Louis A. R. Pieri

Inducted: 1971
Born: 1897
Died: 1967

Louis Pieri was an astute, daring, and successful businessman who, with energy, ambition, and hard work, achieved financial and sports eminence. One of the best-known sports promoters of the twentieth century, Pieri was the owner of the Rhode Island Auditorium, the Providence Reds hockey team, and part-owner of the Boston Celtics basketball team. During his long and colorful career, he also owned Holiday on Ice, the Ice Capades, and a highly successful stable of racehorses. As a fight promoter, Pieri hosted 28 of Rocky Marciano’s 49 fights, from July 12, 1948 (his second fight) to May 12, 1952 (his 41st). Rocky retired as the only undefeated heavyweight boxer in the history of the sport.

Pieri graduated from Brown University in 1920, where he played football and baseball. The school had dropped basketball a decade earlier. Pieri pressured Brown into giving basketball varsity status once again and captained and coached the 1919-20 team. He owned and bred a horse named Louis Arnold, which won the New England Futurity in 1964. He also grew a better-than-average blueberry in Maine and was president and treasurer of the Maine Blueberry Association. Pieri became general manager of the Rhode Island Auditorium in 1929 and assumed ownership of its primary tenant, the Providence Reds, one of the league’s fabled franchises. He brought the team into the American Hockey League as one of its charter members in 1936. Under Pieri’s watch, the Reds won a total of eight AHL division titles and four Calder Cup championships (1938, 1940, 1949, 1956). Pieri also served as a co-owner of the NBA’s Providence Steamrollers, one of the original members of the original Basketball Association of America, now called the National Basketball Association of America. The Steamrollers name was a variation of the city’s NFL franchise, the Providence Steam Roller, which played from 1916-1933 (as part of the NFL from 1925-1933). With a population of only 253,854 as of the 1940 census (its highest level and 37th largest in the nation), Providence was the smallest market team in the new BAA by far.

The Steamrollers had an auspicious beginning, as Rhode Island native Dino Martin, a 5-8 guard from Georgetown, led all scorers with 18 points as Providence beat the Boston Celtics 59-53 in Rhode Island Auditorium (capacity 5,300) on the BAA’s opening weekend. The 18-man roster featured local talent, including five players from the University of Rhode Island (URI) and one from Brown University. The Steamrollers were the third highest-scoring team in the league at an average of 72.5 ppg, but it was the worst defensive team, giving up an average of 74.2 ppg. They finished 28-32 (.467) (but were 19-11 at home), five games behind the third-place New York Knicks who claimed the last playoff spot.

The Steamrollers’ most notable record, however, was in futility. The team still holds the dubious NBA record for the fewest games won in a season, with six in the 1947–48 season, paired with 42 losses. The BAA was back to 12 teams playing a 60-game season for the 1948-49 season. Providence had the benefit of the #1 draft pick and took Rookie of the Year Howie Shannon from Kansas State but still struggled. On February 24, 1949, the Steamrollers beat the New York Knicks 89-84 for their last home win, as the team would lose its final ten games to finish 12-48 in last place. For the third straight year, Providence had the league’s worst defense by far. Their last home game would be a 92-70 rout by the Philadelphia Warriors and their final game was a 74-72 loss to the Ft. Wayne Pistons at Chicago Stadium. While the Steamrollers were the worst team in the league, the Boston Celtics had the second-worst record.

In desperation. Pieri reached out to Red Auerbach, who had recently resigned as coach of the St. Louis team after Ben Kerner, team owner, made a trade that Auerbach had blocked. Pieri summoned Auerbach to Providence and offered him the coaching job. “Mr. Pieri, I don’t have a job right now, or even a good prospect. But you have the worst talent I have ever seen assembled on a basketball court. You’re going to lose a lot of money if you try to keep this franchise going,” Auerbach warned. He told Pieri he needed talent, a new arena (Rhode Island Auditorium was built in 1926), and a huge cash infusion (about $500,000) to become competitive. Based on Auerbach’s advice and Providence’s declining attendance, the Steamrollers folded in the off-season. Pieri also told Red he would not forget that good advice. In 1950, Celtics owner Walter Brown was desperately short of cash and reached out to Pieri for a $50,000 lifeline. Pieri agreed to become a minority owner on two conditions:  that the Celtics play some games at Rhode Island Auditorium and that they hire Red Auerbach as the team’s coach. The Celtics played as many as six games a year in Rhode Island Auditorium, going 46-10 over the years. The last game was played on March 6, 1967, with the Celtics winning their ninth straight game 127-103 over the Detroit Pistons before 4,939.

In his first draft with the Celtics in 1950, Auerbach passed on Holy Cross guard Bob Cousy, described by Red as a hot dog player who would never make the NBA. In the second round that year, Red drafted Chuck Cooper, the first African American to be drafted in the NBA. Fortunately for Red, Cousy’s first two teams folded before he played in a game. The Celtics got Cousy when his name was picked out of a hat by Walter Brown.

As part owner, Pieri made major contributions that turned the Celtics into a legendary franchise. In the early 1950s, the Celtics had a great team, with players like Bob Cousy, Ed McCauley, and Frank Sharman. They didn’t have the player they needed to get them to the championship level. Red identified a young player by the name of Bill Russell as the missing ingredient. The Celtics had the third pick in the draft, behind Rochester (first) and St. Louis (second). Les Harrison, owner of Rochester, had already said he would not meet Russell’s $25,000 salary demand. Red traded Ed McCauley for the second pick. Shortly before the draft, Red heard that Harrison might be having second thoughts about passing on Russell. Red called Harrison and asked what it would take for Rochester to pass on drafting Russell. For some reason, Celtis co-owner Brown did not like Harrison. The result was that Rochester could never book the ice capades, co-owned by Pieri and Brown. Red called Pieri, and the result was that the Celtics got Russell for Ed McCauley, Cliff Hagan, and 10 years of the ice capades. That draft was the last for the Royals before their move to Cincinnati, Ohio. In that same draft, Auerbach used a territorial choice to select Tom Heinsohn from Holy Cross. A territorial choice was defined as a college player living within a 40-mile radius of the team. During the next 13 years, the Celtics won 11 world championships.

Pieri had a public image as a hard-nosed sports owner. But away from the business arenas, the other side of his personality manifested itself. He was the essence of amiability, a gracious host, quick, generous – and silent – in philanthropies. Barney Madden, the late sports editor of the Providence Journal, once said that Lou Pieri was as incorrigible as any fan in the world and added: “He would cheer his players as resolutely as the wildest fan. He would fling his hat onto the ice in celebration of a hat trick (three goals) by one of his players – and pay $10 to the player who retrieved it.” Following the death of owner Walter A. Brown on September 7, 1964, Pieri became co-owner of the team with Brown’s widow, Marjorie Brown. They sold the club to the Ruppert Knickerbocker Brewing Company, a subsidiary of Marvin Kratter’s National Equities. Pieri also got involved with broadcasting. He purchased a Providence radio station, WDEM. The station’s call letters were subsequently changed to WICE; Pieri sold the station in 1956.

After Pieri died on June 16. 1967, the American Hockey League established the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award, which is presented each year to the league’s outstanding coach. He was inducted into the American League Hall of Fame in 1968, the Brown University Athletics Hall of Fame in 1970, and The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1971.

Rhode Island Auditorium declined after the opening of the Providence Civic Center in 1972 and was demolished in 1989.

For additional reading:

1.       “American Hockey League Hall of Fame”. American Hockey League Hall of Fame.

2.       Management and Captains, nba.com/celtics.

3.       “Celtics For Sale, Says Owner”. The Miami News. Feb 11, 1965.

4.       “Celtics Sold to Brewery”. St. Petersburg Times. June 25, 1965.

5.        MBA: Management by Auerbach, Ken Dooley, Macmillan, 1991.

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