Pro Baseball Begins in Cocoa
The front page of the January 23, 1941 Cocoa Tribune declared that Cocoa was ready for a franchise in the Florida East Coast League. Click the above image to view an Adobe Acrobat version of the front page.
War was on the horizon in Cocoa. Literally.
Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe. U-Boats would soon prowl the waters off Florida. Locals were organizing citizen defense organizations.
The 1940 census declared Cocoa’s official population to be 3,098. Contracts were issued to build causeways linking Cocoa to Merritt Island, and Merritt Island to Cocoa Beach. Lots were being auctioned off in what would become today’s downtown Cocoa Beach. A Congressman wrote home to report that the federal government would spend $1.7 million to build a 27-foot deep harbor at Canaveral.
It was the beginning of perhaps the most important decade in Brevard County history, until the Space Age 20 years later.
The 1940s also brought professional baseball.
The short life of the Cocoa Fliers, the area’s first minor league baseball team, was chronicled in the Cocoa Tribune. The paper was published once a week, on Thursdays. Typically eight pages in length, a subscription was $2.00. A year.
Tribune editions survive on microfilm reels at the
Central Brevard Public Library in Cocoa. I spent a couple hours looking through the first four months of 1941 to resurrect Fliers history.
The first mention was the front page of the January 23, 1941 edition. “Cocoa Ready to Enter Team in League,” the headline declared.
Cocoa is ready to become one of those cities enjoying organized baseball, it was announced this week following a meeting of baseball fans held at the city hall Friday night, when a temporary set of officials was selected to supervise the negotiations for securing a franchise in the league.
The decision to organize a baseball club corporation here came following the invitation extended by the Florida East Coast League to become a member.
At the present time the City of Cocoa is building a regulation baseball park and athletic field in Virginia Park. Trees have been cut from the plot and stumps of the trees will be pulled out this week, so that the area may be plowed and leveled. A fence will be placed around the park and suitable grandstand and bleacher accommodations built for the fans.
Local businessman M.B. Provost was elected President of the group. The article noted that enough “stock subscriptions” had been secured to acquire the franchise.
The February 6 edition of the Tribune reported that the group’s application had been accepted. The article noted that shares of stock in the team were worth $10 each, and that a total of about $3,000 had been raised.
The Tribune reported on February 27 that “Business Manager I.W. Brant has contacted several fine player prospects who have signifiied their intentions of coming here to try for regular places on the Cocoa nine during the two week spring training period, which begins on April first. He also said that at an early date a player-manager would be employed to assist in interesting them to try for berths on the Cocoa team.”
Another front page article was titled, “Baseball Park Takes Shape — Grandstand Commodious.”
A system of drainage has been placed underneath the playing field, which will eliminate danger of the diamond or field becoming soggy because of heavy rains. Hundreds of tile have been placed underneath the field, leading to drainage ditches, which will prove avantageous (sic) in draining the area of water following heavy rainfall.
The grandstand, which is being built of cement blocks, will have a seating capacity of one thousand. Underneath the grandstand will be several rooms, two of which will be used as locker rooms, equipped with showers and toilets for players, one as a room for concessions and another as a store room for the baseball club. The grandstand will be one of the finest to be found in Florida when completed.
The team needed a name. The owners wanted to use the local traditional name “Indians” but that was taken by the West Palm Beach team in the league, so they decided to hold an open contest. The person with the winning entry would receive a season’s pass to all 1941 home games. “All suggestions must be legibly written on one side of a sheet of paper,” the Tribune reported, “and mailed to E.P. Collins” at the team’s post office box, “or handed to Mr. Collins at his office on the second floor of the Aviles Building on or before Monday, March 17.”
The owners, meanwhile, secured the services of Jesse Cleveland “Alabama” Smith as player-manager. Smith had played the last four years with the Orlando Nationals. “Smith can play any position on the team,” it was reported, “but will serve as a catcher.”
“A number of excellent prospects have been assigned to contracts,” the Tribune assured its readers on March 6. They came from near and far. The “near” category included Kermit C. Miller, who was not just an infielder but also of the Cocoa public schools faculty. A semi-pro player from Mims named Kenneth Duff was signed, as was catcher-outfielder Walter “Cooter” Edge of Melbourne.
The City of Cocoa renamed Virginia Park after pioneer resident Charles D. Provost.
The Cocoa City Council voted on March 11 to rename Virginia Park after 79-year old Charles D. Provost, described as a “pioneer resident of Central Brevard.” According to a family web site on GenealogyForYou.org, he was the father of team president Marshall Breese Provost. The March 13 Tribune reported:
Mr. Provost is known as one of the foremost baseball fans of the community and during the past quarter of a century has contributed his share for the promotion of baseball in the city. As a baseball fan, Mr. Provost has no peer in the city. There have been few games that he has missed seeing played in the local park in many years, unless illness caused him to be absent. When the call has come for funds with which to keep the baseball sport going in Cocoa during the summer months, he has always been in the front ranks of contributors, and many times sought solicitations from others in aiding the city to keep a baseball team on the field in advertising the city and to give the people entertainment.
The paper also reported the uniform design.
Uniforms for the Cocoa baseball team have been ordered, Secretary E.P. Collins reports. The uniforms the players will wear for the home games will be white with black letters across the shirts. The stocking will be black with three narrow orange stripes, while the caps will be black with a large white “C” in orange on them.
Uniforms to be worn by the players at games played in other parks will be gray, with black lettering edged in burnt orange.
The Tribune announced on March 20 that the name “Fliers” had been chosen for the team. The winning entry was submitted by W.J. Murdock, a grocery store operator. Two women also submitted Fliers, but Murdock was given the award, according to the paper, because judges “deemed Mr. Murdock’s reason for his suggestion as the best.”
I suggest the Cocoa team in the East Coast League be named “The Fliers”.
“Whereever the Cocoa team plays, people will ask why it is called ‘The Fliers.’ The answer will Associate Cocoa with the Banana River Naval Air Base.”
The two women were given free passes to the opening game.
A new column appeared in the Tribune titled “Bunts and Homers,” written by “The Bat Boy.” Enthused by their new ballpark, the columnist wrote:
The advent of a completely enclosed baseball playing field in Cocoa will appeal to the big leagues, and we wouldn’t be surprised at all if one of the teams in the Majors will seek to train in this city, where the climate is excellent for spring training … We’ll betchya our last penny that Cocoa will be in the limelight with the big league managers before many years have passed.
The Bat Boy was right, sort of.
The Houston Colt .45s came to Cocoa in 1964, but not at Provost Park. They camped at a new complex known today as Cocoa Expo. But that’s a different story.
In a chilling reminder of the times, The Bat Boy had this segregationist observation:
The colored population of Cocoa are great ball fans. Last summer, when Cocoa was playing as a member of the semi-pro loop in the Central East Coast several times the bleachers in right field were filled with the colored men, who like their baseball. We hope provisions will be made in one of the corners of Provost Park, where they can enjoy the sport to themselves.
Spring training began in late March. The team trained at Forrest Park as Provost Park wasn’t ready yet. Players came from across the nation to try out. The Tribune reported on March 27 that even team president Breese Provost got into the action:
President Provost got into his uniform this week and went to Forrest Park along with the other rookies and has been getting into shape with the lads. Friends of Provost have been urging him to try for a position with the Fliers.
An exhibition game was scheduled for Sunday April 6 at 3 PM in Forrest Park, against Smith’s old team the Orlando Senators. The April 3 Tribune reported that ticket prices were “15 cents for children, 20 cents for colored people and 35 cents for white adults.” The Fliers lost 7-4 to the Nationals. The Tribune described the game as “a free hitting contest, during which both outfits cracked out thirteeen hits each.”
The season opener was April 11 at Provost Park. Game time was 8:15 PM, making it the first night game in city history. The Fliers would host the Ft. Pierce Bombers.
In my next article on this subject, we’ll return to Opening Night and look at the 1941 season.