Frank Zummach, last 1930s pro coach: RIP

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Frank Zummach, last 1930s pro coach: RIP

Postby Brian Gaynor » Tue May 01, 2012 9:22 am

Frank Zummach, the genial and cerebral head coach of the Sheboygan Red Skins who steered a bedrock franchise of the old National Basketball League to the 1941 championship series, and who later became a Sheboygan fixture as a real estate and probate attorney, died Monday. He was 101.

Zummach, self-deprecating and unfailingly modest, was the nation’s final surviving pro basketball head coach from the 1930s, Bill Himmelman, the NBA’s former historian, confirmed in 2006.

In addition, Zummach was the oldest basketball alumnus of Marquette University, and was honored as such in 2007 at a packed-house ceremony at the Bradley Center.

“I didn’t realize I was that much of a rarity,” Zummach once told The Sheboygan Press.

One of his last public appearances came in 2009 at the Sheboygan County Historical Museum for an event that, in part, recognized him as being one of the area’s most significant sports figures of all-time.

In the past 15 years, following decades of near anonymity as a small-town attorney, Zummach had re-emerged as the face and voice of the Red Skins. He spoke at Red Skins reunions in 2000 and 2001 and was featured in the 2002 PBS documentary, “Wisconsin Stories: More Than a Game.” Moreover, he was quoted in newspaper and magazine articles about the Red Skins, the NBL and the evolution of pro basketball.

Former Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre grew up in Zummach’s northeast side neighborhood and was a good friend of his son.

“I was always a little bit in awe, when I was with Jerry, of knowing who Frank Zummach was and what he stood for in this town,” Dwyre told a packed Red Skins reunion gathering in 2000. “And when my father died and my mother was left here, Frank took good care of her and her affairs and I’ve always been grateful for that.”

Francis Edmond Zummach was born in Milwaukee on Jan. 28, 1911, to German parents. His father Harry was a banker and mother Josephine a homemaker. Zummach once said that his mother attended only one Red Skins game — and brought along her rosary for insurance.

In the 1930s at Marquette, he was a starter on the basketball team, majored in Greek, earned his law degree and was an assistant to head coach Bill Chandler for six seasons.

The American-born game of basketball was young and impressionable when Zummach was named head coach of the Red Skins on Sept. 6, 1939. He married Dorothy Cunningham on Oct. 11 of that year and the couple moved permanently to Sheboygan, where they first lived at 1216 N. 7th St. and then for many years at 228 Superior Ave.

With the Red Skins, Zummach instituted a talking, shifting man-to-man defense that sometimes proved impenetrable.

“We were ahead of the times in defense,” he once said, pridefully.

In his first season, Zummach guided the Red Skins to a 15-13 record and tie for the Western Division title with the rival Oshkosh All-Stars.

“Zummach was a very fine student of Chandler’s,” the late Glenn “Sparky” Adams, a Marquette alum and a Red Skins player in 1939-40, told the Press in 2007. “He wasn’t forceful and pretty much allowed a person’s traits to stay (with him).”

During the 1940-41 season, Sheboygan advanced to the NBL finals in the 50th anniversary year of Dr. James Naismith’s invention of the sport. The Red Skins finished 13-11 and eliminated the Detroit Eagles in the first round of the playoffs. The Eagles were guided by soon-to-be Red Skins player Buddy Jeannette and future Red Skins coach Dutch Dehnert, both members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In the best-of-five championship series, however, Oshkosh swept Sheboygan.

“The businessmen in town were backing pro basketball; everyone was excited about it,” Zummach once said of the Red Skins, who in those days played in the 1,500-seat Eagle Auditorium at 711 New York Ave. “The games were on radio, home and away. In retrospect, though, we were peanuts until the NBA started.”

His 1941-42 team was beset with injuries and World War II military losses and finished just 10-14 and out of the playoffs, despite a 7-4 record in the six weeks following Christmas.

But following that season, Zummach and the Red Skins soldiered on, re-stocking their lineup with regional college stars, continuing to woo a rabid fan base and remaining financially solvent. He had planned to coach a fourth season and had re-signed a contract for 1942-43.

“Sheboygan, Oshkosh and Fort Wayne kept that league going in the 1940s,” said the late Hall of Fame guard Al Cervi, who played for the Rochester Royals and Syracuse Nationals and coached the Nationals to the NBA title in 1955. “All of the all-Americans in the country were with these teams. They were big-league at the time, no question about it. Without them, we’d be set back 10 or 15 years.”

By late 1942, players were entering the military en masse, as the NBL shrank from seven teams to essentially four (the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets would disband after only four games).

Zummach decided to step down shortly before the 1942-43 season, not because of a diminishing player pool or gas rationing or other wartime realities but because of a dispute with business manager Carl Roth over Roth’s insistence on paying rookie Kenny Buehler a greater salary than veterans Eddie Dancker, Rube Lautenschlager and Kenny Suesens.

Sheboygan would win its only NBL championship in March 1943, beating the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons two games to one, with Roth as head coach.

“I’d like to think that was my team; it wasn’t, of course,” Zummach once said. “But I had a hand in it. I don’t have any regrets.”

Zummach was a law partner with Oscar Wolters (“I think he liked the idea of having the Red Skins coach in the office”) and worked in the Security National Bank building.

“The day after a game, I used to go down the alley behind the Press to the courthouse,” Zummach once said. “Otherwise, I could waste two hours because everyone wanted to talk about the game. After a loss, I stayed hidden away.”

Zummach had a regular-season mark of 38-38 in three seasons, tying Suesens for longest stint as Red Skins coach. He was responsible for bringing the Harlem Globetrotters to Sheboygan for 10 days in November 1940 — the famous barnstorming team’s first training camp — and he coached the Red Skins three times in the prestigious World Professional Tournament in Chicago.

“The Red Skins put the city of Sheboygan on the map because of its basketball team -- and Frank was part of the reason,” Otto “Ottsey” Ruppel, the team trainer, said in 2000. “Frank ... was very well-liked by his players.”

Despite his success and influence, Zummach once said that while he didn’t think he rated as a head coach, “I would have been a good assistant. I wasn’t tough enough to be a head coach.”

The man who laid the foundation for the Red Skins’ eventual entry into the NBA, in 1949, said that his fondest coaching memories were in directing youth teams at St. Clement’s grade school.

“Those were the really fun years,” he once said.

Zummach was a close friend of Joe “Unser Choe” Hauser, who died in 1997 at age 98. At the same time Zummach coached the Red Skins, Hauser was coach of the Sheboygan Indians baseball team, a Class D affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“I didn’t plan on trying to make 100,” Zummach once said. “Now, Joe, who was born in 1899, wanted to make 100 because, if he did, he could have (had a chance to live) in three different centuries.

“I’ve really had a good life. I don’t think about it, but I might not wake up tomorrow morning.”

Zummach’s college sweetheart, Dorothy, preceded him in death in January 1990, only months after the couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. He is survived by daughter Mary Jo of Albany, N.Y., son Jerry of Sheboygan, eight grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren.

“Frank was a very refined person,” the late Leona Suesens, Kenny’s widow, once said. “He was our lawyer and a wonderful man.”

The late Lucille Lautenschlager, Rube’s widow, once said that Zummach “was just nice. Nobody ever said anything nasty about him.”

Toward the end, Zummach’s longevity became a frequent conversation piece. City Streets Restaurant hosted “Red Skins Remembered” in June 2000, held on the 50th anniversary of the Red Skins’ one season in the NBA. Dwyre was emcee.

“In the year 2050, when you do your 100-year anniversary dinner, I want to be invited back,” Dwyre told the audience during his introduction of Zummach. “But with one codicil: Frank Zummach will have to push me in — in my wheelchair.”

Funeral services are pending.

— Brian Gaynor, a former Sheboygan Press sports editor, is an editor at The Oregonian in Portland.
Brian Gaynor
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