The Rich Heritage of Baseball in Florence, SC – a Four-Part Series

Part 1 – Championship and Scandal with the Florence Steelers

(Florence, SC) – Every town throughout the southeastern United States can look back on its professional baseball heritage with pride and even a bit of wistfulness when recalling the memories. Few can brag about the highs and lows like Florence, South Carolina, but baseball is still alive and well in the Pee Dee region with the Florence RedWolves, a summer league team who has delighted the local fan base since 1998. But a peek back into history includes championship, a gambling scandal, a major league exhibition game on a football field, a Canadian connection and the use of four stadiums, three of which still exist. We begin our look back in Part One in this four-part series by looking at the Florence Steelers and their home field, American Legion Stadium.

Florence had already gotten a taste of professional ball in 1907 with the Darlington-Florence Fiddlers, who were led by former MLB pitcher Crese Heisman and then had a team to their own in 1931, the Florence Pee Deans, but they folded before the season was complete. But on November 3, 1947, the Florence Steelers were accepted into the Tri-State League and anticipation began to build. Former Cincinnati Red Lee Gamble was named the manager and Legion Ballpark located on Oakland Street would be the home.

The Steelers would have a coaching change before the first pitch was even thrown. At a team introduction dinner at the P and M Café, General Manager Ed Weingarten announced that Gamble had resigned because he would lose his seniority with his railroad job back in Pennsylvania if took the summer off to oversee the Steelers. George Motto, and all-star the season before with the Reidsville team, was introduced as the manager. Also, in attendance for the steak dinner was the President of the Tri-State League, Mr. C. M. Lewellyn who praised the Motto hiring. Ticket prices were announced that night, 85 cents for adults and 35 cents for kids.  The P & M Café was on East Evans Street, roughly where WDAR Radio Station studio sits today. Incidentally, the Steelers home office was located were Hotel Florence is currently located.

The home-opener was on Friday Night, April 16, 1948 and 2,591 showed up at Legion Stadium to see the Steelers fall 8-4 to the Fayetteville Cubs Player-manager Motto and centerfielder Oscar Garmendia both had two hits in a losing cause. Pregame ceremonies included the McClenaghan High School band performing and the first pitch was thrown out by Mayor Pro-Tem James (Red) Maxwell. The Steelers would win their first home game the next night, a 2-1 win over the same Cubs in front of a scaled down crowd of 620.

Unfortunately for the local fans, the Steelers would have more drama in their first couple of months that wins. Weingarten, who was the principal stockholder, general manager, secretary and treasurer of the Steelers, was named in a gambling scandal with another team. As a result of the investigation, Weingarten was permanently banned from baseball. The scandal did not affect the Steelers, but there was a reorganization of the club’s leadership immediately after news broke.

The 1948 season was not going well and on June 12, with a last place record of 22-38, Motto was replaced as Manager with James Martin, a native of Fairforest, South Carolina. They would go 28-57 the rest of the season, but Martin would take the Steelers to the Promised Land in the following season.

The Steelers would be at the top of the standings all season, and won the Tri-State League O’Shaughnessy Title with a 4-2 series win against the Spartanburg Peaches. Trailing 3-1 going to top of the 7th, they scored seven runs in the next two innings win the championship clinching game 8-3. Steeler pitcher Mel Fisher was named the league MVP. He won 33 games that season, 27 in the regular season and four in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the celebration didn’t last long as the Steeler’s ownership announced they would sell the team. A grass roots effort by the citizens of Florence was organized to sell stock at $25 per share to buy out the team, but eventually, Fred Martschink bought the team in December 1949. His ownership did not last long, as the local investor group eventually raised enough capital to purchase Martschink out in February, 1950.

The 1950 season did not go as planned, losses mounted on the field and financially, the championship didn’t really build any momentum, the crowds dwindled and on the last day of August, 1950, the ownership group turned their franchise back in to the league. They would finish their season out with one last home game, a 10-2 win over Sumter.

The stadium continued to be used by the American Legion program but eventually burned down on July 15, 1970. The property was converted to a park and dedicated to Dr. Iola Jones who tirelessly worked for education in the city of Florence. It just recently went through some renovations.

Preston Gomez was probably the most famous Florence Steelers, he ended up with an eight year career as a major league manager, including the first manager of the San Diego Padres. Fisher pitched in all of the Steelers three seasons and finished with a record of 46-42. The original manager, George Motto would manage three more seasons in the Mountain States League and Ed Weingarten, who started it all, never participated in professional baseball again.

Next Up – MLB Exhibitions try Florence on for size.

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