Did you know that before NBA Hall-of Fame owner Dr. Jerry Buss won 10 NBA titles with his Los Angeles Lakers, he won a World Team Tennis championship as owner of the Los Angeles Strings? New England Patriots patriarch Robert Kraft also made his first foray into sports ownership in World Team Tennis. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry got his first taste as owner of the West Palm Beach Tropics in an over-the-hill league that promoted 40-something ex-Major League ballplayers.
Ya gotta start somewhere. The three men listed above today own some of the most valuable sports properties in the world and collectively have won 15 world championships in their respective sports. And they all started out investing in the forgotten teams and leagues profiled here on Fun While It Lasted.
Now let’s add another mogul to the mix – Little Caesar’s pizza founder Mike Ilitch.
Ilitch has at least one quality that separates him from Buss, Kraft and Henry. He’s a jock. Ilitch played minor league baseball for four summers from 1952 – 1955, starting out in the farm system of his hometown Detroit Tigers. In 1959, at age 30, he founded Little Caesar’s and eventually amassed a personal fortune through franchising.
By the 1970′s Ilitch was sponsorsing top quality amateur softball teams in and around Detroit. Columbus, Ohio-based sports promoter Bill Byrne announced plans for a professional slo-pitch league – the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (APSPL). Ilitch took the last franchise in the league for the inaugural season of 1977 - a team that “started late and finished first” as he later put it in the team’s 1978 yearbook. Ilitch signed top amateur players from Michigan and Florida and spiced up his lineup by signing Jim Northrup and Norm Cash, two popular veterans of the Detroit Tigers 1968 World Series championship team.
The Caesars played home games at Memorial Field in the suburb of East Detroit. A large crowd – estimated at 9,000 by the Caesars – turned out for the team’s first APSPL game in June 1977. Slo-pitch is an offense heavy game and the Caesars were the top sluggers in the league. Ronnie Ford hit 88 home runs and drove in 196 in just 267 at bats. Pitching, meanwhile, was an afterthought. Tony Mazza tossed more than half the innings the team played all season and posted 25 of the team’s 48 victories. To a baseball fan, the numbers looked silly, but Detroit fans loved it.
The Caesars breezed through the APSPL again in 1978, putting up a 49-15 record. Norm Cash and Jim Northrup turned out not to be major factors for the team – they were more or less occasional cameo players. Nevertheless, the Caesars got a little publicity midway through the 1978 season when they offered to buy the contract of former Yankees All-Star Joe Pepitone from the APSPL’s New Jersey Statesmen for $30,000. (The deal didn’t go through, apparently). In the World Series, the Caesars swept again, defeating the Minnesota Norsemen in four straight.
The Caesars played one final season in 1979, but this time they got caught in the playoffs by the Milwaukee Schlitz. The APSPL split apart into two rival leagues after the 1979 season and Mike Ilitch decided not to continue in either. The Caesars were done after three summers of play. A successor team, known as the Detroit Auto Kings, joined the offshoot North American Softball League for the 1980 season and played at the Caesars’ old home at Memorial Field in East Detroit. The Auto Kings lasted one season before folding.
Mike Ilitch bought the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings in 1982. He added the Detroit Drive of the Arena Football League in 1988, owning that popular club for six seasons until the summer of 1993. In 1992, Ilitch added the Detroit Tigers to his sports empire. At age 82, he continues to own both the Red Wings and the Tigers as of the writing in early 2012.
Caesar’s field manager & GM Gary Vitto continued on as a front office executive for Mike Ilitch’s teams. Vitto served as General Manager of the Detroit Drive, presiding over three Arena Bowl championships in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s. Vitto later joined the front office of the Tigers after Ilitch bought the Major League club in 1992. Vitto passed away from cancer in December 2001.