The St. Petersburg Pelicans were the first and only champions of the Senior Professional Baseball Association, the peculiar creation of 32-year old Colorado property developer Jim Morley. Morley came up with the idea for a 35-and-over professional baseball league while on vacation with his girlfriend at the Great Barrier Reef. Upon his return home, he bought a $13 book marketed for autograph collectors which contained the home addresses of retired Major League ballplayers. Morley sent out 2,200 letters to gauge interest – which was high, considering Morley estimated paychecks of $5,000 to $15,000 per month to come to Florida for the winter and play baseball.
Incredibly, Morley got his league off the ground in less than twelve months. The SPBA debuted in November 1989 with eight franchises in Florida. Morley himself owned the St. Petersburg Pelicans, who turned out to be the class of the league on the field. The Pelicans had a number of fascinating characters:
45-year Bobby Tolan, a star of the Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” era of the 1970′s, hit .324 for the Pelicans while serving double-duty as the club’s manager.
44-year old hair curler afficionado Dock Ellis won 138 games in the Majors and a World Series championship with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1971, but he is best remembered for throwing a no-hitter while on acid on June 12th, 1970. In 1989 the now-sober Ellis was working as a substance abuse counselor in Los Angeles when the Senior League came calling.
Pelicans outfielder Ron LeFlore famously made the Detroit Tigers in 1974 after being scouted by Billy Martin in Michigan’s Jackson State penitentiary. The former heroin addict was serving a 5-15 year sentence for armed robbery and never played organized baseball before joining the inmates’ team. Incredibly, he became a star for the Detroit Tigers and Montreal Expos upon his parole, making the American League All-Star team in 1976. LeVar Burton portrayed LeFlore in the 1978 CBS made-for-TV movie One In A Million: The Ron LeFlore Story.
There was a certain poetic justic to LeFlore playing in the SPBA, which required players to be at least 35 years old. LeFlore’s skills eroded quickly and somewhat mysteriously in the early 1980′s. He retired in 1982 at the presumed age of 30. He later revealed that he lied about his date of birth throughout his Major League career and was four years older than anyone knew.
The aces of the Pelicans staff were former National League Rookie-of-the-Year (1972) Jon Matlack (10 wins) and former Detroit Tigers ace Milt Wilcox (12 wins). The Pelicans defeated the West Palm Beach Tropics, owned by future Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, for the SPBA championship game on February 4, 1990.
During the offseason, Morley sought to raise new investors for the Pelicans, and for the league itself, which was crippled by ownership scandals and defections at the end of its first season. One club – the Orlando Juice – folded after owner Phillip Breen was revealed to be running the club with funds from a massive embezzlement scheme. Breen vanished during the 1990 season and has not been seen or heard from in nearly a quarter century. His case was later profiled on Unsolved Mysteries.
One new investor was New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden, who purchased a minority stake in the Pelicans in the summer of 1990, as chronicled in this June 1990 Pelican Poop team newsletter. The new investors weren’t enough, however, and the league shutdown less than halfway through its second season on December 27, 1990.
The Tampa Bay Rays held a St. Peterburg Pelicans reunion/Turn Back The Clock night in June 2008. In addition to reuniting about two dozen former Pelicans players and staff members, the Rays wore Pelicans throwback jerseys. Pictures here.
Noted baseball author Peter Golenbock served as the color commentator on Pelicans radio broadcasts and chronicled the club 1989-90 championship season in his book The Forever Boys, one of several chronicles written about the SPBA during its brief 13-month lifespan.
Dock Ellis passed away of liver failure in 2008 at the age of 63.