Today, NBA ties are still felt in the city as the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA G-League take to the court in Memorial Coliseum every winter, giving hungry fans a taste of pro basketball up close and live over the past decade.

The Mad Ants have taken home one championship during that time and also provided a home for “Mr. Mad Ant” Ron Howard, a longtime member of the team who once broke the league scoring title and was referred to as the “Crash Davis” of basketball in Sports Illustrated.

Pro ball is not the only game in town, however. We have several universities playing at various collegiate levels – Indiana Tech and the University of Saint Francis play in the NAIA – and one, IPFW, which plays Division I.

In fact, before a sell-out crowd mainly clad in red crammed Memorial Coliseum this past year, IPFW stunned then No. 3 Indiana University in what was at the time being called one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history.

We love our basketball.

The Komets

When Ernie Berg began thinking of a name for the hockey team he bought with Harold Van Orman, he wanted something that suggested speed, flash and excitement. He came up with Comets – but substituted the “C” with a “K” in honor of his wife, who went by Kay.

Sixty-five years on and the Komets are probably still our most beloved team.

Now a member of the East Coast Hockey League – think AA-level if you’re into baseball – the Komets have excelled for decades on the ice.

The team was a regular in the old International Hockey League for nearly 40 years, winning championships along the way. The K’s bounced around to several other leagues, winning champions everywhere they went before landing in the ECHL.

With a longer history than most teams here, they also have more retired numbers and banners hanging in the Memorial Coliseum rafters – their home since the building opened all the way back in 1952 when Berg and Van Orman bought the team.

Today, attendance and fandom are as strong as ever. Loyalists take bus trips to nearby towns like Kalamazoo, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio to watch games. And the Komets for many families is a tradition – the fandom passed down from one generation to the next.

We love our hockey.

And we love – absolutely love – hockey night in Fort Wayne.

The TinCaps

Pre-game ceremonies included a F-16 flyover and numerous ceremonial first-pitches.

Then, in the bottom of the second inning of a game against the Dayton Dragons on a clear and warm April 16, 2009, Fort Wayne TinCaps third baseman James Darnell smacked a line shot over the wall in left-field.

It was the first-ever home run in beautiful Parkview Field, and opened the floodgates to a TinCaps 7-0 win.

It maybe also represented the floodgates of development happening around downtown at the time, which had gone through a renaissance of re-invention surrounding the ballpark, which has long become the crown jewel of the center of our city.

Today, the TinCaps, a Single-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, keep on breaking attendance records thanks to the amenities of the ballpark. The club is also continuously recognized by Minor League Baseball as one of the best as far as being well-run and well-rounded.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans go through the turnstiles to see a new crop of fresh-faced ballplayers fight to make it to The Show. And every year they’re treated to all kinds of entertainment and attractions.

Fireworks are a regular thing at the ballpark, and Thirsty Thursdays is a fun – and with $1 beers, cheap – time for college students home for summer break.

We’ve already told you of Fort Wayne’s baseball history.

We may be a basketball state, but in a lot of ways the smack of leather in the spring in summer, the crack of a bat and the smell of peanuts roasting or the crackle of Cracker Jacks just belongs here. It always has, and with the TinCaps thriving, it always will.

First appeared in the 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine’s City Guide.


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