The Pensacola Fliers were a minor league AA baseball team in the Southeastern League from 1946-1950. The Fliers were a farmclub of the National League Philadelphia Phillies. The Southeastern League consisted of teams such as the Meridian Millers, Montgomery Rebels, Jackson Senators, Vicksburg Billies, Selma Cloverleafs, Gadsden Pilots and Anniston Rams. The Fliers won the pennant in 1949 and 1950.
The Fliers fit into Pensacola's professional baseball heritage with the Pensacola Pilots, Pensacola Dons, Pensacola Angels, Pensacola Senators, Pensacola Pelicans, and currently the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
With World War II over, the Southeastern League started anew in 1946. Now named the Fliers and an affiliate of the Washington Senators . The team was named the Fliers in honor of the pilots at the Pensacola Naval Air Station. In '47 and '48, as an independent operation, Pensacola finished in the middle of the pack. Despite still not having a major league benefactor the next year, the Fliers put together the league’s best team to date.
The Fliers posted an easy win in the Southeastern League, finishing 98-42, with a .700 win percentage, 16 games ahead of Meridian. In the playoffs, Pensacola whitewashed Jackson, four games to none, before besting Vicksburg, four games to one to win the Southeastern League championship. Later, in a matchup of Class B leagues called the Little Dixie Series, the Fliers defeated the Florida International’s Tampa franchise, four games to two.
The ’49 Fliers were managed by 36-year-old Bill Herring. A long-time minor leaguer, Herring spent much of his career in the Coastal Plain League, both as a pitcher and manager. In 1941, he managed the Wilson Tobs to a place on the top 100 list. After stops in Portland (PCL) and Goldsboro (Coastal Plain), Herring signed on to manage Pensacola in 1949. In addition to piloting the club, Herring contributed from the mound, winning 10-of-13 decisions. After the season, he returned to familiar stomping grounds in the Coastal Plain, managing the Tobs in 1950.
Pensacola featured two players who were legends in minor league baseball in the Southeastern United States, 43-year-old first baseman Bill McGhee and outfielder Nesbit (Neb) Wilson. McGhee was in his 21st year in pro ball and had been a wartime player with the Philadelphia Athletics, batting .272 in 170 games in 1944-45. He played all but 79 of his 2,292 minor league games below the Mason-Dixon Line. He had a .321 career average with 2,791 hits, but was not a power hitter, recording just 45 home runs. As playing manager at Gadsen in 1947, he had led the Southeastern League in batting (.349).
Wilson, then 26, had a career which also spanned 21 years (1940-60), all but parts of two seasons in the South. He had a .326 career average with 2,369 hits including 329 homers. Wilson played four years with Pensacola (1947-50), leading the Southeastern League in RBI (129) in 1947 and hits (165) and total bases (254) in 1949, then winning the triple crown in 1950 (.355-35-163). He won three more batting titles, with a high mark of .403 as player-manager of Crestview in the Alabama-Florida League in 1955. He led his league in RBI five times and in homers and doubles four times each.
Aside from McGhee, the only other Flier who reached the majors was outfielder Bob Thorpe (.275-15-96), who hit .251 in 110 games for the Boston/Milwaukee Braves in 1951-53. Second baseman Jack Hollis (.315) played three seasons for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League.
The fact that so few Pensacola players made the big leagues was not unique for the era. In 1949, minor league baseball was at its height with 59 leagues operating--close to 10,000 minor league players competing for a spot on one of 16 major league teams. In addition, the Fliers were an independent outfit, not affiliated with any big league team that could conceivably pull its players up the ladder.
The Fliers’ pitching staff was anchored by a pair of 20-game winners - right-handers Alvin Henencheck (22-6) and Ken Deal (21-5). Left-hander Joe Kirkland (13-3) also chipped in, earning the ERA crown (1.62) while twirling six shutouts in only 18 starts. Hollis and Kirkland made the Southeastern League All-Star first team. Wilson, Thorpe, third baseman Minor Scott and Henencheck were named to the All-Star second team.
Bill McGhee (1B) .287 batting avg., Jack Hollis (2B) .315, Jimmy Williams (SS) .230, Minor Scott (3B) .277, Neb Wilson (OF) .324, Charles Weathers (OF) .292, Bob Thorpe (OF) .275, Charles Ehlman (C) .265, John McAnulty (SS) .221, Pierce McWhorter (C) .301, Jim Blair (1B) .310, Norman Wilson (C) .308, Rusty Morgan (3B) .333, John Dempsey (OF) .293, George Fisher (1B) .209, Robert Lyons (2B), Curtis Salyer (IF)
Alvin Henencheck 22-6, 3.08 era; Ken Deal 21-5, 2.54; Joe Kirkland 13-3, 1.62; Bert Heffernan 12-9, 2.56; George Koval 11-8, 4.07; Bill Herring 10-3, 3.25; Francis Murray 9- 8, 3.46; Andy Elko 6-3, 3.34; Robert Galey 3-2, 4.31; Ted Beck 2-1; Vernon Horn 0-1; Tony Polink 0-1; Larry Hartley 0-0; Ben Thorpe 0-0
After Pensacola won the championship in '50, the Southeastern League folded, taking the Fliers with it for the third time in 40 years. Seven years later, a team from the town joined the Class D Alabama-Florida League. In their six-year stay (1957-62), the team won a playoff championship in 1960 and a regular season crown in 1962 as the Pensacola Senators. Following the latter, Pensacola dropped out of baseball for good until the Pensacola Pelicans in 2002.
In 1929, the New York Yankees, with star players Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, played an exhibition game at Legion Field in March. The Yankees were playing various teams as part of a spring training tour of the South. The Yanks prevailed 12-2 in front of 3,000+ fans.
The 1949 Pensacola Fliers, featuring a cast of unknowns, augmented by a pair of players among the minor leagues’ best, finished with the highest mark in Southeastern League history. Their story lends ammunition to the theory that a team doesn’t need a superstar to lead it to greatness. A well-balanced team featuring good hitting and pitching could accomplish the job just fine.
In 2001, during the celebration of the centennial of the National Baseball Association, the Association commissioned baseball historians Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright to develop a list of the 100 best minor league baseball teams of all time. The 1949 Fliers ranked #67.
In 1998, Pensacola would have several teams with the same name: The Pensacola Flyers of the Eastern Indoor Soccer League in 1998, and the Pensacola Ice Flyers of the Southern Professional Hockey League whose first season is 2009-2010.