From 1977 to 1982, various softball owners and sponsors attempted to create separate organizations separate from the ASA and USSSA to make the sport a profitable business and meet the needs who wanted to take it beyond recreation. Ultimately, those efforts, which involved many individuals, did not succeed but it was an interesting time for all participants.
In 1977, Bill Byrne, who worked in the World Football League which was active in 1973 and 1974, started the American Professional Slo-Pitch League, based in Columbus, Ohio. He targeted markets primarily in the North and Midwest that had strong softball traditions and facilities that could accommodate several thousand fans. These included Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Detroit, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Trenton, Baltimore, Chicago and Long Island. Ownership and facilities as well as on-field talent varied significantly based on location and ownership capabilities. Each team played a 56 game schedule, with each game part of a doubleheader played on weekends from May to September.
Detroit Caesars, owned by Mike Ilitch, greatly enhanced the softball field located in East Detroit to hold crowds of 4000-6000 which occurred often. He also signed Ronnie Ford, Bert Smith and Mike Nye to go with a strong team of local Detroit players that included all-World members Mike Gouin, Tex Collins, Doug Gerdes and Tony Mazza. He also signed former Detroit Tigers Norm Cash and Jim Northrup who created fan and media excitement.
The Kentucky Bourbons, owned by ASA Hall of Famer Don Rardin, Jr., brought together most of the best players in the Kentucky area, including Bill Gatti, Phil Schroer and Don Rardin, Jr. The team also played at a significantly enhanced facility, Bishop David Field and the team received significant media attention.
Chicago was made up of primarily 16 inch players such as Benny Holt, who won the League’s Triple Crown and MVP that year, Buddy Haines, Ron Olesiak and Tom Spahn, managed by former major leaguer Milt Pappas.
The Long Island team consisted of many top players from County Sports, including Jim Galloway, Mike Foley, Larry Chiappetta and Gary Richter. Unfortunately, unstable ownership caused many of these players to leave the team during the season.
Cleveland was owned by Jay Friedman and the team, made up of Pyramid stars Bobby Reid, Steve Loya, Shelley Hoffman, Dave Jakubs, Bob Hegedus as well as Dana Andry, Roger Wilt, Rich Petrunyak and other top players was very competitive and drew good crowds to Rose Field. There were other outstanding players who did not join the team as they were playing for top Cleveland amateur teams, including Mike Macenko, Steve Blanchette and Mark Brown.
The Cincinnati Suds played at Trechter Stadium and had Rick Linz, Emery Lucas, Tom Taylor, Jim Nageleisen, Mike Applin and other solid players. Similar to Cleveland and also Pittsburgh, there were quality players on amateur teams that did not join the pro league.
The Pittsburgh Hard Hats featured Tom Miller and Jim Nelson from Joe’s Army Navy, Columbus took most of the Worthington Steel team, including Bill Swords, Tom Pappas and Goldie Rich, Columbus played its home games in the Clippers’ stadium.
The Minnesota franchise played its games in Midway Stadium and featured most of the best players from the Twin Cities, including Gene Parrish, John Locke, Joe Russell and Lou Boone. Former Twins shortstop Zoilo Versalles also played for the team.
The Trenton team was made up of players from that area such as John Spadaccino and Tom Krenchicki as well as former New York Met Danny Napoleon. In its second year, the team featured former New York Yankee Joe Pepitone, who turned out to be a very good player.
Baltimore featured players from the Maryland/Northern Virginia area, including Piledrivers and All-World performer Johnny Dollar, Lawrence Hutcherson and John Copenhaver.
Milwaukee combined the top teams in that area which had been perennial powers in the Big Eight League and the USSSA, Transport Oil and Copper Hearth. Phil Higgins, Arlis Jones, Doug Czaplewski, Derek Gallagher, Jim Dillard, Kenny Parker, Paul Wenzel and a young first baseman, Dennis Graser, made up the roster. The franchise built on the popularity of softball in that community to draw large crowds to Wilson Park as well as good ratings for the locally televised games and very strong media coverage.
For the most part, the teams with the most stable ownership, Detroit, Milwaukee, Louisville, Cleveland and Cincinnati, were the best on the field and in attendance. That first year demonstrated the gap that persisted during the 6 year history of the League as well in the National Slo-Pitch Conference during its existence relative to the ability to identify and sustain a majority of strong owners/sponsors who possessed both the vision and the resources to continue to grow their own teams on and off the field as well as strengthen the organization as a whole.
The games among the top teams were very competitive as Detroit and Kentucky vied for the League’s best record through the final weekend of the regular season. Cleveland barely edged out Cincinnati for a playoff berth where they faced and defeated the favored Milwaukee team and came very close to upsetting Detroit. Meanwhile, Baltimore, which had little competition in its division, upset Kentucky in the playoffs. Given new life, Detroit disposed of Baltimore in 4 straight games to capture the World Series. Mike Nye was MVP of the Series.
Before the season began, the League announced that the winner of the World Series would receive $50,000. However, after the completion of the Series, it was discovered that the League had significant financial expenses, including the financing of the Columbus franchise, and was unable to provide that prize money.
The League was reorganized in 1978. Bill Byrne and his team parted ways with the owners and Don Rardin, Sr. was named League President with the office relocating to Detroit. Rardin sold the Bourbons to Larry Gatti and sold his interest in the Cleveland Jaybirds to Ted Stepien. The Long Island, Columbus and Baltimore franchises disbanded and were replaced by the defending USSSA Champions from Rochester, the Zeniths, owned by Dick Hill, who played their games in Red Wings Stadium, the New England Pilgrims and the Philadelphia A’s, who played their games in Veteran’s Stadium.
The Minneapolis franchise was sold to Richard Doran, who built a strong franchise with a talented roster and strong marketing. Schlitz became involved with the Milwaukee franchise that year as well. Unfortunately, ownership in Cincinnati and Chicago ceased in the middle of that season, forcing the League to carry those franchises until the end of the year.
The schedule was expanded to 64 games. Detroit and Minnesota were the best two teams in the League that year and each won 4 of the 8 games played head-to-head. They reached the World Series with Detroit disposing of Cleveland and Minnesota defeating Cincinnati in the playoffs. Detroit dominated the World Series, beating Minnesota in 4 straight games with Bert Smith, World Series MVP going 16 for 17, the only out being a base hit that was disallowed when Bert was called for stepping on the plate. Ronnie Ford was the regular season MVP, leading the League in home runs and RBI and barely losing the batting title to Mike Nye the last game of the season.
Another reorganization took place that off season when Ted Stepien, who had purchased full control of the Cleveland franchise and renamed it the Competitors, became League President and moved the League office to Cleveland. The Chicago franchise was disbanded and replaced by Ft. Wayne. Larry Luebbers became the owner of the Cincinnati franchise and the team played their games at a reconstructed Crosley Field in Luebbers’ backyard in Florence, Kentucky.
The League also instituted several rule changes, including moving the base paths to 70 feet from 65, moving the pitcher’s mound to 49 feet and several of the fields lengthened their dimensions to 315-330 feet from 300 feet. That season, Milwaukee, led by first year pitcher Rick Weiterman and Manager Mike Basile, got off to a strong start and held the best record in the League all year, followed closely by Kentucky. Detroit got off to a slow start, much of it due to injuries and though it made a late run, was never able to catch the Schlitz. Ronnie Ford, despite missing over 20 of the 64 games with injuries, led the League in home runs and RBI. Weiterman won the batting title and was named MVP. In the playoffs, Milwaukee defeated Cleveland and Detroit and Kentucky defeated Pittsburgh and Rochester to reach the World Series.
Earlier that summer, the League signed a contract with a new 24 hour sports cable network, ESPN, to televise the World Series which turned out to be ESPN’s first live telecast. This should have been a major step forward for big-time softball but unfortunately, it was a missed opportunity that was never recaptured. Milwaukee wound up winning the Series over Kentucky, 5 games to 3 and Weiterman was the World Series MVP as well.
Following the season, the Minnesota and Trenton franchises disbanded, Dick Hill ceased ownership of the Rochester franchise and Mike Ilitch, who had owned the flagship franchise, Detroit Caesars, announced that he was no longer participating in professional softball. These occurrences led to the formation of a second league, the NASL, by Ted Stepien, who owned the Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, Lexington, Chicago and Pittsburgh franchises. The other two teams came from the APSPL, defending champion Milwaukee and Fort Wayne. Pittsburgh, Louisville, Rochester, Philadelphia, New England and Cincinnati remained in the original league. Due to the defections and divisions, ESPN withdrew from their contract, the last time that big-time softball would have the opportunity to receive regular national television coverage.
in the 1980 season, Milwaukee wound up winning their 2nd consecutive championship, beating Detroit after defeating a very good Chicago team in the playoffs, many of whose players joined Lilly Air the following year, including Ron Olesiak, who was League MVP. Kenny Parker was the World Series MVP. Rochester defeated Pittsburgh to win the APSPL.
The NASL folded after the season with Cleveland moving to the National Slo-Pitch Conference in 1981 as Nationwide Advertising and Snyder’s absorbing several of the Detroit pro players on their NSPC team. Milwaukee rejoined the established pro league, now called the USPSL. Kentucky, led by Bill Gatti, won the World Series, defeating New England. The Cincinnati franchise acquired many of the players who had played for Greater Cincinnati Sports in the USSSA and NSPC and with its games at St. Bernard Field, had local television coverage for several games during the MLB strike that summer.
In 1982, Cleveland returned to the Pro League with several of its Nationwide stars, including Mike Macenko, Steve Blanchette, Marty Rolnick, Dana Andry, Doc Booker, Rich Petrunyak and Jim Bizzell. Dave Neale also added Paul Wright and brought back Bobby Reid. Cleveland and Kentucky were the best regular season teams but by the playoffs, Petrunyak and Wright were injured. Detroit, which was comprised of much of the Snyder’s NSPC team, including Braxton Speller, Chuck Drewicz, Rick Trudeau, Doug Gerdes and Gary Geister, added power-hitting Charlie Mitchell. Milwaukee got off to a slow start and lost shortstop Paul Wenzel at mid-year.
Both Detroit and Milwaukee peaked at the right time. Detroit defeated Philadelphia and Cleveland in the playoffs, all on the road. Milwaukee defeated Cincinnati and Kentucky, In the World Series, Milwaukee defeated Detroit, a team they had lost to 11 of 16 times in the regular season, 5 games to 1 to capture their third championship in 4 years, led by Higgins, Graser and Weiterman.
During the off-season, Ted Stepien, who owned both the Cleveland and Detroit franchises, was focused on issues involving his Cleveland Cavaliers and announced that both teams were being disbanded. With other issues that arose, professional softball ended and was not revived.
There were opportunities for success with owners like Ilitch, Stepien, Gatti and Doran as well as the ESPN coverage. However, it was imperative for teams to play in facilities such as minor league or college baseball type facilities that were markedly better than the recreation fields where most softball was played. These facilities were required for projecting a professional image as well as providing a backdrop for televising games. Unfortunately, most of the owners did not have the resources or the inclination to do so. They also were unable to obtain the best softball players, in many cases, even in their own cities, where lack of credibility caused many to stay with their amateur teams. Also, the League was unable to obtain national sponsorships from beer, equipment and other companies that would have enticed established softball sponsors with strong resources such as Richard Howard, Ken Sanders, Jerry Pendergast, Campbell Strange and R.T. Nelson to become professional owners.
The other effort to develop a second organization began in 1978 as an effort to counteract Professional Softball and maintain the traditional tournament format. The National Slo-Pitch Conference was formed by Jim Snyder, R.T. Nelson and Richard Howard. The first year, there were nine teams, including Howard’s, Nelson’s, Ken Sanders, Campbell’s, Dave Carroll, Taylor Brothers, Capitol Insulation and Poindexter Lumber. R.T. Nelson ran the Conference Office with Jerome Earnest. Four tournaments were held and Campbell’s won 2, Howard’s and Dave Carroll each won one. Campbell’s, which had spent the off-season recruiting players from around the country, went on to win the ASA over Howard’s and was regarded as the best team in the country that year.
In 1979, Dave Carroll ran the Conference Office out of Sherrills Ford, North Carolina, again with Jerome. There were 22 members of the Conference participating in a full slate of 13 tournaments held throughout the country from April to July with the championship held in August in Birmingham, Alabama. The teams were located in all regions and it gave teams that had previously played a mostly local schedule to compete against the best teams prior to the Labor Day Championships. Dudley and Dave Carroll Sports were the primary national sponsors and each local tournament obtained local sponsorship as well as ticket sales.
Campbell’s picked up where they left off the previous season and won the regular season NSPC title. Nelson’s, made up of players from CC Brick and other top teams, took the Championship on its way to the 1979 Triple Crown. The Conference office once again moved in the off-season, this time to Seymour, Indiana. The 1980 Conference had 19 members and 15 tournaments. In addition to Nelson’s leaving softball after the Triple Crown victory, other sponsors who were not as competitive determined that the costs of travel and player expenses were not sustainable.
Jerry’s Catering won the Conference regular season title in 1980 and was featured in Sports Illustrated. However, just as in the previous year, another team on its way to the Triple Crown, Campbell’s, with 5 members of the 1979 Nelson’s team, won the Championship and proceeded to capture the ASA and USSSA Championships. Once again, citing the high cost of operating a national team, the second consecutive Triple Crown winner, citing the high costs associated with operating a national softball team, disbanded following the season.
In 1981, due in part to the mergers of Ken Sanders and York Barbell and Teamsters and Hillcrest along with the Cleveland professional team to form Nationwide Advertising and the disbanding of Detroit Softball City and GB Wilcher, the NSPC functioned with 8 teams. Miller Brewing Company and its local distributors sponsored most of the 14 Conference Tournaments that year along with Dudley Sports. Worth was involved with Ken Sanders-York Barbell, Easton with Howard’s and Steele’s with its team and Nationwide.
Howard’s, with the addition of Dick Bartel, Richard Willborn, Buddy Slater and Bill Ferguson, led from start to finish with Nationwide Advertising beating out Ken Sanders-York, Jerry’s and Snyder’s as the 2nd best team for most of the year. In the Championship at Willoughby, Ohio, Howard’s defeated Nationwide twice to win the title. However, it took a Bartel catch against the fence to rob Doc Booker of a game winning three run homer in the bottom of the 7th of the first game. Howard’s went on to win the Triple Crown but unlike the two previous winners, came back to defend its championships in 1982.
The Conference office was moved to Denver, North Carolina and the structure was changed to allow more teams to participate in the Conference on a limited regional basis while the top 3 teams, Jerry’s, Howard’s and Sanders-York, played a more full national schedule. In the Championship,held in Knoxville at the World’s Fair and sponsored by Miller, Ken Sanders won his first Big 3 championship as York-Sanders won the last NSPC Championship. Jerry’s wound up winning the ASA and USSSA Championships that year.
Following the season, the NSPC as well as the pro league folded permanently. There was one NSPC invitational tournament in 1983 but all of the remaining teams and players from both organizations were absorbed by the ASA and USSSA. The NSPC had some similar sustainable challenges to the pro league with respect to the wide disparity between sponsors in terms of resources and ability to procure players. Additionally, even the most affluent sponsors focused on winning championships and recruiting players as opposed to building a strong league/conference. As a result, as businessmen, they eventually saw the amounts they were expending with no emphasis or ability to obtain return on investment.
Also, the teams that did have individual sponsorship affiliations were not inclined to sacrifice those for competing national affiliations that might have made the organization stronger. Big time softball, if it had been properly organized with all of the right people, may have had an opportunity to be successful, particularly with the amount of sports that has been televised since the 1980’s. It was a missed opportunity. As the sponsors went back to the ASA and USSSA, the same pattern ensued with teams winning and disbanding a short time later. Steele’s and Howard’s were the exceptions who sustained their teams for almost another decade.
In the end, both organizations brought together a lot of good owners/sponsors and players and created great memories for the participants and fans.