MSBL's driving force reclaims the Game of Baseball…for the rest of us
By Mary Wiggins
(Editor's Note: This article is from the Inaugural issue of HardBall Magazine published in Spring 1991, when MSBL was still in its infancy with about 15,000 members.)
Spring 1991 -- Men all over the country are rummaging around for their gloves and following Steve Sigler, president and founder of the Men's Senior Baseball League, back to the baseball fields of their youth. At 42, Sigler has become the Pied Piper of hardball, reclaiming the game from Little Leaguers and professional players.
Under Sigler's direction, the MSBL has grown amazingly, expanding in just five years from four teams in Long Island, New York to more than 120 leagues and 15,000 members nationwide. In 1990, MSBL teams traveled overseas to compete in the Virgin Islands and Holland. The third annual MSBL World Series brought 97 teams to Tempe, Arizona for one week of intense competition this past October. Anticipated attendance at the 1991 World Series is 125 teams.
How it Started
In 1985, like so many other men, Sigler missed playing baseball. "I had selfish reasons for starting the league,” begins Sigler. "I wanted to have someone to play with.” More than 20 years after pitching and playing second base for Martin Van Buren High in Queens, New York, Sigler's involvement with the game was limited to coaching his sons in Little League and playing softball. "I used to warm up for softball games with a hardball. In between innings, I'd throw the ball around and then put it back in my pocket. For me, softball was always a poor substitute.”
That summer, Sigler pulled together a team of Little League fathers to play against another group of dad from a neighboring town. They played one game and went home. The following season, Sigler placed an ad in the paper and formed a four-team league of players age 30 or over. A short article appeared about them in Newsday, a Long Island/New York daily paper. Within days, 500 callers contacted Sigler. The league expanded to 17 teams the following year.
"At that time, I had no idea the league would grow like it did,” Sigler recalls. "All I knew was I was playing hardball, and I was happy.”
A phone call from his wife Connie sparked Sigler's interest in the possibility of national play. From an article in GQ about California assemblyman Tom Hayden, Connie learned about Hayden's love of baseball and his Dodgertown West League. She called her husband at work and suggested getting in touch with Hayden. Sigler did—and at Hayden's invitation, headed west with an all-star team for a five-game series with the California league. After winning four of five games, Sigler returned home to Jericho, N.Y. pumped up—not only because of his team's success, but by the thought of competing on a national basis.
Pitching the Idea
Using the dining of his home as a command post, Sigler began pitching his idea for a national hardball organization to sports editors throughout the country. A baseball evangelist, Sigler spread the word that there was no reason men had to give up the game they loved. "Men over 30 still had the ability to play hardball, but it had become ingrained in our minds that we should automatically move to softball. Well, I took exception to that. And I knew that the key to the league's success was letting the public know that there was an alternative.”
Sigler was relentless. If an editor didn't return his phone call, he called back. If they put him off, he called back. "Thinking about it now, I can't believe the nerve I had,” Sigler laughs. "Sometimes it took an entire year to get a story published—like in Denver.”
But some editors said yes. Some, like a sportswriter in San Jose, wrote articles that created a 20-team league almost overnight. Sigler has been on a role ever since—a story about the league in Sports Illustrated drew 2500 responses in 10 days a catapulted the MSBL into national prominence. Sigler has appeared on The Today Show and Good Morning America, and has successfully peddled the MSBL World Series to the Sports Channel America cable network.
How did one man orchestrate a media blitz and a national movement of "senior” men back to home plate? "I don't think 10 people could have accomplished what he did,” says Val Lewis, president of the 19-team Sacramento Veterans MSBL League. "He's confident, aggressive, and has tremendous energy. Some might his style as arrogant, but we know what it takes to put something like this together, and we appreciate his efforts,” Lewis stresses.
Joe Casazza was driving home in Allentown, Pennsylvania two years ago when he heard an interview with Sigler on a local sports talk show. "I felt like he was talking directly to me.” Casazza explains. Now president of Lehigh Valley MSBL, Casazza initially had no intention of managing a league. "I was just thrilled to death to have a chance to play ball again. Steve needed a local contact in the area to get the league started, and my wife and I agreed to be it.”
"We knew absolutely nothing about managing a league. Steve took Rhonda and me through it step by step. We panicked at first—we got 100 calls from a story in the paper. I was calling Steve all the time.” With the continued expansion of their 20-team league, the Casazzas added a separate phone line and surrendered their dining room to the MSBL.
"I love Steve,” continues Casazza. "He always finds time for leagues outside of Long Island. Last year, he came and threw the first pitch at our all-star tournament. He stays in touch with all the leagues at least once a month. That makes me feel pretty good. I wish I was more like him. I wish I had his energy.”
Adds Lewis, "Steve has the rare ability to remember every person he meets. He remembers players In my league who he's never even met.”
The bulk of Sigler's work was getting new leagues up and running, but he recruited existing leagues into the national organization. "I started a league for guys 35 and over in 1984,” Lewis says. "We had six teams when Sigler contacted me in 1988. We grew to 19 teams in 1990 and expect to expand to 24 this year. I know that the reason for our growth is the interest our guys have in competing nationally. They love everything about the MSBL.”
John Freitas, president of the MSBL Nor-Cal Old Timer's League, was eager to be part of Sigler's national organization. "What impressed me most about Steve was that he had a clear vision from the very beginning of men over 30 playing hardball,” says Freitas. "People don't realize how this whole national league happened—but it's absolutely remarkable.” The Nor-Cal hardball league dates back to the 1940s.
"Steve was doing what was on my mind for 10 years—but on a grand scale. My vision was so limited, but Steve's taken my biggest dreams and made them real,” Freitas concluded.
According to Sigler, the enormous success of the MSBL can be attributed to four major factors: love of baseball, the experience and camaraderie brought about by contemporaries playing together, the minimal time commitment (unless you manage a league), and the chance to be a part of a much larger organization and compete nationally.
He also credits the commitment and work of the league presidents. "By keeping their own leagues in order, the presidents bring cohesiveness and stability of the entire organization,” Sigler says. "Their confidence in me and support of the MSBL has been very rewarding,” he says. Some leagues are now in their fourth year of operation.
The World Series
Integral to the MSBL experience is the annual World Series—a week-long event that draws teams from all over the United States and even a few from overseas.
"The World Series is the most satisfying part of what I do,” Sigler notes. "Those players embody the spirit that brought us all together in the first place. It's the most competitive situation, yet to see people enjoying the game with an adult attitude—with a sense of sportsmanship—that's terrific.
"Of course, a month before the event it starts getting very hectic for me. I'm probably one of the few people who doesn't have a good time in Tempe. But that's my job. I feel a very strong sense of obligation to the players and their families who have spent their money and taken time off from work to compete. I relax a little after it's all over—and two days later, I start all over again.
Planning the World Series alone would prove daunting to most people, but that's just part of Sigler's responsibilities as national president. Obtaining sponsorships, organizing regional tournaments, negotiating with television networks, trying to secure publicity, as well as the day-to-day business of running the league, requires an enormous time commitment. Does Sigler ever get tired of it?
"I'd be lying if I told you no. It is hard to try and stay up on baseball all the time. Sometimes I wish I could just wash my hands of it and come back two weeks later with a fresh mind. But it's impossible with everything happening so quickly.” Every evening, Sigler returns from his job as chief financial officer for a stationery company and retreats for a few hours to MSBL headquarters—his basement office.
Sigler acknowledges that there have been a few disappointing moments. "When I see a player lose perspective on the field and throw a helmet or curse at an umpire, it really disturbs me. I guess it's going to happen, but that kind of behavior is not what we're about.”
Sigler points to the new 23- to 29-year-old division as the latest opportunity for league expansion. "I'm excited about the Junior Division*, but I think a lack of playing fields will curtail their growth in some areas. As we gain credibility, I'm sure more facilities will be built. It's really hard to say what the future will bring. Who would have thought 12 months ago that I would be taking a team to Holland or that they would come here? Who would have thought I'd get a letter from a guy in Australia wanting to start a league there?”
League presidents have their own thoughts on the future. "I see the league becoming very international—and larger than the Little League program,” says Sacramento's Val Lewis. "The demographics are there and the pressure you felt when you played as a kid is gone. I've had the opportunity to live out a lot of my dreams—play with ex-pro players, play overseas, play in major league ballparks—I've had all the benefits of a major league player without the heartbreak or the sacrifices,” he says.
"This is only the beginning,” agrees Casazza. "It's going to continue to spread like wildfire.”
"The new junior division ensures the continuation of the over-30 and over-40 league. Steve jokes about it, but of course there will be an over-50 league. Maybe an over-60 league,” laughs Nor-Cal's Freitas.
One of the biggest challenges, as Sigler sees it, is to try to keep the closeness despite the explosive growth of the league. "Communication is critical. That's where this magazine will help. I see continued growth for the league, continued benefits for members. I don't know who my next letter will be from or what the next call will bring—it's not like I have a checklist of things that the MSBL has to accomplish.”
Sigler concludes: "I have the singular satisfaction of being responsible for starting this organization—and I think anybody would take pride in that. I'm very dedicated and I intend to take the MSBL just as far as it will go.”
Mary Wiggins is a writer in Houston Texas and wife of Bruce Wiggins, founder of the Houston MSBL
Link to Sports Illustrated Story:
NOTE: *Junior Division later renamed to Men's Adult Baseball League (MABL)