Legends On Deck

An Historical Perspective on the Florida State League

The Florida State League will start the 2021 season as a Low-A ball league with 10 franchises.

While the league might have lost two teams ( Charlotte Stone Crabs and Florida Fire Frogs) and changed from A-Advanced to Low-A over the off-season, change has been a major part of FSL history.

In 2000, the Florida State League included teams like the Vero Beach Dodgers, Kissimmee Cobras and Brevard County Manatees. In 1990, there were 14 teams and three divisions, with teams like the Miami Miracle, Baseball City Royals and West Palm Beach Expos.

The Yankees were training in Ft. Lauderdale and the Red Sox were in Winter Haven. The Rangers, White Sox, Royals and Dodgers were all still hosting spring training in Florida and had FSL affiliates.

That was before there were any MLB franchises (Marlins – 1993 and Rays – 1998) in the state of Florida. The original Miami Marlins played in the FSL from 1962-70 and 1980-88, as an affiliate of the Phillies and the Orioles.

Early Days

The Florida State League dates back all the way to the 1919 season. The “Original Six” teams included the Bartow Polkers, Bradenton Growers, Lakeland Highlanders, Orlando Caps, Sanford Celeryfeds and Tampa Smokers. Teams were concentrated in Central Florida, along what today would be the I-4 Corridor (I-4 wasn’t built until 1959).

Sanford won the league’s first title. The FSL would add the St. Petersburg Saints and Daytona Beach Islanders in 1920. Throughout the 1920s, teams like the Miami Hustlers, Sarasota Gulls, West Palm Beach Sheriffs and Fort Myers Palms would join the league. The FSL would be dismantled in 1928.  It would restart in 1936.

The league’s relaunch in 1936 would include a brand-new set of host cities, save Daytona Beach and Sanford. The Deland Reds, Gainesville G-Men, Palatka Azaleas and St. Augustine Saints reoriented the league’s geography. The FSL added the Orlando Gulls and Leesburg Gondoliers in 1937. Orlando would change its nickname to the Senators and Leesburg to the Anglers.

Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the league remained roughly the same. The big change would occur in 1962, when Minor League Baseball decided to restructure.

The Modern Era

The early Florida State League was considered a Class D league.  It is the equivalent of a Rookie League by modern standards. Further restructuring of Minor League Baseball took place following the 1962 season.

Beginning with the 1963 season, the Florida State League became a “Single-A” league. Then, in 1990, the FSL became an A-Advanced or High-A league.

Even though the FSL’s status has been changed in 2021, there’s been a remarkable amount of stability for the league over the course of nearly a century.

The strategic importance of the Florida State League has likely been the reason. Despite the shuffling of teams around the state, the FSL franchises are also exclusively affiliated to teams that host Spring Training in Florida. The only current exception to that rule is the Daytona Tortugas (Reds).

Franchises invest in the facilities and keep some important front office staff working at their Florida location. These investments greatly benefit the players and teams alike.

They also keep the franchises tied to the communities in which they train, although those relationships are often temporary. One exception to that rule is the relationship between the city of Lakeland and the Detroit Tigers.

The longest standing partnership between an MLB franchise and a minor-league affiliate is the Tigers in Lakeland (1967). Lakeland has remained the Spring Training home for the franchise (consecutively) since 1966. Their association predates that by a few years.

Most Grapefruit League teams have moved their Spring Training locations (and FSL affiliates) to the Gulf Coast or Southeast part of the state.  Lakeland remains the only interior city still hosting spring training and an FSL affiliate.

2021 and Beyond

As the Florida State League enters the 2021 season, many changes have swept across Minor League Baseball. The loss of two franchises and downgrading from Advanced-A will impact the FSL in certain ways. Most prospects will debut for their affiliate clubs in the FSL and the top prospects will depart by mid-season (if not sooner).

The FSL, however, remains more intact than many other leagues. The New York-Penn League was completely dismantled. The Pioneer League (Rookie) went independent. The Appalachian League (Rookie) converted to a college wood-bat league.

To survive the 2020 lost season and the 2020-2021 MiLB reorganization is an accomplishment in itself.

The Florida State League is just one league within the umbrella of Minor League Baseball. But it has played such an important role in the history of MiLB and their MLB affiliates.

Each league has its own story to tell. The lost teams, ballparks and players who have passed through all have made their mark on the history of the game.

As the 2021 season approaches, it is time to discover that history and tell those stories.

If the lost season has taught us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t take the game for granted. In 2021, it’s time to support your local team and keep the history, tradition and culture of Minor League Baseball alive for the generations to come.

Brian Koss
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