The Detroit Caesars were a professional softball team that began play in the American Professional Slow Pitch Softball League (APSPL) in 1977, the first of three Men's Professional Softball Leagues.
Prior to formalized professional play, Detroit was a hotbed for softball, with some of the top players in the country playing in competitive local leagues and for national softball championships. A major sponsor of softball in the Detroit area was Little Caesar's Pizza, whose team had won the 1970 Amateur Softball Association national title. The company was founded and owned by Mike Ilitch, a former Detroit Tigers farmhand and current owner of the MLB team. The Caesars were his first step into professional sports ownership.
The APSPL was formed by former World Football League front office staff Bill Byrne with former New York Yankees player Whitey Ford as commissioner and Detroit was the last team to join the newly formed league. The Caesars played at Memorial Field in Eastpointe, Michigan (named East Detroit at that time) a small suburb of Detroit. With promotions tied in with the pizza chain and the signing of two former Detroit Tiger stars, Jim Northrup and Norm Cash, fans packed into the small stands to lead the league in attendance and to witness not only Detroit's best softball players, but those that Ilitch had brought to town to make his team into the powerhouse of professional softball. Mike Nye, Ron Ford, Bert Smith, Mike Gouin and Tex Collins (all five had received amateur softball Player of the Year honors from Southern Softball magazine) and other softball stars took to the field for Detroit, led by manager Gary Vitto, and the Caesars would go on to win two World Series titles before disbanding after the 1979 season.
1977 APSPL champions
In 1977, Detroit dominated the league with a league best record of 42-14, two games ahead of the Kentucky Bourbons' 40-16 mark. Detroit and Kentucky received first-round playoff byes and the Caesars beat the Cleveland Jaybirds 2-1 (4-7, 22-5, 8-6) to advance to the first professional softball World Series against the Baltimore Monuments. The Caesars would dominate the series and win 4-0 (18-16, 13-8, 25-16, 28-11) with Mike Nye taking the MVP trophy having batted 12-20 with 2 home-runs. Six Caesars made the all-league team (Mike Gouin, Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Bert Smith, Tony Mazza, and Doug Gerdes) and only a triple-crown performance by league MVP Chicago Storm catcher Benny Holt could overshadow the individual performances by various Caesars. Mike Nye finished second in the batting race and Ron Ford and Doug Gerdes finished in the top 10. Ford was second in home-runs to Holt with Al Gibson, Bert Smith and Gerdes of the Caesars all in the top-10. RBIs were similar with Ford finishing second in the league and Gerdes, Smith and Gibson in the top-10.
1978 APSPL champions
Detroit rolled again in 1978 with another league best record of 49-15 and received a first-round bye in the playoffs. In the APSPL semi-finals the Caesars again faced Cleveland winning 2-0 (27-22, 30-24) advancing to face the Minnesota Norsemen in the World Series. The Caesars would repeat as professional softball champions with a dominating 4-0 victory (22-16, 50-12, 24-16, 26-12) as Detroit's Bert Smith hit 15-16 (.940) with 5 home-runs and 16 RBIs. Ron Ford of Detroit was edged out in the last game of the season by teammate Mike Nye in batting percentage (.654 to .645) to prevent his taking of triple-crown honors, but still took home league MVP with 80 home-runs and 201 RBIs. Seven Detroit players were all-league (Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes, Gary Geister, Mike Gouin, Jack Roudebush and newcomer Chuck Drewicz). Nye, Ford, Geister and Gouin finished top-10 in batting; Ford and Gerdes top-10 in home-runs and only Ford represented the Caesars in RBI leaders.
1979 APSPL season
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 league and eventual APSPL World Series MVP Rick Weiterman. Detroit would finish second in the Midwestern Division behind Milwaukee and advanced to play the Cincinnati Suds in the first round of the playoffs winning 3-2 (18-8, 7-8, 11-14, 3-1, 7-6). Detroit advanced to the semi-finals losing to Milwaukee 3-0 (11-5, 7-4, 5-1). Milwaukee went on to beat the Kentucky Bourbons in the APSPL World Series, broadcast nationwide on the new start-up sports network ESPN. Rule and ball changes had drastically reduced the offensive production in the 1979 APSPL season which resulted in a court challenge by the Caesars as team owner Ilitch felt the changes were directed at his team. On Detroit, Ron Ford's home run total dropped from 80 in 1978 to 43 and RBI's from 201 to 122 in the same number of games and Ford still led the league in both categories as batting averages and power production dipped league-wide. Four Caesars took all-league honors (Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes and Rick Trudeau). Trudeau finished second in the batting race with Nye joining him in the top-10. Ford, Gerdes and Gary Geister finished top-10 in home-runs and RBIs.
New Leagues and the Detroit Auto Kings
Instability in other markets and internal political fighting saw two teams (Cleveland and Milwaukee) leave the APSPL to form the North American Softball League (NASL) under the leadership of Cleveland owner (and eventual owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers) Ted Stepien. The APSPL continued with just 6 teams (down from 12 in each of the previous 3 seasons) and Ilitch elected not to continue the Detroit Caesars in either league and folded the Detroit Caesars. The Detroit Auto Kings were formed as part of the new league and also played at Memorial Field. Several Caesars, including Mike Gouin, Dan Murphy, Tony Mazza and Gary Geister, played for the Auto Kings along with former Detroit Tiger Mickey Stanley. The Auto Kings advanced to the playoffs with a 34-23 record winning the semi-finals 4-1 over Cleveland (6-4, 8-7, 19-4, 5-10, 14-5). Detroit would advance to the NASL World Series and lose to the Milwaukee Schlitz 5-2 (19-11, 10-12, 12-16, 22-13, 13-4, 12-3, 11-9). Ken Parker of Milwaukee would take the World Series MVP trophy while Ron Olesiak of Chicago was the league MVP. Mike Turk of the Auto Kings was the sole Detroit representative on the 1980 NASL All-Pro team.
The NASL and the APSPL merged after the 1980 season to form a new league, the United Professional Softball League (UPSL), and the Auto Kings disbanded. In 1982, a Detroit team (Detroit Softball City) played in the UPSL and was led by Charles Mitchell. Detroit Softball City finished second in the league to the Milwaukee Schlitz with a record of 36-20 and beat Cleveland 3-2 in the semi-finals of the playoffs (14-7, 6-11, 9-7, 0-11, 17-10). Detroit would lose in the UPSL World Series to Milwaukee 5-1 (9-8, 8-3, 7-10, 13-11, 12-7, 39-6) with the Schlitz led by World Series MVP Dick Laba. Dana Andry of Cleveland was the UPSL MVP and Charles Mitchell of Detroit made the All-UPSL team. That was the last year for professional softball in the US as players once again returned to amateur leagues.