“Even to make love, you need experience.”
~Pedro Ramos, 54-year-old pitcher for the Senior Professional Baseball Association. Seriously.
As a nation, we have more options for live sporting events then we know what to do with. Between high school, college, and professional levels of football, baseball, basketball, and sure, hockey, Americans could conceivably see a live sporting event every single day of the year without even having to consider lowering themselves to watch a Major League Soccer match. But with so many games at our disposal, we’ve reached a bit of a saturation point, and trying to add another league to the market is practically impossible. Remember the XFL? A multi-millionaire tried to make a new football league, and even with a player named “He Hate Me” basically got laughed out of existence in less than a year.
It’s hard to start a sporting league now and really get enough interest to keep it in existence. Never was that more obvious than in 1989 when real-estate millionaire Jim Morley decided to start the Senior Professional Baseball Association. What’s the SPBA, you ask? Well, unfortunately for those of us that have to type it out, they didn’t call it that. It went by “The Senior League.” But the Senior League was a short lived (it lasted one-and-a-half seasons) winter professional baseball league that took place entirely in Florida with players who had to be older than 35 (except the catchers, who could be 32). And it is probably one of the most delightfully batshit leagues to have ever been played in these United States. So let’s go on a history lesson, shall we?
The History of the Senior Professional Baseball Association
The Senior Professional Baseball Association started much the same way most entertainment organizations start in this country—some rich white dude got bored. In this case, it was Jim Morley, a 33-year-old millionaire who, while on a month-long Australia vacation with his girlfriend, randomly thought, in his own words, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a senior baseball league.” Instead of piecing together how that random thought came to him around the exact same time he started noticing a strong smell of burnt toast and realizing something was wrong, he instead decided to roll with this idea, ignoring his girlfriend for the rest of the trip and writing up 35 pages of baseball league plans on a legal pad. When he returned to the states, probably now single and with severe permanent damage to the language sector of his brain, he sent out inquiries to 1,250 former players to see if they would want to play in a professional senior league.
He got back 730 positive responses, and began working to rush the league into existence. The winter league would operate under standard baseball rules, but with eight teams based in different cities in Florida. Now, when you read “the entire league was comprised of teams from Florida” you probably thought one of two things. One is “Huh, so it’s a ‘Senior League’ and it takes place in the one place where senior citizens stereotypically retire to.” The other is, “Wait, so they’re limiting their attendance numbers to the population of just one state?”
Morley, who briefly played in the minor leagues as a weak-hitting outfielder, decided he would set his franchise in St. Petersburg and became the owner of the Pelicans, a name we would mock if it weren’t for the NBA. They would go on to win the championship in the inaugural 1989 season, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is that Morley, who at 33 was too young to play in the league, basically said “fuck off, I made the rules I can break them” and played in two games, getting three hits in six at bats. And no one really gave a shit!
Pictured right, a breaker of rules, a man who cannot be tamed. Ladies.
The rules were pretty clear cut for people who weren’t named Jim Morley. To play, you had to be over the age of 35, though catchers were allowed to be as young as 32. Eight teams, playing in two divisions, based in Florida would play a 72 game season, at the end of which the top four teams would play a three game, single elimination tournament. Otherwise, the game rules were the same as any other baseball game. The level of play was described by Morley as around that of a AAA League, with slower, but more experienced players. The marquee players of the league included future Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Ferguson Jenkins, as well as Vida Blue, and Dave Kingman. Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver coached the Gold Coast Suns, and Curt Flood, a former Major League outfielder, served as the commissioner. The oldest player was Ed Rakow, a 54-year-old pitcher who tossed a 70 mile an hour “slowball” and actually compared playing baseball in his 50s to having sex in this article’s opening quotation. That’s a thing he said in real life.
The first season was not much of a success—the average attendance league-wide was just 911 people per game. Apparently, it was hard to convince the entire state of Florida to pay to attend a senior circuit baseball game during the winter. Who would have guessed? (Everyone. Everyone would have guessed.) The following season, they lost four teams, had one team become a “traveling team” (so basically a team with no home stadium) and added clubs in Arizona and California. The season was shortened to 56, and the minimum age was lowered to 34, which just so happened to be Jim Morley’s age at the time (hmmm). Of course, the season ended up being shortened even more, because the league folded after just 25 games, ending this strange, beautiful experiment.
The important thing is that they tried.
The league wasn’t a total wash for all those involved, however. If thought at any point reading this article “Wait, it’s not really that unusual to see a 35-year-old playing baseball in the Major Leagues” you’d be absolutely correct. Seven players have been confirmed to have signed major league contracts after their short time in the Senior League, with five of them actually making the big show for a period of time. And one of the two players that got a contract out of the deal but didn’t make it all the way to the majors happens to be the only name on the list you have probably heard of—future Texans manager, Ron Washington.
As Rocky Balboa says, repeatedly and in an increasingly difficult hard to understand tone, you’re never too old to give up on your dreams. And there is something wonderfully American about baseball players well past their prime deciding, you know what, let’s give it another go, even if it’s in a laughable Florida-based startup league. We can respect that. And we can salute it.