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The former rightfielder for the New York Mets switched the telephone receiver to his other ear to make sure he had heard the money figures correctly. Obviously surprised when the same numbers were repeated to him, he said, "If you were Norm Cash or Jim Northrup, a talented major league baseball player in your day, and somebody offered you—how much did you say they're making, $30,000 apiece?—that much money just to play a little softball on weekends this summer, wouldn't you do it?"
The stunned man on the phone was Ron Swoboda, who is best remembered for the nose-dive catch he made in the 1969 World Series. Swoboda was understandably shocked to learn that Cash and Northrup, a couple of ex-Tiger heroes, are being paid so much by Mike Hitch, Motown's deep-dish pizza magnate, to come out of retirement and attract crowds for his Caesars, Detroit's entry in the new 12-city, first-of-its-kind, high-class, no-beer-in-the-dugout American Professional Slo-Pitch League. Swoboda, after all, has been offered a piddling $8,700 to play for the APSPL's New York Clippers—which is chicken feed for a man now employed as a sportscaster for CBS. The Clippers sweetened the package by throwing in a tiny percentage of the gate receipts, but because Swoboda assumes that those receipts will be small in the league's first season, he has not yet signed.
Sooner or later it had to come to this—a pro softball circuit, complete with fat contracts and holdouts just like the major leagues. Apparently it was only a matter of time until big spenders interested in owning sports franchises looked past the tombstones of the AFL and WFL, the ABL and ABA, the NLL and ITA and discovered slow-pitch softball, a game with untapped earning potential that is played by 35 million people in the U.S.
The APSPL's founding fathers were well aware of these figures when they decided to incorporate after nearly two years of market research. And they are not blind to the financial rigors ahead of them. President Bill Byrne, 40, is already a two-time loser, having served as director of player personnel for both the Chicago and Shreveport franchises in the now-defunct World Football League. Yet Byrne shelled out at least $27,000 of his own money to demonstrate to other investors his faith that America will like his latest endeavor.
Cash and Northrup do, for obvious reasons. Each makes a good living these days selling parts to the auto industry in Detroit. But neither could turn down $30,000 for playing a loose approximation of what made them famous in the first place. Besides, when people see their names in the paper again, it will certainly be good for business.
By signing with Hitch, himself an unlucky owner of the ill-fated WFL Detroit Wheels, Cash and Northrup gave some credibility to the new league. Other former major-leaguers of varying reputations have also joined up. Zoilo Versalles, the American League's Most Valuable Player with the Minnesota Twins in 1965, now plays shortstop for the Minnesota Goofy's, a team named after a popular Minneapolis bar. Milt Pappas, who won 209 big league games and pitched a no-hitter for the Cubs in 1972, manages Chicago; Gene Hiser, a utility outfielder during his five seasons as a major-leaguer, plays for Chicago. Danny Napoleon, a teammate of Swoboda's on the Mets, is with the New Jersey Statesmen, who play in Trenton. Other cities in the league are Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Louisville, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio.
Slow pitch, it should be noted, is not the same game that America's most famous softballer, Eddie Feigner, plays. His game is fast pitch, in which the ball is only a blur between the mound and home plate. The result is usually a steady stream of strikeouts, little scoring and a minimum of excitement. By comparison, slow pitch is a home-run derby. The 12-inch ball may be delivered at only "moderate speed," and most of the former amateur players who have joined the APSPL can reach the league's 300-foot fences several times a game. In fact, sluggers Ronnie Ford and Bert Smith of the Caesars and Benny Holt of the Storm hit so many home runs during the first weekend of play that the league office became concerned that Chicago spectators might view the sport as some sort of freak show and never come back.
While most opening-weekend games in other cities had scores in the 10-8 range, Detroit won its inaugural over Chicago 28-21. The Storm then gained a split of the first-day doubleheader 27-25. Cash hit a home run the next day, but it was practically forgotten in the face of what his less famous teammates did to Chicago pitching. In the first game of another doubleheader Smith blasted four homers in four at bats to lead the Caesars to a 31-17 win. In the finale of the series Ford socked four and knocked in nine runs as Detroit won 46-24. Cash's blow was merely one of 16 Detroit home runs in that game, and during the weekend the two teams hit a total of 84.
By the end of the weekend Ford had league-high totals of 15 hits, nine homers and 20 RBIs, while Smith went 8 for 11 with six home runs and 12 RBIs. Chicago's Holt also had nine homers. The first-day attendance of 2,100 was encouraging—and right around the league average—but only 600 turned out to see the second-day slugfest.
Cash, now 42 and a good deal heavier than he was in 1961 when he led the American League with a .361 batting average, did not embarrass himself. He was 5 for 9 and timed a looping knuckler perfectly for his home run. "I knew it was gone the minute it left the bat," he dead-panned, after being fined $500—probably for publicity reasons—for missing the team's press day earlier in the week. Northrup had all his money, but was missing some of his pride. Had it not been for a bloop double, he would have ended up 0 for 11. Versalles and the rest of the major league contingent experienced similar difficulties.