A couple of weeks ago, the city of St. Petersburg, FL celebrated the 100th anniversary of Spring Training baseball within its borders with a ceremony at Al Lang Stadium that included the daughter of Babe Ruth.
Ruth, was a rookie in 1914, but his Babeness spent many spring days on the fields in and around St. Petersburg and was instrumental in helping build the popularity of Spring Training.
In fact, Al Lang Stadium itself has the nickname as “the other house that Ruth built.”
For one hundred years, teams have made the journey to the Sunshine State to “Play Ball.”
When Spring Training first came to the sun soaked shores of Florida, things were much different than the Florida of today.
In the pre Walt Disney World days, trains were still the main mode of long distance travel. In fact, many railroad barons made their fortunes with running rails from one end of the state to the other.
It was those very same rails that teams would take down from their home stadium to the spring training site for a couple of months before the grind of the regular season started.
To be fair, Spring Training in Florida actually started in Jacksonville with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1913. However, once teams started finding the Tampa/St. Petersburg region things really started to take off ultimately leading to the Grapefruit League which allowed for teams to play against each other as the spring rolled along.
While Florida was once the home to all of Spring Training, today teams are equally divided between Florida and Arizona with 15 Grapefruit League teams and 15 Cactus League teams.
While I selfishly would love to see all teams still train in Florida, I know that having teams train closer to their fans in Arizona is a good thing to allow them the experience of Spring Training.
Most of the old ballparks from the early years of Spring Training are no longer used. The ones that remain are hanging on by a thread.
I have already written extensively on the uphill battle, Tinker Field, the longtime Spring Training home of the Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins has in its bid to avoid the wrecking ball.
Dodgertown in Vero Beach, FL sits vacant for the fifth year in a row.
Built on the site of a former Naval base, Dodgertown was home to the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1953 until the Los Angeles Dodgers left town in 2008.
While the Dodgers spent 53 years in Vero Beach, the Detroit Tigers have spent 78 years overall in Lakeland and 49 spring seasons at Joker Marchant Stadium. The Tigers relationship with Lakeland is the longest partnership between a ball club and a single city for Spring Training.
While the Tigers have the longevity record for a team and a city, McKechnie Field in Bradenton, FL is the oldest Ballpark still hosting Spring Training in Florida. The Ballpark, built in 1923, has been renovated extensively through the years to keep up with the ever changing needs of Spring Training.
While the St. Louis Cardinals were the first team to call it home, the Pittsburgh Pirates have spent every spring since 1969 at McKechnie Field. The Pirates also have a Single A affiliate the Bradenton Marauders based at McKechnie Field.
As for Al Lang Field, the Ballpark hosts a few games here and there but has not had a regular team call it home for Spring Training since the Tampa Bay Rays moved to Port Charlotte in 2008.
Instead, “the other house that Ruth built” has served as the home pitch for the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer club of the North American Soccer League, as well as serving as a hospitality area for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
With teams moving to bigger and newer Ballparks, it is doubtful that Al Lang Field will ever host Spring Training games on a regular basis beyond the International games it hosts each year.
So, with the look back on a century of baseball in St. Petersburg, it is only fair to look at what other events were happening in 1914.
The year started with the first scheduled airline flight from the World’s first airline, St Petersburg Tampa Airboat Line, which occurred between St Petersburg and Tampa.
Henry Ford introduced an assembly line for the Model T which forever changed the way cars and many other items were built.
The first stone of the Lincoln Memorial was put into place in 1914 on the 49th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
The Greyhound Bus Company started operations in Minnesota and a patent was issued for the air conditioner.
Honus Wagner became the second baseball player to get 3,000 hits.
Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria, and his wife Sophie were assassinated in Sarajevo which was the catalyst for the start of World War I.
And speaking of Babe Ruth, the Boston Red Sox purchased the Babe’s contract from the Baltimore Orioles after the Philadelphia Athletics turned down the offer. Ruth would soon leave the Red Sox for the Yankees and the rest as they say is history.
Speaking of those New York Yankees, they received new owners in 1914 when Colonel Jacob Ruppert & Cap Huston purchased the team for $460,000.
Through all of those events and more, players flocked to the Ballparks of Florida in the shadow of the orange groves honing their skills under the sun.
Much has changed in the way players prepare for the season since those first spring games a century ago. But what has not changed, is the promise of the chance to wipe the slate clean each spring and start the season fresh.
A century from now if the Earth is still spinning, and as long as “climate change” hasn’t flooded the state, there likely still will be Spring Training games in Florida.
The Ballparks will likely all have corporate names by then and perhaps the players will be wearing personal jet packs to get around the bases by then. However, for the most part, it will still be a relaxing way to spend an afternoon in the sun watching the National Pastime.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some baseball to watch.
Copyright 2014 R. Anderson