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Miami at bat: A history of baseball in the Magic City

Compared to most American cities, Miami’s history is relatively short. Founded in July 1896, Miami is just 119 years old, much younger than than most comparable cities to the north and west. nBut for nearly as long as our magic city has been around, it has cultivated a love for baseball.

The early years

In 1912, Miami got its first minor league team: the Miami Magicians. The Magicians played in the East Florida State League, one of many minors around the state that operated before the game was as structured as it is today. The Magicians kicked off a baseball heritage that has never died.

The league, and the Magicians, ceased operations as the United States was drawn into the World War I, like most leagues around the country. However, baseball would live on.

As the early decades of the 20th century rolled on, more teams popped up around South Florida. By World War II, the Florida East Coast League featured four local teams: the Miami Beach Flamingos, the Miami Wahoos, the Fort Lauderdale Tarpons, and the West Palm Beach Indians. The 1930s saw the rise of the Miami Giants, a major league team in the Negro Leagues.

By 1943, with so many male baseball players off fighting in World War II, Philip K. Wrigley, owner of the Chicago Cubs, launched the All American Girls Baseball League, which trained right here in Opa-locka.

After the war years, baseball continued to grow in popularity nationally and locally. Recognizing the need for a larger stadium to serve ever-growing crowds, Jose Manuel Aleman, a retired Cuban government minister, led a project to erect what would become Miami Stadium. At its completion, it was considered one of the finest baseball parks in the country.

The (Major) Minor Leagues

The 1950s saw the quality of baseball in Florida rise as well as the birth of the Miami Sun Sox (also called the Tourists, appropriately enough). Though generally considered average at best, they fielded one of the best pitching staffs in minor league history. Despite a mediocre offense, they had a solid defense, and the Miami Sun Sox often finished at the top of the league, becoming champions one year after beating the Miami Beach Flamingos.

From the 1950s on, greater South Florida became associated with baseball on a different level, serving as a common staging ground for spring training. For much of the time, this was the only connection the city had to professional major league baseball, though a series of minor league teams did rise and fall.

It was not until 1956 that Miami reached two milestones — its first Triple-A, top flight minor league team, and the first incarnation of the Marlins. That same year, baseball moved from the Miami Stadium to the comparatively cavernous Orange Bowl, which had been expanded the previous year. The Marlins premiered before a crowd of nearly 58,000, with legendary performers like Merv Griffin and jazz great Cab Calloway in attendance.

The original Marlins pioneers played a good game, but dwindling attendance and financial problems led the team to relocate to Puerto Rico just four years after their debut.

Minor league baseball continued to blossom in South Florida, but it was growth in fits and spurts. Teams like the (second) Miami Marlins, Miami Orioles, and Miami Miracle came into existence and disappeared soon after, all unable to attract fans and achieve financial stability. In 1979, 19 years after the Triple-A Marlins left South Florida, Miami once again had a Triple-A team in the Miami Amigos. However, they only lasted until July of that year, when the entire league folded abruptly.

But baseball would live on in another form, more popular than ever.

Hurricanes dominate

Legendary University of Miami baseball coach Ron Fraser took over the Hurricanes in 1963, back when the program had no money, uniforms, scholarships, or recognition. Despite the challenges, during Fraser’s early years, the Hurricanes broke record after record of wins per season, and the program’s reputation began to rise nationally.

With the inauguration of a new stadium, the Mark Light Field, the Hurricanes rose even higher. In a decade, they climbed from an average attendance of 800 fans to over 3,000 a game, breaking NCAA records for consecutive seasons.

During his 30 years as head coach, Fraser led Miami to 21 postseasons, 12 College World Series, and 2 National Championship titles. The University of Miami Hurricanes were the most successful and winning baseball team in Miami history, proving how popular college baseball could be under a program like Fraser’s.

Since his retirement in 1992, the Hurricanes have made another 12 appearances in the College World Series, most recently this year, and earned two more national championship titles in 1999 and 2001.

The Majors come to Miami

In 1993, 14 years after the Amigos folded and more than 80 years after minor league baseball came to South Florida, Miami finally fielded a major league team.

Two years earlier, Wayne Huizenga, then CEO of Blockbuster, was awarded a team after shelling out a mammoth $95 million expansion fee. Though originally named the Florida Flamingos, Huizenga and his team eventually settled on the Florida Marlins, harkening back to Miami’s historic minor league team.

In their early years, the Marlins began many traditions that they still hold onto today. In their first season, they finished just ahead of the last-place New York Mets.

But in 1997, an underdog Marlins team earned a wildcard berth into the post-season. After an amazing run in which they swept the San Francisco Giants and beat the Atlanta Braves for the National League title, the Marlins found themselves in their first World Series. Facing a strong Cleveland Indians side, the Marlins shocked baseball fans and brought home their first World Series championship after seven games.

Following their incredible victory, Huizenga claimed a financial loss despite their success, and sold off nearly all of the team’s best players. The Marlins finished the 1998 season with the worst record in the major leagues that year and the most losses in the team’s history, a feat they repeated again in 1999.

By 2003, the team had rebuilt and won their second World Series, defeating the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium.

While they have not come close to another World Series run in more than a decade, today’s Marlins are a whole new team. In 2011, following the demolition of the historic Orange Bowl and the construction of Marlins Park, the team was renamed the Miami Marlins.

Although professional baseball continues to struggle in sunny South Florida, our unique mix of Cuban and American culture ensures that we’ll be in the majors for some time to come.

And hey, if we want to see a winning team, there’s always The U.

By Abel Iraola
Abel Iraola is a public relations, marketing, and events professional from Hialeah, FL. He’s worked across public, private, and non-profit sectors, including U.S. Congress. Today, he enjoys freelancing on the side and supporting cultural events in South Florida. His interests include history, soccer, politics, food, and everything under the hot Miami sun.