Cleveland vs. St. Louis. Two of the great hotbeds of indoor soccer in the early 1980′s squared off in this January 1984 match at Cleveland’s Richfield Coliseum. The Cleveland Force and the St. Louis Steamers ought to have been a great rivalry. Both teams were Midwestern clubs, both were wildly popular in their moment, and both clubs were among the league’s best at the time. But Cleveland was in the Major Indoor Soccer League’s Eastern Division and St. Louis was in the Western group and as a result they rarely met in the regular season (and never faced each other in the playoffs). This Friday night match was the Steamers’ only visit to Cleveland during the 48-game 1983-84 season.
The Force came into this match as the MISL’s hottest team. They were 13-2, thanks to an early season 11-game winning streak. Clevelanders leapt onto the band wagon. This was the sixth season of Force soccer and all of the sudden crowds more than doubled over their previous highs. A huge crowd of 14,173 turned out for this match and for the season the Force claimed an average of 13,692 for their 24 home dates. By contrast, the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers pulled only 5,075 per game in the same building that winter.
The Steamers were off to a slower start at 8-8, but their headline-making October signing of U.S. National Team midfielder Ricky Davis was starting to pay dividends. Davis was arguably the best American soccer player of the early 1980′s. At a minimum he carried that perception thanks to the Warner Communications marketing machine behind his former club, the New York Cosmos of the outdoor North American Soccer League. The October 1983 defection of Ricky Davis from the Cosmos to the MISL was as sure a sign as any of the shifting fortunes of pro soccer in the U.S. in the early 1980′s, as the outdoor game foundered and indoor soccer enjoyed its moment. Warner was cutting way back on the Cosmos in the fall of 1983 (they would unload the club altogether the following summer). Davis reached the end of his contract on September 30th and balked at the Cosmos’ request for a pay cut. That opened the door for the Steamers, a club whose commitment to fielding a championship-caliber team with American players was central to its brand. They signed Davis to a three-year deal worth a reported $117,000 per year, which made the 24-year old one of the highest paid players in the MISL.
Davis came into the Force match hot with 10 goals in his previous five games. He added a hat trick on this night to lead the Steamers to a 5-2 victory. The result bumped the Steamers over .500 (9-8) and dropped Cleveland to 13-3. St. Louis would go on to win the Western Division and appear in the MISL Championship Series, losing to the Baltimore Blast. The Force never quite regained their invincible form of the season’s first two months. They finished with a respectable 31-17 record, but were swept by the Blast in the semis, 3 games to none.
The Cleveland Stokers were Cleveland’s first professional soccer team of real significance. The club began play in 1967 in the United Soccer Association (USA), a league which grew up out of the enthusiasm of the 1966 World Cup. The USA imported entire teams from Europe and South America (who were in their off-seasons during the summer months) to represent member cities. The Stokers were actually Stoke City F.C. from England, hence the name. Frozen foods mogul Vernon Stouffer, who also owned the Cleveland Indians at the time, was the club’s original owner.
The Stokers/Stoke City were mediocre in 1967 posting a 5-3-4 record.
Following that campaign, the Stokers merged with the rival National Professional Soccer League (NPSL) to form the North American Soccer League (NASL) for the 1968 season. The NASL took the more conventional route of assembling rosters player-by-player, rather than importing foreign teams to play under aliases. So Stoke City didn’t return to Cleveland for the 1968 season, although the Stokers name endured. Much of the Stokers’ 1968 roster came from remnants of a recently disbanded NPSL team, the Philadelphia Spartans.
Meanwhile, in early 1968, Stouffer sold the Stokers to Howard Metzenbaum and Ted Bonda (future Indians owners themselves). The team improved markedly in 1968, with a 14-7-11 record and a trip to the playoffs. The Stokers lost to the eventual champion Atlanta Chiefs in a two-game semi-final playoff series. A highlight of the 1968 season was a July 10, 1968 visit to Cleveland Stadium by Santos F.C. of Braziland their international superstar Pele. The Stokers upset Santos 2-1 before a team record crowd of over 16,000 at Cleveland Stadium.
The Stokers folded after the 1968 season as part of a massive contraction that saw the NASL shrink for 17 clubs to just 5.
During the Rockers inaugural season, the team signed women’s basketball legend Lynette Woodard. Woodard was 37 years old at the time. She never previously had the opportunity to play professional in her home country, although she gained considerable press attention in 1985 when she became the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Woodard started 27 of the Rockers’ 28 games in 1997 and was sixth on the team in scoring with 7.8 points per game. She went to the WNBA’s Detroit Shock in an expansion draft in 1998 and retired after one final season. Woodard was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2004.
On the court, the Rockers see-sawed between winning seasons and truly terrible campaigns, but still managed to make the playoffs in five of their seven years of play. Their deepest postseason run came in 1998 when they won the East Division and then advanced to the playoff semi-finals before losing to the Phoenix Mercury 2 games to 1 in a best-of-three series.
On September 19, 2003, Gund Arena Company announced it would no longer operate the Rockers after seven money-losing seasons. The announcement concluded a rough week for women’s sports in the United States, as the 8-team Women’s United Soccer Association had folded just four days earlier due to similar reasons of financial exhaustion. Some Rockers fans questioned the timing, given that the Gund ownership had just invested considerable money into NBA #1 overall draft pick LeBron James and could expect to reap a huge windfall in new revenue with James’ arrival. The WNBA kept the Rockers franchise alive on paper until Christmas time as it sought a buyer for the Rockers in a new market, but none materialized. The league officially terminated the Rockers franchise the day after Christmas in 2003 and the Rockers players were put into a dispersal draft in early January.
Not much Rockers footage to see here, but this is about all you’ll find from the Rockers on YouTube at this point. This was from ESPN’s “WNBays” ad campaign from the 1999 season, which featured customized ads for each franchise based around a semi-fictional funk band.
The Cleveland Lumberjacks hockey team traced their history all the way back to the formation of the Muskegon Zephyrs of the International Hockey League in 1960. The franchise spent most of its existence in Muskegon, going through two name changes over the decades. A turning point in the team’s fortunes came in 1984, when former Edmonton Oilers executive Larry Gordon purchased the financially troubled team (then known as the Muskegon Mohawks) for $1.00.
Gordon renamed the team the Muskegon Lumberjacks and built his club into the dominant IHL franchise of the 1980′s. In eight seasons between 1984 and 1992, Gordon’s Lumberjacks appeared in the IHL championship series six times, winning the Turner Cup in 1986 and 1989.
In the early 1990′s, the IHL began to attract wealthier investors and took move beyond its upper Midwest roots. Cities like Muskegon and Port Huron were left behind as the league expanded into cities such as Las Vegas, Atlanta and Orlando. Expansion fees rose to $6.0 million dollars by 1994, a decade after Gordon had paid one dollar for his club. In keeping with the trend, Gordon uprooted his Lumberjacks out of Muskegon in the summer of 1992 and move to Cleveland, where the new 20,000-seat Gund Arena was set to open in 1994. (In the meantime, the ‘Jacks would play in the old suburban Richfield Coliseum, the former home of the NHL’s Cleveland Barons and WHA’s Cleveland Crusaders of the 1970′s).
The Lumberjacks’ days as an IHL dynasty ended when the team left Muskegon. They never again appeared in a Turner Cup finals series. But the team did feature some outstanding players, including two of the most prolific scorers in minor league hockey history – Jock Callander and Dave Michayluk, who both moved with the team from Muskegon. The Lumberjacks also helped develop Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who spent part of the 1999-00 season in Cleveland before embarking on a decade-long career with the NHL’s San Jose Sharks.
The IHL boom of the early 1990′s turned out to be a speculative bubble. By the latter half of the decade, the 50-year old league was shedding franchises at an alarming rate. The costs of seven-figure payrolls, cross-continental air travel and unfavorable leases at massive big city arenas were killing the league. The Lumberjacks managed to hang in, but they had one of the worst leases in the league at Gund Arena, paying $10,000 per game with no participating in parking or concessions revenue. By 2000, the club was reportedly more than $2 million in debt and on the verge of financial collapse. Crowds, which occasionally topped 10,000 in the mid-1990′s, were down to only 2,700 paid per game in 1999-00, according to a 2001 expose by Cleveland Scene magazine.
On the eve of the 2000-01 season opener, Gordon sold the ‘Jacks to Hank Kassigkeit for $1.8 million and retired to Mexico. Kassigkeit fancied himself as a turnaround specialist, but rapidly grew disenchanted as the money pit opened beneath him early in the 2000-01 campaign. By the end of January 2001, after just four months of ownership, Kassigkeit was out a reported million bucks. He threatened to fold the team immediately without completing the season. The IHL sued Kassigkeit on January 30, 2001 for breach of contract. Ultimately, the IHL and the NHL’s Minnesota Wild – parent club of the ‘Jacks – took over the franchise from Kassigkeit and let it finish out the season as a ward of the league.
The IHL terminated the franchise on May 23, 2001 after more than 40 years of play. The league itself followed a few weeks later.
Pro hockey returned to Cleveland and Gund Arena the very next fall with the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League.
Former Lumberjacks owner Larry Gordon died on March 19, 2013 at age 74.
Lumberjacks vs. Atlanta Knights at the Richfield Coliseum, 1992.
Lumberjacks vs. Orlando Solar Bears at Gund Arena, April 1998. 2nd Round of IHL Turner Cup Playoffs.
1999-2002: Richard Dietrich, Michael Gibbons & Paul Garofalo
The Cleveland Crunch formed in early 1989 as an effort to revive indoor soccer in Cleveland, Ohio after a one-year hiatus. Cleveland was one of the hottest markets in the U.S. for indoor soccer during the sport’s boom years in the early-mid 1980′s. The Cleveland Force (1978-1988) of the Major Indoor Soccer League attracted huge crowds to the Richfield Coliseum in the Eighties, often outdrawing the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, who shared the building during the winter. The Force even achieved indoor soccer’s elusive Holy Grail – they turned an annual operating profit on a couple of occasions. But by the end of the decade, Force owner Bert Wolstein grew pessimistic about the outlook for the faltering MISL. He folded his franchise in July 1988, despite the fact that the Force still drew strong crowds and were considered the league’s model franchise.
Akron stockbroker George Hoffman negotiated with Wolstein to buy and revive the Force, but ultimately failed to strike a deal. Instead, he approach the MISL and applied for an expansion franchise for Cleveland. The league awarded a new franchise to Hoffman and business partner Stuart Lichter in February 1989, seven months after the demise of the Force. After one winter without indoor soccer, the MISL returned to Cleveland in the fall of 1989. The new team would be called the Cleveland Crunch.
Hoffman and Lichter made several moves to try to connect the Crunch to the popular legacy of the Force. Former Force GM Al Miller, who presided over the old club’s boom years from 1984 to 1987, returned in the same capacity with the Crunch. Kai Haaskivi, a popular former Force All-Star, was hired on as player-coach for the 1989-90 MISL season.
But the indoor soccer moment in Cleveland was over. The Crunch struggled on the floor with a last place 20-32 record under Haaskivi. The storyline at the box office was worse. Average attendance of 5,543 was worst in the eight-team MISL and less than half what the Force drew in their final season just two years earlier. A lone bright spot during the Crunch’s inaugural season was the mid-season acquisition of Yugoslavian forward Zoran Karic in a trade with the San Diego Sockers. The trade set the table for the Crunch to dominate indoor soccer during the 1990′s, as Karic paired with Crunch forward Hector Marinaro to form the most formidable offensive duo in the sport for the next ten years.
Prior to Crunch’s second season in 1990-91, the MISL re-branded itself as the “Major Soccer League”, removing the word “Indoor”. The name change was subtle (and ignored by most fans and media), but portrayed a league with an identity crisis and a group of beleaguered owners losing faith in their core product. The Crunch continued to struggle as the season opened. Attendance dropped further, beneath 5,000 fans per game (the Crunch would finish last in the league again). Haaskivi was relieved of his coaching duties after a 9-18 start.
But under new coach Trevor Dawkins the Crunch caught fire in the season’s second half and made an improbable run to an MSL Championship Series date with the San Diego Sockers. The Sockers took the series in six games for their fourth straight league championship. Dawkins was named Coach of the Year for his turnaround effort while both Karic (2nd) and Marinaro (5th) finished among the top five scoring leaders in the league.
The winter of 1991-92 proved to be the 14th and final season for the MISL. The Crunch failed to get back to the final, but attendance shot up 52% to over 7,000 per game at the Richfield Coliseum. When the MISL folded in July 1992, Crunch owner George Hoffman accepted an invitation to join the league’s former rival, the lower-budget National Professional Soccer League, for the 1992-93 season.
The terms for entry into the the NPSL were severe – the Crunch were only allowed to keep six players from their roster and NPSL rules limited teams to only two foreign players. That choice was easy – Marinaro (Canada) and Karic (Yugoslavia). With the move to the new league, the Crunch also abandoned the suburban Richfield Coliseum and moved downtown to the CSU Convocation Center.
The Crunch would enjoy their greatest success in the NPSL. Karic and Marinaro simply dominated the league. Marinaro won every NPSL scoring title from 1993 to 2001, with the exception of 1994 – when Karic won. Marinaro won six league MVP awards during the 1990′s and Karic added one of his own. Goalkeeper Otto Orf, who wore #00, of course, was one of the league’s best goalkeepers. The Crunch won three league championship in the NPSL in 1994, 1996 and 1999.
The NPSL had radically different scoring rules than the MISL, including 2-point and 3-point goals. During the MISL years, final game scores often looked like high scoring ice hockey games – 4-3, 6-5, 8-6. Once the Crunch joined the NPSL, scoring lines looked more like American football results – 16-10, 24-17 and so on. In 1997, the Crunch set the all-time NPSL record for single game scoring, dropping 52 points on a terrible Columbus Invaders team. The modified scoring rules turned off some long-time indoor fans who grew up watching the MISL, but it didn’t seem to harm Crunch attendance too badly. The team never did approach the status enjoyed by the Force in the 1980′s, but attendance (announced, anyway) stayed in the 7,000 – 8,000 range for the rest of the 1990′s.
The Crunch’s fortunes began to decline at the turn of century, as the did the outlook for the sport of indoor soccer as a whole. After more than a decade of ownership and three championships, George Hoffman sold the Crunch in December 1999 for a reported $1.75 million. It was the highest sale price in the 15-year history of the NPSL. The new owners included Paul Garofolo, the former VP of Marketing for the Force during the 1980′s, and his financial backers, Richard Dietrich and Michael Gibbons.
Garofolo and Dietrich talked a big game about returning indoor soccer to the glory days of the 1980′s. The duo made dismissive and condescending comments about Hoffman’s management of the Crunch in Cleveland’s business press. The NPSL folded in the summer of 2001 and six teams, including the Crunch, re-organized as the “new” Major Indoor Soccer League. Nostalgia was the rule of the day, as struggling indoor owners across the country rushed to reclaim brand identities from classic indoor teams of the 1980′s.
In 2002, Garofolo obtained the rights to the Cleveland Force name from the Wolstein family, with whom he remained close. The Crunch was re-branded in August 2002 as the new Cleveland Force playing in the new Major Indoor Soccer League. Garofolo boasted to the press that the revival of the Force brand name alone would boost team revenues by one million dollars a year. But Clevelanders didn’t seem to be nearly as nostalgic for the glory days of the Force as Garofolo himself was. By 2003, the club was in serious budget cutting mode and in 2005, the franchise that began sixteen years earlier as the Crunch shut down for good. Garofolo was later sentenced to six months in prison for tax fraud related to his employment with the Force.
Despite a good run in the 1990′s, the Crunch never replicated the popularity or influence of the original Cleveland Force. But they did actually manage to outlast them, playing 13 seasons to the Force’s ten.
The Cleveland Crusaders were one of twelve original franchises in the World Hockey Association in the winter of 1972-73. The franchise originally intended to play in Calgary, but after reaching a dead end in Alberta, the club ended up in the hands of Nick Mileti, the owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cleveland Indians. Mileti was also the former owner of Cleveland’s previous hockey team, the Cleveland Barons of the minor league American Hockey League, and he owned the downtown Cleveland Arena that the Barons and the Cavs called home.
Like the American Football League and the American Basketball Association before it, the WHA was formed with the intention of challenging the establishment league (in this case the NHL) for the best markets and the best talent. The WHA really got on the map when the Winnipeg Jets signed Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Blackhawks for $1 million. The Philadelphia Blazers lured away Boston Bruins star Derek Sanderson with a deal that briefly made Turk the highest paid athlete on Earth. The Crusaders also landed one of the biggest stars in the new WHA, signing away goaltender Gerry Cheevers from the Boston Bruins with a seven-year contract that paid $200,000 per season. One of the top goaltenders on the planet at the time, Cheevers earned two Stanley Cups in Boston and established an NHL record 32-game unbeaten streak in net during the 1971-72 season.
The Crusaders storyline was a tough, defensive minded club that played well in the regular season and then folded in the postseason. The Crusaders made the playoffs in all four of their WHA seasons, but never advanced beyond the second round.
The Crusaders played their first two seasons at the Cleveland Arena, while owner Nick Mileti worked on development of the 18,500-seat suburban Richfield Coliseum. The Crusaders moved into the Coliseum in November 1975, but the new arena require a long drive out into the middle of nowhere between Cleveland and Akron. Crusaders attendance improved only marginally from the team’s days in the big old barn downtown, hovering between 5,200 and 7,000 for all four seasons of the club’s existence.
After the team’s third season (and first in Richfield), Nick Mileti sold controlling interest in the team to one of his investment partners, Jay Moore. Moore presided over a contentious fourth and final season of Crusaders hockey in the winter of 1975-76. In late January 1976, Crusaders GM publicly criticized Cheevers, accusing the All-Star of not providing “major league goaltending” to the club. Cheevers, fed up with Vivian, prepared a retirement statement, while the GM slapped a fine and an indefinite suspension on the goalie. A week later, attorneys for both sides agreed to void Cheevers contract and he left the WHA to return to the Boston Bruins.
Two weeks later, Vivian and owner Jay Moore incensed the remaining Crusaders players by traveling to Kansas City, Missouri, allegedly to pitch the NHL’s troubled Kansas City Scouts franchise on relocating to Cleveland. The players viewed this as a betrayal of the team and a dereliction of management’s duty to stay in Cleveland promoting the team they had. On March 10, 1976, the Crusaders took the ice at the Richfield Coliseum wearing black armbands to protest the actions of team management. Vivian resigned the next day, realizing he had lost control of the club.
After the Cruaders’s annual rite of spring – an early playoff exit – Jay Moore attempted to sell the Crusaders to former World Football League owner Bill Putnam, who planned to move the team to Hollywood, Florida and call them the Florida Breakers. The deal fell through and Mileti ended up stepping back in to take the team back from Moore. Meanwhile, the NHL was relocating to Cleveland after all. It wasn’t the Kansas City Scouts, but rather another troubled club – the California Golden Seals. With the NHL coming to town, Mileti realized the Crusaders’ days were numbered in Cleveland.
The WHA granted approval to move the team to St. Paul, Minnesota on August 9, 1976. The Crusaders became the second edition of the Minnesota Fighting Saints, replacing an original WHA franchise the ran out of money and folded during the season in February 1976. Mileti was never a big money guy in any of his sports dealings – he put deals together with loans and other people’s money. In St. Paul, Mileti could not find local investors to buy into the club and as a result the “New Fighting Saints” ran out of funds after just a few months play in January 1977. Minnesota’s WHA franchise folded in mid-season for the second year in a row and that was the end of the franchise that began life as the Cleveland Crusaders in 1972.
The Cleveland Force were a tremendously popular indoor soccer franchise during the 1980′s at the peak of the sport’s popularity. Formed in 1978 as one of six founding franchises in the upstart Major Indoor Soccer League, the team’s success was slowing in developing. Attendance was low in the team’s earlier years. It wasn’t until the 1982-83 season when the team’s popularity boomed and began to far outpace the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, their co-tenants at the suburban Richfield Coliseum. (It helped that the Cavs were in the death grip of Ted Stepien in this era, widely reviled by Clevelanders as one of the worst pro sports owners who ever walked the Earth.)
There were other MISL clubs that drew great crowds during this era, notably the Kansas City Comets and St. Louis Steamers. But the Force are frequently cited as the only MISL franchise ever to turn an annual operating profit. In addition to drawing large crowds, the team also had a strong sponsorship base, a booming camps program and a strong merchandise business.
While the Force were doing well, the same could not be said for the rest of the MISL. Franchises came and went so quickly that fans and sponsors could barely keep track. Between 1985 and 1987, the league endured the embarrassment of seeing two New York franchises go out of business at the mid-season All-Star Break. The league engaged in bruising annual battles with the Players Association. After long-running franchises in Chicago, Minnesota and St. Louis pulled out of the league in the summer of 1988, Force owner Bert Wolstein shut down the team in July 1988, seeing no viable way forward for the league.
The MISL, loathe to lose one of its few proven markets, quickly expanded back into Cleveland in the fall of 1989. The Cleveland Crunch brought back a number of Force players and front office execs, most notably the Force’s popular perennial All-Star Kai Haaskivi. But it wasn’t the same and the big crowds and corporate support of the Wolstein era didn’t return.
Although the Crunch never re-created the buzz of the Force, the new team actually lasted longer, playing 13 seasons from 1989 to 2002. In 1999 a new group which included former Cleveland Force front office executive Paul Garofolo bought the Crunch from original owner George Hoffman for a reported $1.75 million. In 2002, the new owners re-branded the team anew as the Cleveland Force. (The “New” Force also played in a “New” Major Indoor Soccer League, which had no connection to the original league, which folded in 1992.) The retro/nostalgia angle didn’t take. Crowds remained small and the new Force folded in 2005.
Vintage indoor soccer program from the old Cleveland Force (1978-1988) for a January 1983 match against the Los Angeles Lazers. The Lazers were an expansion franchise that winter, owned by Dr. Jerry Buss. (The Lazers name and yellow/purple color scheme were a riff on the NBA’s Lakers, also owned by Dr. Buss).
Lazers goalkeeper Gary Allison is featured on the cover of the evening’s MISSILE Magazine game program. Kind of an esoteric choice for the cover – Allison was a journeyman who played for five different clubs during his five-year career in the MISL, never spending more than a year in the same place. By this point in the Lazers’ inaugural season, he had lost the starting job to rookie Kirk Shermer.
On this night the Force handed the Lazers an 8-5 loss at the suburban Richfield Coliseum, thanks to four goals from Finnish forward Kai Haaskivi.The Lazers were notably awful during this winter of 1982-83. Their 8-40 record and .167 winning percentage under Head Coach Peter Wall were the worst full-season marks in the fourteen-year history of the Major Indoor Soccer League.
Dr. Buss was remarkably indulgent of indoor soccer, and other fringe sports ventures such as Team Tennis, WNBA basketball and professional roller hockey. He bankrolled the franchises and delegated them to his children to manage. Daughter Jeannie Buss ran the Strings (tennis) and the Blades (roller hockey). Son Johnny took on the Lazers and later the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. The Buss family kept the Lazers going for seven seasons, despite consistently poor crowds at the The Forum, mediocre records and millions of dollars in losses. The Lazers finally folded in June 1989.
Four years later, Jerry Buss helped former Lazers executive Ron Weinstein start the Continental Indoor Soccer League and bankrolled another indoor team at The Forum, L.A. United. Like the Lazers, the team drew poorly and Buss got out of soccer once and for all after the CISL’s first season ended in 1993.
This late season Major Indoor Soccer League match between Eastern Division rivals the Cleveland Force and Baltimore Blast drew a huge Sunday night crowd of 18,267 to the old Richfield Coliseum. Hard to believe today, but the sport of indoor soccer really was a huge draw in a handful of cities in the early 1980′s. The 1983-84 season was the year that attendance for the Cleveland Force really exploded. The team averaged 13,675 per match and outdrew their Richfield Coliseum co-tenant – NBA’s sad sack Cleveland Cavaliers – by 120,000 fans.
With that kind of atmosphere the Force were tough to beat at home. They went 18-6 at the Coliseum en route to a 31-17 record in 1983-84. The Force featured two of the top three scorers in the league in Kai Haaskivi and Craig Allen. But the Baltimore Blast were even better. Captain Dave MacWilliams (pictured on the night’s game program) led the Blast to a league-best 34-14 record. Serbian forwardStan Stamenkovic nudged out Allen and Haaskivi for the league scoring title.
The Blast would frustrate the Force and the big crowd on this night, as they would all season. The Force got on the board first on a Peter Millar goal and outshot the visitors 29-16. But the Blast made their shots count, with goals from cover boy MacWilliams, Stamenkovic and Pat Ercoli to eke out a 3-2 victory.
The teams would meet again a month later in the MISL playoff semi-finals with the Blast sweeping the Force in a best-of-five series. It was the second of five straight seasons from 1983 to 1987 that the Force went deep into the playoffs, only to be eliminated in the semi-final series (three times at the hands of Baltimore). The Blast, meanwhile, went on to win their first and only MISL championship in the spring of 1984, defeating the St. Louis Steamers in the finals.
“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 disaster 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 Forceindoor 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.