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The Stories Behind the Shirts

The Detroit Caesars Softball Team

by PF Wilson 21 Aug 2023
The Detroit Caesars Softball Team

Softball! Softball! Long before he made a lot of dough as the owner of a nationwide pizza chain, Michael Illitch was a highly-touted baseball prospect. After a hitch in the United States Marine Corps., he returned home in 1952, where the hometown baseball team, the Detroit Tigers, offered him a minor league contract worth $3,000. 

He played four years in Detroit’s farm system as well as those of the Yankees and Senators. A knee injury ended his career, and a few years later, in 1959, he opened the first Little Caesars location. The company began franchising in 1962. The company grew to eventually become the third-largest pizza chain in the United States. 

Ever the sports fan

Illitch never lost his interest in sports, though. He went on to be the owner of his hometown Tigers and the city’s hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings. However, before he was a major league sports owner, Illitch dabbled in a few other sports ventures, including the World Football League (WFL) in 1973 and the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (APSPL) in 1977.

In the WFL, Illitch owned a piece of the Detroit Wheels-- a very small piece. He was part of a 33-person consortium that included singer Marvin Gaye and Motown Records vice president Esther Gordy Edwards. An impressive list of investors, but no one wanted to pony up more dough when the team started struggling financially, which it soon was. The club failed to complete the inaugural 1974 campaign, folding 14 games into a 20-game season.

New opportunities

In 1977, Bill Byrne, who had been the player personnel director of the WFL’s Chicago Fire and later the Shreveport Steamer, organized the APSPL to capitalize on the growing popularity of softball. Illitch signed on and founded the Detroit Caesars. The league’s other teams included the Kentucky Bourbons, Pittsburgh Hardhats, Columbus All-Americans, Cincinnati Suds, Cleveland Jaybirds, and Minnesota Goofys (later called the Norsemen), among others. 

Detroit Caesars Softball Logo Tee

The Caesars were one of the league’s best teams. They had a 42-14 record in the league’s first season and went on to win the championship. In 1978, the team was even better, posting a 49-15 record and again swept the softball World Series. They dispatched the Minnesota Norsemen in four games to capture that second title. 

Caesars Championship Tee

In 1979, the club stumbled slightly, finishing with a record of 40 and 24, good for second place. They lost in the semi-finals to the Milwaukee Schlitz. Despite their on-field success and strong attendance, the team was losing money, and Illitch did not yet have the deep pockets to sustain the team financially. Instead, he folded the club after the 1979 season. His timing was wise as three of the league’s teams (Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Ft. Wayne) split off to form a new circuit for the 1980 season, the North American Softball League leaving the APSPL with only half of its 12-team line-up.

Moving onward and upward

Just a few years later, in 1982, Illitch bought the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. In 1988, he became part owner of the Detroit Drive of the Arena Football League. In 1992, he purchased the Detroit Tigers, the team that had signed him to a minor league contract back in 1952, from fellow pizza magnate and Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan. 

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