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The history of the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame dates back 50 years, to the founding of the organization in 1973. Sadly, many of the notes and records from those early years have been lost or remain undiscovered by us as we celebrate our 50thanniversary.

Fortunately, we have available to us what is probably the best recorded account of those early years in the form of a manuscript written as a college thesis by Mr. Paul A. Kahler, Jr., who published his work as a partial fulfillment of his Bachelor of Arts degree in communications at St. Mary’s College, Orchard Lake, Michigan on April 25, 1983. The document – published nearly ten years after our founding — was based upon contemporaneous research and personal interviews conducted by Mr. Kahler with our founding board members and early honorees, and thus remains the single greatest and most accurate recorded source of the history of the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1998, Mr. Kahler’s document was updated and re-published as a supplement to our 25th anniversary program book, owing chiefly to the efforts of former Board Member and Board Chairman Don Horkey, whose painstaking work took over where Kahler’s thesis had left off.

As we recount the history of our organization through a series of articles on this, our 50th Anniversary, we acknowledge the invaluable work of these two men. If not for their efforts, so much more of our history would surely have been lost.

 Jim Conrad

Executive Director

September, 2023

Part I – The Early Years; Polish American Night, Leon Z, and Big Ed

The year was 1971.

Edward Piszek, president and founder of frozen food giant  Mrs. Paul’s Kitchens,  in collaboration with the Orchard Lake Schools, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars  in support of “Project: POLE,”  a nation-wide public relations  campaign designed to elevate the Polish image and promote Poland’s proud 1,000-year heritage.

Across the country, Americans in numerous metropolitan areas opened their daily newspapers to find full-page spreads proudly touting the achievements of Copernicus, Kościuszko, Joseph Conrad and other prominent Poles, all courtesy of “Project: POLE” and bankrolled by successful entrepreneur and proud Polish American Ed Piszek

 Polish Pride was growing fast!

In the Metropolitan Detroit area, the Polish American community had been in the forefront of the highly successful series of ethnic festivals that attracted hundreds of thousands of people to downtown Detroit during the summer months. And in the Polish American enclave of Hamtramck, Leon Zarski, an unassuming elementary school teacher, was espousing his Polish pride through hundreds of songs he had composed, mostly polkas, including a couple that won Grammy awards. He would later compose a song on the occasion of the visit of John Paul II to the Detroit area in 1987.

Picking upon the mood of the times, Zarski organized the first Polish American Night at Tiger Stadium. What a sight to behold: youngsters in colorful folk costumes performing folk dances in the outfield, strolling polka bands in the stands, and the aroma of kielbasa wafting through the ballpark. Tributes – huge plaques bearing the Polish eagle emblem – were presented to athletes of Polish American background. What a fun way to instill pride and awe in a person’s mind and heart!

Observing all of this from his vantage point in the press box high atop Tiger Stadium was Ed Browalski, a long-time sports writer for Detroit’s Polish Daily News, and from 1973 to 1984, the official scorer of the Detroit Tigers.

“Big Ed” had an idea.

“Polish-American Night at Tiger Stadium was a success from day one,” Browalski noted, “and I thought, instead of honoring certain players on one day, why not give them permanent recognition? A National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame and Museum would be the place to do it for permanent preservation of their athletic deeds.”

Browalski received mixed reaction to his idea, but there were three who believed: Zarski, John Klemba, a businessman and president of the Polish American Chamber of Commerce, and Fr. Ted Blaszczyk, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Apostles Church in Hamtramck.

They held their first meeting in the school library at Fr. Blaszczyk’s parish. Over nearly two years’ time, they laid out the groundwork, drafted interested, hard-working members for their Board of Directors, elected officers (Browalski was chairman for the first two years; Fr. Blaszczyk for the next two), formulated various committees and assembled a constitution and by-laws.

In 1973 – on June 14 – it all became a reality. The first National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame testimonial banquet was staged at the Polish Century Club of Detroit with an audience of more than 400 persons witnessing the induction of the fledgling Hall of Fame’s first honoree – Stan “The Man” Musial, one of the greatest baseball players ever, and a gentleman proud of his Polish American heritage. The next day, about 35,000 crowded Tiger Stadium for Polish American Night to salute Musial. The first-ever ethnic heritage night in professional sports held two years earlier had blossomed into the birth of the first-ever ethnic sports hall of fame in the country.

And so, Big Ed’s idea had become a reality. But the idea had now evolved into a full-scale dream, a dream that included a free-standing museum housing artifacts and displays documenting and preserving the outstanding achievements of great Polish American athletes. The National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame and Museum needed a home.

Part II – The Hall Grows and Finds a Home at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s

Just as the decision to honor Stan the Man as the first inductee into the NPASHF was a “no-brainer,” the selection of a site for the NPASHF Museum wasn’t a difficult decision either. Browalski contacted the Rev. Walter J. Ziemba, president-rector to the Orchard Lake Schools in northwest suburban Detroit. The schools – SS. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, St. Mary’s College, and St. Mary’s Preparatory – were founded in Detroit in 1885 by an immigrant Polish priest, Fr. Joseph Dabrowski, on Detroit’s east side. In 1909, they moved lock, stock and barrel to the shore of Orchard Lake and the site of the former Michigan Military Academy.

Browalski explained:

“Orchard Lake was selected because it’s been a center of Polish culture. We couldn’t find a better location and a more appropriate location, than the Polish culture center of America.”

In February 1982, a multi-purpose room on the second floor of the Dombrowski Fieldhouse was dedicated as the NPASHF museum. Although not yet the free-standing museum that Big Ed dreamed of, Browalski termed it “a step in the right direction.”

And while the museum became a reality a full nine years after the inception of the Hall of Fame, the annual tradition of inducting great Polish American athletes was already in full swing.

Each year, in accordance with the by-laws established by the original Board of Directors, potential candidates were researched, ballots were mailed to a “Sports Panel Council” established in the by-laws, elections held, and the list of Hall of Fame Enshrinees grew. Extraordinary athletes — men and women; amateur and professional – were added to the Hall, joined together by the bonds of their outstanding athletic achievements and their Polish heritage.

First it was Musial in 1973 – who was then joined in 1974 by baseball slugger Ted Kluszewski, softball legend Ed Tyson, and track and field star Stella Walsh, who became the first female member of the Hall. As the Hall continued to grow in numbers, so too did the athletic diversity of the sports represented. NFL Hall of Famer Alex Wojciechowicz became the first football inductee, enshrined along with boxer Tony Zale and baseball Hall of Famer, Al Simmons in 1975. Bowler Johnny Crimmins joined the list of honorees in 1976; college basketball great Tom Gola was added in 1977; the sports of weightlifting and golf were added in 1978 with the elections of Norbert Schemansky and Al Watrous.

And with each induction, there was a celebration!

“It’s just like a Polish wedding.” Stan Musial declared, referring to the two-day celebration that was to become a long-standing NPASHF induction tradition. In the Hall’s early days at Orchard Lake, the schedule called for the testimonial banquet on Thursday evening at the Polish Century Club of Detroit, followed, at noon the next day, by the formal induction ceremony at the Hall of Fame Museum at St. Mary’s college, and then Polish American Night at Tiger Stadium that same night! Board member Don Horkey described festivities as we celebrated our 25th Anniversary in 1998:

“The environment surrounding the induction of outstanding Polish American athletes into the NPASHF has all the trimmings of a Polish-style wedding; delicious food, rousing music, plentiful refreshments, back slapping, camaraderie, prayer, serious reflection, and humor.”

During this period of growth, both the number of inductees and the collection of memorabilia grew steadily. Among the “who’s who” of inductees joining the Hall during the Orchard Lake era were Polish-American greats from a variety of sports:  Tony Kubek, Carl Yastrzemski, and Phil Niekro from baseball; Hank Stram, Jack Ham and Pete Banaszak from football. Basketball honorees included Billy Packer, Mike Krzyzewski, and Carol Blazejowski.

And keeping true to its mission to honor inductees from a variety of sports, the Hall proudly added wrestling pioneer Stanley Zbyszko, boxing legend Stanley Ketchel, golf’s Bob Toski, figure skater Janet Lynn, along with many more exceptional athletes.

It was also during this era that the NPASHF developed its Special Recognition Award, subsequently re-named The Matt Dobek Special Recognition Award, in honor of former board member and Detroit Pistons Public Relations Director Matt Dobek. This award is presented annually to individuals – often unsung community sports heroes – whose achievements in athletics lie primarily outside the competitive realm of sports.

Almost without exception, the elected athletes and honorees joined in on the celebration exactly as one would expect from those springing from Polish roots. They joyfully attended their respective induction ceremonies, participated in the festivities enthusiastically, and spoke eloquently and passionately of their Polish heritage and upbringing – frequently focusing on the qualities of hard work, dedication and persistence that consistently stood out as the core of their Polish American character.

From its inception in 1973, and throughout the 1980’s and 90’s,  the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame continued to grow – and the museum established on the campus of Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 1982 served the organization well for more than twenty years.

However, as the hall grew, adding new inductees and additional memorabilia each year, it became apparent that expansion of the museum was inevitable, if the organization was to continue its growth.

Part III – The Hall Outgrows its Home — Time to Move On, and Expand the Vision

Three years into the new millennium, as the NPASHF was celebrating its 30th Anniversary, the roster of honored Hall of Famers had risen to 89. While filling a valuable need for the organization, the room on the second floor of the Dombrowski Field House was beginning to show its limitations.

Among those limitations were size and accessibility issues, including the fact that the museum was not readily visible to the public, except through tours made “by appointment only,” or in conjunction with the Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremonies. The NPASHF board of directors wanted the organization – and the museum – to grow, and to provide a museum experience that was more readily available to the general public.

Similarly, the athletic complex at OLSM was also entering into a period of positive growth, and when the decision was made to expand the complex to include the construction of a new ice hockey facility, available space was at a premium. The NPASHF and OLSM decided to part ways, and the museum room above the Dombrowski Field House was disassembled. Hundreds of museum-quality artifacts were removed to temporary storage facility, while the NPASHF searched for a new home.

With the dismantling of the NPASHF Museum, the Board of Director decided it was the perfect time to expand the organization in new, more progressive ways, designed to expand the scope and vision of organization beyond the traditional induction of retired, albeit highly successful athletes. An introspective examination by the Board of Directors revealed certain weaknesses in the structure of the organization that needed shoring up if the NPASHF was to thrive. Never was there a thought of disrupting the vision of Big Ed and the other founders in 1973. Rather, the plan was to maintain the dream, while expanding the appeal of the organization.

High on the list was the realization that the NPASHF lacked appeal or attraction to the youth of our nation.

The Stan Musial Scholarship Fund seemed to be a logical starting point. Begun in 1993 at a tribute marking the 20th anniversary of his induction into the NPASHF, Musial and the Hall’s Board of Directors announced the establishment of a scholarship fund in his name to benefit graduating high school students of Polish American descent. Musial presented the Hall of Fame with a check in the amount of $11,000 which the Board of Directors matched. An additional contribution came from Stan’s good friend Edward Piszek, benefactor of “Project: POLE.”

In an effort to appeal to our nation’s youth more fully, the number of scholarship recipients was expanded periodically over the years until, in 2010, the board settled on a permanent number of six (6) annual recipients, corresponding to the uniform number worn by Stan “The Man” during his illustrious career. The Stan Musial Scholarship Fund is now promoted nationally on our award-winning website and social media networks and has drawn hundreds of applicants – male and female – from across the nation, resulting in awards exceeding $120,000.

Into the 21st Century, the number of Hall of Fame Enshrinees continued to grow. With this growth, a flaw in the annual election process became more and more apparent and led to a decision that helped modernize our ballot and bring a greater sense of fairness to our election process. The decision – made in 2007 – remains one of the most significant events in the history of the NPASHF.

Followers of the NPASHF election process may recall the decision made by the Board of Directors that year, with the creation of an annual ballot we felt would improve both the fairness of our voting process and the diversity of the athletes elected. Prior to this decision, the reality was this:  Athletes from the highly visible and frequently broadcast sports of baseball, basketball, football and hockey had a marked advantage over highly skilled and accomplished athletes in all other less visible sports. The reason was simple; athletes from those “high visibility” sports were the ones most voters were exposed to on a daily basis through television, radio, and print media coverage.

Recognizing ourselves as a Hall of Fame that strived to honor athletes from all categories of professional and amateur athletics, we chose to divide our ballot, creating two separate classifications of athletes for our voters. With this adjustment to our voting process, we ensured that, from 2007 forward, at least one qualified and deserving athlete from our list of lesser-known sports would be elected each year.

We could not have been more pleased with the results of this decision – which we believe strengthened the integrity of our voting process in two dynamic ways. First, athletes from sports that could never have been elected under our old voting system were elected as proud members of our Hall of Fame, as great athletes from sports such as billiards, fencing, lacrosse, martial arts, skiing, volleyball and water polo were enshrined alongside athletes from traditional “high visibility” sports such as baseball and football.

But perhaps more importantly, women, who despite being great athletes in their chosen sports, were disadvantaged in the voting process, because they typically did not engage in high-level participation of popular “high visibility” sports. With our “split-ballot” system, we believe we have eliminated that unfairness.

It was a decision that, to this day, allows us to conduct fair and impartial elections of great athletes each year, producing fabulous results!

Part IV – A New Home, New Ideas, and Future Goals and Challenges

Despite the advancements and new ideas the NPASHF was developing, the organization never lost sight of a primary goal of our founding fathers – to build a free-standing museum housing the artifacts of all those special athletes inducted into the NPASHF.

In 2007, the NPASHF reached an agreement with the American Polish Cultural Center in Troy, Michigan, where the museum collection is housed today.  To a facility that was initially constructed as an architectural museum – complete with historically significant woodwork, paneling, architecture and paintings from Poland and other parts of Europe – the NPASHF has added 20 high-quality custom-built display cabinets, a beautifully appointed bar, and a Hall of Honor displaying the induction plaques of each of our more than 160 inductees .We believe we have created an environment worthy of the athletes we honor.

Since 2000, the Annual Induction Banquet has been held in the Main Ballroom of the American Polish Cultural Center, the same room that has housed our museum since 2007.  Thus, the NPASHF has the unique distinction of holding its annual induction event – still serving a sit down, family-style Polish feast to more than 400 people annually – within the warm confines of its museum.  Although still not the free-standing facility that “Big Ed” and colleagues envisioned, the NPASHF is proud of the facility found at the APCC, and is equally proud of the organization we have become.

But still, we continue to develop new ways to make the Hall of Fame better.

In 2005, we developed our “Greats of the Past” selection process, used to induct individuals whose accomplishments in sports occurred in an earlier era, prior to the inception of our Hall of Fame.  Nevertheless, their athletic accomplishments merit recognition within the NPASHF’s mission to recognize and preserve outstanding achievement by individuals of Polish heritage in the field of sports.

In 2013, in conjunction with its 40th Anniversary celebration, the NPASHF established a new award – the Excellence in Sports Award – to be presented annually to a Polish-American sports personality for achieving the pinnacle of success in their respective sporting endeavor. The first recipient of the award was 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski, and we have since honored seven additional athletes or sports personalities for reaching the top in their sport;  bowler Liz Johnson,; basketball’s Frank Kaminsky; football  coach Gary Kubiak; Joe Maddon and Dave Dombrowski from baseball; and gymnasts Sam Mikulak and Natalie Wojcik. Honoring the athletes and sports personalities of today, the award was developed to provide contemporary appeal to our followers.

Our most recent award – The Tony Kubek Media Award – was created in 2019 and honors individuals of Polish-American heritage for outstanding contributions to sports media. Named after NPASHF inductee and nationally known and honored television announcer Tony Kubek, the award has been presented just twice; first to ESPN basketball guru Adrian Wojnarowski, followed by award-winning sports journalist Joe Posnanski.

Additionally, we are now reaching out to those who may not yet be aware of our organization – particularly to the youth of the world – through the development of our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

And this ties in well for with our goals for the future.

What are those goals?  First and foremost, we want to continue identifying and honoring great Polish-American athletes.  In carrying out this task, the NPASHF is continuously adding to its list of potential ballot candidates – names that can later be added to our annual ballot and mailed out to our 500 member national “Sports Panel Council” to allow them to select those whom they feel are the best of the best.  Currently, our list of potential ballot candidates exceeds 450 names, and is growing each year.  There is no shortage of great Polish-American athletes!

More than that, though, we want truly to become the “National” Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame, by spreading the word of our 50 year existence and our continuing presence in both the Polish-American community, and the world of sports. We want the entire nation – perhaps the whole world – to know who we are and respect those we honor for their athletic accomplishments.

In this regard, we have begun to focus on the development of projects and campaigns designed to do just that.

Our social media and website presence are good examples of that effort, but we recognize the need to do more. Recently, two of our Hall of Famers, Ann Meyers Drysdale, and Bob Brudzinski, were honored in a Walk of Fame ceremony in Rzeszow, Poland, where they were recognized not only for their athletic achievements, but also, for being  members of the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame. NFL great Joe Klecko, recently inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, boasted in his acceptance speech of his previous induction into the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

These are examples the type of recognition we hope to see more of – recognition that celebrates the achievements of the great Polish-American athletes, and promotes our mission “to recognize and preserve outstanding achievement by individuals of Polish heritage in the field of sports, and to educate the entire community with the hope of encouraging and inspiring personal excellence.”

We welcome you to join us in fulfilling this mission.