November 28, 2012
The SPBA's Short Life
In the winter of 1989, a new league played its inaugural games. Formed by Jim Morley, a 33-year-old real estate developer and a group of like-minded owners who "[would] spend in the neighborhood of $1 million the first year", the Senior Professional Baseball Association started play in eight Florida towns for a 72-game season between November and February. Players, who earned no more than $15,000 a month (with an average of $7,000), were required to be 35 years old or older (catchers could be as young as 32). Some famous names, including Vida Blue, Ferguson Jenkins, Rollie Fingers, Amos Otis, Luis Tiant, and Dave Kingman, suited up in the inaugural season. Curt Flood took on the role of commissioner, while Dock Ellis, Dick Williams, Bobby Bonds, and Earl Weaver all joined up as coaches or managers.
The league had a tough time gaining a foothold that winter. This was partly because the league began play in November, a "time of year when tourists are out of season in Florida." According to the November 20, 1989, issue of Sports Illustrated, the league needed to average 2,000 fans a game to break even. At that time, the average was barely half that at 1,113.
A week later, David Letterman made the league the focus of his Top Ten List.
Top 10 things overheard at a senior league baseball game
The Senior Professional Baseball Association did not survive long. By the time its second season began in November 1990, big changes had already occurred: four teams folded, one team relocated, and two other teams (one in California and one in Arizona) were added, while the minimum age was dropped to 34 and the length of the season was shortened to 56 games. The league folded in December, shortly before the halfway point of the season when the Fort Myers franchise told its players not to report. Morley, the league's founder who took the league from an idea dreamed up on the Australian coast to creation in only 10 months, said "his brainchild was probably rushed into existence." There were hopes that the SPBA would turn into the next Senior PGA, a league that was enjoying its heyday at the time with the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, and Arnold Palmer. Instead, it joined the long list of failed leagues in near-record time.