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The Stories Behind the Shirts

When a Men's Professional Softball League Helped put ESPN on the Map

by OldSchoolShirts Info 12 Sep 2019
Kentucky Bourbons softball

A variation on traditional baseball, softball was developed on Thanksgiving Day, 1887, at the Farragut Yacht Club in Chicago. It was originally played indoors and thus called indoor baseball. In the 1890s it moved outdoors and was known as kitten league ball and later simply kitten ball. In the mid-1920s, the name softball became popular and was so used because the ball was much softer than baseball. Today, of course, the softball is more baseball-like in its firmness, though slightly larger.

Softball gained in popularity as a recreational sport in the U.S., particularly after World War II.  By the mid-70s, two versions of softball had emerged; fastpitch and slow pitch. In 1977, a professional league was formed called the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (APSL). League organizers focused on the slow pitch version as it offered higher scoring games and more home runs.

The twelve APSL charter franchise owners included Mike Hitch, then owner of the Little Ceasar’s pizza chain in Detroit, and Ted Stepien, future owner of the NBA’s Cavaliers, owning the Cleveland club. Hitch was part of the ownership of the ill-fated Detroit Wheels of the World Football League, so he had experience with new leagues.

At the time 35 million people were playing softball in the U.S., but it wasn’t the folks down at the VFW or volunteer firefighters filling APSL rosters, it was former Major League Baseball players. 

Hitch signed former Tigers Norm Cash and Jim Northrup, paying them $30,000 apiece. That’s an impressive salary considering the MLB minimum in 1977 was $19,000 with the average player pulling in around $76,000 a year. Former pro-football player Billy “White Shoes” Johnson played in 25 games for the Baltimore Monuments. The league’s teams also had open rosters meaning anyone could try out.

In 1979, the league gained wider exposure. A fledgling 24-hour-a-day cable sports channel, called ESPN, decided to broadcast a live sporting event. The game chosen was game 1 of the APSL’s 1979 World Series between the Milwaukee Schlitz and Kentucky Bourbons. The Bourbons won the opener on the road in Milwaukee, but the Schlitz won the series 5 games to 3. The Bourbons won the series two years later, downing the New England Pilgrims 5 games to 3. 

The Milwaukee Schlitz started as the Copper Hearth, changing their name after one season. Other clubs in the APSL included the Cincinnati Suds, Minnesota Goofy’s, Chicago Storm, Pittsburgh Hardhats, and New Jersey Statesmen. 

After the 1979 season, Cleveland Competitors owner Ted Stepien pulled his team out of the APSL and formed the North American Softball League (NASL). The Milwaukee Schlitz also left the APSL for the new circuit, joining six newly formed squads. A year later, Stepien had had enough and apparently wanted to concentrate on destroying the NBA Cavaliers. He folded the Competitors and the league soon followed suit. The Schlitz re-joined the APSL, which changed its name in 1981 to the United Professional Softball League. After the 1982 season, the league closed up shop.

In 1997 the Women's Pro Softball League as formed. It folded in 2001, but reformed in 2004, later changing its name to the National Pro Fastpitch. Today, it plays in four cities as a six-team circuit that features two traveling teams.

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