The Grapefruit League

Some people celebrate the beginning of spring because it brings warmer weather and blooming flowers. Other folks are just glad it’s time for major-league baseball to get started! Here in Florida, our baseball season begins a little earlier than it does in most of the rest of the country, because more than a dozen professional ball clubs come here to do their spring training. This tradition has been going on for more than a century now and has earned itself a uniquely Floridian nickname–the Grapefruit League.

Brooklyn Dodgers doing calisthenics during spring training in Vero Beach (1949).

Brooklyn Dodgers doing calisthenics during spring training in Vero Beach (1949).

The Washington Capitols were most likely the first professional ball club to do their spring training in Florida. They spent three weeks in Jacksonville in 1888 practicing for the upcoming season on a field near Confederate Park. The Capitols finished last in the National League that year, so we might reasonably question whether they got their money’s worth out of the trip, but at least the weather was probably better than it would have been back home. At any rate, the Capitols started a trend. The Philadelphia Phillies spent two weeks in Jacksonville the following year, and more teams followed. By 1920, four major league teams were regularly training in Florida; at the end of that decade the number was up to ten. That’s not counting the number of minor league teams that came either to train or to make their permanent home here.

Major League baseball players at Stetson University in DeLand. L to R: Chicago Cubs pitcher Lew Richie, Boston Braves outfielder Jim Murray, Chicago Cubs catcher Jimmy Archer and Chicago Cubs outfielder and first baseman Bill Hinchman (1913).

Major League baseball players at Stetson University in DeLand. L to R: Chicago Cubs pitcher Lew Richie, Boston Braves outfielder Jim Murray, Chicago Cubs catcher Jimmy Archer and Chicago Cubs outfielder and first baseman Bill Hinchman (1913).

The exact origin of the name “Grapefruit League” is a little uncertain, but most historians attribute it to an event during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training in Daytona Beach in 1915. According to one version of the story, outfielder and notorious prankster Casey Stengel threw a Florida grapefruit at his manager, Wilbert Robinson, which earned spring training its nickname. Other versions involve an airplane and an aviatrix named Ruth Law, who Stengel convinced to fly low over the Dodgers’ practice field and throw out a baseball, which the outfielder bet that his manager couldn’t catch. Law agreed to her part of the scheme, and Robinson accepted the bet, but when the pilot made her flyover, she threw out a large grapefruit instead of a baseball, splattering Wilbert Robinson in the face. Apparently Ruth had flown up without bringing a baseball with her, so she went for what seemed like the next best thing. Far-fetched? Maybe so, but by the 1920s the name “Grapefruit League” was widely used in the press to describe spring training in Florida.

Leaflet containing the 1963 Florida Grapefruit League schedule of exhibition games. Click or tap the image to see the complete leaflet.

Leaflet containing the 1963 Florida Grapefruit League schedule of exhibition games. Click or tap the image to see the complete leaflet.

Spring training typically lasts about 6-8 weeks. Players work on fundamentals like batting, fielding, bunting and sliding to fine tune their methods and strengthen their bodies before competitive play begins. Managers and coaches watch the players closely as they work to see who will do the best job in each position and who ought to make the team’s final roster. It’s also a good opportunity to give the fans a taste of what they can expect to see during the regular season. Teams play a series of exhibition games during spring training, drawing big crowds eager to get a sneak peek of their favorite players or the newest recruits. This has historically made for some interesting headlines, considering most of the spring training towns don’t have ball teams of their own. In 1928, for example, the Philadelphia Athletics played the St. Louis Cardinals in Avon Park, the Philadelphia Phillies in Winter Haven and the Boston Braves in Fort Myers!

Babe Ruth at bat in a spring training exhibition game in Miami (1920).

Babe Ruth at bat in a spring training exhibition game in Miami (1920).

Early on, Florida towns recognized the potential benefits of hosting spring training and began taking steps to lure the major league teams their way. In 1913, a group of Tampa baseball enthusiasts raised more than $4,000 to entice the Chicago Cubs to train in their city.  The Cubs enjoyed their experience and ended up signing a contract with the city to return for the next five years. A little farther south, Bealls department store founder and baseball enthusiast Robert M. Beall, Sr. convinced the St. Louis Cardinals to relocate their spring training operation to Bradenton in the 1920s. The team joined forces with the city to construct a $2,000 stadium at McKechnie Field, which opened in 1923. Soon towns across the state were competing to win the winter business of America’s baseball clubs, promising newer and better fields and guaranteed gate receipts for exhibition games. One of the newest spring training facilities is CoolToday Park in North Port in Sarasota County, completed in 2019. The project cost $140 million, $21.2 million of which came from Sarasota County, with another $4.7 million coming from North Port’s city coffers.

Cincinnati Reds exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa (ca. 1970).

Cincinnati Reds exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa (ca. 1970).

Florida communities have long been willing to invest this kind of money in the spring training business because it generally comes with a big payoff. A team’s expenditures can reach into the millions of dollars during their month-long stay in the state. After all, it takes a small army of coaches, managers and support staff to keep the operation going, and they all have to eat, sleep and spend their off-time somewhere. Then there are the fans–thousands of them who come to watch their favorite ball teams in the exhibition games. Many are local baseball enthusiasts, but plenty of fans come from out of state to get an early look at the players and speculate on how the final rosters will shake out. All of this enthusiasm for baseball translates into valuable tourist income for the cities that host a team for spring training.

Fans getting autographs from members of the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training in St. Petersburg (1977).

Fans getting autographs from members of the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training in St. Petersburg (1977).

Florida’s state government has recognized this reality for a long time as well and actively encourages the state’s spring training industry. Every year since 1947, for example, the governor has hosted a “Baseball Dinner” for the teams and the press representatives who travel with them. The state has also advertised exhibition game schedules to help visiting fans plan their trip to the Sunshine State.

Program for Governor Millard Caldwell's Second Annual Baseball Dinner, held at the Tampa Terrace Hotel on March 20, 1948. Click or tap the image to see the complete program.

Program for Governor Millard Caldwell’s Second Annual Baseball Dinner, held at the Tampa Terrace Hotel on March 20, 1948. Click or tap the image to see the complete program.

Don’t forget to share this post with the baseball fans among your friends and family, and include your favorite memory involving baseball in Florida!

 

 

The Tampa Smokers

Florida is proud of its major league baseball teams, the Miami Marlins and the Tampa Bay Rays, but let’s not forget it has also been home to a number of minor league teams over the years. Today we get a look at the Tampa Smokers, a Tampa team whose name reflects its close relationship with the longstanding cigar industry in the area.

There's no question about the close relationship between the Tampa Smokers and the city's cigar industry. Here, Smokers manager Tony Cuccinello lights up (September 28, 1947).

There’s no question about the close relationship between the Tampa Smokers and the city’s cigar industry. Here, Smokers manager Tony Cuccinello lights up (September 28, 1947).

The Smokers got their start in 1919 as a charter member of the original Class D Florida State League. They played their games at Plant Field, built in 1899 by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant to house various entertainments for his guests at the nearby Tampa Bay Hotel. Plant encouraged the growth of baseball in Tampa Bay, but squads using his field often found themselves sharing their space with automobile and horse racing, events for other sports, and even the Florida State Fair.

Calisthenics led by Tampa Smokers director Joe Abreu at a training camp in Tampa (February 20, 1948).

Calisthenics led by Tampa Smokers director Joe Abreu at a training camp in Tampa (February 20, 1948).

The Smokers experienced both feast and famine years in their experience as a franchise. At one point in 1924 the team folded entirely due to a lack of funds, and President Al F. Lang of the Florida State League appealed directly to fans during a game to help save their home team. “I gave it to them straight from the shoulder,” Lang said later in an interview. In short order, Lang had $600 in donations, which combined with a small existing reserve to pay the team’s bills for a while.

Al Lang, president of the Florida State League in 1924, is flanked by Pete Norton on his left and Will Harridge on his right. The trio were attending the governor's annual baseball dinner (March 1951).

Al Lang, president of the Florida State League in 1924, is flanked by Pete Norton on his left and Will Harridge on his right. The trio were attending the governor’s annual baseball dinner (March 1951).

The Smokers went on to develop several major league players. The first, who was also the first major league player from Tampa, was Al Lopez. Known as “El Señor,” Lopez played catcher for 1,918 games over the course of his career, establishing a record that went unbroken until 1987. When he first began playing with the Smokers in 1925, Lopez was asked how much money he wanted in return for his services. He replied that he didn’t know anything about contracts, so the management asked him if $150 a month would do. Lopez had never been offered so much money in his life; he took the offer, and so began a great career in baseball. In addition to playing in the majors, he also became the major leagues’ first Hispanic manager. After working with a series of minor league teams, he took the helm for the Cleveland Indians from 1951-1956, and then moved on to the Chicago White Sox, where he finished out his career. In 1977, Lopez was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Tampan to receive the honor.

Al Lopez, taken by author Wes Singletary, who published a book entitled Florida's First Big League Baseball Players in 2006 (photo circa 1990s).

Al Lopez, taken by author Wes Singletary, who published a book entitled Florida’s First Big League Baseball Players in 2006 (photo circa 1990s; Series N2006-8, Box 1, State Archives of Florida).

Other Smokers to reach the major leagues included Manuel Domingues “Curly” Onis, Charlie Cuellar, and Elisha Matthew “Bitsy” Mott. Mott’s son Jimmy served as a bat boy for the team during his father’s tenure as a Smoker. The other players sometimes called him “Smoker, Jr.” When the father left the team in 1949, the son chose to go with him, even though he was offered the job for another year. When team president Tom Spicola discussed the matter with young Jimmy, he said, “Well, Pop won’t be around so I don’t guess I’ll be either.” And that was the end of it.

Ben Podolsky slides into base while Elisha Matthew

Ben Podolsky slides into base while Elisha Matthew “Bitsy” Mott (left) and others observe during a training exercise (February 20, 1948).

Tampa Smokers' bat boy Jimmy Mott, son of player Elisha Matthew

Tampa Smokers’ bat boy Jimmy Mott, son of player Elisha Matthew “Bitsy” Mott (February 20, 1948).

The Smokers and the star players raised by the team were memorialized in various ways over the years. In 1954, the city of Tampa opened Al Lopez Field, which became a training base for major league teams such as the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays paid tribute to the 1951 Tampa Smokers squad that won the 1951 Florida International League pennant. It was a nice gesture, all agreed, although the Rays ruffled a few feathers when they chose to omit the traditional cigar from the front of the uniform. Locals argued that whatever the present attitude toward tobacco, Tampa’ heritage was still very much tied to the cigar industry.

A Cincinnati Red exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa. The player leading off of third base is identified as Pete Rose (circa 1970).

A Cincinnati Red exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa. The player leading off of third base is identified as Pete Rose (circa 1970).

What are your favorite Florida sports teams? Have you checked to see if we have any historic photos of them in the Florida Photographic Collection? Share your favorites on Facebook, or share a story about your first time at a baseball game by leaving a comment below.

Behind the Mask

The first catcher’s mask was worn in baseball in April 1877. Before that time, catchers sometimes wore tightly wound rubber bands around their teeth to protect them from getting knocked out.

Baseball Game in Gainesville, late 1800s

Baseball Game in Gainesville, late 1800s

Monticello Baseball Team, late 1800s

Monticello Baseball Team, late 1800s

As early as the 1860s pitchers began throwing faster and more deceptive pitches, like the curveball. In order to field them, catchers began moving closer to home plate. The rising velocity of pitches, in conjunction with catchers inching closer to the plate, significantly increased the risk for injury.

After watching his star catcher James Tyng get hit in the face one too many times, Harvard player/manager Fred Thayer modified a fencing mask which enabled the catcher to move closer to home without the fear of being struck in the face.

Tallahassee Baseball Team, early 1900s

Tallahassee Baseball Team, early 1900s

Columbia High School Baseball Team: Lake City, ca. 1915

Columbia High School Baseball Team: Lake City, ca. 1915

Fort Wayne Daisies Catcher Dottie Schroeder: Opa-locka, 1948

Fort Wayne Daisies Catcher Dottie Schroeder: Opa-locka, 1948

Governor Farris Bryant with a Young Ballplayer, 1960s

Governor Farris Bryant with a Young Ballplayer, 1960s