The Florida State League was originally established as a Class D League in 1919 with teams in Tampa, Orlando, Sanford, Lakeland, Bradenton and Bartow. There had been earlier attempts, but this is the date generally most given for the league’s formation.
They had names unique to their particular surroundings: the Smokers, Highlanders, Celeryfeds, Caps, Growers and Polkers. The League fluctuated between four and eight teams over its first eight years before folding in the middle of the 1928 season. The onset of the great depression, ruinous hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 and the famed 1920s Florida land boom and bust proved too much for the teams and League to overcome.
The Bartow Polkers were more short-lived than others, playing and competing with a lively schedule for two seasons before disbanding. When researching the team, however, there is surprise that it did not last longer. There was local excitement surrounding the team and the League. And having come through World War I and a dreadful influenza outbreak in 1918-1919, Polk county citizens were looking forward to it.
Baseball was not the only game in town as it was announced in February, 1919, that T. T. Hatton, President of the board of trade, and “a bunch of progressive businesses” had organized a club, elected officers, submitted a charter, and had raised $25,000 to build a golf course. It was said that the “prime movers in the Bartow Golf Club” were looking to make the course as good as was to be found in the south. Hatton was quoted as saying, “[w]e want to make it worthwhile for the tourists to come here…we realize the better golf course we can offer…the more pleased will be our visitors and the longer they will stay.” Hatton went on to argue that while “mother nature” had provided Bartow with a beautiful place, “we have overlooked the provisions for recreation, active outdoor enjoyment and entertainment…. Now that we have started right we intend to finish right.”
Like golf, baseball was viewed as an opportunity to take advantage of Mother Nature’s bounty, get outside and find some entertainment. It was this way across the south as the South Atlantic or Sally League, and Georgia State League joined the FSL as upstarts. The Sally League was B league, while the Georgia State League was Class C. These two leagues, along with the FSL, ultimately became a highway for young players to advance through the minors to Major League Baseball. Tampa’s Al Lopez did just this, beginning his career with the Tampa Smokers before progressing through the Jacksonville Tars, Macon Peaches, Atlanta Crackers and on to the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The outlook for organized minor league baseball was being viewed as “Most Flattering” across the nation. It was said that with war out of the way, the great outdoor sport was being taken up the country over. J. H. Farrell of the National Association of Minor Leagues announced that reports from every section of the United States “showed a healthy resumption of the sport in minor league territory and in every section indications point to a successful year.” Many of the leagues, he asserted, were being rebuilt on more substantial foundations, among them the Michigan-Ontario, New England, Northwestern International, Illinois-Iowa-Indiana, South Atlantic, Dixie and Florida State League. In Kansas City, MO, the Negro National League was established in 1920, ultimately becoming the third most successful black owned business in the country.
The FSL had been in the planning stages for two years, but it had been placed on hold because of World War I. In Bartow, those who had put the Polk County seat through a “disastrous” 1908 FSL attempt, augmented by some “new blood,” were ready to give it a shot.
Under the plans tendered in 1917, and upon which four teams were ready to go when war broke out, a salary limit of between $900 and $1,200 was to be enacted. The larger figure was agreed upon for 1919. Further, all holiday games were to be hosted by the larger cities, and the receipts divided equally among all of the teams. It was estimated that the July 4th and Labor Day games would bring in close to $10,000 for the league and to be split evenly among the clubs. A divided season was agreed upon “so as to keep the interest up” and was arranged so that both holiday dates would be played with interest at the “fever heat.”
One of the benefits of the league being organized as part of the National Association of Minor Leagues was that the clubs received compensation should their players be signed by a team in a higher classification. Teams that were considered a part of unorganized baseball developed “scores of players,” but received nothing when these players “went into Class C and higher leagues.” A player like Red Causey of Georgetown, FL, who by 1919 was with the New York Giants, but who had come through the earlier version of the FSL was a good example. Benton, who broke in with Lakeland in 1908, and Tutwiler, a Bartow player that year, were cited as other examples. Tampa was noted as having sent out “Purcell, Palmero, Rodriguez and perhaps a dozen others in small leagues who would have been worth two or three thousand dollars had the Smokers been playing organized ball.” And there was the rub; had the earlier FSL been organized, Causey and the others “would have netted a Florida State club several hundred dollars. The new league founders were determined to put an end to it.
The teams themselves were organized as corporations, with shares sold throughout the respective communities and corporate officers elected. In Tampa for instance, the team was initially incorporated with $3,000 capital stock divided into 300 shares at $10 per share, which enabled fans to secure an interest in the club. The investment was designed to foster enthusiastic support of the club, it was thought, leading to the organization of something such “as the far-famed Loyal Rooters Club of Boston.” The early selling of shares also enabled teams to come up with a $1,000 league guarantee, which was later lowered to $600. On Monday, June 2 the Bartow Board of Trade met to work out its own details. Joe W. Woodward and T. T. Hatton of the board were chosen to represent Bartow, traveling to Lakeland for a June 6 league meeting. By mid-June all of the prospective clubs were organizing in a similar fashion and preparing for league play.
Bartow, it was said, “wants baseball and wants it strong.” It took only a few minutes on the night of June 9 to raise $950 at a gathering of the board of trade. Board members Tom Page, C. L. Wilson, A. B. Lyle, Frank Anderson, V. L. Brown, J. H. Davis, W. E. Day, L. O. Olive, D. E. Bevins, G. C. Metcalfe, J. D. Woodward, J. A. Moore, E. B. Phillips, G. C. Long, J. H. Willard, J. G. Gallemore, A. T. Mann and H. W. Smith all signed up to raise the necessary funds. Everybody, it was said, expressed the idea that the remaining $3,000 necessary to be raised could be done so by the next day. Lakeland had sent a delegation of a dozen fans to Bartow for the meeting to “help swell the enthusiasm.” Richard Pope and other representatives from Winter Haven were also there in the hope that they might merge with Bartow in a singular effort to field a team. Tom Page was tasked with going to visit “the city of a hundred lakes” the next morning to discuss the matter more in-depth with Pope and the fans there.
Representatives from Tampa, Lakeland, Orlando, Bradenton, and Bartow met the next day in Lakeland where it was decided that league play would begin on the belated baseball date of July 1. Bartow was scheduled to open the season against Sanford. Sanford, however, was not represented at the meeting, but the club owners were so sure that the Celeryfeds would field a team that they guaranteed any losses that Bartow might suffer if Sanford were not ready for the July 1 lid lifter. It was also announced that no team could begin training before June 18.
W. W. Rose of Winter Park and Orlando was elected the league’s first president, with M. O. Thomas of Bradenton and M. E. James of Bartow the vice presidents. Gilbert Freeman of Tampa was named secretary and W. F. Read from Lakeland treasurer. The league also adopted a constitution prepared at its request by Secretary Freeman, with only a few minor changes. Other decisions made were the selection of either the Reach or the Spaulding ball as the official game ball; reserving 10 percent of the gross gate receipts for the league sinking fund; dividing the gate receipts 40% to the visiting team, with the home team guaranteeing that it will be as much as $40; and placing the general admission at thirty-five cents. The teams were also instructed to post the $600 guarantee fee with President Rose in Orlando by the following Monday, as well as the $15 fees for membership in the National Association. Tom Page, on hand representing Bartow, noticed the league that Bartow had in fact subscribed its full capital stock of $4,000.
A week later the opening schedule was officially announced with Bartow now set to face Lakeland; Orlando at Sanford; and Tampa at Bradenton. The calendar also had Bartow hosting a morning affair on July 4. Three game sets would be favored as much as possible, with a series to be played in each town each week, doing away with lengthy road trips. The Tampa Tribune Cup would be awarded to the team with the best opening day attendance. Waiver rules regarding players were also announced, each team compelled to notify the league secretary by wire of its intention to release any player. The league secretary would then notify the other clubs by wire and the first team applying for said player would receive him. After forty-eight hours of not being claimed a player would receive his unconditional release. The waiver price was set at whatever actual expenses the waiving team had incurred in getting the player to the town and sustaining him up to the time of making waivers, except no allowance was made for salary.
The week before the season started it was announced that a deal had in fact been reached between Winter Haven and Bartow to go in together in establishing a team. Those in Winter Haven supporting a team contributed another $1,500 to add to the funds that Bartow had previously gathered. The team would officially be known as the Bartow-Winter Haven Baseball Club.
With the excitement surrounding the belated start of the season fans must have been disappointed when many of the first games were rained out on July 2. Lakeland had been all set for its opener with Bartow; local stores were closed and a record crowd expected. They even boasted that the expected turnout would surely bring them the Tribune Cup. But sometimes it rains. Instead the opener was moved to Bartow where the Polkers “took Lakeland into camp” in a game better played than the score indicated, winning 3-0. The Bartow pitcher, Sewell, allowed just two hits in a quick one hour, twenty minute affair. Gault, the team shortstop, had the only extra base hit of the day, a double.
Independence Day came with the revelation that there had been 28 lynchings in the United States during the first half of 1919. Mississippi led the way with seven lynchings, Florida placed in the middle with two. As American soldiers, black and white, returned home from Europe and the Great War, many expected a new kind of freedom to be waiting on them. Most never found it, and as with much of Jim Crow America, black ballplayers were still prohibited from playing white organized baseball, and would continue to be so for another twenty-eight years.
With Jack Dempsey having dispatched Jess Willard for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, Bartow staggered out of its own corner, losing two games, 4-0 and 5-0 to Lakeland. In the latter contest, ragged fielding and some good base running by the Highlanders was the story. Ed Ery tossed “a masterful game,” allowing just two hits in the complete game shutout. Meanwhile, Curtis, the Bartow hurler, deserved better with misplays behind him accounting for four of the five runs allowed. A shoestring catch by Wicker, the Lakeland centerfielder, one where he turned a somersault in the process, off the bat of the Bartow’s leftfielder McBrayne in the eighth inning, “furnished the real thrill to the game.” Bartow dropped another to Lakeland the next day, 4-1.
Bartow’s skid continued into its next set with Bradenton, “tossing away” its chances in game one by allowing seven runs in the first two innings before settling down the rest of the way, losing 7-0. Bartow did manage eight hits with Leach leading the way with two. The next day they fell again, 1-0, in a ten inning affair. The Growers’ southpaw Rube Wyatt halted Bartow, scattering just three hits. A 15-inning tie the following day insured that at this stage in the season the Polkers, at 1-5-1, had slipped into the basement of league standings. But there was a long way to go and the games were being closely played for the most part. With the season just over a week old, play in the FSL had produced three ten-inning battles, a fifteen inning affair, and several games won in the ninth inning.
Bartow did manage a win three days later, bumping the Orlando Caps, 3-2. Gathering six hits in clusters and exhibiting a punch that had been missing, the Polkers dealt Orlando a loss in one of the fastest games of the season, clocking in at one hour and twenty-five minutes. The Polkers were led at the plate by its shortstop, Leach, who had two hits, and Arnold, the second baseman, who managed a double. The next day, however, they dumped an eleven inning contest, 1-0, to Tampa. The Smokers’ catcher, Farrior, had gone hitless until the eleventh inning when he found one and “drove it into the forest in right center” for a double to set up the day’s lone score. With Brown holding at third on the double by Farrior, he came home on the next play when Gault, the Bartow shortstop, fumbled Corcho’s roller for an instant, allowing the score. Both the Smokers’ Corcho and Bartow’s Cooper were said to have pitched magnificently, Corcho fanning eleven batters. Some spectacular fielding by Gault earlier in the game and a wonderful catch by Davis in centerfield were Bartow’s fielding highlights.
Bartow turned it around over the next two days, besting the Smokers in tightly fought games, 2-0 and 1-0. In the first game, Wells, the Tampa hurler, outpitched Bartow’s Sewell, yet the Smokers fell when Quinn dropped a drive in left, allowing Leach to come home with the first run. Russell, Bartow’s right fielder, sent Brown home two innings later with a single after a walk and two sacrifices had moved the Bartow catcher to third. Wells held the Polkers to just four hits, as compared to the seven allowed by Sewell. Sewell, however, managed to keep seven Smokers’ on base, not allowing them to score. Tampa threw away the second game after Hernandez pitched nine strong innings, on two consecutive errors, one by Brown at short and the other by Farrior, allowing Gault to cross the plate with the winning run.
Bartow and Tampa staged another “slap-bang” game in the series finale, the Smokers nosing the Polkers in an afternoon affair at Tampa’s Plant Field, 5-4. Bartow threatened to tie it up in the eighth, but its lead runner was cut down at the plate by Quinn’s throw from leftfield. Bartow player-manager, L’Hommedieu, disagreeing with the umpire’s call, announced after the game that he was protesting it, yet it was the seven runs his club left on base that did him in. The game was also marred by an accident to Bartow’s third baseman, Haynes, whose nose was broken when he took a bad hop in the fifth off Brown’s “cannonball” down the third base line. Gault led the Polkers with three hits on the day, Leach followed with two. The Polkers dropped another one the next day at Bradenton in a shortened, seven-inning game, one in which they were held to four hits. Through the early part of the season, and in spite of some flare-ups, Bartow still found itself in last place.
Bartow went into the next week needing some wins and found one against Bradenton “nosing out the Growers,” 3-0. The Polkers’ nine hits provided the “worst drubbing” that Bradenton pitcher, Stewart, had received all season. Leach led Bartow going four for four with two doubles. Cooper and Haynes held the Growers scoreless into the fourth when Bradenton pushed across its two runs. After the game, in a curious move, Tom Page asked waivers on Cooper, while suspending catcher Brown and first baseman Smith for five days. No reasons were provided for the moves. In an up and down season, Bartow dropped one the next day to Tampa, 2-0, before splitting a deuce with Lakeland, 0-2 and 5-2. By the end of July, Bartow was still in last place with a 7-15-1 record, Sanford sitting atop the evenly played circuit at 12-7.
Perhaps looking at the standings, Bartow began August by taking a pair from Sanford, 2-1, 2-1, before dropping one, 1-3. Yet the big news in the league was a preponderance of gambling that was taking place at the league venues. The Tampa Tribune trumpeted that “Open Gambling in Stands Must Stop,” noting that disorderly conduct of all sorts was taking place and had to cease. The Tampa club went so far as to ask the Tampa Chief of Police to place a “special man” in the stands to stem the gambling. “We can’t stop any betting that folks do around the street corners,” said the team directors, “but we are going to stop it at Plant field.” Gambling at league games, however, continued and as late as 1947 was said to be lively. “They bet on everything,” Smokers shortstop Bitsy Mott once said. “They would bet on the pitch, whether the batter would get a hit, would he bunt, what type of hit…they bet like hell in Tampa.”
Orlando next came to town to face Bartow, and having dropped the first game, 6-2, the Polkers faced for the first time their former pitcher, Sewell, who had been sent to Orlando for other considerations. Sewell brought his A-game, topping his old mates 2-1. He also got two hits, while scattering just five. The Polkers lost two more to Orlando, 3-2 and 6-1. In the third affair, Orlando’s Humphries, the circuit’s top ace, won his sixth straight outing. A few days later, and in front of a good crowd, Bartow bested Lakeland, 1-0, in an “airtight” game, the only run coming on Gault’s single, L’Hommedieu’s single, Phillip’s hit-by-pitch, and Leach’s single. As was their want, however, the Polkers dumped a close one the next day to Sanford, 1-0, a game in which Bartow failed twice to score with runners on third. Polkers’ centerfielder, McIntosh, had two hits in the contest, while Haynes, Bartow’s pitcher, allowed just one.
With the league’s second half upon them, Bartow announced that it traded Curtis, a pitcher, to Bradenton, for Benedict, a catcher and outfielder. Other league issues involved a meeting of officers and team leaders at the Hillsboro hotel in Tampa to discuss the schedule and review financial reports. V. E. Gerard of Orlando, Walter Merrill of Lakeland and Gilbert Freeman, league secretary, all attended. President Rose read the financial report noting that the league had a balance of $300 on hand.
Another significant issue was the future of the first place Sanford Celeryfeds. Following a “lively session” of league directors at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club, it was learned that Sanford was threatening to pull out of the league due to the objection by team President G. W. Spencer to a $100 fine imposed by league President Rose after Sanford’s manager had refused to accept an umpire assigned to one of its games. President Spencer, while willing to pay a reasonable fine, did not consider $100 to be one. There was some speculation that if Sanford dropped out of the league, it could be replaced by a team from St. Petersburg or Arcadia, both of whom had expressed interest prior to the season’s start. It was also hinted that if Sanford dropped out it would forfeit its $600 guarantee fee and players. A compromise was ultimately reached keeping Sanford in the league, though not without future controversy.
Having finished in the basement during the league’s first half, Bartow had shown some improvement and played better ball in the second half, although not immediately. In mid-August, with race riots taking place on the West Coast, the Red Scare coming into full bloom, and the fight over ratification of the Treaty of Versailles making headlines, Bartow began an upswing. In a walkover, the Polkers bested Bradenton 9-0. The game was marred when the Growers’ manager, Moore, would not leave the field when the umpire, Knowlton, ordered him to do so. Bartow was up 3-0 at the time and went on to plate six more tallies. After dropping one to Orlando and its still undefeated ace, Humphries, and another to Bradenton, despite Polkers third baseman Hunter’s two home runs, Bartow blanked the Growers, 4-0. Wolfe scattered three hits for Bartow in the game, while Tom Phelan, Harry Ollerman and Wolfe lead the way with two hits each.
With rain cancelling some games late in August, Bartow began September beating Lakeland, 4-2. On September 7, Bartow was 7-10 and one notch out of the basement, ahead of Bradenton. By the September 25, however, Bartow had evened things up, going ten and seven in the stretch to get to .500 at 17-17, good enough for third place. Rain, however, continued to muck things up across the state. On September 9, a hurricane wrecked more than 300 buildings in Key West, with property damage estimated at $2,000,000. Big Pine Key was said to have been “swept bare,” with train service discontinued in the keys as the overseas extension of the Florida East Coast railway was severely damaged.
As the Chicago “Black Sox” took the American League pennant, and the game’s new Goliath, Babe Ruth, swatted a record 28th home run, Bartow finished the second half of the FSL’s inaugural jaunt secured in fourth at 20-19, just above a .500 clip. The Polkers split its final two games of the season with Lakeland in a double-header played at Bartow, winning 14-3 and losing 8-3. Amid some speculation that Bartow might not field a team in 1920, a business meeting was held at the Bartow Board of Trade whereby team officials were to determine whether or not the team would return. On motion, it was unanimously voted that Bartow would retain its place in the league and that Tom Page would continue as team President, with George Seymour, Jr. re-elected treasurer, and J. Forrest Caldwell elected secretary. Following the final game, the players, club officers and a few of the team’s most ardent fans were entertained with a dinner at the Stewart Hotel.
Orlando, having won the second half title, took on Sanford, kings of the first half for the FSL pennant. Yet, in a convoluted series with neither team asserting itself and questions flying back and forth as to the eligibility of certain “class” players, it was decided that no pennant would be awarded. A class player was one who had played at a higher level prior to entering the FSL and each team was only allowed a certain number of them. The league directors opted to throw out the third and fourth games of the series which Sanford won, because it found that two ineligible class players, Walker and Thompson, lied and played under the aliases of Wharton and McCann. As both teams had already disbanded for the winter, no pennant was awarded. Manager Chapman of the Sanford club was fined $50 and indefinitely suspended from organized baseball for openly defying and refusing to abide by the rules in his efforts to secure ineligible players. The players involved were all fined $50 apiece and indefinitely suspended as well, and the Sanford team was fined $50. Regardless, the players’ share of the series receipts came to $912.42 and was split fifty-fifty between the Sanford and Orlando players.
The Tampa Tribune pronounced it a shame that no pennant winner was had in this inaugural season, there was no doubt that the proper course of action had taken place. Sanford had used ineligible players. Then with the fans in a foul mood regarding the “dirty linen” being aired, and the players anxious to get away, it was best to end it. The “better class of fans” in Sanford, the “real sports men,” were also promising to clean house, to get rid of “the hoodlum element,” both on the field and off so as not to have a repeat of similar actions the following season. “We believe in a clean game,” said one of the most loyal fans in the “Celery City…We promise the other clubs in the league, we are going to show them some real baseball next season with the hardest fighting bunch of real sports they have had the pleasure of mixing with.”
As promised, Bartow stayed in the league another year, and showed improvement, yet disbanded following the 1920 campaign. Led by manager Tom Phelan, the Polkers were 22-17 on September 2 of that season, and in second place at 29-18 a week later. Team standouts included Frank Osborn, who like Phelan was a carryover from the season before. Gene Poland, Arthur Hardy, Whitfield Earp and Charles Leonard also helped carry the water. The league also had future major league Elliott “Babe” Bigelow, just beginning his professional career with the new St. Petersburg entry. But lacking a championship, their effort wasn’t enough. The reasons for the team breaking up varied across financial resources to team performance and dissipating fan interest.
The collapse of the Bartow Polkers, however, did not kill baseball in the Polk County seat. The game was played at other levels, whether in high school by the Summerlin Academy, the winner of the first state high school baseball championship ever afforded in Florida in 1922, or at other local amateur levels. Perhaps the greatest of all Bartow players was Johnny Burnett, one of the few Florida born ballplayers to make it to the major leagues before 1950.
Born in Bartow in 1904, Johnny Burnett made his major league debut with the Cleveland Indians at age 22 in 1927, after having played a season at the University of Florida. (The gators, though not remarkable from a win-loss standpoint, placed four players in the major leagues during this timeframe.) Burnett, a shortstop, may have been the best of the bunch, yet he had the unfortunate luck of being on a team with Hall-of-Fame shortstop Joe Sewell. Nevertheless, Burnett put together a steady career as a utility player. With the Indians in transition throughout Burnett’s time in Cleveland, he was considered a bright spot on the 1931 and 1932 seasons. Over those years, he played 166 games at shortstop, 61 at second, 21 at third and even one in the outfield. He was a super utility player along the lines of Ben Zobrist. Hitting at the top of the lineup he was second on the team in 1931 in runs scored. Against the Philadelphia Athletics on July 10, 1932, Burnett set the record for most hits in a single game with nine in eleven at bats in an 18 inning loss (Jimmy Foxx hit three homers, a double and two singles while driving in eight for Philly in the same contest). After a few more good years with Cleveland, Burnett finished his career moving through St. Louis with the Browns and Cincinnati, before injuries drove him back to the minors. He retired following a comeback attempt with the Reds in 1938. Johnny Burnette died on August 12, 1959 in Tampa from acute leukemia. He was only 54.
The Florida State League struggled over the next few years, teams wafting in and out, the league suddenly folding in the middle of the 1928 season. Again, the economy, weather and land bust were simply too much to absorb. It had its moments, such as the development of Al Lopez, Tampa’s young catcher in the 1924-25 seasons, who ultimately enjoyed a lengthy major league career as a player and hall-of-fame manager, but for much of the Great Depression the FSL was sidelined. The league did not resume play until 1936, on the far side of Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, but has continued uninterrupted since then except for four years during World War II. It's now a highly successful Class A enterprise.
I am so gad I found this article!! Johnny Burnett is my Great Uncle!! I have heard so many stories about him from my dad and have a few newspaper clippings as well. I heard that he played in his hometown but I have never read this story before. He passed away 4 months before I was born which is sad because he's been my hero all my life. Thank you for printing this.
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