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Senior Citizens

(This ran as a guest column on the ever-excellent Uni Watch blog in January 2010. Many thanks to Paul Lukas for that. Also, a commenter on Uni Watch pointed me towards his own rundown of SPBA uniforms from a couple of years back, which has some unis I never saw. Thank you, IanB!)

For a time 20 years ago, baseball season went into extra innings, and the boys of summer played deep into the winter.

In November of 1989, just days after the Giants and A’s completed the earthquake-delayed World Series, the Senior Professional Baseball Association took to fields at spring training complexes throughout Florida, ushering in what was pitched as a new era in the long history of the game.

Former University of Arizona ballplayer and Colorado real estate man Jim Morley envisioned the SPBA as a circuit for ex-major leaguers age 35 and over (32 and over for catchers) that would attract snowbirds and other baseball fans needing an offseason fix. While the league did feature Curt Flood as commissioner and a playing roster that included future Hall of Famer players and managers, former 20-game winners, batting champs and Cy Young winners, it never caught the fancy of the fanbase. The eight teams – the Bradenton Explorers, Fort Myers Sun Sox, Gold Coast Suns, Orlando Juice, St. Lucie Legends, St. Petersburg Pelicans, West Palm Beach Tropics and Winter Haven Super Sox – averaged just 921 fans per game – just about half what Morley projected.

Senior Professional Baseball Attendance 1989-90
Team G Total Average
West Palm Beach Tropics 35 56,012 1,600
Fort Myers Sun Sox 37 49,153 1,328
St. Petersburg Pelicans 35 39,611 1,132
Gold Coast Suns 36 35,457 985
Bradenton Explorers 35 27,349 781
St. Lucie Legends 36 21,849 607
Winter Haven Super Sox 36 19,033 529
Orlando Juice 35 14,016 400
SPBA TOTAL 285 262,480 921

While Dick Williams‘ Topics were far and away the best team in the league during the 72-game regular season, St. Pete won the compressed “stepladder” tournament to become the SPBA’s only champion. (Midway through its second season, in December 1990, the league sank in a sea of red ink.)

Northern Division W L Pct. GB
St. Petersburg Pelicans 42 30 .583 0.0
Bradenton Explorers 38 34 .527 4.0
Orlando Juice 37 35 .514 5.0
Winter Haven Super Sox 29 43 .403 13.0
Southern Division W L Pct. GB
West Palm Beach Tropics 52 20 .722 0.0
Fort Myers Sun Sox 37 35 .514 15.0
Gold Coast Suns 32 39 .451 19.5
St. Lucie Legends 20 51 .278 31.5

The SPBA’s uniforms reflected the time period. The pullovers and bright colors of the 1970s and early 1980s were trending out in the majors, and the senior teams went largely with button-down jerseys and traditional home whites and road grays. The elastic waistbands survived in Fort Myers and West Palm Beach, but most clubs went with belts. The late 1980s were stirrups’ last stand, with the faux-stirruped socks beginning to make inroads. Most SPBA players – like MLB players of the time – wore their pant cuffs high, including (ironically enough) George Hendrick, the trend-setter in long pants. Most teams had just the two jerseys and one hat (alts having not yet come into vogue), though some teams did wear their (fairly generic league-wide) batting practice jerseys in games occasionally and West Palm Beach had home and road caps to complete their garish ensemble.

Here’s a rundown of each SPBA team’s uniform look:

Bradenton Explorers: White with blue pinstripes at home and “EXPLORERS” on the chest. Grays on the road with “BRADENTON” on the chest. One hat (blue with team logo). Their BP jersey had the city and nickname screened on it. SPBA home run champ (with 17) Jim Morrison played for the Explos, who made the playoffs and beat Fort Myers on the first night of the tournament before falling to the Pelicans. Pitcher Danny Boone was one of the few SPBA players to make it back to the majors on the basis of his Senior League play, as the Orioles signed him and he played 4 games for them in 1990 at age 36.

Fort Myers Sun Sox: Probably the best-looking SPBA team, with home whites with green pinstripes and green-and-gold trim, a dandy wordmark on the front and secondary logo on the green cap with gold brim. The Sox had a solid green pullover for road games. They also did have the SPBA standard BP jersey with (sewn-on, not screened) wordmark on the front. As a bonus – yellow sanitaries! The Sun Sox had the league’s leading hitter in shortstop Tim Ireland (who had had a cup of coffee with the Royals). Ireland hit .374 and pulled off the hidden ball trick twice. Their average attendance – 1,328 – was second-best in the league.

Gold Coast Suns: Earl Weaver‘s team was originally to split its games between Miami and Pompano Beach, but couldn’t draw flies in Miami and eventually finished its season in Pompano. Either they didn’t have anything other than their BP jerseys or they hadn’t come in yet by the time all the photos were taken for the trading cards (this one had to have been taken on Opening Day – that’s the since-demolished grandstand at Terry Park in Fort Myers). I can’t recall seeing them in anything other than the blue jerseys, though they did have white and gray pants and two different hats. (EDIT: IanB points me to this great shot of the Suns’ all-white look.) In an attempt to appeal to South Florida’s considerable Hispanic population, the Suns featured recognizable Latinos like Rafael Landestoy and Luis Tiant, but finished 32-39 and out of the playoffs.

Orlando Juice: A good-looking team that no one saw (they averaged just 400 fans a game despite finishing 37-35), the Juice had nice home whites with blue pinstripes and road grays, both with “JUICE” across the fronts and both with belts and a blue hat with “OJ” on it (oddly enough, the first appearance of that hat didn’t have the baseball “splat” on it). Bright spots included pitchers Bob Galasso (9-2, 2.67 ERA) and Pete Falcone (10-3) and shortstop U.L. Washington (who hit .338 while, yes, chomping on his trademark toothpick). Their owner – a Detroit mortgage banker named Philip Breen – disappeared in January 1990, allegedly with $10 million in embezzled funds from his company, and has never been found. So, yeah, there were dark spots, too.

St. Lucie Legends: Former sluggers Bobby Bonds and George Foster played for the Legends, who had grays that they wore most of the time when they weren’t sporting their blue BP jerseys. they did have two black hats – one with initials arranged a la the St. Louis Cardinals’ hats and one with a stylish “SL.” The Legends were the league’s worst team, going just 20-51 and drawing 607 fans per game. They opened the year with Graig Nettles as player-manager (and his brother, Jim, in the outfield, leading to the inevitable FIOB), but he was eventually traded to Bradenton. (EDIT: IanB points me to this excellent shot of the Legends’ home white pinstripes.)

St. Petersburg Pelicans: The league champs had former All-Star Steve Kemp, former felon Ron LeFlore and former acid-dropper Dock Ellis (who doubled as the team’s pitching coach and had a 1.95 ERA with 6 saves). They also had home whites with maroon pinstripes and road grays, both with the logo/wordmark on the front, and maroon hats with St.P on the front.

West Palm Beach Tropics: The usual home whites with the orange undershirts and hats, as well as the road grays with similar accents, were fine. But when they went with the orange BP jerseys, the result was technicolor ugliness (Paul Mirabella made it worse with the blue undershirt). Despite the garish get-ups, the Trops were the class of the league, going 52-20, hitting .319 as a team and sporting the league MVP (current Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington).

Winter Haven Super Sox: The idea was to put some of the old Red Sox (including the still-strange Bill Lee) together at the Bosox’ training ground. The idea didn’t work, as the Super Sox, owned by Broadway producer Mitchell Maxwell, went 29-43 and drew 529 fans per game. They had a pretty traditional look, evocative of the Red Sox, with home whites (no pinstripes, of course) and road grays. Their hats said, simply, “Sox.” There were rumors that Jim Rice would join the SPBA, but he didn’t until season two, so the Sox had to make do with Leon Roberts, whose 8 home runs led them.

Pos. Player Team
1B Dan Driessen FTM
2B Tim Ireland FTM
3B Jim Morrison BRA
SS Ron Washington WPB
OF Steve Henderson STP
OF Mickey Rivers WPB
OF Jose Cruz ORL
DH Amos Otis FTM
C Stan Cliburn BRA
SP Juan Eichelberger WPB
RP Rick Lysander BRA
MGR Dick Williams WPB
MVP Ron Washington WPB

In its second season, the SPBA was down to just six teams, including new clubs in Sun City, Arizona and San Bernardino, California. The ownerless Tropics became a traveling team, playing all of their games away from home. Bradenton moved to Daytona Beach. Only Fort Myers and St. Petersburg remained in their original locations for 1990-91. And when the Sun Sox’ owner pulled out the day after Christmas 1990 (midway through what was to be a reduced 56-game schedule), that was the end of the SPBA.

Why did it fail? First off, the league and the teams thought that the players themselves would be enough of a draw to bring plenty of fans in. The clubs didn’t have robust sales and marketing efforts and didn’t have a century of tradition to promote. Secondly, as it turned out, the players who could actually perform the best (for the most part) were the youngest ones and the ones who hadn’t been Major League stars. And the really big names, for the most part, didn’t want to either jeopardize how fans remembered them or didn’t want to ride the bus for less-than-major-league wages again (an entire team’s salary cap was less than $600,000). The snowbirds flocked to Florida, as they always have, but they didn’t flock to Senior League games. Perhaps 7:00 pm starts were too late for many of them.

As for the SPBA’s legacy? Not too surprisingly, there’s almost none to speak of. The league spawned a pair of books (of the two, Peter Golenbock‘s The Forever Boys is the better read) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays wore Pelicans throwbacks – albeit with pajama pants – for a game in 2008. I am the proud owner of Rich Gale’s Sun Sox hat and Amos Otis’ bat, but little memorabilia – and fewer who remember the league – remain from a time when baseball season never ended.

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