LIMA — The Lima News sports editor Bill Snypp was livid.
“Aided by one of the season’s prize officiating boners,” Snypp wrote Sept. 13, 1939, “the Fremont Green Sox, or rather, Umpires Major and Ludden, defeated the Lima Pandas in the opening game of the Shaughnessy playoff series.”
That the Pandas, the newest member of the class D Ohio State League made the playoffs at all, let alone inspired such passion in Snypp over a couple calls, was remarkable. For much of their inaugural season the Pandas were anything but inspiring. Even with a generous two-thirds of the six-team league guaranteed berths in the postseason playoffs under what was known as the Shaughnessy system, the Pandas were a long shot. At one point in June, the team was 22 games out of first place and half that out of fifth.
Lima’s boys of summer were born in the depths of the previous winter. On Jan. 4, 1939, the News revealed that “interested parties from Toledo” had announced they would be in town to “make a study of possible sites for a park.”
The “interested parties” included Toledo businessman Henry Rigney and Michael V. DiSalle, a former Democratic state representative from Toledo who would be elected governor of Ohio in 1958. In February, the group was given an option on a Lima club at a league meeting in Fostoria. The Lima club would join Fostoria, Findlay, Fremont, Tiffin and Mansfield in the league.
“It is thrilling to learn that Lima will return to organized baseball (the wonderfully named Lima Cigarmakers had played in the Ohio State League between 1908 and 1912) as a member of the Ohio State Class D League this year,” the News editorialized Feb. 10, 1939. “Between now and … when the season opens, workmen will be busy at Murphy Street park constructing a grandstand, two bleachers and a fence. Much of the credit is due M.V. DiSalle, franchise holder, who with his back to the wall in regard to a suitable playing place would not admit defeat.”
On March 26, 1939, the News announced a veteran minor league catcher and former manager of the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association named William D. Ward would manage the team in 1939. Players, the News added, would report for training in mid-April and practice on Diamond No. 6 in City (Faurot) Park while work at the Murphy Street park was completed. When spring rains made work outside impossible — a common occurrence — the team moved into the Lima YMCA gymnasium to train.
In the meantime, the team looked to build a following. “Approximately 1,000 fans greeted the new Lima diamond squad Wednesday night in Memorial Hall,” the News reported April 27, 1939, “when a diversified program of music, speaking movies and introduction held the attention of baseball fans for two hours.”
Also that night, fans submitted suggestions for a team nickname. “Nicknames turned in at the Fan Night celebration last Wednesday included many which linked the team with Shawnee Indians, night baseball, 100th anniversary of the game and many other themes but officers of the club preferred Panda because of its reference to a new field,” the News explained somewhat murkily. “An emblem of the black and white panda will be placed on the shirt fronts of the Lima uniforms.”
As for the team which would fill the uniforms, the News reported Ward had sifted through “approximately 100 boys” to reach the 20-man roster. “Players from seven states — Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri and Louisiana — reported for tryouts including nearly a score from the city and district.”
On May 3, the News reported, “When Lima opens its 1939 baseball season Thursday afternoon with a Booster day game with Fremont, fans will be seated in a new grandstand and bleachers on the same site as the former Murphy Street ball park, the colorful replacements being termed the best in the Ohio State League. Seating capacity is 2,100.” A “newly painted” 12-foot fence would surround the field while new “lights will beam down from 11 pole locations.” Under the grandstands “will be dressing quarters and shower rooms for both Lima and visiting teams as well as restrooms, concessions stands and groundskeepers’ quarters.”
DiSalle and his business manager, Charles Kessler, had renamed the park Halloran Park “as a gesture to the late Bernie Halloran, who sponsored baseball on the same field for many years,” the News wrote.
All was ready except, apparently, the Pandas. After losing their first game at 1938 champion Fremont, 2,500 fans squeezed into the Pandas’ glorious new park for the home opener, which the home team lost 13 to 4 to Fremont. In short order, they were blanked by the Findlay Oilers and then, improbably, piled up 16 runs — and lost again to Findlay.
The Panda’s finished May in last place with a 5-12 record but without Ward, who was replaced in late May by Merle “Lefty” Settlemire, a native of Santa Fe in Logan County who had pitched briefly for the Boston Red Sox. The Pandas continued to lose at an alarming rate and management, ignoring the adage that managers are fired because teams can’t be fired, slowly fired most of the team. By the end of June only three of the players who had begun the season less than two months earlier were still with the Pandas.
On June 23, Snypp looked for a silver lining. “When the Pandas left for Fremont Thursday night, they had only 11 victories to their credit,” Snypp wrote. “A review of the box scores, however, shows that nine of them were won in such impressive fashion that the pitchers could have taken a holiday. If the Pandas can figure out some way to conserve their energy in victory and come through in the close clutches it wouldn’t take long to leave the confines of the coal pile.”
And the Pandas, thanks in large part to the revamped roster, were doing their best to escape “the confines of the coal pile.” Frank “Porky” Biscan, a left-handed pitcher who came to the Pandas in mid-season, finished the year 12-3. Outfielder Herb Woodten, another late addition, contributed key hits. Manager/pitcher Settlemire, Woodten and infielders Harlan Kiersey and Ray “Bucky” Kozak, one of the original Pandas, were named to the league all-star team.
On Aug. 13, Snypp noted the Pandas had gone 31-20 since June 20. On Aug. 15, the Pandas won their seventh game in a row before a big crowd at Halloran. As August turned to September, the Pandas sported a 56-62 record and trailed the fourth-place Tiffin Mud Hens by five games. By Sept.r 5, with consecutive wins over Findlay and Fostoria, they’d closed to within two games, “the closest they have been to a Shaughnessy play-off berth this season,” the News noted.
On Sept. 11, 1939, the Pandas beat Fremont to tie Tiffin for fourth place, and then defeated the Mud Hens in a one-game playoff for the final playoff spot. Even losing the first game of the playoff series to Fremont could not stop the Pandas’ momentum and they swept into the championship series with pennant-winning Findlay.
Again, the Pandas began the series with a loss, eventually trailing the Oilers 3 games to 2, but rallied for a 9 to 7 win in a “hair-raising thriller” in the sixth game. The deciding seventh game was played at Halloran Park on Sept. 22.
“Lima is champion of the Shaughnessy playoff series of the Ohio State League, the Pandas staging one of their typical hair-raising finishes Friday night at Halloran Park to nip the pennant-winning Findlay Oilers, 5 to 4,” Snypp wrote Sept. 23. “Trailing by two runs and with two outs in the last of the ninth, the Pandas scored the tying and winning tallies on Herb Woodten’s double to center.”
On Jan. 1, 1940, a calmer Snypp, looking back on the year in sports, opined that the “sensational finish of the Lima Pandas of the Ohio State baseball league, which brought nation-wide acclaim to the city and club, (highlighted) athletic activities in Lima during 1939.”
Next week: A very good year.
Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]