LIMA — It was the minors — and the low minors, at that — but the 1939 Lima Pandas improbable late-season rise from last place to playoff champions of the Class D Ohio State League was a major accomplishment.
Summing up the local sports scene for 1939, Bill Snypp, sports editor of The Lima News, proclaimed that the Pandas’ finish had “brought nationwide acclaim” to the team and the city.
From the vantage of January, the coming season looked promising as well. “Anticipating the Lima baseball club will be the same drawing card in 1940 that it was last season (the Pandas led the league’s five other teams in attendance in 1939), Panda officials Saturday announced steps to enlarge the seating capacity of Halloran Park from 2,200 to approximately 3,000 …,” the News reported Jan. 14, 1940. “Major changes expected to be made in the park’s appearance include the building of 12 and possibly 24 box seats, extension of the grandstand for a distance of 52 feet to the north and east and erection of a 24 foot press box on the grandstand roof.”
The team’s ownership also was new. Following the 1939 season, a group of five local men led by Roy Bowersock, purchased the team from the Toledo group headed by future Ohio Gov. Michael V. DiSalle, which had founded the franchise in February 1939.
There were other, more visible, changes as well. “When the Lima Pandas travel to other league points this season, they not only will go in comfort but in smart style,” the News wrote February 25. “The new 25-passenger bus which will carry the players is to have a special finish in cream and green, with all seats to be covered in blue leather. The club bosses insist it will be the class of Ohio’s minor league clubs.”
The “smart style” was extended to the players on the bus. On March 20, the News revealed the team would wear different uniforms for home and road games. “Last year’s uniforms took an awful beating having been worn in approximately 150 games. Most of the boys were in rags when the last Shaughnessy battle was pulled out of the fire.”
As spring training, scheduled to begin April 2 at Halloran Park, neared, talk turned to the team itself. “The Pandas want several holdovers back but at the present time those among the absentees are Eddie Evans, Frank Biscan, Ed Willett, Bucky Kozak, Harlan Kiersey, Clair Crum and Tom Flynn,” the News wrote March 10. “However when green grass and a warm sun follow in the wake of March’s chilly breezes, it probably will be a different story as far as the ‘holdouts’ are concerned.”
Early April being, well, early April, the holdouts arrived long before the warm spring sun. On April 11, the temperature dipped to 16 degrees and four inches of snow fell. On April 15, the News reported, “Rain Monday forced the Panda baseballers inside again, keeping their record spotless of failing to gain an outdoor workout. Practically all of the 40 boys in camp reported April 1 but not a single workout has been held at the park.” The club, much as in 1939, was forced to hold workouts at the Lima YMCA. Manager/pitcher Merle “Lefty” Settlemire did not hold the first workout at Halloran until April 23.
As April turned to May and opening day loomed, it snowed. The May 2 home opener was postponed. “Retail store employees of Lima quit work at noon Thursday for the first half of their summer half-holidays and departed for the home fires wearing overcoats, overshoes and a decided frown,” the News reported, “The weather resembled that of a typical stormy mid-November or December day.” Among the disappointed fans was Cy Young, who had come to Lima for the Pandas’ opener with old friend Emmett “Turk” Reilly, a catcher for the Lima Cigarmakers in 1909.
The Pandas started the season on the road, losing to the Mansfield Braves, before playing the delayed home opener on May 5, and losing to Fremont.
It all looked frighteningly familiar. The 1939 Pandas also lost their opener and home opener, and then lost a lot more, plummeting to last place in the six-team league. They languished there most of the season before beginning their remarkable turnaround.
But it soon became apparent 1940 would be different. “Resembling once more the club that ‘stormed the castle’ last August and September, the Pandas won their first decision of the year here (Fremont) last night, defeating Fremont 5 to 2 behind the four-hit pitching of Frank “Porky” Biscan,” the News wrote on May 7.
Biscan took the leading role at a game in Halloran later that month. “Married at home plate in a pre-game ceremony to Miss Lilly Jane Pearson, Biscan followed the event by pitching the league’s first shutout of the year and holding the (Tiffin) Mud Hens to three hits,” the News reported May 24.
Behind the pitching of Biscan, who would win 26 games that year, and Settlemire, who would go 15-0, and the hitting of a new addition, Johnny Cindric, the Pandas entered June tied for first place with Findlay. Cindric hit 39 home runs and drove in 150 runs, both league records which still stand. Other major contributors were catcher and Coldwater native Ralph Weigel and Barney Cisco, a pitcher who hailed from St. Marys.
“Fortunes change rapidly in this game of baseball,” Snypp wrote June 16. “A year ago today, the Pandas had won the imposing total of eight games and only one over the two week stretch following Lefty Settlemire’s appointment as manager. A Lima decision was something over which to marvel; a shutout was an item never to be anticipated and the possibility of a no-hit game was so far removed it escaped mention in local baseball society.”
By mid-August, the Pandas were moving from one winning streak to the next, prompting Snypp to opine, “As yet, nobody has yelled ‘Break up the Pandas’ but the cry can be expected anytime now. Winning 21 of their last 23 games and 10 in a row for the third time this year, the Lima club has soared to the highest percentage in organized baseball. Even the Champion Yankees at their best would have had less claim to fame as far as winning averages go over the past month.
“It is possible for them to clinch the pennant mathematically next week whereas a year ago the club was struggling against odds to land a fourth place berth in order to be in the playoffs,” Snypp added.
The Pandas finished the season at 85-34, a .714 winning percentage. The second place Findlay Oilers were a distant 13.5 games behind.
In the 1939 season, the Pandas, after surging into the playoffs, took both their playoff series to the limit, finally winning the title with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh and deciding game of the championship series. There was no drama in the 1940 playoffs.
The Pandas swept Mansfield in the semifinal series before knocking off Findlay four games to two to secure a playoff title to go with their pennant. Kozak, who had been with the Pandas from the beginning, hit for the cycle in the final game as summer turned to fall.
A week before that game President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed a military conscription law. On Sept. 22, the News noted that “all members of the team with the exception of manager Settlemire, Dick Magato, Frank Biscan, Weigel and Kavanaugh will register for the military draft Oct. 16.”
With the onset of World War II, Ohio State League suspended operations after the 1941 season. It was revived in 1944, although Snypp in March 1944 wrote “where the players will come from, nobody knows.” But come they did and Lima, now known as the Red Birds, had a team in the league. The team became the Reds the following year and the Terriers in 1946. When the Ohio State League folded after the 1947 season, the Terriers joined the Ohio-Indiana League and in 1949 became the Lima Chiefs, for one year.
In 1950 and 1951, the team was known as the Lima Phillies and played on a field at the Allen County Fairgrounds. Halloran Park was badly damaged by a fire in 1949 and eventually was razed. The Ohio-Indiana League faded away after the 1951 season, the victim of dwindling attendance.
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.