This ill-fated attempt at creating a baseball version of the seniors’ golf league began in Florida in November, 1989. At that time, William Gildea of the Washington Post wrote from St. Petersburg:
The area’s newest Pelicans-the St. Petersburg Pelicans-were all gathered downtown at Al Lang Stadium. They’re a baseball team, as well as an odd group of birds.
They’re a collection of Roy Hobbses, who have been away from the game for a time-in some cases, a long, long time. The Florida-based eight-team Senior Professional Baseball Association begins play Wednesday with almost 200 former major-leaguers who are at least 35 years old (catchers must be 32). Managers range from future Hall-of-Famer Earl Weaver to Bill Lee, the former Red Sox “Spaceman,” who calls the aging players’ new opportunity “a denial of death.”
The Pelicans’ roster is a mixture that rivals Bernard Malamud’s strangest fiction: 40-year-old Lenny Randle, once a Washington Senator and now a fluent speaker of Italian after five seasons in the Italian Baseball Federation; Sammy Stewart, who still speaks perfect Swannanoan probably because he’s been back home in Swannanoa, N.C., for two years after a 10-year career, eight with Baltimore; Ron LeFlore, former Detroit standout also remembered for a book about his prison experience titled “Break Out,” and Dock Ellis, who said his use of drugs cut short his major league career but who has long gone straight and is making his first appearance as a pitching coach and maybe even short relief man.
The league was conceived by Jim Morley, who owns the Pelicans. At 33, he is not old enough to play in his own league. His only professional experience was a season in Fresno in the Giants’ organization. He was a “very light hitting outfielder” who went on to become a millionaire real estate developer in Colorado Springs.
“I was sitting on the beach in Australia in January, about 2 1/2 weeks into a month’s vacation, and I was reading about a senior golf tournament that was going on,” said Morley. “I thought, `Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a senior baseball league?’ ” For the rest of the vacation, he said, he virtually ignored his girlfriend, Annie, while he mapped his baseball league plans, “35 pages on a legal pad.”
When he got home, which wasn’t fast enough for him, he wrote to 1,250 former players. “I got back 730 positive responses,” said Morley, standing by the batting cage watching his Pelicans work out Monday in the late afternoon sun. “In the first week I had 100. That’s when I knew that I had hit a deal.
“Frank White from the Royals sent me back a card that said, `Not this year.’ Goose Gossage said `Yes,’ but under comments added, `I hope not this year.’ When Dick Williams came aboard as a manager, that really gave us some credibility. Earl gave us more credibility.”
Weaver is managing the Gold Coast Suns (Pompano Beach/Miami), who open Wednesday afternoon at Fort Myers. Williams manages the West Palm Beach Tropics. Bill Lee has the Winter Haven Super Sox, who have several former Red Sox. Gates Brown manages the Orlando Juice, Clete Boyer the Bradenton Explorers and Graig Nettles the St. Lucie Legends. Morley would seem to have picked a choice location for his franchise. “The fact that I founded the league made it real simple,” he said.
Each team has 24 players and will play 72 games; opening day has a 1 p.m. game and three at 7 p.m. The league has a three-year cable arrangement with Prime Network. Top salaries are about $15,000 a month and each team has a season salary cap of $550,000. Pelicans tickets sell from $3 to $5.50.
Around the league are such once (and future?) wonders as a 48-year-old Luis Tiant, Amos Otis, Tippy Martinez, Bill Madlock, Ferguson Jenkins, Butch Hobson, Al Bumbry, Clint Hurdle, Bobby Bonds, Mickey Rivers, Dave Kingman, Paul Blair and Cesar Cedeno.
“The players think this is about AAA level,” Morley said. “They say that they don’t have the speed that the kids in AAA do, but they have the experience.”
The league will succeed, he added, if it offers competitive games. “This is not an old-timers league. You can’t play 36 old-timers games. If you do, people won’t come out and watch. People are looking for competitive baseball.”
To that end, the Pelicans have assembled a “youthful” team with an average age of 37 years 2 months. Bobby Tolan, the manager, has worked them hard for two weeks, and almost all look trim.
“This is an another opportunity for me,” said Tolan, a former National League outfielder who managed the last two years in the Orioles chain at Erie, Pa., in the New York-Penn League and aspires to big league managing. “Although it’s not the major leagues, they are to me still major league ballplayers. Even though they’re in the past tense.”
A friend of Tolan’s, Dock Ellis has spent several years dedicated to efforts in keeping young people off drugs. As far as coaching, he said he’s learning as he goes and has benefited from help by Tolan and fellow coach Ozzie Virgil Sr. Ellis said he would like to be a big league coach.
“But what happens to me is, something comes up that I never really like to talk about, and that’s my past, because of the type person that I was. . . . But notice that I use the term that I `was.’ “
He was 34 when he “lost the desire” for the game. He’s 44 now, and for the last three years said he has had plenty of desire to be reconnected with baseball. The closest he’s been was two years as a drug counselor for the Yankees.
“One more pitch-that’s it, that’s it,” Ellis shouted to a left-hander named Mike Williams, finishing his turn as batting practice pitcher. Each team is allowed three players with no major league experience; Williams never advanced above Triple A.
But some who did are here because they want to get back to the big leagues. One is left-handed reliever Al Holland, whose major league earned run average is 2.98 but who has been home in Voorhees, N.J., the last two seasons. He’s “thrown BP” with his son’s Babe Ruth team. Last spring he tried out with the Orioles, but was cut.
“My goal is to come down, pitch well, exceptionally well, and maybe I’ll get a chance to be invited to a major league camp again,” Holland said. “I’m throwing the ball nice and easy and free. I tried to come in in better shape than I did in any other spring training in my career. As you get older, you get a little wiser.
“The tag on me was that I was always overweight. A lot of times I wasn’t, but that’s the tag. I came into camp what I weighed when I was pitching very well in ’83 and ’84, which was 210.”
Holland said that when he and other players were younger “we took things for granted.” Now he’s working toward one last chance in the majors with the hope that “left-handed pitching is hard to come by. You never have enough left-handed pitching.”
As darkness fell and the Al Lang lights took hold, the Pelicans finished their workout. Lenny Randle was among those circling the bases-several times. He hit .302 with Texas in 1974 and .304 with the Mets in ’77. But before that he was a Senator. In 1971, his one season in Washington and Washington’s last in the American League, he batted .219 as a rookie second baseman.
Back this year from Italy, he had spoken about the new seniors league with its commissioner, Curt Flood, who told him, “Don’t think it’s a joke. Call.” Randle said, “Put me down. I’ll be there. I’d like to play in every league.”
Also in early November 1989, Jose de Cordoba of the Wall Street Journal took a trip to Florida, where he quoted Earl Weaver calling his Gold Coast Suns “Babies, kiddies. Old-time kiddies.” Cordoba added:
“Someone always makes you quit,” says legendary St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood, the league’s commissioner. “You feel you want one more — one more at-bat, one more hit, one more game.”
And not just for the players. It’s one more for the baseball-loving lawyers, accountants and real estate developers who ponied up about $1 million each for the chance to be an owner, to step into the shoes of a Gene Autry or have a beer with Rollie Fingers.
“Nothing can be better than this,” says Don Sider, owner of the West Palm Beach Tropics. Early in the morning Mr. Sider, an estate lawyer, pores over last wills and testaments. Midmorning, he dons an orange-and-blue uniform and, for fun, may field a bunt from Dave Kingman.
It’s one more, too, for the fans who dream of a season that never ends. “I feel like a little kid,” says a gleeful Alex de Castro, a car salesman, who has stopped by a workout of the Suns to slip six Bert Campaneris cards to the Great Man Himself to be autographed. The league’s promoters hope retirees and tourists will join die-hard fans like Mr. de Castro and pack the stands to see the seniors.
For some players, the lure is money — up to $15,000 a month. Others, just released from the majors, hope the senior league will be their bridge back into the big-time.
But as they hurl fireballs that smolder rather than burn, and relive old duels in the sun, it’s clear that most are there to make their fans cheer again or recapture the camaraderie of seasons past or prove to themselves and their colleagues that they still have it — or something close to it.
The nagging memory of one afternoon fourteen years ago drove Jim Gideon, a lean 36-year-old righthander to take a four-month leave from selling insurance in Texas to try out for Mr. Weaver’s team.
“It doesn’t replace pitching in the majors, but it proves to me that I would have been able to play if I’d stayed healthy,” he says. Back in 1975, late in the season, a then-21 Mr. Gideon made his only major league appearance, five and two-thirds innings for the Texas Rangers against the Chicago White Sox. He gave up seven hits, walked five and didn’t get a decision. Arm troubles forced him back to the minors the next year.
“There’s a satisfaction in going against the rules,” offers Will McEnaney, once a stopper with Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. He means the rule that a player can’t cut it after a certain age.
These days he hustles to house-painting jobs in his Chevy pickup before and after training with the Tropics. While sipping a beer after practice, he vividly recounts getting the Red Sox’s Carl Yastrzemski to pop out to end the 1975 World Series, and repeating the feat against the Yankees’ Roy White in 1976.
Most [of the players] are trim. Some have been training for months; others only recently left active status. (No one has worked out the players’ average age, but most appear to be in their late 30s.) And there’s pride. “I’m not going to look stupid,” vows former Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Rennie Stennett, sweat dotting his brow as he prepares for some practice swings.
At the weatherbeaten Pompano Beach municipal stadium, Mr. Paul Blair, the 45-year-old former Oriole, knows his power isn’t what it used to be. So he adjusts. He no longer crowds the plate. He’s not thinking about home runs anymore, just base hits. Still, “how sweet it is,” he says, savoring the fat sound of the well-hit line drive that bounces off the center field wall.
Expect slower fastballs. “I’m not so young anymore,” concedes the cigar-chomping, 48-year-old Mr. Luis Tiant. “I won’t be throwing 90 mph, but I will throw 80-plus,” he says.
White-haired Pedro Ramos, at 54 the league’s oldest player and a pitcher-coach with the Suns, has lost even more speed. Stuffing a wad of Red Man into his cheek, he admits the fastball he brought into the majors in 1955 has become a slowball. Its maximum velocity is 72 mph. But he isn’t worried. He will compensate with the guile learned from his years in the majors. He has good control. He will keep the ball down, move it around.
After all, he says, “Even to make love, you need experience.”
The end came in late December, 1990. From the San Francisco Chronicle:
The second season of the Senior Professional Baseball Association came to an early end yesterday after an apparent ownership rift in the Fort Myers franchise forced cancellation of all remaining games.
The other teams voted to suspend the season when Fort Myers general manager Kip Ingle called his players and told them not to report to today’s game with Daytona Beach.
Jim Morley, the league’s founder and co-owner of the St. Petersburg franchise, said the league will be back next year. He hopes in the meantime to establish formal ties with major-league baseball and/or Japanese baseball.
“We’re regrouping for next year,” Morley said by telephone from Phoenix. The six teams hadn’t quite reached the halfway point in a planned 56-game schedule.
He said a meeting has been tentatively set in January with the office of baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. Morley would like major-league teams to contract with his league as a place to rehabilitate injured players or develop players during the winter months.
Morley said his brainchild probably was rushed into existence, but the sudden suspension can provide time to build a solid foundation. Envisioned as baseball’s equivalent to the popular seniors golf tour, the Senior league opened in 1989 as a winter-month league for former major-leaguers age 35 and over.
It began with eight Florida franchises. The league returned this year with six teams, including one in San Bernardino, one in Sun City, Ariz., and one traveling team without a home, the Florida Tropics.
The league dropped its minimum age to 34, with catchers allowed to play at 32.
Sluggers Jim Rice, formerly of Boston, and George Foster, formerly of Cincinnati and the Mets, and pitchers Rollie Fingers and Ferguson Jenkins, both candidates for the Hall of Fame, were playing this season, and Morley said the league had been doing better.
“Most of the time in this situation, the reason is financial,” Morley said. “This isn’t financial. Fort Myers is far and away the wealthiest franchise. They have an internal partnership problem.”
From this material, it sounds like the league was mostly made up of sub-HOF level players from the ’70s, and was, in spirit (for fans anyway), much like the fantasy baseball camps that I think are still commonplace in Florida and Arizona during the winter. I don’t know if it fell apart because of personality/legal/financial conflicts between the league’s organizers and owners, but the minimum age of 35/34/32, and the intent of at least a few players to use it as a stepping stone to real pro baseball, shows that it was probably pitched at too serious a level. Almost an alternative minor league, more like the independent baseball leagues that have come up since the Senior Professional Baseball Association disbanded.
I think Morley was wrong, and if it had been more like the Cracker Jack Old-Timers Game that was put on in D.C. in 1982, something along the lines of 40 HOFers or at least bona fide stars, split into two teams and playing two or three games in each of the eight Florida cities, or in say four cities in both Arizona and Florida, it might have survived, at least until MLB came to Florida and the Arizona Fall League began.