The Richmond Robins were the top farm club of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers during the early and mid-1970’s. The Robins endured five straight losing seasons, even as the Broad Street Bullies-era Flyers won back-to-back Stanley Cups.
Richmond fans took an early interest in the team upon its arrival in 1971. The Robins drew 225,059 fans for 38 dates at the Richmond Coliseum during the winter of 1971-72. But attendance drop consistently in the years that followed. Two seasons later, season attendance was down nearly a third to 159,738.
At the end of the Robins’ fifth season, the club made it to the Calder Cup semi-finals, despite another losing regular season. After the playoffs the team embarked on a “Save The Robins” campaign with a goal of 3,000 season ticket deposits of $100 each. When the deadline arrived on June 21, 1976, the team had secured fewer than 1,000 commitments. Team founder E. Claiborne Robins pulled the plug, citing more than $1 million in financial losses over the Robin’s five-year run.
Richmond Robins Memorabilia
Robins vs. Baltimore Clippers. November 21, 1973
Robins vs. Baltimore Clippers. Calder Cup Playoffs. April 1974
The Waterloo Diamonds were the last professional baseball team to make a home in the Eastern Iowa city of 68,000. The departure of the Diamonds in 1994 brought to an end a largely uninterrupted 90-year minor league tradition stretching back to the formation of the Waterloo Microbes in 1904.
The Diamonds formed in 1989 after the Waterloo Indians Midwest League franchise lost its Major League affiliation with the Cleveland Indians. The team operated in 1989 as a co-op operation, receiving players from both the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Diego Padres organizations. Co-op teams are typically awful and the 1989 Waterloo Diamonds were no exception. The club finished 47-89.
On July 6, 1989, the Diamonds hosted the Clinton Giants at Municipal Stadium in Waterloo. The team’s battled to a 3-3 tie through 19 innings before the game was suspended due to curfew shortly before 1:00 AM. The game resumed in August 1989 and the clubs played another six innings before Mike King won it for Waterloo with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 25th inning. It was the longest game in Midwest League history.
The Diamonds struck a parent club deal with the San Diego Padres in 1990. The team’s on-field fortunes improved only marginally. The team’s only winning campaign was the 1991 season (75-63). The 1991 club had a strong pitching staff that included future Major League regulars Bryce Florie, Lance Painter and Tim Worrell. The team returned to its losing ways in 1992 and 1993.
The Diamonds’ economic situation was even grimmer than the on-field product. Waterloo itself was in severe decline in the late 1980’s. The city’s Rath Packing Company, a major meatpacking employer, closed its doors in 1985. Manufacturing jobs were in decline. The U.S. Census showed a 12.5% decline in Waterloo’s population between 1980 and 1990.
In 1990, Major League Baseball and minor league baseball operators negotiated a contentious update to the Professional Baseball Agreement that governed relations between big league teams and their farm clubs. The new PBA shifted a greater burden for operating expenses to minor league owners and, most important, imposed stringent new minimum standards for ballparks that phased in during the early 90’s. The Agreement spurred the ballpark construction boom of the 1990’s and the resulting economic renaissance of the minor leagues. But it also marked the death knell of pro baseball for many small cities that lacked the political will or economic resources to build new stadiums. Waterloo’s dilapidated Municipal Stadium was a far cry from complying with the new standards.
During the 1992 season, a freelance writer named Richard Panek embedded himself with the Diamonds for the entire season. Panek’s resulting book, Waterloo Diamonds, focused on the changing economics of Rust Belt cities like Waterloo and of Minor League Baseball. Though Panek’s account concludes prior to the final departure of the Diamonds from Waterloo, the book depicts the conditions that led to the end of pro ball in the city.
Chicago advertising executive Tom Dickson and his wife Sherrie Myers purchased the Diamonds in late 1993 with the aim of moving the team to a new ballpark in Lake County, Indiana. That idea was blocked by Major League Baseball’s territorial rules (the Cubs and White Sox objected). New ownership only exacerbated the Diamonds’ often contentious relationship with Waterloo’s political leadership. When city officials moved to increase the team’s symbolic $1.00 annual lease payment to $500,000 on the eve of the 1994 season, Dickson and Myers scrambled to move the team to Springfield, Illinois just weeks before opening day.
The Waterloo Bucks amateur collegiate team formed in 1995 to replace the Diamonds at Municipal Stadium. The Bucks enter their 23rd season of operation in 2017.
Doomed entry in Abe Saperstein’s short-lived American Basketball League of the early 1960’s. The Tapers were owned by Paul Cohen, owner of the Technical Tape Company of New Rochelle, New York. Cohen was a millionaire business owner, basketball fan and sufferer from muscular dystrophy. It was Cohen who recruited Jerry Lewis to the cause of muscular dystrophy and helped inspire the comedian’s famous Labor Day telethons in support of the MDA. Cohen previously backed the New York Tuck Tapers (1959-1961) in the amateur National Industrial Basketball League. The Washington Tapers marked Cohen’s first foray into full professionalism in the basketball arena.
The biggest name on the Tapers was Gene Conley, a two-sport star who previously played Major League Baseball for the Milwaukee Braves and pro basketball for the Boston Celtics. Dan Swartz, a holdover from the NIBL, was the Tapers’ top scorer at 24.8 points per game in 1961-62.
The team was a bust in the nation’s capital. After just two months of play, the Tapers announced a midseason move to Long Island’s Commack Arena on New Year’s Eve, 1961, where they would become known as the New York Tapers. Following the 1961-62 season, Cohen moved the team again, this time to Philadelphia. The ABL folded on December 31st, 1962 midway through its second season, taking the Washington/New York/Philadelphia Tapers down with it.
In July 1985, the city of Flint, Michigan lost its long-time International Hockey League club, the Flint Generals (1969-1985). After several years of six-figure losses, the Generals moved 40 miles north to Saginaw. A local couple, Laraine and Carl Lamb, scrambled to save hockey for the city. Less than four weeks after the Generals’ departure, the IHL awarded an expansion franchise to the Lambs on August 6th, 1985. The novice sports investors had less than two months to build and organization and get a team onto the ice for the 1985-86 IHL season.
The Lambs ran their Flint Spirits hockey team as the ultimate mom-and-pop operation. The couple was unable to attract additional investors. The Spirits era in Flint (1985-1990) coincided with the grim period of civic history depicted by filmmaker Michael Moore in his landmark 1989 documentary Roger & Me. The inexorable decline of auto manufacturing jobs got underway, as General Motors shuttered plants and moved jobs to Mexico. Re-development efforts, such as AutoWorld and the downtown Water Street Pavilion (which featured a recreational ice skating rink) sputtered and died. The Spirits fared little better at first. The club averaged fewer than 2,000 fans per contest at IMA Arena through the first half of the 1985-86 season, the worst mark in the 10-team IHL. The Lambs ran out of money in five months.
By January 1986, it looked like the Flint Spirits might fold midway through their first season. Enter former Flint Generals star Bob Perani. Perani, a popular goaltender for the Generals from 1969 to 1974, remained in Flint after retiring from the ice. He started several local businesses, the most successful of which was the sporting goods retailer Perani’s Hockey World. In short order, Perani organized a 19-person local ownership that took control of the Spirits in February 1986 and saved the team from certain doom. Flint finished the 1985-86 season with an abominable 16-60-6 record.
The Spirits’ fortunes improved with the hiring of another former Flint General, Rick Dudley, as head coach in the summer of 1986. The team posted a winning record in 1986-87 and qualified for the playoffs. The season was marred by tragedy though when Dudley’s player-assistant Frank Perkins was found dead in his home in February 1987. Perkins was just 27 year old. The Saginaw Generals, Flint’s former team, eliminated the Spirits in the first round of the 1987 Turner Cup playoffs.
Dudley returned at the helm for the 1987-88 season. Rookie center John Cullen took the IHL by storm. The former Boston University star led the league in scoring with 48 goals and 109 assists, earning both MVP and Rookie-of-the-Year honors (the latter shared with Saginaw goaltender Ed Belfour). The Generals charged through the playoffs to the 1988 Turner Cup finals where they lost to the Salt Lake Golden Eagles. Cullen leveraged his breakout season into a contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He became a two-time All-Star in the NHL.
Dudley departed in the summer of 1988. He would become the Buffalo Sabres head coach in the NHL in 1989. Without Cullen, the Spirits fell back to a last place finish in the 1988-89 IHL season. For the winter of 1989-90, Flint became the top farm club for the NHL’s New York Rangers. The Rangers affiliation meant that Flint fans got to enjoy top prospects like winger Rob Zamuner and former U.S. Olympic goaltender Mike Richter.
The Rangers partnership was short-lived. In the summer of 1990, Fort Wayne, Indiana lost its IHL club after 38 seasons. The Komets moved to Albany, New York. Similar to the Flint situation upon the Generals departure in 1985, local hockey supporters immediately began looking for a new team. Fort Wayne businessman Steve Franke bought the Spirits in July 1990 and moved the club to Indiana where they became a new version of the Fort Wayne Komets for the 1990-91 IHL season.
After a one-year absence, pro hockey would return to Flint in the winter of 1990-91 with the formation of the Flint Bulldogs of the Colonial Hockey League.
Flint Spirits Memorabilia
Spirits Puck. Sponsored by WEYI TV 25
1987-88 Spirits Program
1988-89 Spirits Program
1989-90 Spirits Program
Flint Spirits Video
Local TV spot from the 1989-90 Flint Spirits season
Spirits player-assistant coach Frank Perkins died of natural causes at his home on February 24, 1987. Perkins was 27.
Former Spirits owner Bob Perani passed away during a flight from Detroit to Tokyo on April 15, 2012. He was 69.