March 25, 2017

Grapefruit League Tradition Shapes Florida Baseball History

March 3, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

McKechnie Field in Bradenton, which dates back to 1923, is the oldest stadium used for spring training.

McKechnie Field in Bradenton, which dates back to 1923, is the oldest stadium used for spring training.

One of the most popular annual rites of spring—watching big leaguers shake off the rust in spring training camps—is synonymous with Florida. Spring training in the Sunshine State can be traced back to a four-day camp held by the Washington Statesmen in Jacksonville in 1888, more than a century before major league teams came to Tampa/St. Petersburg and Miami.

Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics created a buzz when they rolled into Jacksonville to hold the first official spring training in Florida in 1903. The A’s eccentric hurler Rube Waddell was a big attraction when he showed up, but he was just as likely to be found wrestling alligators or leading parades through downtown.  Rube even suited up for the local Rollins College baseball team that winter.

The Reds came to Jacksonville in 1905, followed by the Boston Beaneaters in 1906 and Brooklyn Superbas in 1907. The Cubs arrived in Tampa in 1913, holding workouts at Plant Field and playing three games against a team of Cuban stars. The Indians held spring training in Pensacola that year.

Joining the Cubs the next year were the St. Louis Browns in St. Petersburg, the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Augustine and the Philadelphia Athletics in Jacksonville. The Grapefruit League tradition has held pretty steady since then. Florida dominated spring training action for many years, but the state has seen a number of teams leave for Arizona over the past two decades as that state has been more aggressive in getting new stadiums built to entice teams. Fifteen teams still play Grapefruit games in 13 Florida cities, with the Tigers boasting the longest tenure dating back to 1934 in Lakeland.

In the early years, spring training was a series of informal workouts with barnstorming games thrown in to recoup costs. Back then players didn’t train year-round, so they really needed some time to get in game shape. By 1910 spring training was an accepted tradition among clubs and over the years teams gradually realized the benefits of turning their spring training camps into a tourist attraction.

Baseball history was made during spring training in 1946, when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to break the color barrier in professional baseball while playing for the Montreal Royals in Daytona Beach against the Brooklyn Dodgers. Other Florida cities had refused to allow Jackie to play there. The ballpark is now named after Robinson and a statue of Jackie can be found outside the park along with plaques that commemorate his achievement. Spring training facilities in Florida were not integrated until the mid-1960s.

Black baseball was big in Jacksonville around the turn of the century, with the Red Caps playing at Durkee/Red Cap Field. Jacksonville native Dick Lundy got his start at age 17 with the Jacksonville Duval Giants and after leaving baseball he worked as a redcap at the Jacksonville Terminal Station.

Jacksonville was one of the cities that would not let Jackie Robinson play there with the Royals. Instead, it would be Hank Aaron on the 1953 Jacksonville Braves who would integrate the city for baseball (along with teammate Felix Mantilla). It helped that Aaron batted .362 that season on the way to being named the South Atlantic League MVP.

Buck O’Neil, the legendary ambassador of the Negro Leagues, was born in Carrabelle but grew up in Sarasota, where he could watch the New York Giants play spring training games at Payne Park. Today, you can find the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, where the Orioles minor leaguers hold spring training.

What follows are some of the best historic baseball places to visit while you are in Florida for spring training:

The Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg—Not only can you see exhibits that highlight the Splendid Splinter’s career (including a bronze statue of him at the main entrance), you will also find displays dedicated to all-time greats such as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Joe DiMaggio and a special exhibit on the Negro Leagues. On February 6, 2016, Alex Rodriquez was inducted into the Hitters Hall of Fame along with Alan Trammell and Dante Bichette.

The Elliott Museum in Stuart—The museum was torn down in June 2011 and the new Elliott Museum is nearly twice the size, although the permanent baseball exhibit has been downsized. The museum’s impressive collection of baseball artifacts dating back to the 19th century includes a baseball signed by the 1932 world champion Yankees, Shoeless Joe Jackson’s bat and baseball cards signed by the famous double-play combination of Tinker, Evers and Chance.

Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach—Baseball has been played at the site since 1914 and the stadium, now home to the Daytona Cubs, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to the fact that it is where Robinson made his first pro appearance in 1946.

George Steinbrenner gravesite in Trinity—Folks continue to pay their respects to the Boss, who was laid to rest in a mausoleum at Trinity Memorial Gardens.

Baseball Boulevard in St. PetersburgRecounts the history of spring training baseball through a series of sidewalk plaques designed to look like a home plate. The plaques begin at Progress Energy Park/Al Lang Field (named after Florida’s Sunshine Ambassador to Major League Baseball) and end 10 blocks later at Tropicana Field.

Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland—This stadium opened in 1966 as the new Tigertown, but Lakeland has been the spring training home of the Tigers since 1934, which is the longest tenure between a team and a spring training host. Catch a game from the Al Kaline Suite and marvel at the old-fashioned appeal of this venerable ballpark.

Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater—Phillies’ spring training park opened in 2004. By the west entrance is a sculpture titled The Ace, which was designed to represent 90 years of Phillies history.

George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa—Spring training home of the Yankees features a life-size bronze statue of The Boss by the entrance that is identical to the one at Yankee Stadium. Players that have had their numbers retired are honored with a plaque in the Monument Park.

Tinker Field in Orlando—Stadium is named after Hall of Famer Joe Tinker, who spent his retirement years in the area. Opened in 1963, it was the long-time spring training home of the Twins until 1990, and baseball has been played at that location since 1914. Professional baseball has been absent since 2000, and sadly, the city of Orlando tore down all the grandstands and standing buildings in 2015 shortly after designating the field as an Orlando historical landmark.

McKechnie Field in Bradenton—Opened as the spring training home of the Cardinals in 1923, it has been host to the Pirates since 1969. It is named for Hall of Fame Manager Bill McKechnie, who was a long-time resident of Bradenton. This classic stadium, which features a charming Spanish Mission-style exterior, didn’t install lights until 2008. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente are among the greats who played on the field.

Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers—This park, which opened in 1991, hosts the Twins for spring training. The visually appealing exterior was designed to look like Churchill Downs.

Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers—Opened in 2012 as the spring training home of the Red Sox. The design is meant to mesh modern-style architecture with quaint features of Fenway Park in Boston, including the Green Monster in left field.

Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, N.Y., is the author of “Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites.”

 

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