Baseball history rich in Sunshine State - NBC Sports

Baseball history rich in Sunshine State
Celebrating Grapefruit League's 125th anniversary with trip to Florida's most unique sites
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Members of the St. Louis Cardinals run prior to a Grapefruit League game against the Mets at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
March 27, 2013, 4:03 am

Painted largely in bright orange against a base-colored wall behind the seats in a concourse down the right-field line at Ed Smith Stadium, Major League Baseball spring training home of the Baltimore Orioles, you find an eye-catching mural featuring "The Oriole Bird," the teams' long-time mascot.

With two feather hands on the wheel and a lone palm tree in the rear, the colorful mascot is nestled comfortably in a slick, four-wheeled automobile - with no top. An arrow from the caboose points directly to a map of the State of Florida, with a pennant highlighting all the nearby MLB teams' spring training sites under a large banner that beckons, "Did Somebody Say Roadtrip?"

This year marks the 125th anniversary of spring training in the Sunshine State, a tradition that started informally just 43 years after Florida officially became a state in the union, when, in 1888, the now-defunct Washington Capitals of the National League held a four-day camp in Jacksonville during which time they also got clobbered by the New York (now San Francisco) Giants, 10-2, thereby marking the first spring training game in the state. Catcher Connie Mack played on the Capitals, as did outfielder William "Dummy" Hoy, notable for being deaf, which resulted in the creation of hand signals that are standard in baseball today.

As a recently completed 24-day road trip to all the current and former spring training sites throughout Grapefruit country revealed, Florida literally is a living history museum to the game of baseball. Arguably, no other geographic region in world has as much tradition in such a concentrated area, and it's no surprise why. Of the 30 MLB teams, only six have never held spring training here, and five of those clubs are expansion franchises located in the west (Angels, Padres, Mariners, Rockies and Diamondbacks). In fact, the Brewers are the only MLB franchise based east of the Mississippi River never to train in Florida, but they also were originally known as the northwestern-most expansion Seattle Pilots. Put another way: every player inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame took to fields in Florida, with more than 40 cities across the Sunshine State having hosted MLB spring training at one point or another, from the big leaguers to their minor-league counterparts, over the past 125 years.

Baseball history oozes here as much as freshly squeezed orange juice and grapefruit. While 15 MLB and minor-league teams currently train in the state and encompass today's Grapefruit League, more than a dozen former spring training sites - several dating back to the early 1900s - remain in use, appropriately by amateur teams comprised of the next generation of ballplayers, with four even listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Monuments, plaques and markers to the game dot Florida's landscape, which currently also is home to several museums chronicling baseball and spring training history here, from the Ybor City Museum in Tampa to the Elliott Museum in Stuart to the Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton to the Florida Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Auburndale and the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame in St. Petersburg. And, coming in 2014, a permanent baseball exhibit to the St. Petersburg Museum of History, plus the Al Lopez Museum in Tampa to honor its first native Hall-of-Famer. What's more, countless quaint historical societies abound statewide, from Jacksonville to Miami and Tampa to Sanford, with artifacts and memorabilia telling the story of Florida's rich spring training history.

At Avon Park's Depot Museum, there's the 24-pound, 52-inch bat presented by its citizens to Babe Ruth in 1928. Behind the fence at the ballpark that hosted St. Louis' "Gas House Gang" is a road named Ruth Street in honor of one of the Bambino's monstrous homers upon visiting the Cards. The park is used today by the local high school.

Down the road in Sebring, a marking on the right-field fence of Fireman's Field commemorates the first home run hit there - by Lou Gehrig. Sebring's ballpark is also used today by amateurs. Tucked nearly in a manila folder at the Orange County Regional History Center in downtown Orlando is an original letter from the Giants to Sanford's Ben Cantwell in January 1928, noting his spring training reporting date and location, as well as contract for the season, a raise of $250.00 per month from the previous season in which he made $500.00 monthly. The letter informs the pitcher that Giants manager John McGraw "prefer that you not bring your wife" and "be sure to have a bathrobe and slippers with you." Oh, the stories this state can tell. In Jacksonville, Palatka and Daytona, the ballparks in each of these cities continue to stand the test of time - and teach valuable history lessons, including about the era of segregation.

Florida towns like Bartow, Davenport, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Pierce, Gainesville, Hollywood, Jupiter, Key Biscayne, Kissimmee, Lake Buena Vista, Miami, Miami Beach, Ocala, Orlando, Palmetto, Pensacola, Pompano Beach, Port Charlotte, Port Saint Lucie, St. Augustine, Viera, West Palm Beach, Winter Garden and Winter Haven have hosted baseball's greats during spring training, either years ago or currently. And even today, former MLB or minor-league spring training sites in Miami Beach, Ocala and Winter Haven are still being used in one form or another by amateur clubs. But they're not in the top 20 of Florida's baseball towns. Pack your sunglasses, sunscreen and let's ride through Florida spring training history, from Jacksonville to Homestead, to uncover the 20 most historic and unique sites that still live on today. They're symbols of pride, perseverance and tenacity - living, breathing testaments to baseball history in the Sunshine State.

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Jacksonville: After the Capitals' brief visit in 1888, an MLB team didn't return for spring training until 1903 when Mack, now managing, brought his Philadelphia (now Oakland) Athletics. In later years, the Reds, Dodgers and Braves followed suit. But spring training as we know it today had yet to formalize, as most owners preferred to save money and train closer to home. Later, Mack's Athletics, as well as the Yankees, Dodgers and Pirates used Barrs Field from 1914 to the early 1920s. That ballpark, which opened in 1912, is used today by a local high school and college, and American Legion in summer, and is known as J.P. Small Park (it was also previously known as Durkee Field). Rebuilt immediately after a fire in 1936, J.P. Small Park was also home to Jacksonville's Negro League team, the Red Caps. Ruth, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige are among those who played here. This real estate is so revered that a long-time city maintenance worker resides in a trailer on the property down the right-field line, including managing an outstanding museum that encompasses what used to be the administrative offices underneath the main grandstand.

leftFlorida's Gulf Coast goes to bat

From the late 1800s to the mid-1910s, there weren't enough clubs training in the state for spring training to be considered any sort of formal league, and barnstorming was commonplace, with teams playing exhibition against a variety of others. That was until a pair of cities along the Gulf Coast went to bat to bring MLB teams to their respective cities.

Tampa: The city currently hosts the Yankees for spring training, but even before they started rolling cigars in West Tampa and the Ybor City section, this city had baseball fever, and in 1913, the Cubs were the first team to train here, playing at Plant Field, having been lured to town by the city's mayor. On Feb. 26, 1913, the Cubs beat the visiting Havana Athletics, a team of barnstorming Cubans, 4-2, before a crowd of nearly 6,000.

To commemorate Tampa's 100th anniversary of spring training, a special exhibit at the Ybor City Museum chronicles the city's passion for baseball, from Hall of Famer Al Lopez and the former Lopez Field, which hosted spring training for 33 years, to the Cigar Leagues and native sons like Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa, Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff, Dave Magadan and Luis Gonzalez, just to name a few. But that's just for starters.

Two historical markers dot the University of Tampa campus, which once was Plant Field, hosting not only the Cubs for spring training but later, the Red Sox, Washington Senators , Tigers, Reds and White Sox at one point or another from 1913-1954. Jesuit High School, which produced the likes of Lopez, Piniella and Magadan, has its own museum, honoring its famous grads. And as for Lopez, well, his namesake is all over Tampa, from inside its bayfront History Center (where Martinez briefly interned post-retirement) to a large mural inside the Centro Historiano in Ybor City to the public park named in his honor that includes a statue of the catcher. Baseball is so big here the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce even has a 12-month baseball calendar it uses as a fundraiser - featuring a different native for each month that has gone onto the big leaguers. And at MacFarlane Park, a memorial honors the 1970 team from West Tampa that won the Senior Little League World Series.

St. Petersburg: The "Godfather of Florida Spring Training" was Al Lang, who convinced the St. Louis Browns (now Orioles) to train here in 1914 after being rejected by two other clubs. Lang became Mayor of St. Petersburg and was a visionary who realized the only way to ensure a long-term commitment from teams was to think geographically and thereby aide nearby cities in landing clubs, too. Consequently, Lang played such a role, particularly helping Lakeland lure the Tigers in 1934, a partnership that remains to this day as the longest between an MLB team and its host city. Lang also understood the importance of building outstanding facilities, and Coffee Pot Park, the city's first spring training ballpark, was considered the game's first true training camp, with batting cages, sliding pits and sprinting lanes. The visiting Cubs beat the Browns in the ballpark's opener, 3-2, before 4,000.

Despite lacking a spring training tenant since 2009, this city is appropriately still home to the richest history of the game statewide. In addition to bayfront Lang Field (preceded by Waterfront Park on the same parcel), which is used today by visiting colleges and minor league teams for occasional games, Huggins-Stengel Field (formerly Crescent Lake Field) is also being played on by amateur and local squads. Both diamonds have been hosting baseball since the 1920s and each has multiple plaques that chronicle the history of their respective fields. The Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame inside Tropicana Field, regular season home of the Rays, also celebrates baseball history, not just the Splendid Splinter, and includes a U.S. Army card of Ruth decked in military garb, plus displays on umpires and even pitchers. When the St. Petersburg Museum of History opens its more than 1,300-square foot baseball exhibit this October it will include the world's largest collection of autographed baseball's certified by the Guinness Book of World Records donated by resident and Collector-in-Chief Dennis Schrader.

The great Florida boom of the 1920s and the Great Depression

In 1914, only four MLB teams trained in Florida for spring training. But the great Florida land boom of the 1920s changed that as wealthy Northerners and others gobbled up real estate. It was during this time that Lang's vision finally came to fruition, and by 1929, 10 of the 16 MLB teams were spring training in the Sunshine State, some within just an hour's drive of each on Florida's west coast. Some of these cities have remained home to MLB clubs while others have reinvented themselves by targeting the next generation of ballplayers to their diamonds.

Bradenton: Robert Beall, founder of Beall's Department Stores, convinced the Cardinals to train in Bradenton in 1923 at 9th Street Park, which today is known as McKechnie Field and has been spring training home of the Pirates since 1969. With its Spanish-mission style facade and intimate seating arrangement, it's not only the most historic current spring training site, but also the best one to catch a game. But back in 1923, the ballpark was nothing more than a converted golf course, with a field so decrepit second base was 14 inches lower than home plate. Not surprisingly, the Redbirds would stay for only one season during their first rendezvous. But they'd be back, from 1930-1936, with Dizzy Dean of the "Gas House Gang" literally opening a service station downtown and becoming a Bradenton resident. Ruth, Aaron, Roger Hornsby, Warren Spahn and Roberto Clemente have played here. The Historical Records Library of Manatee County in Bradenton includes a plethora of unique details about Bradenton's spring training history, plus the Manatee County Central Library currently boasts a special exhibit as well.

Sarasota: An hour south of Bradenton, John Ringling fell in love with this Gulf Coast beach town, and in 1924, the Giants debuted here at a brand new downtown yard called Payne Park. Ringling, of Ringling Brothers circus fame, had spoken well of the town to his friend, John McGraw. Later, the Red Sox, followed by the White Sox, would hold court at Payne Park before it was eventually demolished. The most recent ballpark, Smith Stadium, was spring home to the White Sox and then Reds before the Orioles became its current tenant. Williams and Bobby Doerr were among the many Hall of Famers to play in Sarasota. Said Doerr simply: "It was my favorite (spring training) town."

Fort Myers: This city currently hosts two teams for spring training - the Red Sox and Twins, with Boston's facility, which opened in 2012, essentially a mini-version of Fenway Park. Boston's former Fort Myers spring training home, City of Palms Park, is used today by Twins minor leaguers for practice and could host a future MLB team.

In 1925, the City of Palms landed its first MLB team for spring training when the Athletics debuted at Terry Park, becoming the first of Fort Myers' tenants to also eventually win the World Series (the others include the Indians, Pirates, Royals, Twins and Red Sox). But in 1914, the minor league Louisville Colonels of the American Association were actually the first team to train in Fort Myers, even beating two MLB teams in exhibitions, a practice that was common back in the day along with barnstorming trips, train travel and shorter spring training schedules.

Terry Park, which today is used by local amateur teams and visiting colleges and is listed on the U.S. Register of National Historic Places, debuted on March 12, 1925. The visiting Phillies beat their crosstown rivals, 6-3, in 10 innings, in what was dubbed the "Philadelphia City Championship." Two years later, in 1927, Mack threw to Thomas Edison during batting practice and Cobb - commiserating with teammates in the infield and not paying attention - got clocked in the buttocks by a line drive, causing Cobb to fall down to the amusement of all. In addition to Cobb and Clemente, Jimmie Foxx, Bob Feller and George Brett are among the Hall of Famers to play here. Also, in 1971, Sadaharu Oh played an exhibition game at Terry Park with the Tokyo Giants that were visiting from Japan. Terry Park, also known as Park T. Pigott Memorial Stadium, last hosted an MLB team for spring training in 1989.

Leesburg: This charming town, one hour northeast of Orlando, lured the Phillies in the early 1920s for spring training, and later hosted there minor leaguers at lakefront Pat Thomas Stadium up until the early 1970s. One Philly from those early `20s teams, Lee "Specs" Meadows, loved Leesburg so much he donated land to the city where its high school sits today. Opening in 1937 as a Works Progress Administration ballpark and originally built on an island, today it hosts Leesburg High baseball and a summer league club that plays before capacity crowds. The cramped locker rooms beneath the grandstand are the same ones the likes of Aaron, Hank Greenberg, Pete Rose and others suited up in prior to games and this ballpark was the first in the state to host night games. The field is immaculately maintained by the locals.

Avon Park: You know baseball is big in a town when its high school has also won multiple baseball state titles and a large baseball mural is featured off a building along State Highway 27 through town. What's more, it's preserved a ballfield dating back so long ago that it hosted the Cardinals' "Gas House Gang" for spring training from 1927-29 which included eight future Hall of Famers, among them manager Branch Rickey. Beyond the right-field fence at Charles R. Head Field (formerly Cardinal Field), you can make out the water tower for this town of less than 9,000 inhabitants that has seen more than 20 of its own go onto to play pro ball, including Tom "Flash" Gordon and favorite son, Hal McRae, after whom a street in town is named. The water tower and the old ballpark remind you of simpler times. Head, a Colonel in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, lured the Cardinals to Avon Park, and the ballpark opened in 1927. The Yankees played road games here and the downtown Jacaranda Hotel, which hosted players, has pictures of Ruth and Gehrig on display in the lobby. The Cardinals' top farm team, the Columbus Redbirds, trained at Head Field in the 1930s and '40s.

Sebring: Although never a permanent home to an MLB team during spring training, Fireman's Field first home run came off the bat of Gehrig in 1938, during the latter stages of the Hall of Famers' career. The Yankees' International League affiliate at the time, the Newark Bears, trained here, as did the Richmond Colts, who were an MLB-affiliated Class B minor-league team. Back then, it was not uncommon for MLB teams to play their minor-league affiliates. Today, that same field hosts the local high school as well as the Florida Athletic Coaches Association All-Star Baseball Classic, the final showcase for the state's top seniors before the MLB draft, with scouts flocking to this sleepy lakefront town of 10,000 in May annually, which is located just south of Avon Park and an hour southeast of Winter Haven. Built by George Sebring, big league ballplayers stayed at The Kenilworth Lodge, which is still welcoming guests today and is listed on the U.S. Register of National Historic Places.

pagebreakSegregation and the Civil Rights eratrue

Throughout the South in the 1940s, including Florida, African-Americans were not provided with the same rights as Caucasians. Many of the Florida diamonds of this era are still being played on today, a reminder of the past that tells the story of a troubling era to a new generation of ballplayers.

Sanford: The Boston (now Atlanta) Braves called Sanford there spring training home in 1942, but it was the Giants minor leaguers that took over the town for much of the 1950s. Today, the same field where the Giants played spring training games is used today by amateur teams. At the history museum downtown, within a long fly ball of the hotel where Giants players and staff stayed, are historic artifacts and memorabilia from this period, as well as those from native sons, Tim Raines, David Eckstein and the late announcer Red Barber. But Sanford is most known for not allowing Jackie Robinson to play at its former ballpark in 1946, when he reported to Florida for spring training with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' farm team at the time. The house where Robinson stayed while in Sanford remains intact today, too.

leftDeLand: Most known for being the baseball home of future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, and although never the home to an MLB team for spring training, Conrad Park nonetheless hosted spring training and barnstorming games, including minor-league teams. And DeLand, like Sanford, would not allow Robinson to play on its diamond in 1946, citing faulty electrical lighting, even though a day game had been scheduled. The Conrad Park of the segregation era was located in the right corner of what is now Melching Field at Conrad Park, home to Stetson University's baseball team. It's a gorgeous ballpark.

Palatka: An hour southwest of Jacksonville, which itself also rejected Robinson in 1946, sits this charming town on the St. John's River. Like DeLand, Palatka never hosted MLB spring training (although it did attempt to bring the Pirates here in the 1970s) but did host barnstorming games, including those featuring Ruth. The Bambino fished here and also crushed balls out of the Azalea Bowl, which opened in 1936 and today is home to Palatka High School's baseball team. The field literally sits within a bowl, with all portions of the outfield featuring a sloped hill, and back when Ruth played here there was no outfield fence. What's more, down the third-base line the separation point - as well as the concrete stands - which split African-American fans from their Caucasian counterparts during segregation remain. Of course, today, patrons of any race are welcome to sit anywhere they choose.

Daytona Beach: An hour southeast of Palatka, it was here at City Island Ball Park on March 17, 1946 that Robinson, a minor leaguer with the Royals, broke baseball's color barrier by becoming the first African-American to play in a game against an MLB team, albeit during spring training and against his parent club, the Dodgers. An outdoor museum, behind the stands on the third base side, chronicles Robinson's struggle. The ballpark, which opened in 1914, is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Fans visiting the ballpark are reminded of what used to be the segregated sections on the first base side. In addition to hosting the Dodgers for spring training, this ballpark also welcomed the Cardinals, Orioles (then St. Louis Browns) and Nationals (then the Montreal Expos). Today, the Cubs Florida State League affiliate plays here as well as a local college. In addition to Robinson, Stan Musial also played here, among other greats.

The ushering in of the spring training complex - and fate

Vero Beach: What made Robinson's spring training debut in 1946 all the more challenging was that the Dodgers were essentially nomads that year, with Dodgertown not opening until 1948. Holman Stadium, the crown jewel of all spring training ballparks that featured no roof above the dugouts, would itself not open until five years later. But the vision of Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley of having multiple fields adjacent to the main ballpark so all his players - from the majors to the minors - could train at one complex would eventually come to fruition. And it would change the spring training landscape forever. Today, most MLB teams essentially follow O'Malley's model, with multiple diamonds surrounding their main spring training ballpark. Dodgertown also nearly became the first site to house two teams when O'Malley tried unsuccessfully to entice the Cubs to come to Vero Beach for the 1953 season. Today, 12 teams share dual-use facilities, with Arizona boasting five locations to Florida's one (Jupiter).

Said O'Malley back then: "We did it more or less as an experiment to show minor-league people that it would be possible for a modest outlay to have a new and attractive stadium replace the horrible minor league monstrosities in which most teams play now."

The Dodgers finally left Vero Beach following 2008 spring training to be closer to their west coast home, but the facility remains in splendid condition and is today known as the Vero Beach Sports Village. Amateur teams from the north use not only the pristine fields, but also the residences and dining halls that the likes of Duke Snider, Vin Scully and Tommy Lasorda enjoyed. And the streets through the complex are still named after Dodger greats that played here like Robinson Avenue and Pee Wee Reese Boulevard.

Cocoa: An hour south of Daytona Beach, Cocoa Expo hasn't hosted MLB spring training since the Marlins trained here in their inaugural season of 1993. No matter, an ambitious and significant renovation project is underway to turn this former 20-year spring training home of the Houston Astros (1964-84) into a destination for amateur teams, both locally and from visiting states. Construction is expected to be completed by spring 2014.

Plant City: It hosted the Reds for spring training from 1988-97, but Plant City Stadium is a testament to perseverance - and a bygone era that wasn't really that bygone ago. Today, amateur teams, primarily little league and softball clubs, still use the ballpark and the all-red chair-back seats - plus the aluminum seats with its backsides painted red - remain.

Homestead: Were it not for Hurricane Andrew in 1992, it's possible MLB's spring training landscape, including throughout Florida, could be much different today. After all, in the spring of 1993, the Indians were to debut at a brand new ballpark in this town 40 minutes south of Miami. But Andrew flattened it in August 1992, and needing a place to practice and play come February 1993, the Indians moved into Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven that had been vacated by the Red Sox, who relocated to Fort Myers for spring training that same year.

Yet what many baseball fans may not realize is that Homestead not only rebuilt the ballpark - it rebuilt a gorgeous ballpark complete with modern seating, suites and endless practice fields that could easily host a MLB team today for spring training. But, sadly, it'll likely never happen - a victim of its own geography, some two hours from the nearest spring training city today, Jupiter. But back in 1992, the Yankees still trained in Fort Lauderdale, and Miami had been a spring training host city just two years earlier. In the late 1980s, Naples was also trying to get into the spring training game. Amateur teams have played on Homestead's field of dreams since its reconstruction, but not recently, as the City and its tenant are tangled in legal issues over unpaid bills. It's the prettiest ballpark you'll probably never see.

pagebreakLong-standing partnerships and legaciestrue

Lakeland: The Indians held spring training camp in Lakeland from 1923-1927, but it wasn't until 1935 that this city 40 minutes east of Tampa put itself on the spring training map for good by securing 2,000 season tickets packages at $10 each following its first season of hosting the Tigers in 1934. Henley Field (formerly known as League Field), which hosted the Tigers from 1934-65, is played on today by Florida Southern College and is listed on the U.S. Register of National Historic Places (the fourth ballpark on this list is Tinker Field in Orlando). Named after Clare Henley, who played an integral role in promoting Lakeland, it features the old-school ticket windows and an elegant facade. In 1966, the Tigers relocated to Joker Marchant Stadium, which is named after a former city parks and recreation director, and have remained tenants ever since. Lakeland's public library has a treasure trove of old spring training artifacts and photographs.

leftClearwater: Best fan atmosphere on the Grapefruit Circuit? If not the Red Sox in Fort Myers, it just might be at Bright House Field, where the Phillies also often among the tops in Grapefruit League attendance. Like Lakeland, Clearwater, has preserved its former spring training park, Jack Russell Stadium, although today the former spring training home of the Phillies remains more a field than a stadium, hosting visiting and local college teams. And also like Lakeland, Clearwater has a long-standing association with its MLB team. The Phillies have trained in Clearwater since 1947. But before then this Gulf Coast city had established itself as a baseball town, welcoming the Dodgers and Indians for spring training at Clearwater Athletic Field on which Russell Stadium was built on this same parcel in 1954, opening a year later.

Dunedin: Here's a trivia question you can test on your friends: Can you name the only MLB team that has held spring training and played games on the same field since its inception? Answer: the Toronto Blue Jays, who debuted as an expansion franchise in 1977. The newborn Jays won their inaugural spring training contest at Grant Field in Dunedin, beating the Mets, 3-1. In 1990, the City of Dunedin built a new ballpark on the same site which today is known as Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. The city's historical museum downtown, recounts the early days of the franchise in this Gulf Coast city of 35,000 inhabitants.

Joe Connor is a contributor to NBCSports.com and author of the annually-updated online spring training travel guide, "A Fan's Guide To The Ultimate Spring Training Experience" which is available for purchase exclusively at his web sites: http://www.modernerabaseball.com and http://www.mrsportstravel.com.

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