Welcome to Florida Wonders, a series where Tampa Bay Times readers submit their questions and we find answers.
This week’s question comes from St. Pete resident Andy Shannon:
“Just about every old building on the West Coast (Don Cesar, Vinoy, Jungle Prada Country Club, Biltmore) claims that both Babe Ruth and Al Capone stayed there –– not at the same time," he wrote. "For once and for all, could we prove or disprove the legends of where they stayed and when?”
Let’s dig in.
George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. came back to the Tampa Bay area year after year for spring training.
While with the Boston Red Sox, he hit what was then his longest home run in Tampa in 1919. According to Hidden History of St. Petersburg by Will Michaels, the home run was the reason why St Pete mayor Al Lang pushed for the Yankees to train in St Pete.
Lang wasn’t the only one happy to have Ruth around.
“The city was seized by 'Ruthamania," wrote Michaels in The Making of St. Petersburg. "Babe Ruth look-alike contests were held. Racing hounds were named after Ruth at the local derby...Real estate brokers exploited his name in the classified ads of the local paper: ‘Babe Ruth could easily knock a ball from this $2,750 lot.’”
Just about every major hotel from the time period claims that the Bambino stayed there. Many of those places, from the Princess Martha Hotel to his penthouse at the Flori-de-Leon, are said to be haunted with his ghost.
The Vinoy Hotel confirmed that Ruth visited, although the guest registers from that time are long lost.
Niles Laughner, grandson of the Vinoy’s builder, wrote that Ruth stayed at the hotel on multiple occasions.
“My father claimed that he once hit a ball through a window across the street from the ballpark — and remembered him playing horsey with neighborhood kids,” Laughner wrote in a history book about the hotel.
In addition to Babe Ruth, the Vinoy claims that it hosted Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Stewart.
The Jungle Country Club Hotel
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Now Admiral Farragut Academy, the Jungle Country Club Hotel was built in 1925. Today’s dorms used to be hotel rooms at the academy and were used for famous guests, including Ruth.
Ruth celebrated his 38th birthday at the hotel with a baseball-shaped cake. He also loved to play golf there. A famous photo of him teaching his daughter Julia how to golf was even taken there. She recreated the moment 83 years later when she visited St. Petersburg in 2014 for the St. Petersburg 100th Anniversary of Baseball.
Ruth, notorious for indulgent habits despite Prohibition, is rumored to have drank at the nearby Gangplank Night Club.
The Don CeSar
The New York Yankees had a spring training contract to stay at the Don CeSar for three years in the early ’30s. Babe Ruth did stay at the hotel for at least part of that period, said guest experience manager Susan Owen.
“They had in their contract that they had steak every day for breakfast and all the milk they could drink," she said.
The Don CeSar was hurt badly by the Great Depression, Michaels said. The Yankees contract may have been the thing that saved the hotel.
Princess Martha Hotel
Before it was the senior living retirement residence it is today, the Princess Martha was an elegant hotel.
Ruth signed a Yankees contract for $80,000 at the hotel in 1930 – $5,000 more than President Hoover was making.
I.M. “Handsome Jack” Taylor built the Rolyat in 1926, naming the hotel with his last named spelled backward, according to the archives. This former hotel became Stetson University College of Law.
Ruth signed a contract here in 1932. He had been making $80,000 and accepted a pay cut of $5,000 because of the Great Depression.
Michaels wrote that he tossed a coin in the hotel’s fountain with his wife. She wished for two more $75,000 contracts, but just a few weeks later, Roosevelt closed the nation’s banks. The next time Ruth signed his contract, it was for $52,000.
Henry B. Plant built the grand hotel in 1897. Notable guests over the years include several presidents (Barack Obama, George H. W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter) as well as Thomas Edison and Margaret Thatcher.
Now the Belleview Inn, the hotel claims on its website that Babe Ruth stayed there. Local historians confirmed this was true.
According to documents, Babe stayed in the Old Northeast and Snell Isle at least once, Michaels said.
His most well-known private residence was the Flori-de-leon on Fourth Avenue North, where his daughter Julia stayed with him in the 1930s. Babe and Lou Gehrig each had a penthouse in the building.
Ruth’s former room is now privately owned.
Bonus round: Mastry’s
Babe even drank at the original Mastry’s location. Stars — they’re just like us!
In 1986, bar owner Lay Mastry told the Times’ Jeff Klinkenberg:
"In about 1937, I’d guess, Babe Ruth stood right where I’m standing now. He wasn’t playing anymore, but he was down for spring training. I said, ‘I want it said that I bought the Babe a beer.’ He drank his beer and thanked me and then bought a case of Bud to go. He paid 75 cents for the bottle deposits and came back a few days later to collect his deposits. I bought him another beer.”
Unlike Babe Ruth, Al Capone was not photographed or well documented around St. Pete. But there are plenty of rumors:
- He had a home in Pasco’s Moon Lake (not true).
- Capone’s mother or mistress had a house in Euclid St. Paul (probably false, but nevertheless a favorite tale of local Realtors).
- He was eyeing a home on Fourth Street until Mayor Al Lang said “Capone is not going to live in St. Petersburg.” (Never proven, but not impossible, Michaels said.)
- Capone, a Babe Ruth fan, came to St. Petersburg to watch spring training (Unlikely, since the scar on Capone’s face made him easily recognizable.)
- He had an underground office in St. Petersburg and used tunnels beneath the city to smuggle liquor during the Prohibition era. (Historians haven’t ruled this one out, wrote Times reporter and resident mob expert Paul Guzzo).
In the early 1920s, Johnny Torrio first recruited Capone to join the Italian Five Points gang. Capone got the nickname Scarface while working as a bartender and bouncer for the gang around this time –– he insulted a woman and got slashed in the face by her brother.
According to Michaels’ book, Torrio narrowly escaped an assassination attempt from a rival gang in 1925. After surviving gunshots to the jaw, neck, stomach, chest and arm, he retired to St. Petersburg. Capone took over the gang, and Torrio continued to earn a quarter of the profits.
Historians speculate that he and his wife lived in the Old Northeast neighborhood during the 1920s. Though Torrio came to Florida seeking peace, he continued to work as an agent for Capone.
“It’s very probable that [Capone] came here to consult with Torrio about the mob business,” Michaels said.
In 1967, Jungle Country Club Hotel owner and local historian Walter P. Fuller wrote a letter to the Evening Independent admitting that about 20 members of Capone’s gang had stayed at his St. Pete hotel. Fuller said he was “on very intimate terms” with Torrio, even coming close to selling him property on Snell Isle. But he swore Scarface himself had never come to town.
“Absolutely, positively, unequivocally and beyond a peradventure of a doubt and for sure, Al Capone was never in St. Pete," the letter begins.
However, Michaels said that Fuller’s claims were false –– and that he was a known bootlegger during Prohibition.
But what we do know for sure is that Capone drove through Pinellas County at least once.
The proof: The February 10, 1931 front page of the St. Petersburg Times. The article said Capone spent a few hours in St. Pete before checking out the sponge industry in Tarpon Springs.
Capone and Torrio’s names also showed up on real estate purchases in St. Pete. The partners owned a parcel of land that became the Twin Brooks Golf Course on 3800 22nd Ave S., as well as beach property north of the Don CeSar.
We know Capone had friends and business interests in town, and there’s documentation that he was here. But where did he stay?
The Don CeSar’s website used to say that Capone stayed there, but it no longer does.
Michaels said if Capone came here at all, the most likely spot would have been the Royal Palm Hotel at 112 Fifth St. South. An article from June 1967 claimed that Capone and his men stopped by on their way down to Miami.
The hotel, once one of the ritziest in town, was badly damaged by a hurricane and torn down. An extension of the St. Petersburg Times’ newsroom was built in its place, along with the now derelict YMCA building.
“When it was torn down in 1967 to make room for the Times’ addition, 94 bathtubs were salvaged," said a story in the St. Petersburg Times. “Surely, if Capone was here two days, he must have used one?”
He would have stayed under an alias. According to Times archives, the most likely moniker would have been “Al Brown.”
We don’t have photographic evidence of Capone in St. Pete. For now, we’ll have to settle for this somewhat creepy old image of his likeness in St. Pete Beach’s former London Wax Museum.
In the end, Capone found himself in Florida. He served time in an Atlanta penitentiary, went to Alcatraz, then finished his sentence in Lewisburg, Pa. Weak from syphilis complications, he retreated to his Miami villa. His land in St. Pete was auctioned off by the federal government to pay off his $21,046 income tax debt. By the time he died in his Biscayne Bay home at 48, all of his Pinellas properties were gone.
Information from Times archives was used in this story. Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.