Born: 1977 – APSPL founding franchise.
Stadium: Elder Field
“As God is my witness…I thought turkeys could fly.” – Arthur Carlson, General Manager, WKRP In Cincinnati.
I finished reading Scott Raab’s (@ScottRaab64) excellent book The Whore of Akron this week, nominally a vivisection of LeBron James after the NBA star’s abandonment of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat and functionally a grisly chronicle of Cleveland sports disasters of the past half century, including Red Right 88, The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, Art Modell and Jose Mesa.
One man who largely (perhaps entirely, I can’t quite remember) escapes Raab’s wrath is the late Ted Stepien, owner of the Cavaliers from 1980 to 1983 and frequently nominated as the worst professional sports owner of all time. During Stepien’s three-year reign of ineptitude, the Cavs burned through six head coaches, lost $15 million, threatened to move to Toronto, and fell to last place in NBA attendance, consistently outdrawn at the Richfield Coliseum by the Cleveland Force indoor soccer team. Most embarrassingly, NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien felt compelled to intervene in Cavaliers player personnel decisions and to institute “The Stepien Rule” (still in place today) preventing a franchise from trading its #1 draft pick in consecutive seasons, after rival teams repeatedly duped Stepien into dealing away prized picks for marginal bench warmers.
But this being Fun While It Lasted, we aren’t here to talk about the Cleveland Cavaliers or the NBA. Today we’re interested in Stepien’s first sporting love – men’s Slo-Pitch softball. Stepien, who made his millions in help wanted advertising, bought his controlling stake in the Cavs during a public stock sale in April 1980. By this point, Stepien already owned one low profile Cleveland pro team – the Cleveland Stepien’s Competitors of the North American Softball League.
The softball franchise got started in 1977 as the Cleveland Jaybirds, charter members of the American Professional Slo-Pitch League (APSPL). The Jaybirds took their name from original co-owner Jay Friedman, chief of the Erie Sheet Steel Corp. and a long-time amateur softball benefactor. The Jaybirds’ ambitions were certainly modest – in a June 1977 season preview in the APSPL-sponsored Pro Softball magazine, Jaybirds officials charmingly declared that “virtually no overweight, over-the-hill candidates showed up” at their open tryouts that spring.
The Jaybirds competed in the APSPL for two seasons (1977-1978) before Friedman and his partner Don Rardin sold out to Stepien. Stepien renamed the club the Competitors, matching his Competitor’s Club restaurant in downtown Cleveland. After one final season in the APSPL in 1979, Stepien grew disenchanted and formed his own breakaway league, the North American Softball League. Long-time Cavs Head Coach Bill Fitch recalled to The Los Angeles Times in 1994 that Stepien owned six of the eight NASL softball franchises and still failed to win the league championship.
By June of 1980, Stepien was in control of the Cavaliers and in need of a little promotional push for his largely invisible softball league. The ad man seized on the 50th birthday celebration of downtown Cleveland’s famous Terminal Tower skyscraper, once the fourth tallest building in the world. Stepien planned to drop a softball 700 feet from the Tower’s 52nd floor down to the street below, to be caught by one of the outfielders from the Competitors. A crowd estimated at 2,000 gathered to watch the stunt, which was actually a recreation of a 1938 Cleveland Indians promotion where third baseman Ken Keltner dropped a baseball into the waiting glove of catcher Hank Helf. Stepien’s effort wouldn’t go nearly as well…
United Press International later estimated that the errant softballs were traveling at approximately 144 miles per hour when they smashed into the bystanders and vehicles below. The incident proved to be a perfect foreshadowing of the era of buffoonery and civic embarrassment that Stepien was about to unleash on the Cavaliers’ faithful.
Watching the video, I was immediately struck by the remarkable similarity to a classic episode of one of my favorite sitcoms as a kid, WKRP In Cincinnati. A Thanksgiving episode where station GM Art Carlson hurls twenty live turkeys out of a helicopter into a supermarket parking lot…
On at least one other occasion, WKRP based an episode on real life events – a 1980 very special episode addressed the festival seating tragedy at a 1979 Who concert at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum that left eleven fans trampled to death. I believed that the Turkey episode might be based on Stepien’s Terminal Tower adventure and a quick scan on the interweb message boards shows that I wasn’t the only one. The Akron Beacon Journal even cited the Terminal Tower incident as the inspiration for the WKRP episode when it ran Stepien’s obituary in 2007.
Except that, alas, it’s not true. The WKRP episode “Turkeys Away” originally aired in October 1978, almost two years before Stepien ascended the Terminal Tower.
After a year off in 1981, the Cleveland Competitors returned to play a final season of pro softball in the United Professional Softball League (1981-1982) in the summer of 1982. The UPSL folded shortly thereafter and there has not been another men’s pro league in the United States since.