Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Utilizing a team of relative unknowns, while playing in a nearly forgotten league, the Pensacola Fliers pushed their way to the top in 1949. Of the more than two-dozen players to grace the Fliers roster, only two ever caught glimpses of the major leagues. However, two members of the squad made names for themselves in the minors, combining for more than 40 years of service as active ballplayers.
The town of Pensacola, located on the tip of Florida’s panhandle, first fielded a pro baseball team in 1893. Here, a team joined the high-level Southern League on July 28, replacing the Birmingham club. After going 9-19 in Pensacola, the combined Birmingham/Pensacola team finished 34-58, eleventh in the twelve-team league.
Twenty years later, a team called the Snappers joined the Class D Cotton States League. In a season which was shortened to August 15, the club finished with a sparkling 67-29, .698 record. Unfortunately, the Jackson Lawmakers (71-24, .748) had a better season, besting the Snappers by 4-˝ games. Following the campaign, the team dropped out of pro ball in 1913.
In 1927, a club called the Pilots joined the established Southeastern League, a circuit operating in Florida, Alabama and Georgia. Originally established in 1910 as a Class D loop, the league lasted three years before folding. In 1926, the league was reborn as a Class B operation.
During their first years in the league, the Pilots met with mixed success. During their first campaign, the team finished fourth. The next year, in 1928, the team won the first half of the split-season format, finishing with the best combined record (92-54, .630). However, they lost the playoffs to Montgomery, four games to two. After a pair of last place finishes for the Pilots, the team and the league folded after the 1930 season.
In 1932, the Southeastern League, sans Pensacola, gave it another go. Five weeks into the campaign, the circuit collapsed. Five years later, this time including a Pensacola franchise, the Southeastern completed a more successful revival. Here, a team called the Fliers, named in honor of the pilots at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, won the regular season campaign with an 83-52 record. In 1938, as a farm team of the Dodgers, the Fliers repeated with an even better record (95-53). Changing affiliations to the Phillies organization the next year made no difference, as the team took home the bunting for the third straight time. After a narrow one game miss in 1940, the Fliers slipped into the second division before the league closed up shop for the duration of World War II after the 1942 season.
When the Southeastern started anew in 1946, the Fliers, as a Senators affiliate, won yet another flag. In 1947 and 1948, as an independent operation, Pensacola finished in the middle of the pack. Despite still not having a major league benefactor the next year, the Fliers put together the league’s best team to date.
The 1949 Fliers posted an easy win in the Southeastern League, finishing 98-42, .700, 16 games ahead of Meridian. In the playoffs, Pensacola whitewashed Jackson, four games to none, before besting Vicksburg, four games to one to win the championship. Later, in a matchup of Class B leagues called the Little Dixie Series, the Fliers defeated the Florida International’s Tampa franchise, four games to two.
The ’49 Fliers were managed by 36-year-old Bill Herring. A long-time minor leaguer, Herring spent much of his career in the Coastal Plain League, both as a pitcher and manager. In 1941, he managed the Wilson Tobs to a place on the top 100 list. After stops in Portland (PCL) and Goldsboro (Coastal Plain), Herring signed on to manage Pensacola in 1949. In addition to piloting the club, Herring contributed from the mound, winning 10-of-13 decisions. After the season, he returned to familiar stomping grounds in the Coastal Plain, managing Wilson in 1950.
Pensacola featured two players who were legends in minor league baseball in the Southeastern United States, 43-year-old first baseman Bill McGhee and outfielder Nesbit (Neb) Wilson. McGhee was in his 21st year in pro ball and had been a wartime player with the Philadelphia Athletics, batting .272 in 170 games in 1944-45. He played all but 79 of his 2,292 minor league games below the Mason-Dixon Line. He had a .321career average with 2,791 hits, but was not a power hitter, recording just 45 home runs. As playing manager at Gadsen in 1947, he had led the Southeastern League in batting (.349).
Wilson, then 26, had a career which also spanned 21 years (1940-60), all but parts of two seasons in the South. He had a .326 career average with 2,369 hits including 329 homers. Wilson played four years with Pensacola (1947-50), leading the Southeastern League in RBI (129) in 1947 and hits (165) and total
bases (254) in 1949, then winning the triple crown in 1950 (.355-35-163). He won three more batting titles, with a high mark of .403 as player-manager of Crestview in the Alabama-Florida League in 1955. He led his league in RBI five times and in homers and doubles four times each.
Aside from McGhee, the only other Flier who reached the majors was outfielder Benjamin (Bob) Thorpe (.275-15-96), who hit .251 in 110 games for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves in 1951-53. Second baseman Jack Hollis (.315) played three seasons for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League.
The fact that so few Pensacola players made the big leagues was not unique for the era. In 1949, minor league baseball was at its height with 59 leagues operating--close to 10,000 minor league players
competing for a spot on one of 16 major league teams. In addition, the Fliers were an independent outfit, not affiliated with any big league team that could conceivably pull its players up the ladder.
The Fliers’ pitching staff was anchored by a pair of 20-game winners - right-handers Alvin Henencheck (22-6) and Ken Deal (21-5). Left-hander Joe Kirkland (13-3) also chipped in, earning the ERA crown (1.62) while twirling six shutouts in only 18 starts.
Hollis and Kirkland made the Southeastern League All-Star first team. Wilson, Thorpe, 3B Minor Scott and Henencheck were named to the All-Star second team.
After Pensacola won the pennant in 1950, the Southeastern League folded for the last time, taking the Fliers with it for the third time in 40 years. Seven years later, a team from the town joined the Class D Alabama-Florida League. In their six-year stay (1957-62), the team won a playoff championship in 1960 and a regular season crown in 1962. Following the latter, Pensacola dropped out of baseball for good.
The 1949 Pensacola Fliers, featuring a cast of unknowns, augmented by a pair of players among the minor leagues’ best, finished with the highest mark in Southeastern League history. Their story lends ammunition to the theory that a team doesn’t need a superstar to lead it to greatness. A well-balanced team featuring good hitting and pitching could accomplish the job just fine.
|1949 Southeastern League Standings|
|1949 Pensacola Fliers batting statistics|
|Minor Scott (Montgomery)||3B||98||376||63||104||31||14||3||3||72||27||15||.277|
|George Koval (M'gomery)||P||44||60||6||11||11||4||1||0||4||15||0||.183|
|1949 Pensacola Fliers pitching statistics|
|George Koval (Montgomery)||11||8||.579||36||11||3||166||167||84||73||4.07|