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Legends On Deck

Twist of Fate: The 77-year History of the Miracle Franchise

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Photo by: Gabe Rodriguez/LOD

Most Minor League Baseball fans who have followed the Miracle since their move to Ft. Myers in 1992 know that the franchise has gained a good, solid reputation for sending several of its alumni on to the Minnesota Twins. The more ardent trivia buff may also know that the franchise had a long standing tenure in Miami, mainly as an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. But, what many fans probably don’t know is that the franchise has won five Florida State League championships and has sent literally dozens of former players to the Majors including two Hall of Famers and a few future Hall of Famers such as Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray. The franchise has also had full affiliations with three other Major League teams beside the Twins over the course of its existence – one that traces its roots back over seven decades! What might be the most surprising of all, however, is that years before the champagne flowed in Miami, the Miracle franchise had humble beginnings that can be traced as far back as 1926, when the club took the field for the very first time as the Fort Myers Palms.

The year it all began, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford still called Ft. Myers their Winter home, Terry Park was still brand new and the Florida State League, itself only seven years old, operated at the Class D level. The Palms posted a 69-51 record in the young eight-team circuit, which was good enough for third-place finish, just five games behind the runner-up Tampa Smokers and 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Sanford Celeryfeds. Since this was during the “dead-ball” era, four home runs was all it was going to take for Palms outfielder Phil Grandio to tie for the league lead on round trippers for the season.

After their debut campaign at Terry Park, the Palms moved to Miami Field which was on the Southwest corner of what is now the Orange Bowl Stadium parking lot. A twist of fate would bring the team back to the City of Palms 66 years later. The franchise did not take the Palms moniker with them upon their move to Florida’s East coast, and were initially simply known as the Miami Base Ball Club. Legend has it that Jack Bell, the Miami Herald sports editor at the time, used to refer to the team as “Holloway’s Hustlers” – a tribute to player-manager Bill Holloway. Soon, the team became more officially known as the Miami Hustlers.

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As a player, Holloway was a hard-hitting first-baseman. As a manager, Holloway guided the Hustlers to a second-half pennant, losing to the Orlando Colts 4 games to 3 in the F.S.L. championship series. Not only did the Hustlers manage to come within one game of capturing the league title, they also featured two players who posted league leads in offensive and defensive categories, respectively. Hustlers outfielder Faustin “Smackem” Casaras won the league batting title, hitting .318 on the year and also led in home runs with 15 as well as tying for the runs-scored category with 78. In the defensive category, ace right-hander “E. E.” Brower led the FSL circuit in wins with 28. Despite their success on the field, the Miami Hustlers disbanded halfway into the 1928 season, along with the rest of the league. The F.S.L. remained inactive until 1936 and then temporarily disbanded again during World War II. When the league reorganized in ‘36 and ‘46, respectively, the Hustlers were an inactive franchise on both occasions. Miami had various other minor league franchises in other leagues during the 40’s and 50’s, but it was not until 1962 that the Hustlers again became an active franchise in the Florida Sate League.

This time the franchise was called the Miami Marlins and was a Class D affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Marlins got their name from the AAA Miami Marlins franchise that played in the International League from 1956-60. The new Miami Marlins played their home games at Miami Stadium which was built by Jose Manuel Aleman, owner of the Miami Sun Sox, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, of the now – defunct Florida International League. The stadium, featuring a capacity of almost 14,000 was, and still is, the largest stadium ever to be used regularly by a Florida State League franchise. The stadium, which had also been used for Spring Training for most of its existence by the Brooklyn Dodgers and, later, by the Baltimore Orioles, respectively, was opened in 1949 and was demolished during the summer of 2001. The last year that the Orioles trained there was 1990.

Present Day Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, who was a hopeful young pitching prospect in the Phillies system, hurled a 7-2 record with a 0.97 ERA in ‘62 and a 12-5 record in ‘63 for the Marlins. Manager Andy Seminick piloted the club to a 67-57 record – only 5 1/2 games out of first-place for the season. Marlins outfielder Alex Johnson, who later made The Show with the Phillies, won the league batting title with a .313 clip on the year. One of the most interesting occurrences for the squad that season took place on April 23 when Miami shortstop Ernesto De La Osa turned an unassisted triple play against the Ft. Lauderdale Yankees in his professional debut. Proving that F.S.L. Baseball was alive and well in Miami, the Marlins drew 90,887 fans for the season which was a league high.

In 1963 there was a restructuring of the classification system all around Minor League Baseball, which resulted in the F.S.L. jumping from Class D to its current status of Class A. Despite a 58-65 record, the Marlins still led the league in attendance with 75,349 at the gate. Infielder John Mustion led the league in hits with 143 and in runs with 85. In 1964, the Marlins drew the Florida State League single-season attendance high with 103,687 despite finishing 19 1/2 games out of first-place. No other franchise in the league drew over the 100,000 mark during the decade. In early 1966, the Marlins became an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. When they took the field for a road game against the St. Petersburg Cardinals at Al Lang Field later that season, on the evening of June 14, neither side could have fathomed that they would still be playing that same contest almost 7 hours later. The game went on for a full 29 frames and lasted, officially, 6 hours and 59 minutes, finally ending on June 15 at 2:29 AM.

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Marlins catcher Charlie Sands, who a few years later played for the New York Yankees, caught the entire game, losing 25 pounds and landing himself in the hospital for three days in the process. Marlins centerfielder Fred Rico knocked in pitcher Mike Hebert with a one-out bases loaded sacrifice fly to put the Marlins ahead for good at 4-3 in the top of the 29th inning. At the time, it was the longest game, both in innings and time elapsed, ever to be played in all of professional baseball. The record stood until 1981. Over 3 decades later, it is still a record for the Florida State League.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer briefly took the mound for the Marlins one year later going 1-1 in 27 innings pitched with an ERA of 2.00, during a physical rehabilitation assignment under the supervision of Miami manager Cal Ripken Sr. Palmer had just defeated Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in game four of the World Series the previous year. In 1968, with their first F.S.L. championship still one year away, Palmer took the mound for Miami once more, posting a perfect ERA in 8 innings pitched during another rehab stint.

After coming within one game of winning the F.S.L. pennant for ‘68, the Marlins won their first of four consecutive league titles in ‘69, going 80-52 for the year under manager Woody Smith. Miami right-hander John Montegue led the league with a 1.53 ERA. In 1971, the Marlins were bought outright by the Baltimore Orioles. It was at this time that the Marlins became known officially as the Miami Orioles, although they were consistently referred to as the “Baby O’s” by the local Miami press, so much so that many thought that it was their official moniker. With most of the ‘70 Marlins roster returning and Woody Smith still at the helm, the newly christened Miami club rolled with ease to their 3rd straight F.S.L. flag with a 94-47 record, squashing the second place Cocoa Astros by a full 13 games in the standings. Not surprisingly, the Baby O’s led the league in all offensive categories and all defensive categories except strikeouts. Outfielder Jim Fuller blasted 33 home runs to tie for the F.S.L. all time seasonal mark. As the 1973 season drew to a close, the Miami dynasty was finally slowed down by the St. Petersburg Cardinals, who knocked off the Orioles in the first round of the playoffs. The corks stayed on the champagne bottles until 1978, when manager Jimmy Williams led the Orioles to their 5th and, to date, last F.S.L. crown.

In the meantime, though, Miami fans were treated to a stellar performance by Dennis Martinez, as he went 15-6 in 1974 while making his professional debut with the Baby O’s. He posted a 12-4 mark with Miami the following season on his way to taking the mound for Baltimore in 1976. Martinez also had a brief elbow rehab stint with Miami in 1980, posting an ERA of 0.00 in 12 innings pitched. One of Martinez’s teammates in ‘74 was first-baseman Eddie Murray who contributed to Miami’s win column with a .289 batting average and 29 doubles on the year, which was a franchise record for two baggers until 1996 when it was finally broken by Doug Mientkiewicz. One of Murray’s most important future teammates in Baltimore, was Cal Ripken Jr. who hit .303 for Miami with 28 doubles in 1979.

This was a milestone for the young Ripken as it marked his first full season in professional baseball. Ripken also hit his first pro home run that year while wearing a Miami uniform, as he launched a two-out pitch over the left field wall in West Palm Beach to secure a 12th inning victory against the Expos on July 2. After having already sold the Miami Orioles franchise back to local investors in 1976, Baltimore ended its 16 year affiliation with Miami following the 1981 season. The franchise dusted off the old Marlins moniker and became an independent entry for the ‘82 F.S.L. season. Under the direction of V.P. / General Manager Sonny Hirsch, the Marlins filled out most of the roster on their own, utilizing the talents of undrafted players from the local area and free agents from various different organizations. They also had players on loan from various other teams, including Baltimore and San Diego. One of the players Hirsch signed was local high school hero Jose Canseco who made his professional debut in Miami before signing with Oakland.

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In 1983, the Marlins signed a two-year Player Development Contract with San Diego making Miami the top Class A Padres affiliate. Several ex-Marlins made it to The Show on the West coast, the most notable of which was catcher Benito Santiago who made his professional debut with Miami in 1983 at the age of 18. The Marlins were officially independent once again from 1985 to 1988. As in ‘82, several organizations including Baltimore, Pittsburgh and even Tokyo put some of their top prospects on the Miami roster. The franchise even gained national attention in 1985 for signing 11 ex-major leaguers to its roster. Articles about Miami’s former big leaguers appeared in Sports Illustrated and in a cover story for Baseball America. The list included infielder Todd Cruz from the ‘83 Orioles World Series Champions as well as veteran ace pitchers Mike Torrez and Eric Rasmussen. Many Miracle fans know that Rasmussen came back to the franchise in ‘96 as the pitching coach. A few more big league veterans were added over the next two seasons, including Dennis Martinez who came back to the franchise once again as a free agent. He started 3 games in ‘87 before resigning with the Montreal Expos. Four years later while still with Montreal, he became just the 13th Major League pitcher this century to pitch a perfect game.

In 1989, the Marlins were sold to a group of investors including actor Bill Murray and singer Jimmy Buffett. The team’s name was changed to the Miami Miracle and they moved out of Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium to the West end of town at Florida International University’s University Park. In 1990, the Miracle were sold once again to a group including current majority owner Marvin Goldklang. Goldklang was no stranger to the baseball business as he owned interests in several other successful minor league franchises and still owns interests in several minor league clubs and is a limited partner with the New York Yankees.

While Murray and Buffett still retained their share of the Miracle partnership, one of the other new faces to the Miracle group for 1990 was President Mike Veeck, son of the late baseball owner/administrator and Hall of Fame inductee Bill Veeck. Having already spent 10 years in advertising and 6 1/2 years with the Chicago White Sox, Mike knew what it took to successfully run a baseball franchise. After all, baseball was in his blood. Under Veeck’s leadership, the club moved to Pompano Beach and nearly tripled their attendance figure over the 1989 total. Like his dad, Veeck was known for his wacky promotions that made people want to come out to the ballpark for an evening of family-oriented fun. The team mascot for the year was a highly trained golden retriever named Jericho, who served as a ball boy on the field and goodwill ambassador to the kids. Legend has it that Veeck discovered Jericho when the dog was a part-time employee at a Pompano area Farm Stores. Veeck drove up, placed his order, and was a little surprised to see a golden retriever bringing him his groceries.

Jericho made national news in print and T.V. media, bringing further recognition to the Miracle. Jericho passed on in 1995, but his son Toucan and even his grandson Jackson were both Miracle employees. His great-grandson, Rutgers, is currently keeping the family legacy alive as a Miracle employee. Showing an eye for on-field operations as well, Veeck again made the national news by drafting 16 players for the Miracle in the June free agent draft on June 4, 1990. It was the first time in recent memory that a minor league club had participated in the draft. Right hand pitcher Charlie Rogers, one of the draftees, tied an F.S.L. record by striking out 20 as he notched a 10-1 win for the Miracle over Baseball City on August 25th.

In a strange twist of fate, the Miracle franchise returned to Ft. Myers as the home team in 1992 after a 66-year absence. Ft. Myers had been without a pro baseball franchise since the F.S.L. Royals had moved to Baseball City almost half a decade earlier. Proving that Minor League Baseball was still very popular in South West Florida, the Miracle drew 105,578 fans to the Lee County Sports Complex for the ‘92 season. This was the franchise’s highest total to that date. After spending the ‘92 campaign as a co-op club, the Miracle became a full affiliate of the Minnesota Twins in 1993.

After having decent outings during ‘93 and ‘94, as well as having several future Twins on their roster, the Miracle won the F.S.L. West Division Championship in 1995, posting a highly respectable 75-55 record for the year, with the second highest winning percentage in the league. After defeating the Tampa Yankees two games to one in the first round of playoffs, the Miracle came within one victory of their 6th F.S.L. crown, losing the best-of-five championship series 3 games to two, to the powerhouse Daytona Cubs.In their nine years as the Twins’ top Class A affiliate, the Miracle have sent several dozen players to The Show and many more are likely to follow in the near future.

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Photo Courtesy of www.CNBC.com

Just a few who have already made it include All-Star pitchers Brad Radke and Joe Mays and 2001 Gold Glovers, Doug Mientkiewicz and Torii Hunter. Radke, who spent most of ‘93 with the Miracle, made his big league debut with the Twins on April 29, 1995 in a relief appearance against Baltimore. In 1997, he was a strong contender for the AL Cy Young Award, while winning 20 games that included a Minnesota franchise record of winning 12 consecutive starts. Mays, who notched 17 wins for the Twins in 2001, was 7-2 for the Miracle during the 1998 campaign. During his tenure with Ft. Myers, Mays pitched for the Western Division in the F.S.L. All- Star game. He duplicated that feat, on the Major League level, two years ago, as he pitched one perfect inning for the American League in the 2001 Mid-Summer Classic. Mientkiewicz hit .245, while playing first base for the Miracle during the 1995 season, in his professional debut. The next year, the recent Gold-glover improved to .291 in 133 games for the Miracle. Fellow Twins Gold-glover, Hunter, hit .246 in 113 games for the Miracle, in 1995. He also played four games in Ft. Myers during the 1996 season, before being promoted to Class AA New Britain. Hunter first played in the Twins outfield in 1998, after making his Major League debut as a pinch-runner in 1997, just one year removed from the Miracle outfield.

So, this is the story of the Miracle franchise – a history of 77 years, 3 cities, 5 league championships, 2 alumni already in Cooperstown and several more headed there – a tale of one twist of fate, hundreds of players and thousands of fans just like you who make it all happen.

Copyright 1998, 2000, 2002 Kurt Schweizer

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Editor’s Note: This post is a reprint of the original article that Kurt had posted in the 2002 Fort Myers Miracle Souvenir Program.

Kurt Schweizer

Kurt Schweizer

Schweizer is a writer, musician, photographer and a minor league baseball historian. His formal experience in the baseball world includes a stint as an intern, account executive and radio producer/broadcaster for the Fort Myers Miracle of the Florida State League from 1997-1999. Schweizer has written on the history of the Miami Marlins/Ft. Myers Miracle franchise and his work has been featured on the team's website, as well as other various locations on the internet and in official team publications for the Miracle and the Minnesota Twins. In 2001, Schweizer was one of the founding members of The Minor League Baseball Alumni Association. In 2007, Schweizer served as one of the main interviewees, as well as a contributing photographer and historical consultant for a PBS documentary titled, "White Elephant: What is there to save?", dealing with the history of Miami Stadium.
Kurt Schweizer