EPISODE #121: More Milwaukee Braves Baseball – With Patrick Steele

It’s been nearly two years since our first look at baseball’s still-revered Milwaukee Braves, and this week – courtesy of author/historian Patrick Steele (Home of the Braves: The Battle for Baseball in Milwaukee) – we finally get the chance to go deeper into the team that, in its brief 13-season run: never posted a losing season, won two National League pennants, and, in 1957, brought “Cream City” its first and only World Series championship. 

Featuring a stellar lineup of mostly Braves farm club-developed players (including eventual Hall of Famers Henry [Hank] Aaron, Warren Spahn, Eddie Matthews, Red Schoendienst, and Phil Niekro) the team immediately won the hearts of Wisconsin sports fans upon its hasty arrival from Boston in the midst of the 1953 pre-season – shattering then-modern-day attendance records, and ushering the city of Milwaukee into the world of America’s proverbial “big leagues.”

The Braves' surprising success in Milwaukee during the mid-1950’s prompted Major League Baseball to redefine itself as a big business, clearing the path for: franchises to relocate beyond the sport’s Northeast and Midwest strongholds; its two leagues to expand; and teams to leverage cities in high-stakes battles for local government-subsidized facilities.  

All of which, ironically, helped sowed the seeds for the club’s eventual relocation to Atlanta in 1966 – an acrimonious departure that generations of Milwaukee baseball fans still haven’t forgotten.  

PLUS: “There’s No Joy Left” – polka music king Frankie Yankovic’s song of “good riddance”!

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EPISODE #120: The Portland Timbers’ Origin Story – With Michael Orr

As the 2019 version of the Portland Timbers celebrates its 10th season in Major League Soccer, we spin the WABAC Machine dial back 44 years earlier to 1975 – when the club’s original namesake became an overnight sensation (figuratively and literally) in the then-20-team North American Soccer League. 

The last of the NASL’s five newly announced sides for that season (along with Chicago, San Antonio, Tampa Bay, and Hartford), the “Timbers” weren’t even named (via an open “name the team” contest) until March of 1975 – just two months after having been awarded the franchise, and barely a month before its first scheduled pre-season match.

Despite the haste, the Timbers immediately became the toast of both the Rose City and the league during the summer of 1975, as the club compiled the NASL’s best regular season record, earned a trip to the league championship “Soccer Bowl” (losing to the Rowdies 2-0), and regularly drawing 20,000+ crowds to Portland’s venerable Civic Stadium – earning the self-appointed moniker “Soccer City, USA” in the process.

Current MLS Timbers fan and de facto club historian Michael Orr (The 1975 Portland Timbers: The Birth of Soccer City) joins host Tim Hanlon this week to delve deep into the magical first year of Portland’s top-tier pro soccer franchise – including the personalities that made it work, the fans that made it special, and the traditions that still continue today in the team’s since-named (and newly renovated) Providence Park.

PLUS: “Green is the Color” – the long-lost Peter Yeates/Eric Beck/Ron Brady-penned 1975 Timbers theme song!

Enjoy a FREE MONTH of The Great Courses Plus streaming video service – including the just-released 24-chapter lecture series “Play Ball! The Rise of Baseball as America’s Pastime” – created in conjunction with the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum!

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EPISODE #119: The Alliance of American Football Saga Continues – With Michael Rothstein

We veer back this week into the still-unfolding mess that is (or was) the Alliance of American Football with ESPN.com “NFL Nation” reporter Michael Rothstein – who, along with ESPN Senior Writer Seth Wickersham – has been chronicling the demise of the once-promising league (Inside the Short, Unhappy Life of the Alliance of American Football), dating back to its curious pre-season earlier this winter.

With Carolina Hurricanes owner and last-minute financial savior Tom Dundon recently suing the now-bankrupt league for the return of his complete $70 million investment, the story of the Alliance is getting uglier by the week – with little end to the drama in sight. 

Despite helping nearly 60 of its players (and counting) sign NFL contracts, the AAF is increasingly likely to be remembered for its shaky finances and off-field managerial intrigue than for its surprisingly high quality of on-field play.

Rothstein recounts some of the more interesting stories and tidbits gleaned from his months of covering the formative weeks, initial games and now, chaotic dissolution, of a league that seemingly had everything going for it – until it suddenly (and with hindsight) didn’t – including:

  • Covering the AAF pre-season – despite being denied access to actual practices;

  • The mysterious coaching “debut” of Michael Vick;

  • The deceptive triumph of the Orlando Apollos’ home (and league co-) opener – replete with pre-game tailgating;

  • Initial suspicions the league wasn’t off to as solid a start as early appearances suggested; AND

  • An initial assessment of the villains and victims of the Alliance’s ongoing quietus.

Enjoy a FREE MONTH of The Great Courses Plus streaming video service – including the just-released 24-chapter lecture series “Play Ball! The Rise of Baseball as America’s Pastime” – created in conjunction with the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum!

EPISODE #118: The Continental Basketball Association – With David Levine

Author and former SPORT magazine writer David Levine (Life on the Rim: A Year in the Continental Basketball Association) joins the ‘cast to give us our first taste of the quirky minor league basketball circuit that began as a Pennsylvania-based regional outfit in 1946 (predating the NBA’s formation by two months), and meandered through a myriad of death-defying iterations until whimpering into oblivion in 2009.

Often billed throughout its curious history as the "World's Oldest Professional Basketball League," the colorful Continental Basketball Association rocketed into the national sports consciousness during the 1980s –  when expansion into non-traditional locales (e.g., Anchorage, AK; Casper, WY; Great Falls, MT; Atlantic City, NJ); innovative rule changes (e.g., sudden-death overtime, no foul-outs, a seven-point game scoring system); and headline-grabbing fan promotions (e.g., “1 Million Dollar Supershot," "Ton-of-Money Free Throw," "CBA Sportscaster Contest") – garnered its first national TV coverage, and even grudging respect from the staid, top-tier NBA.

Levine recounts his time chronicling the 1988-89 season of the CBA’s Albany (NY) Patroons, and the real-world stories of the realities of playing, coaching (including a young and hungry George Karl), traveling, and endlessly hoping in a league that sometimes rewarded its members with opportunities at the next level of pro basketball – but more often, did not.

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EPISODE #117: The Chicago Cubs Origin Story – With Jack Bales

University of Mary Washington research librarian and baseball historian Jack Bales (Before They Were the Cubs: The Early Years of Chicago's First Professional Baseball Team) joins the podcast to help us dig into the surprisingly rich history of Major League Baseball’s long-time North Side Chicago franchise well prior to 1903, when they formally adopted their now-signature nickname. 

While even some of the most ardent of Chicago Cubs fans unwittingly believe that year to be the team’s first season (it was actually their 28th in the National League, as well as 34th as a professional baseball club); and the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field to be their original and only home (in fact, not until 1916 when they adopted the former Federal League Chicago Whales’ Weeghman Park, their sixth place of residence dating back to 1870) – the history of the “Cubs” long predates their apocryphal launch.

Bales touches on some of the cornerstones of primordial Cubs history including:

  • Their actual start in 1870 as the Chicago White Stockings – one of the nation’s first professional baseball clubs – playing in the largely amateur National Association of Base Ball Players (and winning the championship);

  • Segueing into a new, first-ever all-pro National Association (of Professional Base Ball Players) as a charter member the following year;

  • Launching as a charter member of the 1876 National League – winning its first title behind ace pitcher (and future sporting goods baron) Albert Spalding, and capturing six of the league’s first ten pennants behind baseball’s first superstar Adrian “Cap” Anson;

  • Becoming colloquially known as “Anson’s Colts” – until fully adopting the new nickname circa 1890;

  • Anson’s abrupt firing in 1897, leaving sportswriters to rebrand the suddenly star-less Colts as the “Orphans”; AND

  • The informal early 1900s origins of the now-iconic “Cubs” moniker, and how it officially stuck by the 1903 season.

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EPISODE #116: A Thinking Man’s Guide to Defunct Leagues – With Stephen Provost

This week, we offer a refresher course in the history of forgotten pro sports leagues with veteran newspaper editor, current long-form author and fellow defunct sports enthusiast Stephen Provost – whose recent book A Whole Different League is an essential primer for anyone seeking an entrée into the genre.

Provost serves up a smorgasbord of highlights gleaned from his personal memories of and research into the various nooks and crannies of what “used-to-be” in professional team sports, including:

  • The curiosity of 9,000 Los Angeles Aztecs NASL soccer fans in a cavernous 100,000-seat Rose Bowl;

  • The oft-forgotten Continental Football League of the late 1960s, operating in the shadows of the mighty NFL and colorful AFL;

  • The enigmatic one-season wonder of the 1961-62 National Bowling League;

  • Jackie Robinson’s almost pro football career;

  • Federal League all-star Benny Kauff and the major league baseball career-ending auto theft he didn’t commit; AND

  • The legend of the World Football League’s Jim “King” Corcoran – the “poor man’s Joe Namath.”

PLUS: we revisit the story of women’s pro basketball pioneer (and “Good Seats” episode #28 guest) “Machine Gun” Molly Bolin (Kazmer), the subject of Provost’s new biography, The Legend of Molly Bolin: Women's Pro Basketball Trailblazer.

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EPISODE #115: The North American Soccer League’s Rochester Lancers – With Michael Lewis

After more than 40 years of covering the “beautiful game,” Newsday sportswriter and FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis (Soccer for Dummies) knows more than a thing or two about the evolution of soccer in this country.  A self-professed “Zelig of soccer,” the NYC-based Lewis has covered some of the sport’s most important events, including eight World Cups, seven Olympic tournaments, and all 23 MLS Cups (and counting) – not to mention an endless array of matches and related off-the-field activities across leagues and competitions on both the domestic and international stages over that span.  If it happened in American soccer since his start as a cub reporter at the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle in 1975, Lewis was probably there.

It was in Rochester that Lewis got his first taste of US pro soccer as the assigned beat reporter for the North American Soccer League’s fledgling Rochester Lancers – a team that literally helped save the down-to-four-team league from extinction in 1970 when owner Charlie Schiano moved the club from the regional semi-pro American Soccer League (along with the similarly-situated Washington Darts) where it had played since 1967.

The Lancers promptly won the title in their first NASL season, and featured the circuit’s first breakout star – 5′ 4″ Brazilian scoring sensation Carlos “Little Mouse” Metidieri, who nabbed league MVP honors in both 1970 & 1971. 

By 1973, however, Metidieri had been traded to the expansion Boston Minutemen, and Schiano was forced to sell controlling interest in the club to bolster its finances – and the Lancers promptly descended into mediocrity.  Though Schiano re-acquired majority ownership in late 1976, the team rarely achieved more than middling success thereafter – save for an anomalous 1977 season that saw the small-market Lancers fall one playoff game short of reaching the NASL title game, despite compiling only an 11-15 regular season record. 

The Lancers’ final seasons were also marred by internecine warfare between an increasingly cash-strapped Schiano and new investors John Luciani and Bernie Rodin – exacerbated by the team’s off-season moonlighting in the semi-rival Major Indoor Soccer League as the Long Island-based New York Arrows.  The two factions faced off in court during the 1980 NASL season, with the league terminating the franchise at season’s end.

While outdoor soccer soon returned to Rochester in 1981 with the ASL Flash, the indoor Arrows went on to win four consecutive MISL titles with much of the Lancers’ late 1970s NASL outdoor roster, including notables like Branko Segota, Shep Messing, Dave D’Errico, Val Tuksa, Renato Cila, Damir Sutevski, and head coach Dragon “Don” Popovic.

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EPISODE #114: New York's Polo Grounds - With Stew Thornley

We cap off the long Memorial Day holiday weekend with a look back at one of the New York metropolitan area’s most memorable sports stadiums of yore – the Polo Grounds – with author and Minnesota Twins official scorer Stew Thornley (The Polo Grounds: Essays and Memories of New York City's Historic Ballpark, 1880-1963).

The “Polo Grounds” was actually the name of multiple structures across upper Manhattan during its history.  As its name suggests, the original venue (1876-1889) was built for, well, polo.  Located between Fifth and Sixth (Lenox) Avenues just north of Central Park, it was converted to a baseball stadium in 1880, soon becoming home to the city’s first major league pro teams – the Metropolitans of the American Association and the Gothams (later, Giants) of the National League.

Pushed out by a re-gridding of the borough in 1889, the Giants relocated northward to what became the second incarnation of the park in the Coogan’s Hollow section of Washington Heights in 1890.  Coincidentally, it was also the year that most of the team’s best players bolted to the upstart Players’ League – also called the Giants, playing in their own new (and larger) stadium (called Brotherhood Park) right next door. 

When the PL folded at the end of the season, the recombined NL Giants moved over to Brotherhood Park, rechristening it the “Polo Grounds.”  This third version – later renovated after a fire in 1911 (technically becoming the stadium’s fourth version) – became the structure most remembered by long-time baseball fans, especially for its distinctive “bathtub” shape, very short distances to the left and right field walls, and unusually deep center field.

While synonymous with the history of baseball’s Giants (including Bobby Thompson’s 1951 historic playoff “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and Willie Mays’ dramatic over-the-shoulder catch during the team’s 1954 World Series run), the Polo Grounds was also home to the New York Yankees from 1913-1922 – and the first two seasons of the NL expansion New York Mets from 1962-63, while waiting for the new Shea Stadium in Queens to be completed.

The Polo Grounds was also the center of New York’s burgeoning professional football scene – notably the National Football League’s New York Giants from 1925-55 – but also the NFL’s oft-forgotten Brickley Giants (1922) and Bulldogs (1949).  

In later years, it also became the temporary home of the fledgling American Football League’s New York Titans from 1960-62, and the renamed “Jets” in 1963 – including the last-ever sporting event to be played there – a late-season (and typical) loss to the Buffalo Bills on December 14, 1963, in front of only 6,526 diehards.

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EPISODE #113: The Alliance of American Football – With Conor Orr

Just weeks after its sudden collapse, we take our first look at the brief life of the Alliance of American Football with Sports Illustrated football writer and MMQB NFL podcast host Conor Orr (The Curious Rise and Spectacular Crash of the Alliance of American Football; More Strange Tales from the Collapse of the AAF).

Inspired by his work producing the 2017 documentary This Was the XFL for ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, director Charlie Ebersol concluded that the renegade league co-created by his father (NBC Sports producer Dick) and World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) impresario Vince McMahon in 2001 had actually been a viable concept, but poorly executed – especially the subpar quality of on-field play. 

After reportedly being rebuffed by McMahon to potentially revive the old XFL brand, Ebersol instead dove into planning for his nascent AAF – with the prime focus on solid football product; the “Alliance” formally announced its launch on March 20, 2018, and by June had more than 100 players under contract.

What followed was months of methodical and seemingly well-conceived efforts to: construct a solid football operations infrastructure under veteran NFL executive Bill Polian (including top coaches like Steve Spurrier, Rick Neuheisel and Dennis Erickson); solicit investment from (supposedly) stable deep-pocketed investors (such as player-turned-entrepreneur-turned-NFL-owner Reggie Fowler); develop business-enhancing media, data and wagering technology to augment on-field play; and even devise evolved rules to speed up games and improve player safety.

The AAF made its debut with two simultaneous Saturday evening games in San Antonio and Orlando on February 11, 2019 in front of a surprisingly large CBS national primetime TV audience – but the league’s operational wheels started coming off almost immediately.  Chief among the issues: a Week One cash call that investor Fowler couldn’t cover, and a hastily-arranged $250MM majority equity investment from NHL Carolina Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon – who quickly concluded that operational finances were dangerously unstable, and likely unsustainable.

After weeks of maneuvering, Dundon pulled the plug on further funding his pledge (rumored as only $70MM of the promised amount), announcing the suspension of the league’s operations on April 2nd – just two weeks shy of completing the regular season.  15 days later, the AAF filed for Chapter 7 (liquidation) bankruptcy.

SI’s Orr walks host Tim Hanlon through the league’s chronology, the facts as we know them today, and what’s likely to come in the months ahead as the story of the AAF continues to play out.

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EPISODE #112: The Once & Future Soccer Legacy of Ft. Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium – With Jeff Rusnak

Long-time South Florida Sun-Sentinel soccer columnist Jeff Rusnak joins to discuss the rich past, transitional present and promising future of one of American pro soccer’s most venerable, yet historically underrated venues – Ft. Lauderdale, Florida’s Lockhart Stadium.

Originally built in 1959 as an American football and track venue for four high schools in the region and named after a former city commissioner, the modest bleacher-constructed Lockhart was unwittingly transformed into the country’s first de facto “soccer specific stadium” when the (original) North American Soccer League’s Miami Toros moved 32 miles north from the cavernous Orange Bowl to become 1977’s Ft. Lauderdale Strikers.

The Strikers became a South Florida sports phenomenon during their seven NASL seasons at the crackerbox Lockhart, boasting world-class talent (Gordon Banks, Gerd Müller, Teófilo Cubillas, George Best) and magnetic personalities (Ron Newman, Ray Hudson) that quickly endeared the club and the sport to an adoring fan base.

Numerous lower division clubs kept the soccer flame alive after the Strikers moved (to Minnesota in 1983) and the NASL died – until 1998, when Major League Soccer investor-operator Ken Horowitz debuted the curiously-named “Miami” Fusion expansion franchise at a refurbished Lockhart, featuring Colombian star Carlos Valderrama.  Despite winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield in 2001 under the dynamic coaching of former Striker fan-favorite Hudson, the league contracted the Fusion after just four season – and the stadium again became the intermittent home to lower-league teams (and even FAU college football) until 2016.

But Lockhart refuses to give up the ghost, as an aggressive demolition and rebuild of the abandoned facility now becomes the focal point of a new David Beckham/Jorge Mas-owned MLS franchise called Inter Miami CF set to debut in 2020 – sans a permanent home in the city of Miami proper. 

Will Lockhart again rekindle the original Striker magic – perhaps even permanently?

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EPISODE #111: Pro Football’s “League That Didn’t Exist” – With Gary Webster

WKKY-FM radio personality and sports author Gary Webster (The League That Didn’t Exist) helps us return to the curious story of the All-America Football Conference – the well-funded upstart that competed directly with the NFL in the late 1940s for supremacy of the still-fledgling sport of US pro football.

After being rebuffed by the NFL to expand, influential Chicago Tribune sports editor (and baseball and college football All-Star Games’ creator) Arch Ward recruited a who’s who of wealthy businessmen to help form a rival second league that he hoped would ultimately play the senior circuit in an annual championship game similar to the World Series. 

Post-war peace produced a surplus of talent, and the AAFC attracted many of the nation’s best players to its eight inaugural teams in 1946 – including more than three dozen College All-Star Game participants, two Heisman Trophy winners and over 100 players with NFL experience. 

With commercial air travel increasingly viable, the enterprising AAFC placed franchises in burgeoning markets outside of the NFL’s traditional Northeast and Midwest footprint (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami); it also chose larger stadiums in established NFL markets (Chicago, New York, Cleveland) to compete head on.

Despite the NFL’s publicly dismissive tone, the AAFC quickly established itself as a formidable threat – drawing huge crowds and generating significant national publicity.  The quality of play was high (15 AAFC alumni were eventually inducted into pro football’s Hall of Fame), and innovations such as a 14-game double round-robin schedule, zone defenses, and racial integration quickly proved popular and ultimately, long-lasting. 

By 1949, however, nearly every team in both leagues was losing money, as increased competition for players drove salaries higher, while average attendances declined.  By season’s end, the NFL agreed to absorb three AAFC franchises (Cleveland, San Francisco and Baltimore) for 1950; the combined and briefly renamed “National–American Football League” was set – and the AAFC was no more.

Webster joins host Tim Hanlon to recount some of the more notable events during the AAFC’s brief, but impactful history – as well as the befuddling refusal of the modern-day NFL to recognize the statistics and lasting contributions of the All-America Football Conference, despite the continued existence of two of its original franchises (the Browns and the 49ers) today.

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EPISODE #110: Cleveland’s Historic League Park – With Ken Krsolovic

Author Ken Krsolovic (League Park: Historic Home of Cleveland Baseball, 1891-1946) joins the podcast to go deep into the history and legacy of Cleveland’s first major league sports stadium.

Originally built for the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, team owner Frank Robison strategically built the wood-constructed League Park at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Dunham (now East 66th) Street in the city’s Hough neighborhood, where the streetcar line he owned conveniently stopped.  It debuted on 5/1/1891 with a Spiders 12-3 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, with the legendary Cy Young throwing the first pitch.  Despite being competitive during the decade (including a Temple Cup in 1895), the Spiders drew poorly, leading Robison to ship his best players to his new fledgling St. Louis Browns franchise in 1899 – and the Spiders to on-field (20-134) and off-field (6,088 fans for the season) collapse.

After a year of minor league play, League Park became the home of the Cleveland Bluebirds (aka Blues) of the new “major” American League in 1901 – the team that would ultimately evolve (1902: Broncos; 1903-14: Naps) into today’s Cleveland Indians.  The park was rebuilt in 1910 as a then-state-of-the-art concrete-and-steel stadium, debuting on 4/21/1910 (a 5-0 Naps loss to the Detroit Tigers before 18,832) – a game also started by Cy Young.

Though the Indians were League Park’s primary team, they were not the only tenants over the stadium’s later decades.  In 1914-15, the Naps/Indians shared the stadium with the minor league Cleveland Bearcats/Spiders (actually, the temporarily relocated minor league Toledo Mud Hens) to discourage the upstart Federal League from placing a franchise in Cleveland.  The Negro American League’s Cleveland Buckeyes held court at the park during much of the 1940s – including a Negro World Series title in 1945. 

And the fledgling sport of professional football also called League Park home during the NFL’s formative 1920s in the forms of the Cleveland Tigers (1920-22), Indians (1923), Bulldogs (1924-27) – and most famously with the Cleveland Rams of the late 1930s/early 1940s.

Like the Rams, the baseball Indians began moonlighting games and eventually full seasons with the larger, more modern (and lighted) Municipal Stadium during the WWII and post-war eras – ultimately sealing the venerable League Park’s fate by 1946. 

After years of neglect and urbanization, a modern restoration of League Park and its original ticket house was completed in 2014, where fans can now play on the original field where Cleveland’s pro players once roamed.

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EPISODE #109: The NASL Players’ Strike of 1979 – With Steve Holroyd

Professional union labor lawyer and Society for American Soccer History sports historian Steve Holroyd returns to the podcast to go deep into one of the more curious rabbit holes in North American Soccer League history.

In early 1977, Ed Garvey, a labor lawyer and head of the newly-formed National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), recruited Washington Diplomats midfielder John Kerr to help gauge interest among his teammates and those of other clubs in forming a similar organization for the suddenly ascendant ten-year-old NASL. 

By the end of that summer, player representatives from all 18 league clubs agreed in principle to create the North American Soccer League Players Association (NASLPA), and on August 29th, 1977 – the day after the New York Cosmos’ dramatic Soccer Bowl victory over the Seattle Sounders in Pele’s US swan song – officially sought recognition by NASL owners to become the players’ collective bargaining entity.

Commissioner Phil Woosnam and league ownership quickly refused, fearing a threat to the still-fragile circuit’s integrity by a group run by a union of the NFL, with whom NASL owners already had a tenuous (and in the cases of Ft. Lauderdale’s Robbie and Dallas’ Hunt families, common ownership) relationship.     

With no progress towards recognition of the union either during the subsequent off-season or the next year, members of the NASLPA finally voted 252-113 to strike against ownership – announcing its intention to do so on April 13, 1979, one day before the league’s second weekend slate of regular season games.

What transpired next was five unprecedented days of confusion (would foreign imports risk deportation by playing during an American player work stoppage?); desperation (coaches Eddie McCreadie [Memphis] and Ron Newman [Ft. Lauderdale] donning uniforms to help their strike-depleted teams); naiveté (unwitting fans seeking Rochester Lancer “player” autographs during last-minute replacement tryouts); and ultimately, miscalculated futility – as player resolve waned almost immediately, especially among the association’s non-US residents, who actually made up the majority of the membership.

The players’ point had been made, however, and by mid-1984 – through a long series of subsequent court rulings – the NASLPA finally prevailed in its mission to collectively represent players at the bargaining table with league ownership.

Ironically, by then, it didn’t matter – the NASL folded in March of 1985.

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EPISODE #108: The “Almost Yankees” of 1981 – With David Herman

We’re stuck in the minors again this week – this time with Microsoft News senior managing editor and former newspaper sportswriter David Herman (Almost Yankees: The Summer of ’81 and the Greatest Baseball Team You’ve Never Heard Of) – as we discuss the memorable story and unique circumstances of the 1981 championship season of the International League’s Columbus Clippers, the then-flagship farm club of the New York Yankees.

Longtime baseball fans will remember 1981, of course, as the year Major League Baseball experienced its first-ever mid-season interruption of play, as players took to the picket lines against ownership beginning on June 12th – just over two months into the schedule.

Once big-league play stopped, fans and sports reporters alike scrambled to fill the void – with organized baseball’s robust minor league system as the immediate beneficiary.  And suddenly, the heavily Yankee-influenced Triple-A Clippers found themselves basking in the unexpected spotlight of New York and national media attention, as the newfound best team in baseball.

The Clippers’ mix of raw recruits, MLB prospects, and minor league journeymen responded to opportunity by playing some of the greatest baseball of their lives – on what would be, arguably, the greatest team most of them would ever belong to.

Yet, almost as suddenly as the strike began, it ended (roughly two months later on August 9th) – leaving most of the Clippers to return to their ordinary aspirational lives and to be just as quickly forgotten.

Herman walks host Tim Hanlon through the previously untold story of a baseball team and its players (including the likes of once and future major leaguers like Steve Balboni, Dave Righetti, Buck Showalter, and Pat Tabler) performing in the shadow of one of the MLB’s most famous teams and infamous owners, George Steinbrenner – becoming a launching pad for some, a last chance for others, and the end of the major league dream for most.

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EPISODE #107: The Havana Sugar Kings & Cuban League Baseball – With César Brioso

Longtime USA Today sports writer/producer César Brioso (Last Seasons in Havana: The Castro Revolution and the End of Professional Baseball in Cuba) joins the show to explore the rich parallel histories of America’s and Cuba’s shared national pastime – and the colorful period of the late 1950s/early 1960s when it appeared baseball in the island nation was mainstreaming its way into eventual US major league status.

During much of the ‘50s, baseball in pre‑Castro Cuba was enjoying a golden age. The Cuban League – founded in 1878, just two years after the formation of the National League – was thriving under the auspices of American organized baseball. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, players regularly came from the US major, minor and Negro leagues to play in what was the country’s wholly integrated winter baseball league.  In addition, native-born Cuban teams routinely dominated annual Caribbean Series regional tournaments.

In 1946, Havana’s El Gran Estadio del Cerro became home to its own “regular season” US-domiciled (Class C Florida League) minor league franchise called the Sugar Kings.  By 1954, the club had grown to become a competitive member of the AAA International League as an official affiliate of the National League’s Cincinnati Reds (featuring future major league standouts such as Leo Cárdenas, Mike Cuellar, Vic Davalillo, Julián Javier, and Cookie Rojas) – eventually culminating in league and Junior World Series (over the AAA American Association’s Minneapolis Millers) titles in 1959. 

The impact of the Sugar Kings’ championships that year went far beyond mere baseball titles; they became de facto moments of national civic pride, as well as indisputable evidence that Havana and Cuba were more than ready for and deserving of a place in America’s major leagues.

Of course, the club’s achievements fatefully coincided with – and were ultimately undermined by – the events that year of the Fidel Castro-led Communist revolution over Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. 

By the end of 1960, the baseball landscape in the country looked much different: professional play was converted to an amateur state-sponsored model; American players stopped participating in the winter Cuban League; and the International League extracted the Sugar Kings from Havana and moved them to US soil, where they became the soon-to-be forgotten (after the 1961 season) Jersey City (NJ) Jerseys. 

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