Friday, February 23, 2018
Perspective

Spring training, 1914

It was a glorious winter. Tampa Bay basked in warmth while northern climes shivered. Prosperity and new revolutions in technology reinforced the oft-expressed opinion that it was the best of times to live in St. Petersburg. Each week, it seemed, a new building or announcement heralded progress.

But progress came with a steep price. Critics complained of profligate spending, new ballparks and municipal piers. A fierce debate over the morality of a popular vice divided citizens and forced the issue to the ballot box.

It was February 1914. "St. Petersburg has," began a Times column, "33 hotels ... 9 Protestant churches ... 8 restaurants ... 7 public parks ... 6 shoe stores ... 5 bakeries ... 4 ice cream parlors ... 3 millinery stores ... 2 Chinese laundries ... and one Confederate veteran camp." Amid technological triumphs (the Tony Jannus flight), civic pride (a municipal pier) and morality debates (St. Petersburg fiercely resolved to prohibit Demon Rum), one event validated the city's progress: Major league baseball was coming to town.

Wildly popular, baseball harnessed, reinforced and transcended ethnic, racial and class distinctions. Baseball had no rivals in Tampa Bay, even though the Washington Nationals, the closest major league team, was 1,000 miles away.

Major league baseball held little love for Florida in the early 20th century. Teams trained in southern locales such as Hot Springs, Ark.; Macon, Ga.; and New Orleans. In 1888, the Washington Nationals ventured south to play a spring game in Jacksonville, and in 1903, Connie Mack brought the Philadelphia Athletics to Jacksonville for the entire spring season, the first team to do so. The Sunshine City flirted with the tradition in 1908, when the Cincinnati Reds played a game against the semi-professional St. Petersburg Saints.

Leaders in Tampa and St. Petersburg battled to become the first to entice a major league baseball team to Tampa Bay for spring training. In 1912, the Tampa City Council urged Mayor D.B. McKay to recruit the Chicago Cubs to spend six weeks at the Gilded Age Tampa Bay Hotel. Future mayor Al Lang led the effort to bring baseball to St. Petersburg. A Steel Town native, Lang called upon Barney Dreyfuss, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to make the case for the Sunshine City. Dreyfuss quipped, "That will be the day when the Pirates train at a whistle stop!"

Tampa triumphed, luring the Chicago Cubs to Tampa in 1913. McKay persuaded the Cubs with an offer to pay room, board and expenses for the squad of 35 players.

In August 1913, businessmen formed the St. Petersburg Baseball and Amusement Co., raising $10,000 and determined to attract a big-league team. Success followed: The St. Louis Browns agreed to train in St. Petersburg in 1914.

"First in shoes, first in booze and last in the American League," the St. Louis Browns were a struggling, last-place franchise with a 32-year-old player-manager-vice president named Branch Rickey. In 1914, the Gateway City was the fourth-largest city in America, home to almost 700,000 inhabitants. St. Petersburg's population was 7,200. But not even St. Louis could support three major league baseball teams: the Browns, the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Terriers, the latter belonging to the upstart Federal League that was raiding players from the older leagues.

Rickey proposed that St. Petersburg officials provide the Browns with a new baseball diamond, training facilities and free room and board at the Fifth Avenue Hotel. Jubilant, the city's two newspapers announced the Browns would be arriving in February 1914.

Rickey helped supervise the construction of the ballpark. Its location remains elusive. Some believe the site was today's Granada Terrace (which is near the northern end of the city's Old Northeast neighborhood); others argue the site was on North Shore Drive. Perhaps someday an archaeologist will discover an ancient sliding pit and tobacco-stained baseballs. The field was officially named Sunshine Park, but locals preferred the name Coffee Pot Bayou Park. "If you have not seen the $10,000 ball park that is being built in the Sunshine City," the Times insisted on Jan. 19, 1914, "you certainly must be a busy person." The paper added, "What was a mangled mass of trees and underbrush a few short weeks ago is today a well-leveled piece of ground with its green grass just high enough to call beautiful."

In the weeks preceding the arrival of the Browns, St. Petersburg newspapers introduced Browns players. Rookie outfielder Earl P. Stimpson, the Times predicted, "may become a Ty Cobb." Stimpson's career produced 4,191 fewer hits than Cobb, chiefly because Stimpson never played a major league game. The Times depicted Carl E. Weileman as a "big Ohio German boy" and the tallest pitcher in the majors. Shortstop R.J. "Bobby" Wallace was the luckiest man in baseball, not because he was still playing at age 39; rather, he had survived the 1909 Illinois mine disaster that claimed the lives of 259 men and boys.

The Browns arrived on Feb. 18, escaping a Midwestern blizzard. Manager Rickey, befitting the leader who insisted "Luck is the residue of design," was well organized. He ordered players to practice the basics and perfect bunting and the artful hook slide. Miller Huggins, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, scoffed at Rickey's naiveté, commenting, "No ballplayer can learn to steal by sliding into sand pits."

In 1914, Henry Ford shocked his competitors when he instituted his $5-a-day pay plan for autoworkers. Ty Cobb was baseball's highest-paid athlete, earning $15,000; most players earned $1,500, about the same as a Ford autoworker. Players worked in the offseason as carpenters, bartenders and farmers. Most reported out of shape. Rickey asked that four handball courts be constructed to whip his squad into shape. The handball courts were located between third base and the left field bleachers, "north of the colored bleachers." St. Petersburg may have been a tourist city, but it was also a Southern, segregated city.

Considering that the Browns had spent the previous spring training in Waco, Texas, St. Petersburg leaders expressed confidence that players would find the Sunshine City a tropical idyll. "Any town, even Jacksonville," gloated the Evening Independent, "can take care of champions, but it is the exceptional place in climate and environment that can shape ordinary players into pennant contenders."

Alas, players grumbled about the quantity and quality of the grub, the 8:30 wake-up call, and the mile and a half walk from hotel to diamond. A St. Louis reporter described the climate to Missouri readers: "It never rains in this 'ere Sunshine City — it pours." Perhaps most perplexing was the challenge of finding a beer in St. Petersburg, a dry city.

Miserly portions and thunderclaps notwithstanding, the home opener on Feb. 27, 1914, was one of the most anticipated sporting events in local history. The Western Union Telegraph company installed wires to rush game news to St. Louis papers.

"For the first time in the history of the Sunshine City," observed the Evening Independent, "a baseball game stopped business today. ..." The superintendent of schools dismissed all classes before the start of the game. A temporary wooden pier was erected on Coffee Pot Bayou, allowing steamers to land their eager passengers.

"Beginning at noon," the Independent noted, "autos, launches, pedestrians and men on bicycles started for the ball park, every one intent on seeing the contest." All city stores closed at noon and extra trolley cars assigned to the Coffee Pot line arrived every 10 minutes. A special train brought fans from Tarpon Springs. The Times explained the chaos: "Pinellas County and its visitors have gone baseball mad."

The Chicago Cubs won that historic game over the Browns by a score of 3 to 2. The Browns left town after playing 20 games and never returned. Finishing the season in fifth place, they became one of the baseball's most woeful franchises, ultimately leaving St. Louis for Baltimore in 1954. Branch Rickey went hitless in 1914, but succeeded because of his vision and intelligence. In 1945, "the Mahatma" signed Jackie Robinson to a professional contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

February 1914 changed and challenged St. Petersburg. Though the Browns never came back, the Philadelphia Phillies replaced them in 1915. Within a decade, Tampa Bay had become the epicenter for spring training. A place of enchanted Februaries, St. Petersburg brokered the fantasies of Americans who, each spring, renewed hope that the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Braves or New York Mets might win the World Series. Each spring, Sunshine Park, Waterfront Park and Al Lang Stadium beckoned rookies and veterans, fathers and sons, tourists and natives. In crackerjack parks and wooden grandstands, fans shared a collective past and dreams of a better future. Play ball!

Gary R. Mormino is scholar-in-residence at the Florida Humanities Council. His father, a passionate St. Louis Browns fan, was a "Fighting Seabee" in the Solomon Islands when the Browns faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1944 Trolley World Series. The author wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

 
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