Top 100 Teams
Florida State League
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
Behind the efforts of a former major league batting champion, the 1939 Sanford Lookouts engineered a remarkable turnaround. Led both on and off the field by this former star, the team dominated the Florida State League like none before.
The town of Sanford, located between Daytona and Orlando near Florida’s Atlantic coast, entered the world of pro ball in 1919 with the formation of the Class D Florida State League. In its inaugural season, a team with the unusual name of Celeryfeds won the first half pennant, finishing in a tie with Orlando for the best overall record (46-30). In the post-season playoffs, Sanford apparently won the series against Orlando, five games to three. However, after the series, two Celeryfed wins were tossed out because of ineligible player violations, leaving the series squared at three each. Both teams were then named co-champs. After a seventh place finish in 1920, Sanford dropped out of the league.
Five years later, another team from Sanford rejoined the Florida State League, now a four-team circuit. In 1925, the Celeryfeds finished last as the only team to finish under .500. The next year, the team bounced back strong to win both halves, compiling a 67-36 record. After a second place finish in 1927, the team was in last place in July, 1928 when the league folded.
In 1936, when the Florida State League was revived, it again included a team from Sanford. This one was called the Lookouts and was part of the Senators’ family of clubs. In their first season, the team finished fifth of six teams, but only eight games out of first. The next season, the Lookouts finished a strong second, losing the playoff finals to Gainesville. Their fortune soured in 1938 as the team finished dead last.
Before the 1939 season, the Lookouts took a big step to improve their chances by hiring Dale Alexander to be their manager. Alexander, 36, had started playing pro ball in 1924 in his hometown of Greeneville, TN, a member of the Appalachian League. After five .300 minor league seasons, culminating with a .380 batting title for Toronto of the International League in 1928, he joined the Tigers for the 1929 season as their starting first baseman. In his first four major league seasons, Alexander batted no lower than .325, highlighted by a .343-25-137 season in 1929.
Alexander hit .367 in 1932 to win the American League batting championship, edging out Jimmie Foxx of Philadelphia by three points. On June 12, 1932, he was traded by Detroit with OF Roy Johnson to Boston for OF Earl Webb, who had set the major league record for doubles (67) the previous season. Alexander is the only major league batting champion to be traded to another league team during the season in which he won the title. In 1933, his major league career came to a halt. On May 30, he twisted a knee in a game at Philadelphia. He was given diathermy treatment in the clubhouse. “It was a new method of treatment and not too much was known about it,” he said, years later. “I noticed my leg felt awfully hot. I ended up with third-degree burns and a gangrene infection and almost lost my leg. I was finished in the majors….I couldn’t run and I couldn’t field (before the injury) and when I got hurt, that was the end.” Alexander missed two months of the season and his average dropped to .281. He was able to hit well enough to survive five more years in the high minors before turning to managing.
In 1939, for Sanford, Alexander was also slated to play first base. It would be his first managerial stint. Under Alexander’s tutelage, the Lookouts made a huge leap forward towards the first division. When the season finished, the team found itself in first place with a 98-35, .737 record, twelve games ahead of Daytona Beach. In the ensuing playoffs, Sanford edged DeLand, three games to two to reach the finals against Daytona Beach. Here, the club won the first two tilts, 3-0 and 7-4, before Daytona Beach countered with a 11-3 decision. When the Lookouts won the next match, 8-0, the series looked to be over. However, Daytona won the next two, 4-0 and 7-2 to knot the series at three-all. In the deciding game, Sanford took a 3-2 lead into the sixth inning when the rains descended and washed out the remainder, giving the Lookouts the championship.
Midway through the season, on July 14, the Lookouts defeated an all-star team from the seven other clubs, 13-8. The game, played at Sanford, drew 4,132, the largest crowd in Florida State League history to that point.
After the Florida State League playoffs, the Lookouts turned to other competition. In what was called the Southeast Championship, Sanford defeated the Georgia-Florida League champion Albany Cardinals,
four games to one. Later, the Lookouts split a two-game series with Augusta, the winner of the South Atlantic League, losing the first before winning the second in 15 innings, 3-2.
In addition to being their manager, Alexander also finished as the best batter on the team, batting .345 in 98 games. Other good averages were posted by outfielders Roy Marion and Mayo Langston, who hit .334 and .328, respectively. Marion was a younger brother of major league star shortstop and manager Marty Marion and of ex-Washington OF Red Marion.
Hillis Layne (.306) played third base for Washington in 1941, 1944-45, batting .264 in 107 games. He led the Pacific Coast League in hitting in 1947, batting .367 for Seattle. Layne had a .335 minor league career average in 1,796 games as a player and manager.
The pitching staff was anchored by Sid Hudson (24-4, 1.79, 192), who won the pitching Triple Crown. He was ably helped by Cleo Jeter (22-9) and James (Dopey) Dean (21-4). Jeter also threw a league-leading eight shutouts while finishing second in the strikeout race (186). Of the three, Hudson spent the most time in the majors. Beginning in 1940, he began a 12 year major league career by winning 17 for a seventh place Washington team. During his career, spent mostly with Washington, Hudson went 104-152 before retiring in 1954. Dean, a 22-year-old rookie right-hander, was tagged with the nickname Dopey because he had the misfortune to be pitching at the same time as major league stars Dizzy and Daffy Dean, no relations. Dopey Dean pitched two innings for Washington in 1941.
The veteran of the pitching staff was right-hander Joe Pinder (17-7) from Burgettstown, PA. John Joseph Pinder, an Army PFC, was killed in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944, one day before his 30th birthday.
Despite the superiority of the Lookouts team, only two players were named to the end-of-the-season Florida State League All-Star Team, 3B Lowell (Weasel) Barnett and CF Wilmer Skeen.
Alexander left the team following the season to manage Thomasville in the Georgia-Florida League. Two years later, after piloting Greeneville, his first minor league stop 18 years before, Alexander retired.
Sanford remained in the Florida State League through the 1953 season. After curtain calls in 1955 and 1959-60, the team left the league for good. During its final years in the circuit, the team finished in the playoffs several times, but never won another championship.
Although their stay at the top lasted just as long as Alexander’s stay at the helm, the 1939 Sanford Lookouts set a record that has yet to be topped. In over 80 years of Florida State League history, no team has ever bettered their fine .737 winning percentage - a record that puts them among baseball’s best.
|1939 Florida State League Standings|
|1939 Sanford Lookouts batting statistics|
|Ward Byrne (Palatka)||OF,C||94||319||41||76||39||15||2||0||53||58||5||.238|
|Frank Hudson (Palatka)||P||24||52||2||10||4||1||0||0||3||11||0||.192|
|1939 Sanford Lookouts pitching statistics|
|Frank Hudson (Palatka)||8||10||.444||23||18||12||1||152||123||72||120||2.12|