The Florida International League

It starts to rain, hard.

It’s a warm, thick, almost sticky rain, not really unpleasant. It serves, if not to exactly wash away, then at least to complement the ever-present sheen of sweat that everyone always has around here. Hot and incessantly humid as things are, the rain is never really unwelcome, bringing as it does at least some measure of refreshment.

But full-on rain does require suspension of the ballgame. The fans scamper for shelter, scuttling away from the open-air grandstand to the covered concession areas behind. The groundskeeper struggles with his meager tarps to try and cover the mound and the area around home plate, and several good-hearted players and coaches, from both teams, lend a hand. The rain delay drill is one at which most everyone around here is well-practiced.

Everyone knows that, hard as it’s coming down right now, it’ll let up within a half hour or so. You can see clear blue sky just over there, to the west. It’s just a little rain delay, pretty much a daily rite in this region. A nice chance for the fans to have another beer, maybe light up a cigar, share a long story and a laugh. A nice chance for the players to sit down and catch a breather from the oppressive heat, and to tell some more lies to each other about just how lucky they got during that last road trip down in Havana.

A Class D minor league called the Florida East Coast League was inaugurated in 1940, and operated until disbanding due to World War II on May 14, 1942. The league included ballclubs in Cocoa, Deland, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Hollywood, Miami, Miami Beach, and West Palm Beach.

After the war, the league reappeared in a new form, incorporating most of the same towns, but adding a key newcomer: Havana, Cuba. Now calling itself the Florida International League, and upgraded by the National Association to Class C, it was an immediate success. The Havana Cubans, a farm club of the Washington Senators — a rarity in a league featuring mostly independent clubs — were generally the league’s strongest entry, finishing first every year from 1946 through 1950. Ensconced in florid tropical locales, the FIL presented some colorfully-named ballclubs: the Tampa Smokers, the Miami Beach Flamingos, the Miami Tourists and then the Miami Sun Sox. The league’s status was upgraded to Class B in 1949, and it remained a Class B league through its final season of 1954.

Playing almost entirely at sea level, on perpetually rain-soaked fields, the Florida International League was a pitchers’ league. How much of a pitchers’ league, you ask? Well, let’s see …

- The highest earned run average of any of the league’s ERA leaders through 1953 was an even 2.00.

- In 1946, the league home run champ (Armando Valdes, playing for both Havana and West Palm Beach) had seven.

- The most homers any team hit that season was 18.

- Only one team in the league’s history ever hit as many as 100 home runs.

Still not convinced? Okay, how about this:

Gil Torres was a middle infielder who pitched occasionally, in the major leagues as well as for several seasons in the FIL. In 1952 he turned to pitching full time, and put together a 22-8 season for the Miami Sun Sox. In 273 innings pitched, his ERA was 0.86.

Yes, you read that right: his earned run average was 0.86.

And he didn’t lead the league in ERA.

The 1952 FIL ERA champ was one William Harris, also with the Sun Sox, who had this stat line:

G   GS   CG   IP    W   L  H    BB   SO    ERA
34 *32  *29  *294  *25  6  176  85   120  *0.83

Behind Harris and Torres, the rest of the top ten ERA qualifiers in 1952 (150 or more innings) had marks of 1.19, 1.53, 1.69, 1.77, 1.79, 1.79, 1.83, and 1.84. Eat your heart out, 1968.

This past spring we took a tour of the West Texas-New Mexico League, which was possibly the best hitters’ league of all time. There were a couple of regular hitters who spent time in both leagues. I’ll bet you have no trouble figuring out which of the following seasons were in the FIL, and which were in the WTNML:

Outfielder-infielder Forrest “Frosty” Kennedy, born March 1926:

Year  G    AB   R    H    2B   3B  HR   RBI   BB   SO   SB   BA
1951  129  482   60  148  24   5    7    63   35   52    7  .307
1952  134  548  120  186  32   7   25   128   36   33   23  .339
1953  142  549  156  225  43   4   38   169   98   31    2  .410
1954  112  435  113  162  28   8  *35   120   43   48    5  .372

Kennedy went on to have a 60-homer, 184-RBI season for Plainview, Texas of the Southwest League in 1956.

Outfielder Roberto Fernandez, born October 1927:

Year   G     AB    R     H     2B   3B   HR   RBI   BB   SO   SB    BA
1949   137   591   118  *241  *56    5   14   111   32   41   24  *.408
1950   144   562    73   168   26   11    5    83   30   15    8   .299
1951    93   370    45   115   27    1    3    53   18   24    3   .311
1952   100   390    33    92   14    0    1    33   17   20    6   .236
1952    51   201    32    83   23    4    2    51   17   11    4   .413
1953   142   589   146   233   53   15   29   134   51   24  *45   .396
1954   113   454   102   170   34   11   25   116   42   24   23   .374
1955   135   573   110   215   49    4   23   130   42   37    7   .375

There were two future Hall of Fame outfielders who played in the FIL, both as player-managers. Paul Waner hit .325 in 62 games and 80 at-bats for the Miami Tourists in 1946, and Joe Medwick hit .323 with 10 homers in 375 at-bats for the Miami Beach Flamingos in 1949.

Another former major leaguer who had some good seasons in the FIL was first baseman-outfielder Lou Finney, who put up these marks:

Year   Team             G     AB    R    H    2B   3B  HR  RBI  BB   SO  SB   BA
1947   St. Petersburg   106   389   73   120  26   9   2   77   73   8   4   .308
1948   St. Petersburg   117   395   60   124  27   4   8   63   75   12  3   .314
1949   West Palm Beach   82   175   30   50   10   1   3   30   51   0   1   .286

Yes, you read that right: Finney struck out exactly zero times in at least 226 plate appearances in 1949.

Wow. I don’t care what level of baseball that was: wow.

The best up-and-coming future major leaguers who played in the FIL were:

- Gene Bearden, who was 18-10 with a league-leading 1.63 ERA for Miami Beach in 1940, and 17-7, 2.41 in 1941. Bearden also played quite a bit in the outfield, hitting .276 with 65 RBIs in 323 at-bats in ’41.

- Camilo Pascual, who was 8-6, 2.88 in 122 innings for Havana in 1952, and 10-6, 3.00 in 141 innings in 1953, at the ages of 18 and 19.

And there was one other pretty good ballplayer, Carlos Bernier, who as a Tampa Smoker in 1951, led the league with 124 runs scored, 21 triples, and 51 stolen bases. Bernier is such an intriguing story that we’ll focus on him alone in a forthcoming article.

In a pitchers’ league, the most exciting stats are always produced by pitchers, and the FIL featured three particularly good ones. Just because a league favors pitchers doesn’t mean that its best pitchers can’t be excellent, and these three pitchers were among the very best in minor league history:

Lefthander Chet Covington, born November 1910:

Year   Team            G    IP    W   L    H    BB   SO    ERA
1940   Hollywood       32  *266  *21  10   254  72  *212   2.10
1941   Ft. Pierce      37   241   22   7   198  64   197  *1.90
1946   Tampa          *45  *303  *28   8  *250  55  *260  *1.66
1947   Tampa           17   129   12   2   113  26   108   2.09
1948   Miami           18   109   9    6   96   47    56   2.97
1949   Tampa           22   167   11   9   138  58    91  *1.46
1950   Ft. Lauderdale  36   260   18  11   231  82   105   2.25

In 1947-49, Covington also pitched in three other minor leagues, combining for a 34-13, 2.59 record in 375 innings. Pitching in the double-A Eastern League in 1943, he was named Minor League Player of the Year, on the basis of his *21-7, *1.51, *187 strikeout performance. In his 1939-53 career, Covington was 220-126 in the minor leagues, and his 2.57 minor league ERA is one of the very best ever for a pitcher in a large number of innings.

Righthander Conrado Marrero, born April 1911 (though he passed it off as May 1915 while he pitched in the majors):

Year   Team     G    IP     W    L    H     BB    SO     ERA
1947   Havana   40   271   *25    6   180   46   *251   *1.66
1948   Havana   35   264    20   11   206   24    168   *1.67
1949   Havana   35   258   *25    8   175   47   *167    1.53

Lefthander Clarence “Hooks” Iott, born December 1919:

Year   Team             G    IP    W    L    H     BB    SO    ERA
1951   St. Petersburg   36  *288   22   12   209  *130  *273  *2.00
1952   St. Petersburg   40   260   24   9    193   126  *210   1.83
1953   St. Petersburg   30   176   15   6    138   85    139  *1.99
1954   Greater Miami    10   70     6   3    58    22     62   2.44

In 1941, pitching in the Northeast Arkansas League, on his way to a season in which he would strike out 242 in 159 innings in that league, 299 in 207 minor league innings overall, and — counting the one major league strikeout he had that year — on his way to a 300-strikeout year, Iott fanned 25 in a 9-inning game on June 18th, and 30 in a 16-inning game on July 15th. Overall, Iott had 2,561 strikeouts in 2,875 minor league innings from 1938-57, while compiling a 175-164 won-loss record and a 3.46 minor league ERA.

Attendance in the FIL boomed, peaking at over 900,000 in 1949. But then it swiftly declined. By 1953 it was less than 300,000. In 1954, the flagship Havana franchise moved up to the “real” International League (class AAA), and the Florida International League — no longer “international” at all — was doomed. On May 6, 1954, two of the league’s remaining six franchises folded, and by July 27, 1954, the entire league had collapsed.

To say that Florida, south Florida, the East Coast of Florida, and, most certainly, Havana, Cuba, have changed since the late 1940s and early 1950s, is to engage in epic understatement. The world inhabited by the Florida International League was a very different one than exists today. Miami and Tampa-St. Petersburg are major league cities today, while the location that was clearly the best site for pro baseball in those days — Havana — is, um, not quite within the major league fold.

But the great flowering of international, multicultural, eventually multiracial baseball in the region in the 1940s and early 1950s represents a very interesting development to consider. Much of the Florida International League — one might very well say, the best of it — is alive and well today.

References & Resources
The vast library donated to me by my wonderful uncle Dan Finkle was the primary resource for this piece. Have I mentioned yet that Dan has the Uncle of the Year honors pretty much wrapped up?

The wonderful old SABR publications, “Minor League Baseball Stars,” volumes I and II, were both rich sources of inspiration and hard data.

Anyone interested in minor league history should definitely check out this marvelous site:

http://www.geocities.com/big_bunko/total.htm

Print Friendly
« Previous: Fantasy Midseason Rankings: Catcher
Next: Rock the Vote »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *