Saturday, June 14, 2014

1888-World War II/West Palm Beach to Jacksonville: Spring Training Part 1

This is part of a multi-part post: West Palm Beach to Jacksonville Spring Training 

Hello and welcome back to Old Highway Notes. Once again we resume our journey North on Interstate 95 in Florida. We begin where we left off in West Palm Beach. This highway continues North from West Palm Beach to Jacksonville. a prosperous yacht/country club string of towns that dot this section of the Florida Coast. The Intercoastal waterway that runs along the Southern US Atlantic Coast separates the Florida mainland from the coast.  Interstate 95 runs to the West of this group of fairly sleepy towns. I found a lack of musical stories in my research, but there was something that made these towns notable.In February and March, many Major League Baseball teams flood the state for Spring Training. Looking into Spring Training in Florida requires us to go back to an era before the Interstate Highway system began.

Tim Keefe, pitcher, New York Giants beat the Athletics in Spring Training and went on to win the World Series. (WikimediaCommons)
Spring Training in Florida 1888

Spring Training is almost as old a concept as professional baseball. In the early days, most ball players had winter jobs to pay the bills during the off season, By early spring they were eager to return to baseball and often needed some money after the winter break. So the would have "Spring Training". Originally it was just a series of games against local amateur clubs, or the the team might play a series of college games barnstorming around the state. It was loose, casual and just a way to get some extra gate receipts. Quickly the custom became to head by rail to more southern locales where baseball teams were sparser and the spring arrived earlier with warmer weather and longer hours of daylight.
The tradition of Spring Training in Florida began in 1888. The Washington Nationals, with young relief catcher Connie Mack, practiced in Jacksonville for three and a half weeks before playing an exhibition game against the New York Giants. They lost 10-2.  The season that followed showed them finishing in last place with a 48-86 record, 37 ½ games behind the first place New York Giants who won the World Series that year against the St.Louis Browns. That's when Spring Training began in Florida. It would not return for 15 years.

The 1902 Philadelphia Athletics would win the World Series and go to Florida the following Spring.(Flickr/cc)

Spring Training in Florida 1903-1909

Fifteen years later its 1903 and Connie Mack had moved up to the position of Manager of the then American League Champion Philadelphia Athletics and decided to take his team to Jacksonville, Florida for that years Spring Training. While there, his star pitcher Rube Waddell had several misadventures that included wrestling with a live alligator and a suicide attempt he made after being rebuffed by a local girl. The season that followed was not too spectacular. The team was 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox at the end of the season. One again the Athletics would stay away from Florida for a while, this time for for 11 years. Other teams did come down:

Florida Spring Training  1903-1909
Jacksonville, FL 1903
Jacksonville, FL 1906
Jacksonville, FL 1907-09
Jacksonville, FL 1905
Saint Augustine, FL 1908

To give an idea of the flavor of the era in baseball here is Connie Mack and Kid Gleason reminiscing over the 1905 season with some antique game footage to accompany.

The 1913 Chicago Cubs brought Spring Training back to Florida. (WikimediaCommons)

 Spring Training in Florida 1913-1920
The Height of The Dead Ball Era

In February 1913, The Chicago Cubs arrived in Tampa and St. Louis Browns began training in St. Petersburg. Both lured by Florida businessmen offering assistance with expenses, The next year would find more teams training in Florida with the St. Louis Cardinals playing in St. Augustine and the Philadelphia Athletics coming back to Jacksonville. In the spring of 1914 enough action was happening in Florida to justify the creation of the Grapefruit League.As this list shows, the population of Ball clubs in the state was growing at steady clip by the end of the decade.

Florida Spring Training  1913-1920
IndiansPensacola, FL 1913
CubsTampa, FL 1913-16
Jacksonville, FL 1914-18
BrownsSaint Petersburg, FL 1914
CardinalsSaint Augustine, FL 1914
Daytona Beach, FL 1915-16
Saint Petersburg, FL 1915-18
Miami, FL 1916-18
Jacksonville, FL 1918
Red Sox
Tampa, FL 1919
YankeesJacksonville, FL 1919
Gainesville, FL 1919
Jacksonville, FL 1919-20
Jacksonville, FL 1919-20
Tampa, FL 1920
Miami, FL 1920

From 1900-1920 it was the Dead Ball Era, a period in baseball  that celebrated many of the pitches we consider illegal in modern baseball, such as the spitball or the shineball.  Also, balls at that time would be played till the were basically worn out. Ball clubs would even have fans return foul balls to play that had been hit into the stands. When hit, those worn out balls would not rebound nicely off the bat and long hits were rare as the sport suffered a major drought of home runs. The lack of home runs earned that time in baseball history the name "Dead Ball Era". It was also the era when the Grapefruit League was born.

In 1919 rules changes prevented many of the pitches that contributed to the lack of home runs. Another new rule called for much more frequent replacement of the ball which allowed it "bounce" off the bat better. The ball was better too, as rag fillings were replaced by cork as a standard ball filling around that time. The Dead Ball Era was dead itself in 1919, but the Grapefruit League was just getting started.

If you wonder how the Grapefruit League got its name and not some other citrus fruit, WTSP in Sarotoga, Florida offers an explanation:

 "I don't know that anybody really knows the true origins of the term Grapefruit League. In 1915, there was an interesting incident in Daytona Beach that may have given rise to the name," Kite-Powell (Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center).said.

"There was an aviator named Ruth Law who was doing exhibition flying... she took a Dodgers player up in the plane with her. And the idea was for him to throw a baseball down to his manager on the field.

"I guess at some point he realized that might kill the guy. So instead of throwing a baseball, he threw a grapefruit. And the grapefruit hit the manager in the chest and exploded.

"The manager, for a few seconds, actually thought it was his chest that had exploded from the force of the baseball hitting him. And felt the juice, thought it was blood, screamed out, 'I'm dying! I'm dying!'

"His whole team thought it was great fun 'cause they knew he wasn't dying -- they knew he was just hit by a grapefruit."

Spring Training in Florida 1921-1942

With the fine weather and improved transportation, the late teens and early twenties saw red hot growth in Florida, both in new residents and real estate development as well as in winter tourism. Baseball was there to entertain the late winter visitor and the new locals.

During the 1930's the Florida Spring Training juggernaut continued. For many teams, arrival in Florida became an annual tradition during this period. Baseball had injected itself into the DNA of Central Florida. The tradition would continue up until the beginning of World War II. This video features more Spring Training footage. This time from the 1930's.

Here is a list of the teams who played in Florida between the World Wars:

Florida Spring Training  1921-1942
Fort Myers, FL 1925-36

Tarpon Springs, FL 1925-27
West Palm Beach, FL 1928-36
De Land, FL 1942

Lakeland, FL 1923-27
Fort Myers, FL 1940-42

Red Sox
Bradenton, FL 1928-29
Pensacola, FL 1930-31
Sarasota, FL 1933-42

Tampa, FL 1920-29
Orlando, FL 1936-42

Tampa, FL 1930
Lakeland, FL 1934-42

White Sox
Winter Haven, FL 1924

Saint Petersburg, FL 1925-42

Saint Petersburg, FL 1922-37
Bradenton, FL 1938-40
Sanford, FL 1942

Bradenton, FL 1923-24
Avon Park, FL 1927-29
Bradenton, FL 1930-36
Daytona Beach, FL 1937
Saint Petersburg, FL 1938-42

Jacksonville, FL 1922
Clearwater, FL 1923-32
Miami, FL 1933
Orlando, FL 1934-35
Clearwater, FL 1936-40

Sarasota, FL 1924-27

During World War II fuel was being rationed. Many in the Baseball community, and its fans, considered it frivolous to travel around just to play a game. Healthy young men, like pro baseball players,would be far better to be fighting was a common thought. President Roosevelt disagreed however, and asked the owners of teams to keep the game going as a boost to morale and even encouraged them to schedule more night games so factory workers could have an then inexpensive evenings entertainment. So the game went on. Major League Baseball curtailed travel for training to areas very close to each teams home parks as a contribution to the wartime effort with some teams even practicing in local gymnasium basketball courts. During the war more than 500 major league players traded in their ball caps for battle helmets.Baseball was doing its part for America.

Baseball left Florida for the duration of the war. We will leave Florida for this week on that note as well. Join us in Three weeks as we return to our history of Spring Training in Florida and begin driving North on Interstate 95 to Jacksonville to check out the ball parks along the way. Before then, visit us next week when we return to more blues in Chicago on Route 66. In two weeks we have more San Diego to explore as we retrace the route of the pre-interstate Highway 101. I hope you can join us. Until then, keep your eye on the ball and don't stop working on your stance.

Mileage Stats

Route 66: 0 Miles/1 State/549 Tracks/98 Videos/24 Posts
Highway 101: 13  Miles/1 State/484 Tracks/161 Videos/18 Posts
Interstate 95: 77 Miles/1 State/11 Tracks/46 Videos/7 Posts

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