The Detroit Caesars were a professional softball team that began play in the American Professional Slow Pitch Softball League (APSPL) in 1977, the first of three professional softball leagues.
Prior to formalized professional play, Detroit was a hotbed for softball, with some of the best players in the country playing in the most competitive amateur leagues to be found in the US. A major sponsor of softball in the Detroit area was Little Caesar's Pizza, a company founded and owned by Mike Ilitch, a former Detroit Tigers farmhand and current owner of the MLB team. The Caesars were his first step into professional sports ownership.
The Caesars played at Memorial Field in Eastpointe, Michigan, (named East Detroit at that time) a small suburb of Detroit that had recently played host to a national softball tournament. With clever promotions tied in with the pizza chain and the signing of two former Detroit Tiger stars, Jim Northrup and Norm Cash, fans packed into the small stands by the thousands to witness not only Detroit's best softball players, but those that Illitch had brought to town to make his team into the powerhouse of professional softball. Mike Nye, Ronnie Ford, Bert Smith, Tex Collins and many other softball legends took to the field for Detroit, led by manager Gary Vitto, earning the team two World Series titles.
1977 and 1978 champions
In 1977, Detroit dominated the league with a record of 42-14, two games ahead of the Kentucky Bourbons' 40-16 mark. The Caesars eventually advanced to the World Series of Softball, where they beat the Baltimore Monuments four games to none to take the first-ever pro softball title. Six Caesars made the all-league team (Mike Gouin, Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Bert Smith, Tony Mazza, and Doug Gerdes), and Mike Nye took the World Series MVP trophy. Only a triple-crown performance by Chicago Storm catcher Benny Holt could overshadow the individual performances by various Caesars.
Detroit rolled again in 1978 with a record of 49-15, and a 4-0 blanking of the Minnesota Norseman in the World Series. Ron Ford was edged out in the last game of the season by teammate Mike Nye to prevent his taking of triple-crown honors, but still took home league MVP. Seven Detroit players were all-league (Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes, Gary Geister, Mike Gouin, Jack Roudebush, and newcomer Chuck Drewicz).
Later seasons and the Auto Kings
1979 was the last year for the team. With a few key reserves leaving the squad, and the off-season death of Tex Collins, the Caesars backed up enough to get caught by the rival Milwaukee Schlitz, led by APSPL star Phil Higgins and league MVP Rick Weiterman, who would go on to take the title. Still, the Caesars finished 40-24, second in their division, losing to the Schlitz in the league semi-finals. Rule and ball changes had drastically reduced the offensive production in the 1979 APSPL season. On Detroit, Ford's home run total dropped from 80 in 1978 to 43 in 1979 in the same number of games and still led the league as batting averages and power production dipped league-wide. Four Caesars took all-league honors (Ron Ford, Mike Nye, Doug Gerdes, and Rick Trudeau).
Instability in other markets and internal political fighting saw two teams leave the league to form the North American Softball League (NASL) in 1980, while the APSPL continued with just 6 teams (down from 12 in each of the previous 3 seasons). Illitch elected not to continue the Detroit Caesars in either league. A team called the Detroit Auto Kings was formed, played at Memorial Field with several Caesar stars, along with former Detroit Tiger Mickey Stanley, finishing second in the NASL, losing again to the Milwaukee Schlitz in the World Series.
The leagues merged after 1980 to form a new league, although the Auto Kings disbanded, ending pro softball at Memorial Field and the direct connection to the Caesars. In 1982, a Detroit team played at Softball City, next to the State Fairgrounds in Detroit, in the United Professional Softball League (UPSL), was led by former Caesar Charles Mitchell, and finished second in the league yet again to the Milwaukee Schlitz. That was the last year for professional softball in the US, as players once again returned to amateur leagues.