East Side Sports/Michael’s Lounge/Little Caesars

Men’s softball really began to become popular in the 1950’s as an alternative to fast pitch which had turned into a game where a great pitcher dominated and the other players were not active participants. Initially, the best men’s teams were from the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky area which dominated the first 10 years of the ASA Championship with multiple teams, Pittsburgh and Detroit. Milwaukee, Long Island and Cleveland also had top teams in the first two decades.

One of the best was East Side Sports out of Detroit which eventually became Michael’s Lounge and then Little Caesars.

East Side won the ASA Championship in 1958. Several of the players on that team had won fast pitch titles as well, including Roy Lombardo, who went on to manage the 1966 and 1970 ASA Men’s slo-pitch champions. East Side went on to finish 2nd in 1962, 3rd in 1963 and 4th in 1964, continually adding Hall of Fame and All-World  players such as Mike Gouin, Bill Cole, Tex Collins, Mike Axelson, Jim Puckett, Bob Malicki, Bob Auten, Tony Mazza and Gary Ladue. During those years, East Side was battling for titles with teams like Skip Hogan from Pittsburgh, Hamilton Tailoring, Yorkshire Restaurant and others.

In 1966, the team was sponsored by Michael’s Lounge and won the ASA Championship, defeating County Sports. Mike Axelson was MVP. Michael’s was runner-up in 1967 to Jim’s Sports Shop which had taken over sponsorship of the Pittsburgh team from Skip Hogan.

Little Caesars took over sponsorship of the team in 1969 when they finished 3rd and in 1970, they won the ASA Championship again, giving Mike Ilitch his first title. Mike Gouin was MVP. The next year, the team finished 2nd to Piledrivers then finished third to Howard’s and Country Sports in 1973. From 1967 to 1973, the team won the Stroh’s Invitational in Springfield, Ohio without a loss.

In 1976, Little Caesars joined the USSSA, won the Eastern Regional in Smithtown, New York and finished 4th in the USSSA World Series. The following, Ilitch joined the American Professional Slo-Pitch League.

Mike Ilitch decided to purchase a franchise in the newly formed American Professional Slo-Pitch League. When he did so, he immediately signed two of the top amateur players in Detroit, Doug Gerdes from Snyders and Al Gibson from Bert’s. He also signed Gary Vitto, who had managed Dino’s to the 1974 USSSA World Series Championship, as manager of the team. In order to gain media attention, he also signed two members of the 1968 World Champion Detroit Tigers, Norm Cash and Jim Northrup. Of course, Little Caesars All-World stars Mike Gouin, Tex Collins and Tony Mazza joined the team but many of the other members of that nucleus had been saddled with age and injuries.

The franchise then added Bert Smith, Ronnie Ford and Mike Nye. This combination of players and management allowed the Caesars to jump out to a fast start and draw crowds of 5000 fans each doubleheader night at East Detroit Memorial Field. While Benny Holt won the Triple Crown that year for Chicago, Nye and Ford were among the most exciting players in the League which included Bill Gatti, Phil Higgins, Steve Loya, Jim Galloway and other all-time great players. Detroit had a struggle with the Cleveland team in the playoffs but eventually won 2 of the 3 games and defeated Baltimore 4-0 to win the World Series.

In 1978, Caesars added Rick Trudeau and Chuck Drewicz from Snyders and repeated as champions, defeating Minnesota 4-0 in the World Series while continuing to draw large crowds both at home and on the road.

In 1979, several key players, including Ford, Nye and Smith, sustained injuries that kept them out of the line-up for extended time during the season. They never fully gained momentum and after beating Cincinnati in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs, lost to eventual champion Milwaukee who defeated them in the regular season.

Despite a national contract with ESPN, there was a split in the League and after much deliberation, Mike Ilitch decided to disband the team. Three years later, he bought the Detroit Red Wings and eventually won 4 Stanley Cups. He bought the Tigers in 1992 and they went to 2 World Series during his ownership.


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