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Legends On Deck

The All Stars Are Ready to Shine for the 100th Anniversary

One of the most recognized ways to celebrate a professional sports league is an All Star game. And, as we celebrate this, the 100th anniversary of the Florida State League, with tonight’s FSL All Star Game, we take a look back at some of the highlights and greatest stars to play in the league over the last century.

It was the summer of 1936. The place was City Island Ballpark, now known as Jackie Robinson Stadium, in Daytona Beach. The event was the first All Star game in the history of the Florida State League. The president of the FSL at the time,

G.E. Gilliland, thought that the time had come for the 17-year-old, eight team circuit to have its own All Star exhibition contest, modeled after the one instituted by Major League Baseball, only a few years earlier. Daytona Beach was still only a small town then, so it was not too unusual that there was only a crowd of 374 to watch the first edition of FSL All Stars defeat the host Daytona Beach Islanders by a score of 25 to 2.

Florida was just beginning to boom, as well as its interest in sports, especially professional baseball. By today’s standards, the attendance figure for that game was not very impressive, but what those die-hard fans lacked in number was far outweighed by their enthusiasm for a relatively new concept: All-Star games in the Minors.

In 1940, Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial posted an 18-5 record as a pitcher for the Daytona Beach Islanders to lead the FSL with a winning percentage of .783. Additionally, he batted .311 in 405 at-bats that same season, mainly as an outfielder. Unfortunately, the league does not maintain individual player information for the FSL All Star Game any further back than 1967. Therefore, when the FSL All Stars defeated the Sanford Lookouts by a 6-2 score, in Sanford, in 1940, one can only assume that Musial was part of the winning team, although it is by no means certain. And if he was on the roster, was it as a pitcher or as an outfielder? Any surviving members of the crowd of 2,681 that day may be the only ones who might know for sure.

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In the entire history of the Florida State League, there have been over a dozen players who have been inducted into The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Some of those players are known to have not been on an FSL All Star Game roster for merely technical reasons. In the case of Jim Palmer, for example, who played for the Miami Marlins for parts of the 1967 and ’68 seasons, he was not an FSL All Star simply because he did not have enough appearances to qualify.

If one goes back to the early years of the league, arguably one of its biggest stars was Al Lopez, for whom Al Lopez Field, in Tampa, was named. Lopez was the catcher for the Tampa Smokers in 1925 and ’26, hitting .315 in 419 at-bats in the latter of his two FSL seasons. He was not, of course, a FSL All Star, for those two years, because this predated the first FSL All-Star game. His records as a player for the Dodgers, Braves and Pirates, as well as managerial career for the Indians and White Sox, earned him a place in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

When Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter was signed to his first pro contract with the Kansas City Athletics, in 1964, he was assigned to the Daytona beach Islanders. However, he did not appear in any games with them and was called up to Kansas City to stay for the season. He never did pitch a single inning in the Minors.

One of Hunter’s Oakland A’s teammates was fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Rollie Fingers, who wore his first professional uniform in the FSL, posting an ERA of 2.98 in 175 innings with the Leesburg Athletics in 1965. Again, as with Musial, it is not known whether or not Fingers played in that year’s FSL All Star Game which was a 4 to 1 win for the “Nationals” at St. Petersburg.

Two more probable FSL All Stars played in the league in 1965: Johnny Bench and Rod Carew — both now members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame. Bench was a catcher for the Tampa Tarpons in 1965, hitting .248 during his maiden professional season. Carew very likely did play in the ’65 FSL All-Star Game as a member of the Orlando Twins as he  hit .303 in 439 at-bats during his first full pro season.

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Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, before becoming a National League All Star for the Montreal Expos, hit .320 for the 1972 West Palm Beach Expos, during the latter half of his first season of pro ball, after a call up from the Rookie Level Cocoa Expos of the Gulf Coast League. However, even though he would have had the numbers to be on that season’s honorary FSL All Star roster, Carter just missed the cutoff time when joining the league.

In 1974, there were no less than three FSL All Stars who had successful Major League careers following their FSL days. One of them was Miami Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray, who hit a league leading 29 doubles that year, which stood as a Miami franchise record for two-baggers for over 20 years. A future Baltimore teammate of Murray, Gary Roenicke, got his start as a third baseman in the Expos organization and made the FSL All Star roster while with West Palm Beach. Future Detroit slugger Ron LeFlore was a member of the Lakeland Tigers that year, making the FSL All Star squad as an outfielder.

Eventual Major League standouts, pitcher Bill Caudill and shortstop Gary Templeton were St. Petersburg Cardinals teammates and FSL All Star roster teammates in 1975. Just one year later, Lou Whitaker made the All Star squad as a third baseman with the Lakeland Tigers and went on to Detroit and a long successful Major League career just a few years later. Pitcher Bob Ojeda (Winter Haven), third sacker Nick Esasky (Tampa), Baseball Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken Jr. (Miami) and outfielder, Lloyd Mosby (Dunedin) were all on the 1979 FSL All Star roster and all went on to notable MLB careers.

Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines, who were both enshrined in Cooperstown in 2017, both spent time in the Florida State League. But, despite solid performances from both during their FSL tenures, neither made it into an FSL All Star Game. Raines hit .287 with the 1978 West Palm Beach Expos in his first full season of pro ball. Bagwell, meanwhile, hit .310 in 64 games with the 1989 Winter Haven Red Sox before being promoted to Class AA, just before the halfway point of the season, missing the opportunity to play in that year’s FSL All Star Game in the process.

Another Hall of Fame catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, was a member of the Charlotte Rangers in 1990, hitting .287 as an 18 year old in his second season of professional baseball. Not surprisingly, he was the starter behind the plate for his AL affiliate squad in that year’s FSL All Star game, played at Dunedin. At the plate he went 0 for 2, but caught several solid innings, helping to lead his team to a 4-3 victory.

The 2003 game, played at Ft. Myers, was won by the East team (by a 4 to 2 score), despite the fact that the West team was loaded by soon to be MLB talent, including the likes of Joe Mauer (Ft. Myers), Robinson Cano (Tampa) and Curtis Granderson (Lakeland), with Granderson playing LF the entire game, going 2 for 3 at the plate with one run scored.

Although a rare occurrence, former St. Louis Cardinals standout and World Series Champion Jason Motte spent four consecutive seasons in the Florida State League, from 2004-07. In the first three of those seasons, he was known as a fairly light-hitting catcher with a rocket arm and a high level of defensive skill. In keeping with that reputation, he went hitless in his single at bat as a FSL All Star but caught multiple solid innings behind the plate in the 2004 game, played at Port St. Lucie. Then, during the 2006 season, he was converted to a pitcher. His fastball often surpassed 100 miles per hour throughout his pitching career. He took the mound for nine games in a Palm Beach uniform the next season, posting an amazing 0.90 ERA. He made it to The Show the very next season after that and went on to help lead the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series title as their closer in 2011. He was then the NL saves leader in 2012 with 42.

The Florida State League All Star Game has surely had its share of interesting twists and ups and downs in its 83 year history (as has the league, itself, in its 100 year history), but most importantly, these games have helped to prove that the old FSL slogan is indeed true: “where the Major League stars of tomorrow play today”. This year’s game promises to be no exception.

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
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