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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A Brief Introduction to the Detroit Caesars...

The Detroit Caesars began play in the newly founded American Professional Slo Pitch League (APSPL) in 1977. For much of the late 1960's and early 1970's, Detroit was a hotbed for softball, with some of the best players in the country playing in the most competitive leagues to be found anywhere. Behind league softball was Little Caesar's Pizza, a company founded and owned by Mike Ilitch, a former Detroit Tigers farmhand and current owner of the MLB team, as well as the Detroit Red Wings. This was his first step into professional sports.

The Caesars played at Memorial Field in East Detroit, Michigan, a small suburb of Detroit that had recently played host to a national softball tournament. With clever promotions and the signing of two former Detroit Tiger stars, Jim Northrup and Norm Cash, fans packed into the small stands by the thousands to witness not only Detroit's best softball players, but those that Illitch had brought to town to make his team into the "Yankees of professional softball." Mike Nye, Ronnie Ford, Bert Smith, Tex Collins and many other softball legends took to the field for Detroit, led by manager Gary Vitto, earning the team such distinctions as the "greatest softball team ever." This was no beer league...these guys were good.

In 1977, Detroit dominated the league with a record of 42-14, eventually advancing to the World Series of Softball, where they beat the Baltimore Monuments 4 games to none to take the first ever pro softball title. Six Caesars made the all-league team (Mike Gouin, Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Bert Smith, Tony Mazza, and Doug Gerdes), and Mike Nye took the World Series MVP trophy. Only a triple-crown performance by Chicago Storm catcher Benny Holt could overshadow the individual performances by various Caesars.

Detroit rolled again in 1978 with a record of 49-15, and a 4-0 blanking of the Minnesota Norseman in the World Series. Ron Ford was edged out in the last game of the season by teammate Mike Nye to prevent his taking of triple-crown honors, but still took home league MVP. Seven Detroit players were all-league (Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes, Gary Geister, Mike Gouin, Jack Roudebush, and newcomer Chuck Drewicz).

1979 was the last year for the team. With the off-season death of Tex Collins, the Caesars backed up enough to get caught by the rival Milwaukee Schlitz, led by APSPL star Phil Higgins and newcomer Rick Weiterman, who would take the title. Still, the Caesars finished 40-24, second in their division, losing to the Schlitz in the league semi-finals.

Rule and ball changes had drastically reduced the offensive production in 1979. For example, Ford's home-run total dropped from 80 in 1978 to 43 in 1979, in the same number of games. Still, Ford led the league in home-runs and RBIs in 1980. Four Caesars took all-league honors (Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes, and Rick Trudeau), in what would be the last season for the APSPL.

Instability in other markets and internal political fighting saw two teams leave the league to form the North American Softball League (NASL) in 1980, while the APSPL continued with just 6 teams (down from 12 in each of the previous 3 seasons). Ilitch elected not to continue the Detroit Caesars in either league. A team called the Detroit Auto Kings was formed, played at Memorial Field with several Caesar stars (Mike Gouin managed the squad) along with former Detroit Tiger Mickey Stanley, finishing second in the NASL, losing again to the Milwaukee Schlitz in the World Series.

The leagues merged after 1980 to form a new league, although the Auto Kings disbanded.  In 1982, a Detroit team (Detroit Softball City) played in the United Professional Softball League (UPSL), finishing second in the league yet again to the Milwaukee Schlitz. That was the last year for professional softball in the US, as players once again returned to amatuer leagues around the US.

For many reasons, the Caesars made their mark on professional sports in Detroit. It introduced the town to Mike Ilitch, who would become a player in Detroit with his ownership of the Tigers, Red Wings, Joe Louis Area, and with ventures like the Fox Theater. It brought what amounted to, in baseball terms, a minor league team to the suburbs of Detroit with crowds of 5,000-plus regularly packing in to watch the Caesars. The team collected some of the finest softball talent ever on one field, and most important, they made memories for fans of all ages. And for those who would bother to notice, you now know why I never drink Schlitz.

Go Caesars!