Cecil P. Englebert, a former mayor of Dunedin who was nicknamed Mr. Baseball because of his efforts to lure spring training to Dunedin and a major league team to St. Petersburg, died Saturday (July 5, 2008). He was 81.
Through nearly four decades, Mr. Englebert was a public servant in Pinellas County, first in Dunedin as mayor and city commissioner, then as head of the Pinellas Sports Authority.
He helped preserve Honeymoon Island as a pristine public park in the midst of developed beaches, and lobbied the Toronto Blue Jays to make Dunedin their home for spring training.
As chairman of the Sports Authority, he signed the bonds for the construction of Tropicana Field, which became home to the Tampa Bay Rays. When he became ill in the fall with a recurrence of skin cancer, his family didn't broach the subject of the Rays' push to redevelop the site. But he died Saturday at Tampa General Hospital knowing the team was winning and his dome would be around at least a little longer, his family said.
"I know that he'll regret passing halfway through the baseball season," said Paul Godfrey, president and chief executive of the Toronto Blue Jays, who has known Mr. Englebert since the 1970s. "He would have loved to be around to see the Rays go all the way."
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Mr. Englebert was born to a maintenance man and a seamstress in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and had seven brothers and one sister. Visiting an aunt in St. Petersburg at age 17, he met his future wife, who was then 15.
"He was country," Sadie Englebert said.
With his father's permission, he enlisted in the Navy before he turned 18. He wrote letters to Sadie in St. Petersburg, and they married in 1946 and soon settled in the Tampa Bay area.
Mr. Englebert managed grocery stores, then began working for Lucky Robert's Refrigeration in Clearwater, a company he later bought.
He started volunteering for the recreation center in Dunedin, then served on the board.
"From there he just got to know so many people they encouraged him to run for the commission," his wife said.
Mr. Englebert was a city commissioner in 1977 when the Jays played their first spring at Grant Field on Douglas Avenue. He led negotiations with Toronto and Dunedin to bring the team to town. The Jays' training facility, the Cecil P. Englebert Recreational Complex, was named after him.
He raised three children, Susan Cannoy of Tennessee, Cecilia Fowler of Trinity and Stephen Englebert of Spring Hill. He coached dozens more in Little League. He joked he would love to be a peanut vendor so he could be at games all the time.
He was elected commissioner in 1968 and had served for a decade when he won his first term as mayor. He served two terms before losing a third bid in 1982.
Shortly afterward, then-Gov. Bob Graham appointed him to the Pinellas Sports Authority, which was charged with building a stadium and persuading a Major League Baseball team to call it home.
"He was always there," said Bob Stewart, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission. "Cecil was that constant voice that kept pressing to get the job done."
Mr. Englebert was thrilled when the Rays started playing there and wouldn't miss a game from his seats behind home plate. By that time, he was taking his children and grandchildren to games.
"Cecil was one of the pioneers who brought Major League Baseball to our community," said John Higgins, Rays senior vice president and general counsel. "The Rays organization certainly owes him a debt of gratitude for his efforts."
He loved politics and put signs for local candidates in the windows of his business. He started out as a Democrat but became a Republican, said his daughter, Susan Cannoy.
Mr. Englebert re-entered Dunedin political life in 1999, but lost his commission seat in 2002, in part because of controversy over his relationship with the Blue Jays. Voters were questioning how much public funding should go to the expansion of the Jays' spring stadium.
"We had a very good relationship after I inherited his seat," said Bob Hackworth, now mayor of Dunedin, who credits him with shaping the city's small-town charm. "I think he understood that change was necessary at that time."
In his time as mayor of Dunedin, he carried a slip of paper with a passage that his friend gave him: "Not by our words, but by our works they shall know us."
Staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]