Fun While It Lasted

The Untold Stories of Forgotten Teams

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#35 Nashua Pride / American Defenders of New Hampshire

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“Nashua’s a funny town.  I think the first sign of trouble was at a Chamber of Commerce meeting and <our General Manager> Billy Johnson was talking about how we would hire all these fan-friendly, smiling staff to welcome fans and somebody said ‘Where are you going to find them?'” – Nashua Pride owner Chris English (1998-2004).

Nashua, New Hampshire has a fascinating but unsteady history with postwar baseball.  In 1946, Branch Rickey placed a Class B Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in the city’s Holman Stadium.  Rickey chose Nashua after his Danville, Iowa farm team refused to take on two promising African-American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella.  The Nashua Dodgers would be the first racially integrated team of the modern era, one summer before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn.  Nashua also featured a 34-year old first baseman named Walter Alston winding down an unremarkable minor league career.  As player-manager, Alston led the Nashua Dodgers to the New England League title in 1946.  He later won four World Series crowns as manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and joined Roy Campanella in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.  For all that remarkable legacy, the Dodgers lasted only four seasons in Nashua, folding in 1949.

Baseball did not return until 1983, when George Como, Jerry Mileur and Ben Surner bought the Holyoke (MA) Millers double-A Eastern League club and moved it to town.  After one season as a California Angels affiliate, Como and Surner signed on with the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates.  During the Pirates three-year run in Nashua from 1984 to 1986, Pittsburgh finished dead last in the National League East three years straight, posted the worst record in baseball in 1985 and became the focal point of an infamous FBI cocaine sting that ultimately ensnared the Parrot Pirate mascot.  In May 1986 Nashua fans purchased only 150 advance tickets for an exhibition against the big club from Pittsburgh.  Nashua officials cancelled the game due to lack of interest, piling on more national embarassment for their parent club.  Como and Mileur moved the club to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that winter.

By the early 1990’s, Holman Stadium no longer met the improved standards required by the Professional Baseball Agreement, the set of commandments governing the partnership between Major League Baseball and its farm clubs.  Like many small communities with charming but outmoded Works Progress Administration ballparks, Nashua had been shut out of affiliated ball.  What arrived next were independent leagues, beginning with Ed Broidy’s fly-by-night North Atlantic League, whose Broidy-owned Nashua Hawks took roost in Holman in 1995.  A year later they were evicted midseason, with City officials padlocking the gates against the deadbeat club.

In late 1997, Chris English, a hedge fund manager from suburban Boston arrived in town representing the Atlantic League, a reputable independent start-up whose investors were involved in major ballpark construction projects in Bridgeport, Long Island, Atlantic City, Newark and Bridgewater, New Jersey.  The Nashua Pride would be an anomaly within the Atlantic League in many ways.  The team was distant from the league’s New York-Philadelphia axis and there would be no $30 million stadium project in Nashua.  Instead, English and his General Manager Billy Johnson embarked on a renovation of Holman Stadium, which included the installation of 2,800 box seats salvaged from the recently demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to replace the flat concrete slabs of Holman’s old grandstand.

The Pride averaged 1,581 fans over 57 home games on sales of approximately 250 season tickets during that first season in 1998.  Former Major Leaguer Milt Cuyler began the 1998 season in Nashua before earning a September call-up to the Texas Rangers, helping to legitimize the Atlantic League as a worthy destination for ex-Big Leaguers.

Butch Hobson

The Nashua Pride hit their peak in the summer of 2000.  English and Johnson hired former Red Sox star Butch Hobson as the club’s new field manager.  Hobson was something of a cult figure in New England.  The Alabama boy played football for Bear Bryant before coming up with the Sox in 1976.  The next season, Hobson hit 30 home runs batting primarily out of the #8 spot in the line-up, a virtually unheard of feat in the pre-steroid era.  Sox fans tended to forgive Hobson’s erratic fielding (43 errors in 1978), knowing that he suffered from loose bone chips floating in his right elbow. He was known to manually adjust the chips between plays.  Hobson only played three full seasons in the majors due to his injury problems, which added to the mystique of what might have been for the handsome cornerman.

Hobson later managed the Red Sox through three fallow seasons from 1992 to 1994.  In 1996, Hobson, an admitted partier during his playing days turned born again Christian, was arrested in a cocaine sting while managing the Philadelphia Phillies triple-A farm club.  Hobson refuted the charges, ultimately pleading no contest and performing community service.  Although the incident may have derailed his opportunity to return to the Majors as a Manager, Red Sox Nation never seemed to hold it against him and he was greeted as a returning hero in Nashua during the summer of 2000.

Buoyed by a veteran roster stocked with former Major Leaguers such as Casey Candaele, Milt Cuyler, Sam Horn, Glenn Murray, John Roper, Ken Ryan, and others, the Pride won the 2000 Atlantic League Championship, sweeping the Somerset Patriots in four games.  At the box office, the Pride drew 140,000 fans – an average of nearly 2,000 per game and an increase of 50,000 fans over the inaugural season two summers earlier.

In addition to a beloved manager and a winning team, the Pride also benefitted from the ever-growing notoriety of The World Famous Monkey Boy, a mischievous dancing mascot portrayed by the Pride’s ticket manager Chris Ames.  Monkey Boy arguably rivaled Hobson in local popularity during the 2000 season and Ames would ultimately take the character with him as a national touring act that continued for many years after he left the Pride.

English commissioned a documentary film crew to chronicle his ball club during the 2000 season.  81-year old Curt Gowdy provided the voiceover narration.  After negotiations to sell the documentary to pay cable and Japanese broadcasting interests fell through, a (somewhat) family-friendly 58-minute edit was released on VHS format in the spring of 2001 under the title Stolen Bases.  The film owed its title to a central scene where Hobson, upon being ejected, ripped a base out of the ground, autographed it and handed it to a kid in the Holman Stadium grandstand on his way off the field.  Stolen Bases had two private screenings in Nashua and was briefly offered for mail order purchase through Baseball America paired with a Butch Hobson Bobble Head doll.

In 2001, with Pride attendance on the upswing, the City of Nashua approved $4.5 million in upgrades to Holman Stadium.  The improvements included a new steel second level with luxury suites and expanded press box, 2,800 new chairback seats, and new administrative, retail and box office space.  The renovations were completed in time for the 2002 season, but the season seemed cursed from the outset.  Manager Butch Hobson missed time in June for an angioplasty.  On July 4th, 2002 the Pride embarked on a 21-game losing streak, the third longest in minor league history.  Attendance declined for the second straight year to 120,960, from the 2000 peak of 140,000.

In early 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays double-A affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut announced plans to relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire for the 2004 season.  The Pride would now face competition from Major League-subsidized farm clubs located both 15 minutes to the north (Manchester) and fifteen minutes to the south (Lowell Spinners) along the Route 3 corridor.  At the end of the 2004 season, Chris English threw in the towel after seven seasons of operating in the red.

“After they announced Manchester, it became clear we needed to move,” English recalled in 2011.  “The 2000 ALPB Championship was one of the most entertaining years of my life.  But no one could save Nashua.”

English handed the reigns to BKK Nashua, LLC, a consortium of fellow Atlantic League owners including league founder Frank Boulton (the “B” in BKK), Peter Kirk (“K”) and Steve Kalafer (“K”).   With English’s departure, the BKK trio effectively controlled seven of the eight Atlantic League clubs, excluding only Mickey Herbert’s Bridgeport Bluefish franchise.  League founder and CEO Boulton owned the immensely profitable Long Island Ducks and also controlled the poorly attended Atlantic City Surf.  Kalafer, like Boulton, owned one wildly successful club (the Somerset Patriots) and one albatross (the Newark Bears).  Kirk, a highly respected operator with a long track record in affiliated ball, had two Pennsylvania-based Atlanic League expansion teams preparing to debut in gleaming new stadiums under construction in Lancaster (2005) and York (2006).  And collectively, the BKK trio had stepped in to purchase the Camden Riversharks club earlier in 2004 after its founder died suddenly .

In 2005, the Nashua Pride returned to the Atlantic League Championship Series for the third time in Hobson six years at the helm.  And for the third time, they would face their arch rivals, Sparky Lyle’s Somerset Patriots.  The Patriots swept the Pride this time around, 3 games to zero.  Off the field, the 2005 season was grim, as the opening of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats new stadium in nearby Manchester and budget cuts imposed by the BKK investors combined to reduce the Pride’s announced attendance to an all-time low of just 1,270 per game.

In the fall of 2005, Frank Boulton arranged a sale of the Pride to local real estate developer John Stabile and engineered the Pride’s transfer to the Can-Am League.  The Can-Am League was another Northeast-based independent loop,  which played a shorter schedule than the Atlantic League in cities stretching from New Jersey to Quebec City.  Nashua became the first of several struggling Atlantic League franchises to be relegated to the lower cost Can-Am League.  Atlantic City and Newark would follow in subsequent years.

With the jump to the Can-Am League in 2006, the era of recognizable stars in Nashua essentially came to an end.  Between 1998 and 2005, former Major League All-Stars Dante Bichette, Pete Incaviglia, Lance Johnson, Felix Jose suited up for the Pride as did 1989 National League Rookie-of-the Year Jerome Walton and closer Mel Rojas who signed a $13.75 million dollar contract with the Chicago Cubs in 1996, but earned only $3,000/month to pitch for the Pride in 2002.  The Pride also sent several players to the Major Leagues, most notably the future Anaheim Angels All-Star Brendan Donnelly who pitched for the Pride in 1999 and made his Major League debut with the Angels at the age of 30 in 2002.e

The Pride lasted three years in the Can-Am League, winning a league title in 2007.  Community enthusiasm and attendance rebounded somewhat under the Stabile family’s ownership, but the team continued to run deficits of several hundred thousands dollars annually.  Hobson departed after the 2007 season to return to the Atlantic League with Peter Kirk’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, but not before trotting out the base stealing trick one more time for Can-Am League fans in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The Pride lasted one final summer without him.  In September 2008, after losing another half million dollars, an exhausted John Stabile sold out to Boston Baseball All Stars, LLC.  Boston Baseball All Stars CEO Lt. Commander (ret.) Terry Allvord had toured the country for years with his U.S. Military All-Stars teams.  Now in control of Nashua’s Can-Am League franchise, Allvord and his partners re-branded the team as the American Defenders of New Hampshire.  The club would also play in uniforms modeled after desert camouflage fatigues.

Allvord’s military-themed promotions quickly crossed the line from patriotic to tone-deaf and morbid.  The team’s mascot, a plush soldier in fatigues and war paint was named “Ground Zero” and sported the uniform number 9-11.  The management attempted to stop play each night at 9:11 PM to play Lee Greenwood’s three-minute long God Bless the USA, even if the game was between pitches of an at bat.  Can-Am League officials quickly put the kibosh on that one.

The gimmick didn’t play in Nashua.  The team traded or released its best players in midseason to dump payroll.  General Manager Chris Hall, the final holdover from the Stabile regime, was let go in favor of Boston Baseball All-Stars investor Dan Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who fired Butch Hobson in 1994.  Crowds often numbered less than 100 fans.  In August 2009, the City of Nashua evicted the American Defenders from Holman Stadium, parking a tractor on home plate to prevent the team from finishing its home schedule.  Ironically for an organization that wrapped itself in the flag, the team’s list of unpaid creditors included the Nashua police and fire departments that assigned first responder details for the games.

In 2011, stable ownership returned when Lowell Spinners owner Drew Weber formed the Nashua Silver Knights, a collegiate wooden bat league team.  In a nod to the Pride’s glory day, the Silver Knights booked a return engagement from the World Famous Monkey Boy, which ended abruptly and bizarrely when Chris Ames was assaulted by a member of the opposing Martha’s Vineyard Sharks.

Downloads:

2011 Interview with original Pride Owner Chris English

2011 Interview with Chris Ames, AKA The World Famous Monkey Boy

Additional Sources:

“Bucs Flop – Even in N.H.”, The Associated Press, May 1, 1986

Written by andycrossley

August 9, 2011 at 11:44 pm

#34 Philadelphia Fever

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Philadelphia is just one of those cities.  During the Golden Age of sports start-ups in the 1970’s, it seemed like the city got a new franchise every six months, promoting some unfamiliar sport that momentarily grabbed a few headlines as The Sport of the Future.  Box lacrosse? Check.  World Team Tennis? Yep.  Professional women’s basketball?  For about six weeks.  The North American Soccer League?  Twice!  Every preposterous new league had to be in Philly and just about every neophyte owner insisted upon alliteration.  Between 1974 and 1979 the City of Brotherly Love became (briefly) acquainted with the Freedoms, the Firebirds, the Fox and the Fury to name just a few.

Or perhaps it was just that Philly had the buildings.  Lots of buildings.  For the well-heeled speculators, Philadelphia offered the world class Spectrum for indoor sports and multi-purpose Veterans Stadium for outdoor events.  And for the rogues gallery of flim flam men and drug traffickers who launched sports franchises in the city in that era, there was no shortage of decrepit fire traps like the Philadelphia Arena, Philadelphia Civic Center and JFK Stadium available for short money.

The Philadelphia Fever joined the start-up Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) as one of six founding members in 1978.  The club set up shop at The Spectrum, competing with the 76ers and the Flyers for winter-time game dates and fan dollars.  The sport of indoor soccer was new on the national scene, but had a minor history in Philadelphia, where the defunct Philadelphia Atoms of the North American Soccer League had taken part in several well-attended indoor exhibitions at the Spectrum between 1974 and 1976.  In particular, a February 1974 Atoms match against a touring Soviet Red Army club had attracted nearly 12,000 fans and whetted the interest of the NASL in the indoor game.  But the NASL moved slowly and other entrepeneurs had taken notice as well, including Ed Tepper, owner of the Philadelphia Wings box lacrosse team that played at the Spectrum in 1974 and 1975 and Earl Foreman, a former minority shareholder in the Philadelphia Eagles and former owner of the Virginia Squires of the American Basketball Association.  Foreman and Tepper launched the MISL in 1978, announcing the league’s formation in October, just two months before kickoff of the first matches in December.

All six MISL clubs had to scramble to put together rosters during the short ramp up to the league’s debut.  The New York Arrows and Houston Summit opted to lease rosters outright from nearby North American Soccer League clubs and finished with the best records in the league.  The Fever stocked their roster primarily with local semi-pro players, augmented by a handful of NASL veterans such as Joey Fink and Fred Grgurev.

The Fever squeaked into the final playoff spot with an 11-13 record, but found themselves in the best-of-three 1979 MISL Championship Series after upsetting the 18-6 regular season champion Houston Summit on the road.  The Fever lost the title to the New York Arrows in a two-game sweep.  Grgurev led the league in scoring with 46 goals in 24 games and was named to the All-MISL Team.

The Fever proved popular at the box office during the 1978-79 season,  leading the MISL with an announced attendance average of 7,737 for twelve home matches.

During the 1979-80 season, the Fever posted a franchise-best 17-15 record, but missed the playoffs by one game after losing a tie-breaker formula to the Buffalo Stallions.  17 wins was not enough to save the job of Head Coach George O’Neill who was fired by Fever owner Ben Alexander in August 1980.  Thus began a coaching carousel that continued for the remaining two years of the Fever’s existence.  Alexander hired former MISL Coach-of-the-Year Len Bilous to replace O’Neill – then fired him in March 1981 with several games remaining in an 18-22 campaign.  Former Fever player Skip Roderick finished out the 1981-82 season for Bilous, then handed the coaching reigns to former U.S. National Team chief Walt Chyzowych, who signed a three-year contract beginning with the 1981-82 season.  Like O’Neill, Chyzowych fell out of favor and lost his job before the end of his first season after posting a 7-18 record.  Roderick stepped back in temporarily before giving way to Mannfred Schellscheidt, another former U.S. National Team coach, who had previously worked for new Fever owner Joseph Raymond in the American Soccer League.  The 1981-82 Fever finished with a league-worst 11-33 record under Chyzowych/Roderick/Schellscheidt.

The ownership of the Fever changed hands once, when paper manufactuer Ben Alexander sold controlling interest in the Fever to New Jersey businessman Joe Raymond in November 1981Raymond had been through the investment ringer with pro soccer once before, as owner of the semi-obscure New Jersey Americans in the American Soccer League during the late 1970’s.

The Fever’s popularity had declined precipitously, with attendance falling from best in the six-team MISL in the 1978-79 debut season to worst in the expanded 13-club league during the Fever’s final season in 1981-82.  In an April 1982 Philadelphia Inquirer article, various Fever executives and players defended the club’s marketing and pointed to the club’s losing ways as the culprit for waning interest in the club.  But this is a common excuse of faltering clubs and the record does not bear it out.  Although the Fever qualified for the playoffs in only one season – their first – the team was at or near .500 in each of their five seasons with the exception of the last.  More likely, the Fever simply could not compete in the winter with both NBA and NHL competition.  The MISL’s best draws in cities like St. Louis, Kansas City and Baltimore competed with no more than one winter-time rival for media attention and the disposable income of local sports fans.

Joseph Raymond would own the Fever for less than one year after buying the club in November 1981.  The club reportedly lost in excess of $1 million during the 1981-82 season.  In the early summer, Raymond requested a one-year moratorium from the league to re-organize the club’s finances.  There was a precedent for such a move in the MISL, as the Fever’s in-state rival the Pittsburgh Spirit had gone dark for the 1980-81 season before returning under new ownership for 1981-82.  Raymond’s request was granted at the MISL league meetings in August 1982 and the club’s best players departed for greener pastures.  In January 1983, the MISL announced the Raymond had given up his efforts to re-organize the club and handed his membership back to the league, effectively folding the club.

##

In the years since the Fever passed into oblivion, various reports have erroneously stated that Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss purchased the club in 1982 and relocated it to The Forum as the Los Angeles Lazers.  This is not correct.  Buss obtained an MISL expansion team in June of 1982.  Fever owner Joseph Raymond was granted a one-year leave of absence from the league around the same time Buss entered, which may account for the confusion.  But Raymond folded his club by returning it to the league in late 1982.  The Fever and the Lazers are two different franchises.

One-time Fever head coach Walt Chyzowych passed away in 1994.  He was inducted into the United States Soccer Hall-of-Fame three years later in 1997.

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Sources:

“Fever Fires O’Neill”, The Associated Press, August 5, 1980
“The Fever: A Franchise That Is Living On Hope”, Lewis Freedman, The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 13, 1982
“Fever Drops”, United Press International, January 21, 1983

Written by andycrossley

July 17, 2011 at 9:33 pm

“Nothing’s more urgent than saying ‘if you don’t buy a season ticket by Tuesday, I’m gonna shoot your dog”

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This is one of my favorite interviews I’ve done so far for Fun While It Lasted.

In late May, I was fortunate to track down Bill Kentling, the former Commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League, as well as a General Manager for the MISL’s small market success story of the early 1980’s, the Wichita Wings.   Kentling’s nine-year odyssey in the MISL from 1980 to 1989 coincided with the quick rise of indoor soccer from obscurity to an attraction that rivaled the NBA and NHL in several Midwestern cities followed by an equally rapid decline from national prominence at the end of the 1980’s.

Bill is a gifted storyteller and my requested 20-minute interview turned into a rambling discussion on my experiences in Women’s Professional Soccer and independent baseball, and his experiences with hurricanes, Hot Rod racing and chemo therapy.  It was both a challenge and a pleasure to cull an hour-long MP3 of our conversation down to a still-overly-indulgent nine-page interview on the pro soccer business.

Click here for the interview and enjoy.

No animals were harmed in the production of this post.

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Written by andycrossley

June 27, 2011 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Interviews

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