When Bill Klem died in September 1951, Pepper Martin was among the honorary pallbearers for the legendary umpire. The duo had long been linked in baseball history — for starters, Klem officiated all seven of the 1931 World Series games that cemented Martin’s place in the annals of the sport,
When Bill Klem died in September 1951, Pepper Martin was among the honorary pallbearers for the legendary umpire. The duo had long been linked in baseball history — for starters, Klem officiated all seven of the 1931 World Series games that cemented Martin’s place in the annals of the sport, calling two of them behind the plate. Still, there were probably a few individuals who thought it odd for Martin to be considered a friend to any man in blue. Namely, the active umpires of the Florida International League.
At the time of the funeral, Martin was a few weeks from being removed from his post as manager of the Miami Sun Sox. In that role, which he’d served for three seasons, the former Gashouse Gang-ster had piled up several ejections or fines for his treatment of umpires so notable they made national — and, in one case, international — headlines.
Weeks into his tenure, Martin was fined $25 by league president Phil O’Connell for “use of profanity toward an umpire, placing hands on the umpire, and failure to control the Miami players” during an April 16 game against the Miami Beach Flamingos. To bookend that first season at the helm, Martin was suspended from Sept. 1 through the end of the year for having assaulted umpire Clem W. Camia during an Aug. 26 on-field dispute in Havana. When Martin refused to order his team to quit protesting the ejection of infielder Augie “Knobby” Rosa, Camia declared the game a forfeit to the Cubans. In turn, Martin charged Camia and had to be pulled off police officers. [Looking back on the incident a couple years later at the Miami Kiwanis Club, a shamed Martin admitted, “I guess I was going to choke him.”]
Nor was Martin’s violent temper reserved for umpires. Two seasons later, the skipper went into the stands in Lakeland to “poke” a Pilots fan, per an Associated Press account, which resulted in one fine imposed by Lakeland Municipal Court and one imposed by O’Connell.
If Martin, who managed the Sun Sox for three of the franchise’s six seasons, imbued the club with an intense, mercurial identity, he also established a fighting spirit that served the team well. When he took the reins for the 1949 campaign, the Florida International League to which the team belonged had just been upgraded on the Minor League hierarchy [from Class C to Class B — a transition in motion ever since the circuit drew more than half a million fans in its inaugural season of 1946] and Miami took on a parent club, the Brooklyn Dodgers, for the first time. The Sun Sox name was back after two seasons off, with the club playing as the Tourists from 1947-48. With the new classification, new affiliation, the franchise’s original name and a new skipper, Miami began burning its way into Minors history.
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Ironically, although the “Wild Horse of the Osage” left an indelible imprint on the Sun Sox identity, it was in the club’s first season without him that Miami was one of the most dominant Minor League teams of the 20th century. In November 1951, Sun Sox president H.B. Taber Jr. told the AP that Martin wouldn’t be returning, with “the most important reason” being “we don’t want to get into a rut by having one manager for too long. Pepper has held the post the longest of any of our managers.” That logic is clear enough, but if the Sun Sox were in a rut, it was a rut most fans would love to see their team fall into. With Martin at the helm, Miami made the playoffs three times and won the whole shebang once.
The Cardinals honored “the Wild Horse of the Osage” with Pepper Martin Day in 1939. (AP)
It stands to reason, therefore, that his tendency to act on murderous impulses toward umpires and specifically his ’51 attack on a Lakeland fan played a part in Martin’s dismissal. Whatever the actual motivations, there may have been something to Taber’s stated belief that a new skipper could help the club be even better.
Max Macon had spent 13 years in pro ball — parts of six in the Majors — when he took on the role of player-manager for Miami for 1952. He was 36 years old and was fresh off piloting another Dodgers affiliate, the Hazard Bombers, to a remarkable 93-33 record and a title in the Class D Mountain States League. Macon, who’d been Martin’s teammate on the ’38 Cardinals, served in the U.S. Army from 1945-46 after pitching 25 games for Brooklyn in 1943 and batting .273 in 106 games as an outfielder/first baseman the following year. His experience did not unduly age him. In addition to managing, he batted .253 in 115 games and put up a 1.20 ERA over 30 innings across 13 appearances for the Sun Sox.
It was on the mound and in the field that the team separated itself from the pack. Getting four more double plays than games they played and featuring five pitchers who threw more than 150 innings while posting ERAs below 2.00, the Sun Sox thrived despite an offense that averaged 3.6 runs. Led by 21-year-old southpaw Bill Harris (25-6, 0.83 ERA over 294 innings) and 36-year-old right-hander Gil Torres (22-8, 0.86 ERA over 273 innings), they finished the regular season 104-48.
With such a record, a team could ordinarily expect to run away with the pennant. For Miami, though, 1952 was a dogfight against Miami Beach. The manager of the Flamingos was a familiar face: Pepper Martin found work on the island after Taber gave him his walking papers from the mainland. Improbably, another party familiar to the Sun Sox [and Martin himself] wound up on the ’52 Flamingos: Knobby Rosa, over whose ejection Martin was prepared to strangle an umpire. Rosa, who played for Martin for all three of Martin’s Miami seasons, came out of retirement to play for him one more time in ’52. Eager though he apparently was, the infielder was suspended by the Flamingos for “insubordination,” according to The Sporting News and not properly reinstated per league rules when he contributed to Miami Beach’s 5-2 win over Miami on Aug. 7. The Sun Sox protested to league president Henry S. Baynard, who forfeited the game to them.
“If the Sun Sox want a victory that badly, we’ll give them one,” Miami Beach GM Joe Ryan told The Sporting News.
But the forfeit was overturned and the game was completely stricken from the record by the league’s board of directors at a meeting on Aug. 30. The passing weeks had done little to heal the animosity between the clubs and it took the last day of the season, Sept. 6, to settle the standings. The Flamingos did their part, sweeping the Tampa Smokers in a doubleheader to finish 103-49, but with Torres dealing for the Sun Sox, Miami beat the St. Petersburg Saints, 3-2, to claim win No. 104. Inevitably, the titans met in the finals, and perhaps as inevitably, seven games were required to declare the Sun Sox champions.
After Harris pitched a complete game and knocked an RBI single in Game 1, he got the ball again in the finale. The Canada-born lefty worked into the ninth, but the Flamingos scored to pull within one after getting to him for three runs in the eighth. Macon turned the fate of the season over to Torres, who got Miami out of the frame to preserve a 5-4 win.
That historic campaign was at least partially a reflection of a winning culture instilled by the man who sat in the manager’s seat in the opposing dugout that fall. After finishing last in its inaugural season of 1946, scraping into the postseason with 70-75 overall record in ’47 and missing the playoffs altogether in ’48, Martin helped the Miami club make good in ’49. The skipper’s April and August roughing up of umpires aside, the Sun Sox were a bright and shining example of a pro ballclub that year, finishing 87-62 to claim second place. Two Cuban right-handers led the way, with Rene Solis going 20-9 with a 2.98 ERA over 254 innings and 20-year-old Vicente Lopez [often called “Vincente” in newspapers of the day] nearly keeping the pace with an 18-8 record and 2.84 ERA over 203 innings.
In 1950, Lopez was a force to be reckoned with — more than that, he was a record-setter — who helped Miami to its first title. The 5-foot-11 righty put up a 1.82 ERA over 217 frames while going 20-6.
At that point, as the Sun Sox were putting the finishing touches on building a consistently successful franchise, the Havana Cubans — who finished in first place each of three previous seasons and were on their way to a fourth — were undeniably the team to beat in the FIL. What do you do when you need to beat the team to beat? You give the ball to your best pitcher. Closing in on the Cubans, the Sun Sox sent Lopez to the bump on Aug. 31 and saw him claim his 14th consecutive victory to break a record set during the FIL’s first season by Havana’s Conrado Marrero. Although the Sun Sox finished the year in second place at 98-55 (including a 22-0 record against St. Petersburg) compared to Havana’s 101-49, it set a heck of a tone for the playoffs. Lopez kept the opposition not just quiet but silent.
Cubans hitters couldn’t have been thrilled when they drew Lopez with their backs against the wall for Game 5 of the ’50 Finals. At that point, he’d tossed four straight shutouts dating back to the regular season, won 16 in a row and turned in 37 consecutive scoreless innings. And he wasn’t done.
The Sun Sox scored just one run, but it was all Lopez needed. His fifth consecutive shutout — running his streak to 46 shutout innings — netted Miami its first title. It capped a career year for Lopez and one that would stand as the best for the franchise if not for the dream year Macon helmed two years later.
After the glory of ’52, the team — and the Florida International League — was short-lived. Miami, featuring a 20-year-old Maury Wills, reached the semifinals of the 1953 season, which included only six teams after having eight since ’47. The writing may have been on the wall, and in ’54 the Havana team jumped ship to the International League. By the first week in May, the Sun Sox dropped out of the FIL, and the league as a whole was finished for good by the end of July.
Josh Jackson is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB.