On New Year's Day St. Petersburg celebrated the centennial of the World's First Airline. Now there is a second centennial to celebrate. Major League Baseball spring training began in St. Petersburg on Feb. 27, 1914, with the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles). While the Browns were here only a year, St. Petersburg was host to eight teams over the next 100 years. Among these was the New York Yankees, who held spring training in St. Pete beginning in 1925 and ending in 1961, with a few gaps in between.
That team included Babe Ruth, generally regarded as the best player ever. He came to St. Pete in 1925 and continued with the Yankees until 1934, returning the following year for an encore as a member of the Boston Braves. Nicknamed "the Bambino" and "the Sultan of Swat,'' he came up as a pitcher in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox. After being traded to the Yankees, Ruth set records for home runs, slugging, RBIs, and walks. He helped the Yankees win seven pennants and four World Series titles. Ruth was the first player to hit 60 home runs in one season (1927). The bat he used to hit the first home run in Yankee Stadium in 1923 sold for $1.265 million in 2004.
Babe Ruth's daughter, Julia Ruth Stevens, plans to visit St. Petersburg in March to help celebrate our Baseball Centennial. Stevens, 97, has not been in St. Pete since 1943.
In 1919 Ruth was a member of the Red Sox. During spring training in Tampa, he hit what for years was considered his longest homer. The feat is commemorated on a plaque near Plant Field at the University of Tampa. Baseball historian Leigh Montville wrote that several sportswriters got the New York Giants right fielder to point out where the ball landed and measured the distance to home plate. They estimated Ruth's hit traveled 508 feet in the air then rolled dead 579 feet from home.
Coincidentally, St. Petersburg Mayor Al Lang was in Tampa to lobby the Giants to relocate to St. Petersburg for future springs when Ruth hit his homer. This inspired the mayor to push to get Ruth and the Yankees, rather than the Giants.
By 1934 Ruth was coming to the end of his career. Prior to spring training he came down with the flu and lost 16 pounds. He had to delay his departure and his annual birthday party at the Jungle County Club Hotel on Park Street, now Admiral Farragut Academy.
The Yankees practiced at Miller Huggins Field at Crescent Lake. "Babe Fools Experts by Fast Start," read the subtitle of an article in the Evening Independent. "Today, at 40, the Babe admits himself that he is all but through. He hopes to play in 100 games for the Yankees this season but finally agrees with the boys that his days as a player are numbered. … In the face of all this Ruth is enjoying probably the greatest spring of his 20-year career in the majors."
Ruth finished the spring with a .429 batting average, but it was on March 25 that he hit his record-breaking home run at Waterfront Park against the Braves. The best account comes from the Boston Herald.
In the fifth inning, "The crowd of 1,200 got the customary home run treat from Babe Ruth. He socked a Betts pitch 10,000 leagues to right field … far over the canvas and almost into the West Coast Inn, where the Braves live between games." Some are quoted as seeing the ball bounce on the front porch of the hotel. One said it was the second balcony.
Whether the ball rolled, bounced or hit the hotel on the fly, it has been established that it traveled 624 feet. The distance was verified by George F. Young Inc. in 2008 measuring from the old plate location at Waterfront to the now-demolished West Coast Inn. According to Tim Reid of the Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth, the West Coast Inn home run is believed to be perhaps the longest ever hit off major league pitching. Reid, an engineer, estimates the distance in the air as no less than 610 feet. Baseball historian Bill Jenkinson, author of Baseball's Ultimate Power: Ranking the All-Time Great Distance Home Run Hitters states "For many years, I have steadfastly believed that no human being could hit a baseball 600 feet, but, based upon new research on this blow, I admit I was publicly mistaken."
No record has been found of Ruth himself commenting on the homer at the time it was hit. But when Ruth was sick with oral cancer and making a last hurrah tour in 1948, he returned to the site of Waterfront Park Stadium. Asked what his greatest accomplishment there was, he replied "The day I hit the … ball against that … hotel!"
Note: Great appreciation to Tim Reid of the St. Petersburg Committee to Commemorate Babe Ruth for his help with this column. Sources: Eugene Register-Guard; Evening Independent; Charles Fountain, Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training; William J. Jenkinson, "Long Distance Home Runs," Baseball Almanac; Kevin M. McCarthy, Babe Ruth in Florida; New York Times; Tampa Bay Times; Boston Herald; the Sporting News; Will Michaels, The Making of St. Petersburg; and Sarasota Journal. Will Michaels has served as executive director and trustee of the St. Petersburg Museum of History, vice president of the Carter G. Woodson Museum of African American History, president of St. Petersburg Preservation, and co-chair of the Tony Jannus Distinguished Aviation Society. He is the author of The Making of St. Petersburg. He can be reached at (727) 420-9195.