In 1947, the United States was still regaining its peacetime balance following the most devastating war in the history of the world. However, there was a nervous sense of optimism that the enormous domestic postwar demand for consumer goods would continue to drive the bullish economy. But what if it didn't, some asked? What if the economy failed? Wasn't it the war that got us out of the great depression? Now that the war is over, what guarantees are there that we will not slip back into the shape we were in? Could there be another depression, more days of 20% unemployment? And what if there is another War? War was a genuine concern as news of an atomic bomb being tested in the Soviet Union was revealed, and China fell to Mao's communist hordes. The Red Scare became rampant, and America's response to such threats, perceived or otherwise, did little to ease its citizen's apprehensions. Harry Truman delivered a doctrine that promised to fight communism wherever it rose, whether in Western Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. This stance proved costly, ultimately hurting the economy and fueling a period historians dubbed the "Age of Anxiety."
A great deal of change took place in 1947, and with uncertainty came dread, trepidation, and fear. Few aspects of American society were more affected by change during 1947 than Sports. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, a native of Cairo, Georgia, and a three-sport letterman at UCLA had been chosen to take part in Baseball's "Great Experiment," becoming the first African American to join the "Lily-White" ranks of organized major league baseball during the modern era. This event took on a significant social and societal import as it represented, to an extent, a chink in the wall that Jim Crow segregation had built, serving as a precursor to the modern civil rights movement. Clearly, things would be different.
While this uneasiness wafted across the American landscape, it failed to dampen the enthusiasm for what was viewed as at least one positive change taking place in the red hills of North Florida. The highly regarded Florida State College for Women had been reorganized in Tallahassee as co-educational. While some argued that "Universities do not spring into being by the simple process of legislative enactment," preparations were being made to do just that, and a great sense of anticipation surrounded the venture.
What stands out most from a cursory reading of the local Tallahassee paper in late 1947 is that Tallahassee was a Baseball town. The sports page of the Tallahassee Daily Democrat was devoted that fall to the local Georgia/Florida league contending Tallahassee Pirates. In September 1947, the "Bucs," as all teams baring the Pirates moniker must be known, were the big story, finding themselves in a down-to-the-wire race with Moultrie for the league title. After coming up short, however, late in the season to Colquitt, the Bucs lost their shot at the Shaunessy trophy, awarded to the winner of a series pitting the GA/FL champ against the Florida State League's best. Tallahassee was a diamond town then, devoted to the National Pastime, if only in a backwater, low bush league kind of way.
In the midst of major league baseball's final tilt that autumn, a subway series nonetheless, and as students prepared to report for classes in Tallahassee, word came that the newly organized Florida State University would field a football team that season, and within only six weeks! It wasn't possible, believed some, who cares, thought others. In a college football season that promised to be as competitive on the National level as it had been in many years, this Florida State upstart, or "girls’ school," was going to build a program from scratch and try to run with the big dogs. While the program wouldn't be confused, at least initially, with an Army, or LSU for that matter, a vision was coming into focus.
1947 Florida State Seminoles-Team Photo Players in no specific order: Philip Rountree, Gerald Manuel, Jack McMillan, Wendell Barnes, Harry Hughey, James Watson, James De Cosmo, Jack Tulley, Buddy Bryant, Joe Crona, Kenneth MacLean, Al Tharpe, Charles McMillan, Ed Dilsaver, Jim Quigley, Bob Browning, Dick Williams, Leonard Gilberg, Donald Grant, Ralph Chaudron, Leonard Melton, Wesley Carter, Billy Bishop, Harold Conrad, Wyatt Parish, Ed Quigley, Bob Fegers, Dan McClure, Chris Kalfas, Jim Costello, Chris Banakas, Bill Kratzert, David Middlebrooks, Frederick Boris, C.N. Proctor, Billy Osteen, Clyde Stanaland, Bill Fannin, Bob Lanigan, Fred Schneider, Earl Payne, Ed Morgan, Richard Brooks, J. P. Love, Truby Shaw, Bull Benz, Paul Dubelis, Charles Hospodar, Ral Wilkerson, Clice Yancey, J.E. Kinsey, B.J. Castro.
When the call for players went out, sixty-five young men showed up, with another thirty-five on the way. The majority were fresh-faced boys right out of high school, not a day of intercollegiate varsity experience among them. They came from Pensacola, Chipley, Quincy, and elsewhere. Some were from Tallahassee, with the Leon Lions notably represented. But there were veterans too, if not of the playing field, then the battlefield, home from a war that had placed their dreams on hold. Their hardened experiences forged leadership into these veterans, and Florida State's youthful squad would need it if they were to gel into a unit capable of competing over a rugged five-game haul.
It was wet that fall storms raking Florida at every turn. One Hurricane hit southeast Florida with such force as destroying homes and buildings 100 miles from its center before crossing the peninsula, regrouping in the Gulf, swamping New Orleans, and points east. Another tropical storm came up hurricane alley, creating more havoc, trashing homes, and ultimately forcing the garnet and gold indoors for many of their initial practice sessions.
The "garnet and gold," regal colors taken from the old college for women, were now set to adorn the uniforms of the developing team. But what of a name? What would this young squad of men and boys be known as? Crackers, some insisted, minus the crumbs. Others urged the Golden Falcons regarding the flight that would take place. Still, some argued for the Statesman, believing the University's proximity to the capitol should be played upon. Ultimately, however, and not before the first game, the name bestowed by a plurality of voting students was SEMINOLES. It had a ring to it and still does. Never surrender! Native in cadence, serving as a reminder of the unconquered, unbroken legacy it represents.
Gradually, Tallahassee warmed to it, warming to the team, the program, and the whole enterprise–excitement built as distinct fall crispness set in, filling the local mindset with thoughts of football. Leon High captured the early headlines, but more references were being made in anticipation of the Seminoles' debut. It was announced that Deland's Stetson Hatters would come to town for the initial stanza, set for the night of October 18th. Preparations were made. Lights and seating would be needed for Centennial Field if the old baseball yard was to become hospitable for the gridiron. Fortunately, the city anted up a sum to foot the bill.
With a game in sight, the players drilled and drilled and drilled. They could smell it. The coaches understood the daunting challenge and were determined to meet it with a prepared offensive. But there were too many players, and focus came slowly. A cut was necessary, players became managers, and the chosen few moved forward, eager to hit someone from another team.
Passing also proved integral, and in each session, the "T" formation was stressed and applied, a tradition of stretch-the-field offense taking shape.
Time for practice was running thin. Six weeks turned to three, two, and one. Excitement built. The eve of the first encounter was at hand. A bonfire was stacked and burned, a snake dance shimmied, and a pep rally was held, all designed to energize the supporters that would sustain the boys the following night. Yes, night, night football, Saturday night fever in hot Tallahassee, the way it was meant to be, and the local folks couldn't wait to get things started.
Following a day that saw the Florida Gators win for the first time in thirteen tries stretching over multiple seasons (they would lose again the following week), the "untested, untried, undaunted" brand spanking new Seminoles lost a close one to Stetson, 14-6. But in the loss, the Noles played what was noted as an inspired game, winning supporters, over 7,000 of whom witnessed the "hard fought" contest. Tallahassee was clearly "ready for some football."
Precedents were established. The chosen first game captain, Jack Tully, a broad-shouldered guard from Leon High, won the toss, and the beat began. Early in the second period, at the 24-yard-line, Don Grant faded to pass and found Charles Macmillan in the end zone for a miracle touchdown, "Touchdown Florida State," the first touchdown, but the extra point failed. Hard-hitting tenacity proved a trademark, and a message was sent that the garnet and gold would be accounted for.
Game two at Cumberland College in Lebanon, Tennessee, proved a sloppy affair, with five interceptions thrown and seven fumbles dropped amidst a steady downpour in a 6-0 loss. The next game wasn't much better. Beginning as three touchdown dogs, the Seminoles suffered a 27-6 defeat to a much bigger and stronger Tennessee Tech club. At 0-3, one might have questioned the players' morale and doubted the strategies being chalked behind closed locker room doors. Could this young team keep the spirit that had sustained them to this point, or would it fold? Do these coaches know what they are doing? The first half of game four likely indicates the latter. Played on Thanksgiving Day in front of a paltry home crowd, the Troy Red Wave rushed to an early 24-0 halftime lead. But the Noles, nary a turkey in the bunch, stormed out of the half, determined to seize the respect it previously had lacked. Jack Macmillan intercepted a Troy pass at the opposing 43 in the third quarter, returning it to the 25-yard line. Ken McLean then tossed one to Chris Banakas at the 8. Two plays later, Tallahassee's Leonard Melton punched it in from the 1–but again, the extra point failed. Troy 24, FSU 6 was how the third quarter played out. Two late Troy scores secured the win, 36-6. The Noles were 0-4.
The final looked daunting if the first four games proved tough on the program. The Jacksonville State Gamecocks had beaten Troy 14-0 and were billed as one of the best small college teams in the South, with a record of 8-0. Making matters worse, the Seminoles lost a fumble at its own 31-yard-line during the game's opening minutes, setting up a quick Jacksonville touchdown. But after that, the Seminoles settled in, forcing the action on the opposing side of the field, continually threatening a Game Cocks squad that was put on the defensive. Twice, Florida State advanced inside the opponents' ten-yard line, only to come away empty, scoring thwarted at the one and six-yard lines, respectively. In a contest ultimately marred by penalties, the Seminoles suffered an ugly 7-0 loss, finishing the season 0-5.
Is that it? Isn't there someone else we can play, the players asked. No, their season was over. Historian Jim Jones has remarked that the inaugural tilt had been a "year of experimentation in which a group of high school athletes with no college varsity experience and little college freshman experience had come close to winning three contests." It was an accurate assessment because, so little was expected of this group, at least by those not involved with the program. But the Seminoles surprised everyone with their rugged play against Stetson and Jacksonville State and lost convincingly only to Troy and Tennessee Tech. And this was although they enjoyed no training table, poor equipment, no field of their own, and competed without scholarships–true student-athletes. Yet a palpable sense of closeness was forged, and as Jones wrote, "camaraderie prevailed."
On the eve of that first game with Stetson, a prophetic Jacksonville sports editor surmised that too much couldn't be expected of the garnet and gold but that in time, both they and the Florida Gators, irrespective of their "doldrums," would develop teams of which all Florida could be proud. This much is a fact. In the sixty-one years since the Famous 47ers laced them up for the first time, the Florida State Seminoles have become synonymous with college football success and top National rankings. During a recent stretch, Florida State placed in the top four rankings for a record twelve consecutive seasons, winning two national championships while playing for three others. Who would have thought it possible in 1947? Certainly, no one from Ann Arbor, South Bend, Baton Rouge, or West Point. What those first coaches and players began developed and blossomed into one of the most outstanding college football dynasties ever constructed. And if history teaches anything, it's that few of today's advances or joys have come without a price. There have always been forebears of one sort or another who forged ahead, pushing the limits. These Seminoles did that and are worthy of respect.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2009
Wes Singletary's first novel, Big Guava, written under the pen name Doc Charles, is due out in Spring 2023. Wes is the author of three books of non-fiction: The Right Time: John Henry "Pop" Lloyd and Black Baseball; Al Lopez: The Life of Baseball's El Senor; and Florida's First Big League Baseball Players: A Narrative History. He is also a contributing author on The Pride of Smoketown: The 1935 Pittsburgh Crawfords. Wes earned a Ph.D. in history from Florida State University and currently teaches AP United States History. He also serves as an adjunct history professor at a local community college. Wes is married to the former Toni Zarate, and they have two adult children, Patricia and Nelson. Wes can be found on Twitter @TampaGuy6.
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE