Miami Hustlers: Magic City’s First Officially Sanctioned Minor League Team

This article was written by Sam Zygner

This article was published in the Fall 2020 Baseball Research Journal


Major league baseball arrived in South Florida on April 5, 1993, when the Florida Marlins took to the field against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Joe Robbie Stadium. Prior to this momentous day, there existed a long and largely forgotten history of minor league baseball in Miami.

On April 6, 1927, Florida State League president J.B. Asher extended an invitation to a group of community leaders headed by Louis K. MacReynolds to join the Class D league. Asher’s goal was to expand his league to the south and replace failed teams in Bradenton, Fort Myers, and Lakeland, Florida. Asher took advantage of the city’s rapidly growing population in order to increase attendance in his financially strapped league.1

MacReynolds, and other representatives from Miami, were quick to accept the offer to join the FSL. As part of the arrangement, the floundering Bradenton Growers would transfer to Miami to play their home games at Miami Field (formerly Tatum Park/Field).2

On April 11, a formal announcement by MacReynolds, declared that the Magic City would have its first officially recognized minor league team approved by the National Association, the governing body of minor league baseball. Under the direction of president W.B. Kirby, the team would begin play during the 1927 season featuring a split-season format with the first and second half leaders meeting in a best-of-seven series for the championship.3

In short order, the team received the moniker “Hustlers” and named new player-manager William “Bill” Holloway to lead the club. A first baseman by trade, Holloway previously played with Bloomington (1922) and Rockford (1923) of the Class-B III-League before moving to Florida and catching on with an independent team that moved fromDaytona Beach to Clearwater.4

Tryouts to fill the 14-man roster began in earnest with the opener set for April 21. The late start posed several problems—including the late arrival of equipment and uniforms as well as the hastily built roster—which the team paid dearly for during the first half of the scheduled split season.5

An overflow, standing-room-only crowd of 5,000 greeted the Hustlers for opening day at Miami Field (capacity 3,400). Pre-game ceremonies including a parade through town led by the Fireman’s Band, putting many of the locals in quite the festive mood.6 Miami city manager Frank Wharton, with his customary cigar clenched firmly between his teeth, threw out the first ball to a chorus of cheers.7 Unfortunately, for the hometown supporters, the Hustlers were not up to the task against the visiting Sarasota Tarpons. Miami starting pitcher Joe Domingo was chased early leaving Holloway to call on Dick Peel to finish the game. The Tarpons prevailed, 7–5, the beneficiaries of four Miami errors, two by shortstop Rip Turner.8

Early season results continued to be disappointing after the Hustlers dropped 16 of their first 22 games. Before closing out the first half, Miami experienced an 18-game losing skein and fell deeply into last place.

 

FIRST HALF STANDINGS

  W L GB
Orlando Colts 38 26
Sarasota Tarpons 36 29 2.5
Tampa Smokers 35 29 3
Sanford Celeryfeds 33 30 4.5
St. Petersburg Saints 32 30 5
Miami Hustlers 18 48 21

 

Wholesale changes were in order based on the disastrous first-half results. W.B. Kirby resigned as team president and Holloway stepped aside as manager. Taking over control of the club was Smiley Tatum, a prominent land developer and entrepreneur, who was the driving force in constructing Miami Field. With the intention of turning his club around, Tatum immediately recruited and named Henry “Cotton” Knaupp as his new manager.9 The 38-year old, flaxen-haired former mid-infielder brought with him a wealth of experience. He began his professional career as a player in 1910 with the Victoria Rosebuds of the Southwest Texas League. So impressive was the 20-year-old that the Cleveland Indians signed him to serve as their reserve shortstop. After a pair of campaigns with the Tribe, he returned to the minors for 17 more seasons, twelve with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, where he became a local diamond legend.10,11

Knaupp brought immediate discipline to the club and dispelled the negative attitudes that had festered previously. He began by completely rebuilding the roster. One of his first moves was signing an upstart pitcher from the West Coast, “Lefty” Wetsell (sometimes spelled Wetzel). He followed by releasing infielders Eddie Dean and C.E. Vincent, pitcher Heinie Hymel, and outfielder J.W. Richards, and inked Benjamin Keyes from the Cotton States League, as well as pitcher “Hy” Meyer (sometimes spelled as “Hi” and Myers). He also shifted former Cincinnati Reds prospect Walter “Babe” Bennin from behind the plate to the outfield.12

Throughout the summer, Knaupp tinkered with the roster and made all the right moves. He accepted the resignation of Holloway, who had stayed on to play first base, and released infielder Mike Maloney. He recruited new blood, including new shortstop Clint Bingham, first baseman Cotton Tatum, and Matt Hinkle.13

Bingham and Tatum shored up the shaky infield defense, while pasture worker Fausto “Cas” Casares, one of the few to survive the changes, continued to drive the offense as their leading home-run hitter. At the same time, Miami developed the league’s top pitching staff, consisting of Chad “Georgia” Davis, Meyer, Dick Peel, and Wetsell.

The improved Hustlers played with newfound enthusiasm, engaging in a tight pennant race with the Sanford Celeryfeds (the colorful nickname referencing the city as the celery capital of the world) during the second half. Miami received a temporary setback on July 26 when Peel, the only pitcher remaining from the opening day roster, went down with a leg injury during a pre-game warmup. Knaupp moved quickly and replaced the injured hurler with pitcher Buster “Lefty” Brown.14 Later he would add Pryor “Chief” McBee, who had appeared briefly with the Chicago White Sox in 1926. The latter arrived from Jacksonville of the Class-B Southeastern League.15

On August 17, the Hustlers passed Sanford in the standings, pasting St. Petersburg, 7–2, while Tampa pummeled the Celeryfeds, 10–4. Bennin led Miami’s offense with a trio of base knocks while Davis earned another “W” with help from Meyer, to close out the game and seal the deal.16

Miami finished the season strong, winning 16 of their final 20 games, putting three games between them and Sanford. Knaupp did not rest on his laurels and continued to fortify his club in order to compete for a championship by acquiring two St. Petersburg stars, pitcher Jose “Joe” Hernández, and Saints hitter Bill Brazier, a minor league veteran.17

On September 4, Hernandez tossed a 5–0 shutout at Miami Field, clinching the second half championship for the Hustlers. The “Knauppmen” recorded only five hits. They made the most of their opportunities, plating all of their runs in the sixth inning, highlighted by Hernández helping his own cause with a triple. Miami had gone from the basement to the penthouse in the biggest turnaround in the short history of the FSL (established in 1919).18

Sanford, the previous year’s champions that fell short of qualifying for postseason play, felt slighted by Miami’s roster moves. The Celeryfeds lodged a complaint with the league’s offices pointing out that Miami broke a league rule that stated, “Only up to three players with higher level professional experience are allowed per team.” Wetsell, accused of being the fourth player with said experience, made Miami ineligible to compete for the FSL championship. Upon further review by league officials, the Sanford protest was overturned and Miami was able to meet Orlando to determine the league champion.19

 

SECOND HALF STANDINGS

  W L GB
Miami Hustlers 39 20
Sanford Celeryfeds 35 23 3.5
Orlando Colts 33 26 6
Sarasota Tarpons 26 33 13
Tampa Smokers 22 36 16.5
St. Petersburg Saints 20 37 18

 

On September 7, the championship series began under a canopy of dark clouds, as rain battered the opener at Orlando’s Tinker Field, leading to a postponement. The series resumed the next day under clearer skies, but with tempers running high between the two clubs. McBee, who joined Miami late in the season, squared off against the Colts’ best starter, “Red” Sweeney. The game featured several arguments and questionable calls by the umpires. The first of two major brouhahas came in the third inning on a tag up play, when Orlando’s Paul Kirby left second base too early and was called out. Manager Phil Wells (who also served as the team’s catcher) erupted at what he perceived as an obvious slight and engaged in a heated exchange with the umpiring crew. By the time the fur stopped flying, the angry skipper found himself ejected from the game.20

In the seventh inning, a second disturbance began. Fisticuffs ensued when Rollie Tinker (son of Hall of Famer Joe Tinker) received the benefit of a call on a close play. Miami’s Clem Foss blew a gasket, leading to another heated disagreement with umpire Fredericks. The pair soon traded punches that led to Foss getting the heave-ho. The exchanges on the field were so violent that police arrived to quell the disturbance. After the game, Foss received a 90-day suspension rendering him unable to play the remainder of the series.21

Orlando took the second game, 1–0, after a day off due to the previous day’s rainout.22 Miami bounced back to win game three. The Hustlers plated a run in the fifth on a Colts error, and an insurance run in the sixth, courtesy of a Tatum RBI single. Davis kept Orlando in check, twirling a one-hitter for the 2–0 win.23

The fourth game of the series found the Colts back in the driver’s seat. The contest turned into another pitchers’ duel between Wetsell and Sweeney. A Bingham error in the tenth inning proved costly as Orlando edged Miami, 1–0. The Colts held a commanding 3–1 edge and were poised to take the championship trophy home.24

After a day off, and some much-needed rest, The Hustlers offense came to life in game five, knocking around three Colts pitchers. Orlando absorbed their worst defeat of the year against the Hustlers, 12–4, at Miami Field.25 The Hustlers had their eyes on the next game to even the series.

The sixth game resulted in one of the most bizarre outcomes ever played out in the FSL. Going into the bottom of the ninth inning, with the Hustlers trailing, 1–0, the Colts looked poised to celebrate the championship. With one out, Casares took a lead off third. Keyes then hit a low line drive to second baseman Tinker. It appeared he had snagged it just inches above the infield dirt. Tinker was so confident that he had made the catch that he failed to make the customary throw to first, while Keyes raced down the line. To Tinker’s astonishment, the umpire ruled that the ball was trapped and Keyes was safe. A hysterical Wells bolted from the dugout. When his protestations with arbiters failed to change the call, he refused to let his team return to the field. Miami was rewarded the win by forfeit, thus forcing a deciding seventh game.26

What followed should have been the climax to the season, but instead it turned out to be a let-down. Orlando cruised to an easy 12–1 victory, taking the league crown on Miami Field. The Miami News and Metropolis called the Hustlers’ performance the poorest of the year. McBee turned in his worst start of the year, while the Colts immersed themselves in sweet celebration.27

Miami looked forward to play in 1928, but the season came to an early halt as the league ceased operations before finishing the schedule. The economy in Florida had been on a downturn since 1926 and the Great Depression loomed, bringing with it hard economic times.

Baseball did not return to the Magic City until 1940 when the Florida East Coast League was established. The Miami Wahoos and Miami Beach Flamingos joined the league. Miami would not experience a championship team until 1950 when the Sun Sox, led by their colorful skipper Pepper Martin, would capture their first Florida International League title.28

SAM ZYGNER has been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) since 1997, and has served as the Chairperson for the South Florida Chapter of SABR since 2007. Zygner has written for the Baseball Research Journal, The National Pastime, and was previously a sports columnist for La Prensa de Miami. He is the author of the books “Baseball Under the Palms” and “The Forgotten Marlins.”

 

Notes

1 “Miami Offered League Berth,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, April 7, 1927, 11.

2 “Fifty Players Seeking Berths in Miami Team,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, Apri1 13, 1927, 11.

3 “State League Team For City Will Be Urged,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, April 11, 1927, 12.

4 Baseball-Reference.com.

5 “120 Game Play Opening Is Set For April 21,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, April 12, 1927, 11.

6 “Street Parade Will Precede Opening Game,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, April 21, 1927, 12.

7 “Opening Game Offered Fans Run For Money,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, April 22, 1927, 11.

8 “Opening Game Offered Fans Run For Money”.

9 “S.M. Tatum Is New President Of The Miami Baseball Club,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, June 16, 1927, 10.

10 Milb.com. New Orleans Baseball History.

11 Baseball-Reference.com.

12 “Sanford Plays Here Saturday With Hustlers,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, June 25, 1927, 9.

13 “Hustlers Play Tampa Thursday At Miami Field,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, July 7, 1927, 7.

14 “Visitors Have Another Field Day In Battle,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, July 27, 1927, 9.

15 Baseball-Reference.com.

16 “Sanford Loses To Tampa 10-4; Miami On Top,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, August 18, 1927, 9.

17 “Saints Release Cuban Hurler”, Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida), July 8, 1927, p. 2.

18 “Double Header Monday Closes League Series,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 5, 1927, 5.

19 “League Moguls Find Against Sanford’s Club,” Evening Independent (St. Petersburg, Florida), August 7, 1927, 8.

20 “Orlando Wins Series Opener,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, September 9, 1927, 3.

21 “Orlando Wins Series Opener.”

22 “Hustlers Need Victory Badly In Flag Race,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 10, 1927, 10.

23 “Davis Pitches One Hit Game For Knauppmen,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 12, 1927, 6.

24 “Bingham Lets Orlando Score In The Tenth,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 13, 1927, 15.

25 “Orlando Loses Hectic 12 To 4 Tilt Wednesday,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 15, 1927, 16.

26 “Colts Forfeit Thursday Game In The Ninth,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 16, 1927, 16.

27 “Hustlers Lose Final Contest Of The Series,” Miami Daily News and Metropolis, September 17, 1927, 10.

28 Baseball-Reference.com.

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