Florence Baseball Legacy – Part 2 – Big Leaguers Come to Town

This is second in a four-part series on the rich heritage of baseball in Florence, South Carolina, Part 1 focused on the minor league Florence Steelers who played in the Tri-State League from 1948 to 1950. Part 2 looks at Major League teams who played exhibition games in Florence at the end of spring training on their way north.  

(Florence, SC) – With the Florence Steelers preparing to embark on their inaugural season in Legion Stadium, the Greater Florence Athletic Association seized the opportunity of baseball fever in Florence and scheduled a major league exhibition game for Friday, August 9, 1948. (Remember from part 1, Legion Stadium burned down in 1970 and was located at the current site of Dr. Iola Jones Park on Oakland Street). The game would feature the Boston Braves versus the Cincinnati Reds.

On a windy, spring afternoon, the gates opened at noon for fans to get a glimpse of the major leaguers and watch batting practice. It is important to note, there was no baseball on TV at the time, so this would be the first opportunity many spectators would have to see the major leaguers that they could only read about in the newspaper. Local businesses were encouraged to let their employees off early that day so they could get to the game, which started at 2:30pm. The teams arrived on Friday morning and stayed at the Florence Hotel before game time.

The Braves, who would eventually win the 1948 NL Pennant, were led by pitchers Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain. Their young shortstop, Alvin Dark, would win rookie of the year and Sain would finish second in the MVP voting. The Reds were led by outfielder Hank Sauer who would hit 35 homeruns in 1948 and win the NL MVP four years later.

The game was delayed fifteen minutes at the start as the field crew finished up their work, which disrupted the pregame routine for starting pitcher Sain, who would get rocked for nine runs in three innings. Sain refused to blame the pregame delay, saying “I simply had a bad day.” Bauer did not, he hit two homeruns on the way to an easy 13-4 win in front of 2,500 fans.

There was also a local flavor, Cincinnati shortstop Virgil Stallcup had played some semi-pro ball with the 1941 Florence Reds of the Pee-Dee League. After the game, the two teams traveled on to Columbia to play another game on Saturday.

There were other exhibition games before that as well, on April 7, 1935 the Detroit Tigers played the Cincinnati Reds in front of 5,000 fans at old Hicks Stadium, which was off South Daragan Street, between the old McClenaghan High School at the railroad tracks behind it. Before Memorial Stadium was built in 1949, Hicks Stadium was the premiere stadium in Florence. Tiger stars Hank Greenberg and “Schoolboy” Rowe lost to Johnny Mize and the Reds that day. The crowd was so big, fans were lined up against the fence in centerfield.

The most interesting exhibition story involves Memorial Stadium, which was built in 1949 and still used today. Another exhibition game was scheduled for the Spring of 1956, the Reds again would face the Washington Senators in a game sponsored by the Florence Shriners. While it was assumed the game would be played at Legion Stadium, a meeting in January of 1956 with representatives from all recreation departments decided it best to equip Memorial Stadium as a baseball facility than to continue to use Legion Stadium, especially since attendance could be doubled and parking was much better.

A crowd of over 5,000 showed up at Memorial Stadium that day to see the new field and the major leaguers. One detriment was the short fence in left field – which was right at 300 ft. Managers and umpires agreed that balls hit over the left field fence would be ground rule doubles, and Red slugger Wally Post was the first to deposit one over what is now the visiting team sideline on about the 15-yard line. The Senators eventually won, but the fans of Florence were treated with seeing Reds rookie and future Hall-of-Famer Frank Robinson.

While the moments are few, it is still exciting to think of Greenberg, Spahn, Robinson and Ted Kluszewski donning their jerseys and playing games here in Florence. And if you go to Memorial Stadium and stand on about the 50-yard line close to the visitor’s side hash mark, you can be in the exact same spot that Robinson stood 63 years ago – not many cities can boast that opportunity.

Next up – a new stadium is built as a neighbor for Memorial Stadium, and it has a Canadian flavor to it.

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