ST. PETERSBURG — The first time Rick Vaughn saw Al Lang Stadium, stepping off the Orioles team bus for a 1985 spring training game against the Mets, he was in awe of the postcard setting on the shimmering downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.
“It was like another world,” Vaughn said. “The ballpark was like nothing I’d ever seen before.”
The longtime sports communications executive became more enchanted over the years, first working for the Orioles, who made the ballpark their exhibition home from 1992-94, then in 1996 joining the expansion Devil Rays, who used it as a minor-league and spring base through 2008.
Vaughn became intrigued with the rich history of the site, which first hosted spring games in 1922, and tried to interest St. Petersburg officials in doing more to commemorate it, given the large role baseball had in the city’s history and place as a tourist destination, with the 100th anniversary as a hook.
Instead, Vaughn ended up writing a richly detailed book: “100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront — How the Game Helped Shape a City.” He will discuss the book (available at some local stores, via arcadiapublishing.com, plus Amazon and other online outlets), Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at the St. Petersburg Museum of History (see spmoh.com for ticket information).
“I didn’t intend to write a book,” Vaughn said. “I was doing research to present to the city to show them that we needed to do a better job of memorializing the history that took place there.
“And the more research I did, the more I was amazed, starting with the fact that 193 Hall of Famers played there. I was just amazed at how much I didn’t know. I had no idea the extent of the history and, even more importantly, the impact that it had on the growth of the city and Major League Baseball.”
For reasons unknown, Vaughn said, interest waned from the city representatives he had been in contact with. But his determination to share the story grew the more he researched how Lang, as mayor from 1916-1920 and for years afterward, worked tirelessly to make St. Petersburg the center of spring training. He first lured the Boston Braves and New York Yankees to benefit from the large-market media coverage and attention their star players generated to build the tourism industry.
From there, Lang worked his way into connections with many of the game’s top officials, so much so that when he died in 1960, honorary pallbearers included then-commissioner Ford Frick, both league presidents, team executives and past and present players.
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“I think it’s pretty safe to say that the city’s never had a more impassioned leader or a bigger fan of baseball,” Vaughn said. “More than anyone, (Lang) recognized how how important baseball was in reaching tourists. And he saw that opportunity to promote baseball, which he loved, and to promote tourism in the city that he came to love, St. Pete.”
Vaughn, who left the Rays in 2016 and now serves as executive director of former Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation, spent eight months scouring books and newspaper clips, searching box scores and doing interviews.
Admittedly “hooked” on the research and encouraged by his wife, Sue, to shift from researcher to author, Vaughn shares ample stories and anecdotes about the seven big-league teams that called the stadium home — Braves, Yankees, Cardinals, Giants (for one year), Mets, Orioles and Rays — and the stars who played there. They include tales about Babe Ruth, including an alleged 600-foot home run, as well as on notable visiting players, such as Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and especially Jackie Robinson, whose appearances drew record crowds.
Vaughn also explores the segregation issues Black players in St. Petersburg dealt with into the 1960s, such as being shut out of team hotels, and adds new commentary from Bill White, who endured segregation as a Cardinals star before becoming National League president.
The 156-page book includes details on some of the other events held at the stadiums, such as a Joe Louis boxing match, a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition, college football bowl games, a John F. Kennedy speech, a Billy Graham crusade and filming of a scene in a Jimmy Stewart/June Allyson movie.
Vaughn hopes the book stirs “cherished memories” for those who remember St. Petersburg as a spring training mecca — for many years with two tenants and a game every March day — and educates those new to the area and/or unfamiliar with it.
The stadium, without a Major League Baseball tenant since the Rays shifted spring training to Port Charlotte in 2009, now hosts the Rowdies of the USL Championship professional soccer league and is decorated accordingly. There is only an inconspicuous 12x18 plaque in Lang’s honor, installed at the 1977 opening of the third version of the stadium built on that site.
“I’m happy that it still has a function, because it was such an important part of the community for so many decades,” Vaughn said. “There were so many events, it was such a point of pride in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s. So I’m really glad it’s still there and still serving the community. But, yes, I wish baseball was still a part of it.”
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