In 1972 club joined the Eastern Basketball Association, a long-running Pennsylvania mill town circuit that Sports Illustrated descibed as “The Purgatory League” in a 1971 feature story. The Bullets set up shop in tiny Hamburg, PA (pop. 4,114 circa 2000) in Berks County between the larger cities of Reading and Pottsville. Ann Achenbach of Pottsville owned the club. The team failed to draw fans to the Hamburg Field House from those outlying cities as anticipated. After just 9 games of the 1972-73 campaign, the club relocated to Hazleton, PA, a coal town which had long hosted Eastern League basketball in the decades after World War II.
The Bullets’ “name” player during that 1972-73 campaign was Sonny Dove, the former St. John’s star who was the #4 overall pick by the Detroit Pistons in the 1967 NBA Draft. A modest career in Detroit and later with the New York Nets of the American Basketball Association ended in 1972 and then Sonny found himself in tiny Hamburg, PA.
By the 1974-75 season, the EBA had dwindled to only four teams. Amidst sparse competition, Hazleton advanced to the 1975 EBA championship series, losing to the Allentown Jets 2 games to 1. The Bullets remained in Hazleton until midway through the 1976-77 season, when the club relocated to New Jersey in midseason and finished the year as the “Shore Bullets”.
After the ABA-NBA rivalry ended in 1976 with the demise of the ABA, the number of top-tier professional clubs contracted from 29 to 22. A glut of talented players hit the basketball labor market and encouraged investors to take a new look at minor league basketball. Presented with a preposterous PR opportunity, the EBA accepted an expansion bid from Anchorage, Alaska in 1977. The Anchorage Northern Knights played a mere 4,400 miles away from their closest geographic rival, the Allentown (PA) Jets. Emboldened by the publicity, the EBA re-branded as the “Continental Basketball Association” for the 1978-79 season and began soliciting expansion franchises from as far away as Hawaii.
As the CBA re-positioned itself and expanded, the re-named Jersey Shore Bullets upgraded their arena for the 1978-79 CBA season, moving from Red Bank Regional High School in Silver Lake to the Asbury Park Convention Hall. The 50-year old Convention Hall sat directly on the beach in Asbury Park and, as a concert venue, hosted many of the big rock acts of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
For the 1978-79 season, the Bullets signed the Brooklyn street ball legend Fly Williams. A record-setting (and abrogated) stint at Austin Peay University in Tennessee fueled Williams’ cult status. After two seasons at Austin Peay, he was ruled ineligible on an admissions technicality and joined the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA as their 1974 first round draft pick. He lasted just one season in the ABA and spent the rest of the 1970’s kicking around as a “name” player in the EBA and other hardscrabble minor leagues. In a 2001 New York Times column, the sportswriter Harvey Araton recalled covering a Bullets game as a young reporter and watching Williams wrestle a bear for the halftime show before a small but appreciative crowd at the Convention Hall.
Williams never made it to the NBA. He battled addiction, served considerable time in prison and nearly died from a drug-related shotgunning in 1987. More details on his story can be found at his website.
The Jersey Shore Bullets ceased operations following the 1978-79 CBA season.
The Carolina Lightning were a minor league basketball outfit that lasted little more than a month in the all-but-forgotten All-American Basketball Alliance (AABA) in the winter of 1978. Based out of the Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum, the Lightning played ten games between January and early February 1978 before the comically under-capitalized AABA imploded around them.
The eight franchises of the AABA – which also included Indiana, Georgia (Macon), Kentucky (Louisville), New York (Westchester), Richmond, Rochester and West Virginia (Wheeling) – intended to play a 74-game schedule. The start-up league promised a standard base salary of $9,600 per player plus 4% to 8% of franchise profits (haha).
The Lightning were built by 23-year old player-Head Coach Mike Dunleavy. The University of South Carolina grad made the Philadelphia 76ers as a 6th round longshot in 1976, but was cut in mid-November 1977 after appearing in a just a handful of games during his second NBA season. Dunleavy latched on with the new AABA shortly thereafter and in one month’s time cobbled together an experienced roster.
34-year old Ed Manning had nearly a decade of service in the NBA and the American Basketball Association, including three seasons with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars, who had occasionally played in Winston-Salem. Manning’s 11-year old son Danny, a future #1 overall NBA draft pick and All-Star, occasionally attended practice with his father. Bob Bigelow was the 1975 1st round draft pick of the Kansas City Kings, recently released and playing minor league basketball in the Eastern Association back home in Massachusetts when his friend Dunleavy called. Norton Barnhill was a Winston-Salem native who had earned a cup of coffee with the Seattle Supersonics the previous season as a rookie out of Washington State. Melvin Watkins was captain of the UNC-Charlotte 49ers Final Four team the previous spring of 1977 and was later drafted by the NBA’s Buffalo Braves before landing with Dunleavy and Co. back in North Carolina.
“Indiana had signed a bunch of the old Pacers’ stars from the ABA,” recalled Bob Bigelow. “They had Freddie Lewis, Roger Brown, Mel Daniels. Roger was a great player. Not a Hall of Famer, but maybe he should be. They were all in their mid-to-late thirties by then and had probably been drinking more beer lately than playing basketball.
“Roger Brown was going to guard me. I told Dunleavy ‘I’m going to run this old man into the ground!'” Mel Daniels was a terrific player. Maybe 6-9, 255 pounds. By this time he was huge – more like 6-9, 300 pounds. My biggest concern was that he was going to fall on me. We played them in that big 18,000-seat arena in Louisville. There couldn’t have been more than 500 people there.”
The situation in Carolina was no better. One Lightning home game at Memorial Coliseum drew only 170 fans. Team President Richard Pollak admitted to The Associated Press that the players only received $300 each for eight weeks work after his investment partners withdrew.
“I was living in an apartment with Mike Dunleavy and his wife,” said Bigelow. “One day the Carolina owner called up and told Mike ‘we’re cancelled’. Mike said ‘the game?’ And the guy said ‘No. The league.’ And that was it. I packed up my stuff and drove home to Winchester, Massachusetts, one day ahead of the big blizzard of ’78. I got home just in time to dig out my parents’ 80-foot driveway.”
After their bizarre sojourn in the AABA, Dunleavy and Bigelow both returned to the NBA in part-time roles by the end of the 1977-78 season. Dunleavy went on to a lengthy NBA career. He later became a sought-after NBA Head Coach, leading the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers in a twenty-year uninterrupted run from 1990 to 2010. He earned 1999 NBA Coach-of-the-Year honors with Portland in 1999.
Bob Bigelow is a respected speaker and clinician, who has lectured worldwide on the role of youth sports in child development. His book Just Let The Kids Play was released in 2001.
The All-American Basketball Alliance of 1978 is not be confused with the bizarre plan announced by a Georgia-based boxing and wrestling promoter in January 2010 to form a whites-only basketball league in the South also known as the All-America Basketball Alliance. Needless to say, the universally reviled plan was never pursued beyond the initial press release, although it did attract attention (and ridicule) from everyone from The Daily Show to the NAACP.
The Michigan Travelers were a blink-and-you-missed them entry in the International Women’s Professional Softball Association (IWPSA) during the league’s inaugural season in the summer of 1976. The IWPSA was the brainstorm of the tennis star and women’s sports pioneer Billie Jean King, the dominant female softball pitcher of the era Joan Joyce, and the serial sports promoter Dennis Murphy. The league reportedly grew out of a casual conversation between King and Joyce at an ABC Superstars competition. King brought in Murphy, who had been an executive in the upstart American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association and who had helped King launch the co-ed World Team Tennis in 1973.
The IWPSA debuted on May 28th, 1976 with ten franchises scattered nationwide. Besides Michigan, the league included the Buffalo Breskis, Chicago Ravens, Connecticut Falcons, Pennsylvania Liberties, Phoenix Bird, San Diego Sandpipers, San Jose Sunbirds, Santa Ana Lionettes, and Southern California Gems. Each club played 60 doubleheaders for a total of 120 games between May and September.
IWPSA double-headers consisted on seven innings per game. Single games, when played, would be nine innings. Teams were allowed to carry between 15 and 20 players on the active roster. Pitchers were not allowed to appear as pitchers in consecutive games.
The Travelers played their lone season at Memorial Park in East Detroit. They finished in 5th place (last) in the IWPSA’s Eastern Division with a 42-77 record.
The Connecticut Falcons defeated the San Jose Sunbirds for the first league championship. All ten franchises managed to complete the 1976 season, but several folded soon after and did not return for 1977, including the Michigan Travelers.
The IWPSA itself lasted four seasons, shutting down after the 1979 campaign.
“Women’s Pro Softball Gets Official Welcome”, The Meriden (CT) Journal, April 7, 1976
At the end of the 1979 season, West Haven (CT) Yankees owners Lloyd Kern and Robert Zeig needed a new Major League affiliation for their Eastern League franchise. The Bronx Bombers decided to relocate their double-A affiliate to Nashville of the Southern league after eight summers in nearby West Haven.
In September, Kern and Zeig inked a deal with the Seattle Mariners and announced plans to re-brand their ball club as the “West Haven Sailors” for the 1980 season. Then they reconsidered. Not the Mariners part. The West Haven part. In late 1979, Kern and Zeig packed up and moved to Fraser Field in Lynn, Massachusetts.
Built in 1940 as Works Progress Administration project during the New Deal, Fraser had seen only limited service as a minor league ballpark, hosting the Lynn Red Sox and Lynn Tigers of the New England League from 1946 to 1949. In the spring of 1980 the hardscrabble industrial city of just under 100,000 on Massachusetts’ North Shore would greet its first minor league ball club in more than three decades.
The Sailors lasted three seasons as Mariners affiliate in Lynn. During the club’s first two seasons under field manager Bobby Floyd in 1980 and 1981, the Sailors finished with the 6th best record in the eight-team circuit. But development, not winning, is the priority in a Major League farm system. More than a dozen Sailors that passed through Lynn in the early 1980’s eventually saw time with the big club in Seattle, including key contributors such as Jim Presley, Matt Young, Dave Valle, Mike Moore and Mario Diaz.
Future Mariners stars Alvin Davis, Harold Reynolds and Spike Owen, the club’s prized first round draft pick, arrived in Lynn in the spring of 1982. This proved to be the Sailors’ best – and final season – with the club posting an 82-57 record en route to a championship series tilt with the West Haven A’s. (In the minor league fashion of the day, West Haven had immediately picked up a new investor and Major League affiliation after the Sailors departed in 1979). The A’s swept the Sailors three games to zero in the 1982 Eastern League finals.
In the fall of 1981, Massachusetts businessman Michael Agganis purchased the team from Kern. Agganis is the nephew of the revered former Boston Red Sox first baseman and Lynn native Harry Agganis who died of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 26 in 1955. After the 1982 season, the Mariners departed and Agganis snagged an affiliation with the Pittsburgh Pirates, which required a re-branding (Lynn Pirates) for the 1983 campaign.
Agganis brought in Rico Petrocelli, a hero of the Boston Red Sox 1967 Impossible Dream in as General Manager. The team was strong once again. The Pirates 77-62 record was second best in the eight-team Eastern League. Attendance once again was awful. Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Don Robinson won 15 games for the big club in 1982, but was sent to Lynn for rehab work in the spring of ’83.
“I counted 18 fans in the stands one night,” Robinson told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in May 1983. “A couple of the guys said there may have been as many as 75, but I don’t know.”
The total gate for the year was reported as a league-worst 31,575 for 70 games. The box office was so bad that the Pirates were asked to play all of their playoff dates on the road so that there would be someone there to watch. Despite this disadvantage, the Pirates swept the Buffalo Bisons two games to zero in the semi-finals. In the Championship Series, the Pirates hit the road again and ran smack into the New Britain (CT) Red Sox and their prized prospect Roger Clemens who fired a 3-hit complete shutout in the fourth and deciding game at New Britain’s Beehive Field. It was to be the final game for the franchise in Lynn.
On September 8th, 1983 Agganis announced an agreement with the city of Burlington, Vermont to relocate his Eastern League franchise to Centennial Field, a 77-year old ballpark on the campus of the University of Vermont. Several days later the Pittsburgh Pirates severed their affiliation agreement with Agannis and shifted to the Eastern League’s Nashua franchise, which became the Nashua Pirates for 1984. Agannis inked a new affiliation with the Cincinnati Reds and began play as the Vermont Reds in the spring of 1984.
Affiliated minor league baseball never returned to Lynn, Massachusetts. A 1990 revision of the Professional Baseball Agreement (PBA) which governs the partnership between Major League Baseball and the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues (i.e. “the minors”), raised the minimum standards for playing facilities substantially. The new standards effectively slammed the door on dozens of communities around the country like Lynn, which had dilapidated, Depression-era ballparks and little political will to build new ones with the modern amenities now in demand.
These marginalized communities were effectively shut out of the minor league boom of the late 80’s and 1990’s, but there were enough under utilized ballparks sitting empty that a series of so-called “independent” leagues sprang up to fill the void. Professional baseball returned to Lynn in 1996 with Jonathan Fleisig’s independent Massachusetts Mad Dogs club. The club lasted four years but by the Mad Dogs final season in 1999, Fraser Field had deteriorated to the point that it was condemned by the City of Lynn. Four years later, investment banker Nick Lopardo poured $3 million of his own money into Fraser in return for a $1/year lease for his independent North Shore Spirit team. The Spirit played five years at Fraser from 2003-2007 before Lopardo withdrew his support and folded the money-losing club.
Michael Agganis still owns the franchise that once was the Lynn Pirates to this day. After four seasons in Vermont, Agganis moved his club to Ohio where it continues to play in the Eastern League under the Akron Aeros name. The club now draws over 250,000 fans annually.
“Mariners Sign Pact”, The Associated Press, September 26, 1979
“Robinson’s on rocky road from Lynn”, Bruce Keidan, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 10, 1983.
“Lynn Pirates To Vermont”, Scott MacKay, The Boston Globe, September 9, 1983
“Next Season It Will Be The Nashua Pirates” Gary Fitz, The Nashua Telegraph, September 14, 1983
During pro soccer’s 1970’s boom years (or bubble years, as it turned out) the city of Sacramento, California hosted 2nd division professional soccer for five seasons. The Sacramento Spirits/Gold appeared in three American Soccer League championship games between 1976 and 1980. Oddly, during the two seasons the Sacramentans did not play for the championship, they finished dead last.
The American Soccer League dated all the way back to 1933 and spent most of its existence confined to industrial cities of the Northeast, where teams were often defined by their ethnic affiliation. Through the postwar years clubs such as the New York Hakoah-Americans, Newark Portuguese and the Philadelphia Ukrainians competed under the ASL auspices. In the early 1970’s, the league began to professionalize, banishing the ethnic names and branching out beyond the Philadelphia-New York corridor.
In 1974, the ASL hired former NBA star Bob Cousy – who professed to know nothing whatsoever about soccer – as its Commissioner to attract national credibility. A full-fledged West Coast expansion occurred in the summer of 1976, which included the debut of the Sacramento Spirits. The Spirits played out of Sacramento State Stadium and finished in the cellar that first year with a 4-14-3 record.
The Spirits returned in 1977 and engineered a remarkable turnaround under Head Coach Bob Ridley. The Spirits won the West Division with an 18-4-4 record and flew east on to face the New Jersey Americans for the ASL Championship on September 4th, 1977. The Americans triumped 3-0. Ridley was named Coach-of-the-Year and Spirits leading scorer Mal Roche earned Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
After the 1977 season, a California cabinet manufacturer named John Andreotti bought the Sacramento franchise and re-branded it as the Sacramento Gold for 1978. The 1978 campaign was anything but golden as the club regressed to a 7-15-2 last place finish.
The Gold rebuilt again in 1979, importing English brothers Ian and Malcolm Filby and South African striker Neill Roberts among others. Mal Filby was expected to be the team’s key threat but suffered a season-ending injury in the home opener. Brother Ian stepped up in his stead and led the ASL in scoring with 14 goals and 17 assists. From a front office standpoint though, the best signing had to be Roberts. Midway through the season, the Gold sold Roberts’ contract to the Atlanta Chiefs of the first division North American Soccer League for $25,000, reportedly a record transfer fee between the two American leagues. (Roberts was more than worth it, scoring 14 goals in 19 matches for the Chiefs in 1979).
That $25,000 undoubtedly helped the Gold bottom line. According to Dave Litterer’s terrific American Soccer History Archives site, typical annual operating budgets for ASL franchises in the late 1970’s averaged $300,000 to $350,000 per year. By 1979, the Gold had moved to 23,000-seat Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College. During the 1979 season, the Gold drew 57,073 to Hughes for 14 matches and led the low-budget ASL with average announced attendance of 4,077 per match.
On September 17th, 1979 the Gold travelled to Ohio to face the Columbus Magic in the American Soccer League championship game. The match took place at Franklin County Stadium, a re-lined minor league baseball park. As he had all season, Ian Filby came through for the Gold and broke a scoreless tie in the 84th minute. The 1-0 margin held up to give the Gold the 1979 ASL championship.
The Gold returned for a third ASL season in 1980 (fifth if you count the Spirits years), but quickly ran out of money. In early July 1980, the Gold chose to forfeit a road match at the Miami Americans rather than pay for airfare to Florida. By late July, with the team still unwilling or unable to travel, the ASL terminated the franchise. A group of Sacramento-area boosters raised $35,000 – $40,000 and turned it over to the league office to run the team through the end of the season. “Sacramento” (the Gold moniker was dropped) finished out the season as a ward of the league and, improbably, made a return visit to the ASL championship game. Sacramento lost the title match to the Pennsylvania Stoners 2-1 in Allentown, PA on September 18th, 1980.
After the season, Sacramento folded along with the rest of the ASL’s remaining West Coast franchises.
The ASL played three more seasons from 1981 to 1983. After 1980, it never again fielded a team west of Oklahoma City. The league folded in late 1983 or early 1984.
The Gold’s young General Manager Greg “Dutch” Van Dusen became a leading figure in the successful effort to lure the NBA’s Kansas City Kings franchise to Sacramento in 1985. He also negotiated the naming rights to the city’s ARCO Arena and worked as an executive for the Kings throughout the 1980’s.
Professional soccer – of the indoor variety – returned to Sacramento in the summer of 1993 with the Knights of the Continental Indoor Soccer League. The Knights played at ARCO Arena in a succession of leagues for nine summers between 1993 and 2001.
Minor league baseball’s Rocky Mount (NC) Pines were a one-year wonder in the single-A Carolina League in the summer of 1980. The team has attracted a minor cult following among baseball people due to its 24-114 record (.174 winning percentage), one of the worst in the history of the game.
The Pines were independent – no Major League parent club – which was one of the reasons for their epic futility. Of the 136 minor league teams active in the summer of 1980, the Pines were the only one to make a go of it without Major League affiliation.
The Pines owner, a 63-year old former minor league ballplayer named Lou Haneles, operated a handful of low-level minor league teams over the years, typically running them as independents and stocking the rosters with wanna-be pro ballplayers from his chain of instructional baseball schools. During the summer of 1979, Haneles owned the independent Newark Co-Pilots of the short-season New York-Penn League.
Carolina League President Jim Mills approached Haneles’ Co-Pilots manager Mal Fichman about moving up a competitive notch in 1980 by fielding a team in his Carolina League, which was expanding from six to eight teams. Rocky Mount, North Carolina’s Municipal Stadium sat empty and available after hosting Carolina League ball from 1962-1975. Fichman cobbled together the 1980 Pines roster from a handful of ex-Co-Pilots, some training camp cuts from Major League organizations and a group of dreamers that paid $220 apiece to attend instructional camps/tryouts run by Fichman and Haneles in Florida.
There’s little reason for me to write much here the season itself, because it would all be redundant to E.M. Swift’s rollicking September 1980 profile of the Pines for Sports Illustrated, which provides the definitive account.
The citizens of Rocky Mount took little interest in the Pines. The club reported attendance of 26,702 for the season, of which nearly half the tickets were given away for free. The tight-fisted Haneles lost $80,000 by his own estimation to The Los Angeles Times.
By Swift’s account, Haneles never attended a single game to see his team play. He considered folding the club in midseason in June 1980 and after the season attempted to move the club to Hagerstown, Maryland. The Carolina League revoked the franchise and sold it to Lou Eliopoulos in December 1980, who promptly relocated it…to Hagerstown, Maryland. Haneles responded by suing everyone in sight – the Carolina League, Mills, the governing body of minor league baseball and its President, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Haneles sought $5 million in damages for restraint of trade and violation of anti-trust laws.
According to The Los Angeles Times, a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa, Florida named George Carr gave a gloomy assessment of Haneles’ legal prospects during court proceedings in late 1980:
“(Haneles) likelihood of prevailing on the merits is somewhat less than the likelihood of the Rocky Mount Pines prevailing over their opposition during the past season.”
Pro baseball never returned to Rocky Mount, NC after the Pines’ lone season in 1980. But the Carolina League franchise itself still exists today. The team played in Hagerstown as the Hagerstown Suns from 1981 to 1988. In 1989, the franchise shifted to Frederick, Maryland as the Frederick Keys, who continue to play to this day.
Former Pines catcher David Littlefield, who appeared in 11 games for Rocky Mount in 1980, later became General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates (2001-2007).
Lou Haneles briefly invested in the Miami Tropics of the low-level United States Basketball League in the late 1980’s. He spent his later years on a quixotic quest to get a Major League team to offer a contact to a 59-year Cuban gas station owner named Raul Hernandez. He passed away in 2006 at the age of 90.
In 1980, it was exceptionally unusual to find an independent team active in minor league baseball. By the mid-1990’s entire independent leagues had sprung up around the country. Mal Fichman managed in several, winning three championships in the Midwest-based Frontier League. Fichman later became a scout specializing in the independent leagues for the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies. Through his efforts, more than 160 independent league players gained contracts in organized baseball and 17 ultimately reached the Major Leagues with the Padres. Fichman declined an interview request for this post.
“It’s Been Some Rocky Year”, E.M. Swift, Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1980
“Rocky Mount Team Gets A New Owner”, The Associated Press, December 25, 1980
“Team’s Misfortunes Blamed on Broken Promises”, Barry Siegel, The Los Angeles Times, June 30, 1981
“Lou’s Last Pitch”, Robert Andrew Powell, The Miami New Times, October 22, 1998
“167 Signings on Mal Fichman’s Resume in Eight Seasons of Independent Scouting”, Bob Wirz, Independent Baseball Insider, Vol. 5 No. 38, 2007
St. Louis, Missouri was a hotbed of indoor soccer in the early 1980’s. The city’s St. Louis Steamers of the Major Indoor Soccer League claimed higher average attendances than the NHL’s St. Louis Blues for five straight years from 1980 to 1984. The club had local celebrity ownership in minority partner Stan Musial. At their third season peak in the winter of 1981-82, the Steamers averaged more than 17,000 fans per game and played for the MISL championship for the second straight year.
The Steamers began a sad decline in the mid-1980’s, accelerating when original owner Ben Kerner sold the club in July 1984. By the spring of 1988, the club was insolvent – reportedly $1 million in debt and unable to meet payroll. Just 4,839 turned out at St. Louis Arena to watch the Steamer’s final match on April 15th, 1988. A white knight investor group led by San Jose, California businessman Milan Mandaric poked at the carcass, but ultimately passed. The MISL formally terminated the rudderless Steamers on June 22nd, 1988. Mandaric’s interest hadn’t entirely cooled, however.
From 1979 to 1984, the MISL engaged in aggressive expansion throughout the United States. But the league’s fortunes peaked around the same time as the Steamers. From 1985 to 1988, the league added just one expansion franchise and that club, the New York Express, imploded midway through its debut season, causing national embarassment for the league. During the same period, the MISL lost eight franchises, including the Steamers and the profitable and popular Cleveland Force, whose owner Bart Wolstein pulled out of the league in July 1988 in sheer frustration.
“(The MISL) was on a roller coaster downhill,” Wolstein told The Los Angeles Times in November 1988. “I don’t think it will survive, No.1, and if it does survive, I don’t think it will be of any quality.”
The MISL, beset by union bickering, declining fan & broadcast interest and red ink, had little going for it by the end of the 1980’s. But it did have the siren song of nostalgia in cities like St. Louis and Cleveland, tempting investors to try and recapture the brief moments when the Steamers and the Force had been the hottest ticket in town. Re-enter Milan Mandaric.
Serbian-born Milan Mandaric built separate fortunes in socialist Yugoslavia (auto parts) and later as a naturalized citizen in Silicon Valley, California (circuit boards). Always a soccer lover, he first invested in the outdoor North American Soccer League, as owner of two Bay Area clubs in the 1970’s – the San Jose Earthquakes (1974-1978) and the Oakland Stompers (1978), both of which he later sold. Mandaric quickly lost interest in the Steamers’ mess in 1988, but soon turned his attention to an expansion team in the city. A clean slate. On July 6th, 1989 the MISL approved Mandaric’s expansion bid and indoor soccer returned to the Gateway City after a one-year absence in the form of the St. Louis Storm.
Mandaric hired Don Popovic as the Storm’s Head Coach. Popovic, a fellow Serb, had built the MISL’s first dynasty as Head Coach of the New York Arrows from 1978 to 1983. Popovic’s Arrows were built around a core of fellow Yugoslav and Hungarian emigres such as Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Fred Grgurev, Juli Veee and Zoltan Toth. The Arrow won the MISL’s first four titles from 1979-1982, defeating the Steamers in the championship series in both 1981 and 1982. The years since had been leaner for Popovic. Gigs with the MISL’s Las Vegas Americans (1984-85) and Pittsburgh Spirit (1985-86) ended after a single season when those clubs folded. He lasted only a single game as Head Coach of the New York Express in 1987.
The 1989-90 Storm team, assembled on three month’s notice, was short on Slavs by Popovic standards (only three). The core of the team was built on players from the former Los Angeles Lazers franchise, which folded two weeks before St. Louis joined the league. To stock the team, the Storm were awarded the first five picks in the Lazers dispersal draft. Daryl Doran, a long-time Steamer favorite (1982-1988), returned to St. Louis by way of the Lazers draft. Also returning from the Steamers’ glory years was poopular goalkeeper Slobodan Ilijevski, known to local fans simply as “Slobo”, who played eight seasons with the Steamers from 1980-1988.
The Storm finished 24-28 in their debut season, posting the weakest record of any postseason qualifier. The eventual champion San Diego Sockers eliminated the Storm in the first round of playoffs. Off the field, the Storm lost a reported $1.5 million during the 1989-90 season, which Mandaric had to absorb himself as the sole owner. This led Mandaric to publicly speculate about folding the club after a single season. But in July 1990, Mandaric secured ten local limited partners and agreed to continue, possibly saving the MISL as a whole, as the Sockers had threatened to follow suit if the Storm shut down. The league lived on for a thirteenth season under a new name – the Major Soccer League (MSL).
With the team’s future settled for now, Popovic added some Slavic firepower, signing the 1989 MISL MVP Preki (Predrag Radosavljevic) in August 1990. The Yugoslav midfielder was in his prime at the age of 27, having led the league in cumulative scoring over the past five years. He became available to the Storm as a free agent due to a salary dump by his former team, the perenially low budget Tacoma Stars.
“Preki is the Michael Jordan of the MISL, he’s that good,” said Storm VP & General Manager Dan Counce announced at the time.
During the 1990-91 season, the Storm surged ahead on the field, posting a 32-20 record, second best in eight-team MSL. Preki lived up to the hype, scoring 68 goals and adding 53 assists, many of those dished out to Thompson Usiyan who added 64 goals. Hungarian Zoltan Toth – a Popovic holdover from the New York Arrows dynasty of the early 80’s – handled the bulk of the goalkeeping duties, posting a 25-10 record.
During the season, the Storm travelled to Switzerland and won the FIFA-sanctioned Zurich International indoor soccer tournament. In the spring, St. Louis defeated the Tacoma Stars in the playoff quarterfinals before falling again to the arch-rival Sockers in the MSL semis.
In the front office, the news was even better. Announced attendance rose from 6,400 to a league-high 7,772 fans per game. Running on a $2.5 million annual expense budget, the Storm projected to lose $350,000 for the year, a 70% reduction from the staggering first year loss. For the first (and only) summer in Storm history, Mandaric did not threaten to fold the team.
Heading into the 1991-92 campaign, Popovic added another high-scoring Yugoslav to his stable. Like Toth, Branko Segota was a key member of Popovic’s early 80’s championship teams in New York. To pry him away from the San Diego Sockers, the Storm had to part ways Thompson Usiyan and his 64 goals.
It turned out to be a poor trade. Viewed as a top contender, the 1991-92 season quickly went sideways for St. Louis. Beset by injuries, goalkeeper Toth unexpectedly retired two games in to the season. In early March, with the club mired in last place at 12-20, management fired Don Popovic. Defender Fernando Clavijo finished out the season as player-coach. In April 1992, the Storm’s third season, which had begun with sky high expectations, ended in a 7th place (dead last) finish with a 17-23 record. Remarkably, despite the on-field disaster and lame duck ownership, the Storm led the MSL in attendance with an announced average of 10,748 at St. Louis Arena, up 25% from 1990-91.
By early 1992, Mandaric was reportedly more interested in the $162 million new arena planned for his adopted home city of San Jose than in continuing with the Storm in St. Louis. He placed his 80% stake in the team up for sale early in the 1991-92 season. Throughout the season’s second half, negotiations lurched along for a group led by limited partner Dr. Abraham Hamatweh to purchase the Storm. Hamatweh, a former Steamers and Storm season ticket holder, acquired a minority stake in the club in the summer of 1990, when Mandaric first considered folding the team. The negotiations stalled throughout the spring as Hamatweh’s group continually failed to generate enough capital to conclude the transaction.
The St. Louis negotations took on more urgency once the eternally shaky Tacoma Stars gasped their death wheeze on June 5th, 1992. Two weeks later, a potential savior expansion franchise in Buffalo declined to join the MSL in favor of its lower-cost, non-union rival, the National Professional Soccer League. That left the Storm as the MSL’s sixth franchise and several owners went on record saying they wouldn’t continue with only five teams.
The five remaining franchises of the MSL voted unanimously to fold on July 10th, 1992 after Hawatmeh’s group gave up trying to raise the necessary funds to continute as the league’s sixth franchise. The group reportedly raised $850,000 – more than enough to post the league’s required $350,000 letter of credit for the 1992-93 season – but felt it didn’t have enough to continue in the MSL, despite the league’s continual cost cutting over the previous four years.
One month after the MSL folded in July 1992, Storm minority owner Dr. Abraham Hawatmeh and his group purchased the Tulsa Ambush of the lower-budget National Professional Soccer League. The NPSL’s lower cost model allowed Hawatmeh’s group to move forward with the financial commitment they deemed insufficient for the MSL just a few weeks earlier. The St. Louis Ambush played at St. Louis Arena for eight more seasons before folding in 2000.
Milan Mandaric took two more cracks at indoor soccer. In 1994 and 1995, Mandaric operated the San Jose Grizzlies of the Continental Indoor Soccer League in his adopted hometown. In San Jose, Mandaric reunited with Preki, who earned CISL MVP honors for the Grizzlies in 1995. The Grizzlies folded in 1995 after two seasons. Mandaric entered the expansion Florida Thundercats in the National Professional Soccer League in the fall of 1998. Former Storm defender Fernando Clavijo coached the Thundercats. The club folded after one season of dismal attendance at the National Car Rental Center in Sunrise, Florida. Mandaric has sinced turned his attention back to Europe, where he has owned Portsmouth, Leicester City and Sheffield Wednesday in England.
Preki became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1996. He debuted for the U.S. National Team the same year, earning 28 caps between 1996 and 2001 and representing his adopted country in the 1998 World Cup. Preki also played for the Kansas City Wizards and Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer from 1996 to 2005, winning MVP honors in 1997 and 2003. He retired at age 42 in 2005 and later served as Head Coach of both Chivas USA (2007-2009) and Toronto FC (2010) of MLS.
Long-time St. Louis Steamers and St. Louis Storm goalkeeper Slobo Ilijevski passed away on July 14th, 2008 after suffering a ruptured aorta while playing soccer for an amateur team. He was 58.
“Major Indoor Soccer League Preview: Slimmed Down League Will Try To Regain Credibility – and Fans”, Pete Thomas, The Los Angeles Times, November 4, 1988
“MISL Withstands One More Storm”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1990
“MISL Storm signs Stars’ Preki” United Press International, August 14, 1990
“Storm soccer team cuts losses by 70%”, Rob Moore, The St. Louis Business Journal, May 27, 1991
“Segota Doing Well, But Storm is Losing”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1992
“MSL owners to huddle on league’s future today. Buffalo joins NPSL.” Sandra McKee, The Baltimore Sun, June 19, 1992
“Owners To Discuss Future of MSL in Call Today”, John Geis, The Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1992
“Soccer league fizzles, extinguishes city’s Blast. Last minute talks to replace teams fail.” Mike Preston, The Baltimore Sun, July 11, 1992