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Remembering Al Lang, St. Petersburg's Mr. Baseball

ST. PETERSBURG

Chances are, you've heard his name. Al Lang.

Greater is the chance you have no idea who he was or why his name appears on the city's spring training site downtown, Al Lang Field at Progress Energy Park.

Major League Baseball has called St. Petersburg one of its spring training homes for the greater part of 94 years with nine different teams.

In the 1940s, the city was considered "America's winter baseball capital" when both the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals trained here.

The man responsible for bringing baseball to St. Petersburg?

Al Lang.

Now, as St. Petersburg's spring training history ends Friday, and the Tampa Bay Rays pitch a new $450-million stadium on the site of Al Lang Field to replace their home at Tropicana Field, some are wondering if Lang's legacy will be knocked from the city like a fly ball and forgotten.

"It brings tears to my eyes," said Lang's great-nephew, John Fagen IV, 64, of Clayton, Ga. "What helped put St. Petersburg on the map was baseball.

"Now, all of a sudden, 'Who is Al Lang?' The young people are not going to know who he was."

• • •

Al Lang, who died in 1960 at age 89, lured the first teams to train in St. Petersburg, starting with the St. Louis Browns in 1914.

"Before Al Lang came along, St. Petersburg was viewed by baseball as little more than blip on the map," wrote author and baseball historian Wes Singletary. "He changed all that."

Baseball had already discovered Florida in 1888 when the Washington Nationals began training in Jacksonville. The Chicago Cubs discovered Tampa in 1913.

But Lang wanted the sport in St. Petersburg, believing it would boost tourism.

"He knew Babe Ruth. Lou Gehrig," said Singletary, author of Florida's First Big League Baseball Players. "He wasn't just some chamber of commerce hustler trying to get teams there. He made sure they knew him."

Lang knew not only players, but team managers, sports writers and league executives.

Among the honorary pallbearers at his funeral: the commissioner of baseball; the retired president of the American League; the president of the National League; the president of the Cardinals; and the president and general manager of the Yankees.

That said, many people today are clueless about Lang, once known as St. Petersburg's Mr. Baseball. He traveled the country selling Florida and the sport.

Lang's largely forgotten impact on the city saddens St. Petersburg's Suzanne McClain, 73, who called Lang "Uncle Al." Her father, former City Manager Carleton Sharpe, was Lang's friend.

As a child, she attended games with Lang and met the players. Afterward, she and her two siblings gathered used balls and broken bats to take home.

"The city of St. Petersburg owes him a great debt," said McClain. "He needs to be remembered."

• • •

Around 1910, Lang moved from Pittsburgh to St. Petersburg — then a small city of 3,000 people — on the advice of his doctor, who told him he had six months to live because of respiratory problems. He owned one of Pittsburgh's largest laundries and was well known among baseball players and managers there.

When the lanky, well-dressed man with a friendly demeanor came to Florida, he became a big St. Petersburg booster. And he would live for many more years, which Lang attributed to the good weather.

After he attracted the Phillies here in 1915, he was elected mayor the following year. He was re-elected to a second term in 1918.

Raymond Arsenault, a history professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said Lang was "probably the most influential mayor in the city's history."

While in office, Lang pushed through the green-benches ordinance, making all the benches in the city a standard size and color. After that point, St. Petersburg became known as the city of green benches — an image of aging it took years to shake.

He oversaw the paving of brick streets and the construction of the downtown open-air post office. But the love of baseball preoccupied most of his time.

Said Arsenault: "Lang didn't have any children, so he really put all his time and energy into being the baseball ambassador."

Godson Mike Nabors, 65, of St. James City remembers riding on Lang's shoulder at spring training games and meeting baseball notables who were his godfather's friends, like Connie Mack, the Philadelphia A's manager considered one of the greatest in Major League Baseball history.

"I don't know anybody who didn't like him," said Nabors, whose grandfather was a friend of Lang's.

• • •

By 1940, St. Petersburg voters agreed a modern ballpark was needed for spring training.

That ballpark opened in 1947, named for Mr. Baseball himself. In 1977, when today's more modern ballpark was built, it kept Lang's name.

On Friday, the Rays will face the Cincinnati Reds at Al Lang Field, their last training game here before a planned move to Port Charlotte next year.

Mayor Rick Baker said the end of spring training is bittersweet for him; his sadness tempered only by knowing St. Petersburg has something even better than spring training, the Rays, an American League team.

"I think Al Lang would be thrilled" to have a team in St. Petersburg, Baker said. "I don't think he ever imagined some day we could have that."

Without Lang starting the city's long spring training history, Baker and Singletary agree, Major League Baseball would never have considered locating a team in St. Petersburg.

If the city okays a new stadium on the Al Lang Field site, Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said the team would like to name the street at the south end of the site "Al Lang Way" for the team office address.

"The name Al Lang," Vaughn wrote in an e-mail, "should be and will be preserved."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at mave@yahoo.com or (727) 893-8813.

Remembering Al Lang, St. Petersburg's Mr. Baseball 03/22/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2008 8:50am]

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