The Zuni Athletic Association sponsored semi-pro sports teams as early as the spring of 1930 and into the early 60s. It appears to have founded in that year. Founding members included Peter Barbalace, Pasquale “Pat” Barbalace, Emil Aceto, John LaPlaca, and Jack O’Neil.
The Zuni clubhouse in its early years was at 464 Royden Street. This building had been previously occupied the Fourth Ward Italian Republican Club, until it was raided by police in July of 1932. By 1935 the club had moved to 408 Line Street, near the corner of South 4th Street and Line Street. The Zunis also utilized space at the adjacent Celani Brothers grocery warehouse at 702 South 4th Street. Zuni utilized the second and third floors, the second containing a workout gym. The club had a liquor license, at 408 Line Street which they transferred to 806 Broadway in 1957. The Zuni A.A. kept its liquor license at that address as late as June of 1975.
In 1951 the Zuni A.A. provided a $150 athletic scholarship to the College of South Jersey, which became the Camden campus of Rutgers University.
Retired New Jersey State Supreme Court Justice Richard Hyland, born and raised in Camden, recalls watching the team in the 1950s:
Before the NFL and TV took over Sunday afternoons we watched from high school bleachers the Zuni A.A. Indians play semi-pro football against teams like the Hammonton Bears. I never could spot a Native-American on the team which was manned mostly by high school stars from South Camden with names ending in a vowel.
As the judge noted, the Zuni club had a distinct Italian-American flavor to it. The club’s origins were in the neighborhood around Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Church, at South 4th and Division Streets, where many of the teams players and coaches lived. As the team’s fortunes improved, Zuni went out and recruited top players from outside of Camden, including Palmyra star (and future mayor) John Sacca, and Audubon tackle Joe Malan. Many others played for Zuni over the years including Wally Hussong, Bob DePersia, Kayo Ladik, and Dominic “Doc” Dogianero.
Semi-pro sports were very big in Camden, especially in the years prior to America’s entry into World War II. At its peak, the top teams, Zuni being on of them, could draw a couple of thousand people per game. Many towns throughout the Philadelphia, South Jersey, North Jersey and shore areas had their own teams and played against Zuni A.A. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the Zuni club was considered to be one of the top semi-pro football clubs on the East Coast, playing in the Eastern Professional Football Conference. Zuni A.A. won the conference championship in 1941 and in 1942.
Semi-pro teams regularly played against traveling professional teams. In baseball, Lou Schaub‘s Camden Club played against National League clubs visiting Philadelphia and against Negro League teams. In football, Zuni played the Philadelphia Eagles in an exhibition game in the late 1930’s. The Zuni A.A. also sponsored basketball and bowling teams at different times in the1930s and 1940s.
The picture below is of the Zuni A.A. Indians semi-pro football team, circa late 1940’s.
Zuni A.A. maintained its club liquor license at 806 Broadway as late as 1975. As the years passed and as South Camden became more and more dangerous, members and their families moved out of the neighborhood and out of the city, and that spelled the end of the Zuni Athletic Association. Longtime club president Dominic Radogna and his wife Sarah held the deed to the building at 806 Broadway as late as 1987, but it had fallen into disrepair, and was cited for building code violations by Camden’s building inspector on April 10, 1985. The building was listed for foreclosure for non-payment of taxes in November of 1986. Dominic Radogna had moved out of the city to Woodbury the previous year. He passed away in 1993.