If You Go
Players for both the Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox start reporting to spring training on Tuesday. Each day leading up to the first exhibition games, players will participate in drills and scrimmage.
BOSTON RED SOX
JetBlue Park (also known as Fenway South)
Where: 11500 Fenway South Drive, Fort Myers
Directions: Interstate 75 to Daniels Parkway, go east 2.2 miles
First game: Feb. 21 vs. Boston College/Northeastern University
Last game: March 30 vs. Twins
Ticket prices: $5-$46
Lee County Sports Complex (Hammond Stadium)
Where: 14100 Six Mile Cypress Pkwy, Fort Myers
Directions: Interstate 75 to Daniels Parkway, go west 2.9 miles to to Six Mile Cypress Parkway, turn left go 1/2 mile
First game: Feb. 24 vs. Tampa Bay Rays
Last game: March 29 vs. Red Sox
Ticket prices: $13-$43
Florida spring training turns 125 this year, born the century before last, just 23 years after the end of the Civil War and 19 years after the first pro baseball team was formed.
It was 1888, the year after Lee County was created, the same year the first Naples Pier was built and before a railroad line linked either Fort Myers to Naples to the outside world.
The first baseball team to train in Florida, though, has a historic connection to Southwest Florida. The 1888 Washington Senators featured a slender light-hitting catcher named Connie Mack whose descendants include a United States senator and congressman of the same name. In 1925, 37 years later, that now former catcher brought the first Major League Baseball team, the Philadelphia A’s, to Southwest Florida.
Now, spring training is a big business, where millions of dollars are spent building stadiums and in 2012 about 1.6 million fans attended Grapefruit League games.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, slipping away from the prehistoric origins of spring training, back when most Florida towns could fit their entire population in a 21st century ballpark.
Now, communities vie for the pleasure and they hope to profit by building lavish stadiums and practice facilities, veritable palaces and shrines.
In 1888? Not so much.
In the beginning
The good folks of Jacksonville had no interest in the ball playing rascals from the nation’s capital. Hotels didn’t want the team and the players ended up in a boarding house and had to share beds and promise not to hang out with other guests, according to “Under the March Sun, The Story of Spring Training.”
Connie Mack, who hit an anemic .187 that year, was likely one of the few clean-living fellows in the 19th century game.
“By the time we arrived in Jacksonville, four of the 14 players were reasonably sober,” said Mack, as quoted in “Under the March Sun.” “The rest were totally drunk.”
Northeastern University associate professor of journalism Charles Fountain wrote “Under the March Sun.”
“It’s essentially unchanged,” Fountain said of on-field activities. “Players do the same things they did in 1888.”
There are still three bases and three outs and nine innings in baseball.
“Very little from 125 years ago is recognizable,” Fountain said.
The game remains recognizable although spring training has evolved from its hardscrabble and hard-drinking origins.
“We played baseball most of the day and drank most of the night,” Mack said.
Now, most professional ballplayers spend parts of offseasons working out at high-tech fitness retreats, honing strength, reflexes and flexibility.
In the 19th century that wasn’t the case.
“Early camps were more fat farms than baseball camps,” Fountain wrote.
Old Lang sees signs
A key spring training innovator was a man named Al Lang, who intended to move to Fort Myers but instead stopped in St. Petersburg in 1910 and never left. Four years later, he convinced the St. Louis Browns to train there.
“He was, I would submit, the Thomas Jefferson of spring training,” Fountain said. “He saw the possibilities of it.”
Lang kick-started spring training. In 1913, only two teams trained in Florida, and a long way from each other. The Cleveland Indians were in Pensacola and the Chicago Cubs were in Tampa.
Although the Browns trained in St. Pete for only a year, the rush to Florida was on for many of the 16 teams then in the big leagues. By 1922, the Senators were in Tampa, the Philadelphia Phillies in Lakeland and the Brooklyn Dodgers in Jacksonville.
They kept pushing south. In 1924, the New York Giants moved to Sarasota and a year later, Mack brought his A’s to Fort Myers.
The team arrived at the Fort Myers railroad station for the first time on Feb. 22, 1925. By 1925, seven teams trained in Florida and by the mid-1930s, 12 of the 16 teams were here. Now 15 of the 30 big-league teams train in Florida, which is down from a high of 20 teams as Arizona in recent years lured away teams.
In 1925, Mack managed the Philadelphia A’s. City fathers, most notably a Fort Myers resident named R.Q. Richards, convinced him that Fort Myers was the place for the A’s. Fort Myers business leaders believed the free publicity the A’s would bring in newspapers around the country would benefit the community. Five sports writers arrived with the A’s on a train that first day of local spring training history.
“This was advertising which could not be purchased for any amount of money,” R.Q. Richards Jr. wrote in a 1984 one-page history of spring training stored in the Southwest Florida Museum of History.
When Mack and his team arrived, Southwest Florida was a vastly different place from the one of 2013.
There was no Cape Coral. No Interstate highway system. No local radio station or university.
Author Norman Macht explored those pioneering spring training days in “Connie Mack, The Turbulent & Triumphant Years, 1915-1931.”
The A’s had trained in other places in the years before finding Fort Myers. In 1922, they trained in Eagle Pass, Texas, a border town that was a three-day, 2,014-mile train ride form Philadelphia.
It got so cold there, Macht wrote, the clubhouse stove froze. When the weather warmed up, a sandstorm forced players to wear goggles.
Eagle Pass wasn’t working. The A’s then spent two years training in Montgomery, Ala., a place Mack liked but was too far from other teams in Florida.
By time the A’s came to Fort Myers the population may have been as high as 15,000, according to “The Story of Fort Myers.”
Spring training and indeed all of professional baseball was a bit more informal back then. The biggest star in the game was Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees, who trained in St. Pete. The Yankees lent the A’s Babe Ruth for a day in 1925 and he suited up at Terry Park for an exhibition game against a minor-league team.
About 5,000 people showed up for the game. Ruth, however, didn’t hit the ball out of the infield.
It was a booming time in Fort Myers, according to Macht.
“New stores and theaters were going up downtown,” Macht wrote.
The town’s most famous seasonal resident, inventor Thomas Edison, popped by Terry Park occasionally to visit the second-most famous seasonal visitors, the A’s.
Mack once told Edison he had been coming to Fort Myers for 47 years, since the day when the town “was a hamlet of about 40 houses, 37 buildings being saloons.”
Although the visits were exciting, the focus of the A’s was building champions. And that’s what they did. Local fans watched at Terry Park as the A’s became a juggernaut, one of the great teams of all-time, winners of three successive American League pennants, 1929-31. They also won the 1929 and 1930 World Series.
The teams featured future Hall of Famers such as Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Mickey Cochrane.
The A’s left Fort Myers after 1936 but set a precedent. Any team that stayed more than two years won a World Series.
That includes the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, who featured the legendary Roberto Clemente in right field. The list of Lee County champions also includes the 1985 Kansas City Royals, whose best player was third baseman George Brett.
The Royals left Fort Myers after 1987 spring training. The Royals liked Fort Myers but couldn’t get the facility upgrades they wanted. They left for a place in Central Florida called Baseball City but now train in Arizona.
“Apparently the decisions concerning baseball in that town are being made by the same people who decide where to put the traffic lights on 41 and McGregor,” Brett said at the time. “In other words, idiots.”
After the Royals left, Lee County was without a team for three springs, 1988-1990. In that time, though, county leaders decided to pursue another team.
In 1991, the Minnesota Twins moved from Orlando and into the new Lee County Sports Complex. They also won the World Series that year.
That move was particularly notable because of the stadium, what is now called Hammond Stadium. It was a stadium with architectural flourishes such as a water fountain and a cupola with a hint of Churchill Downs.
“They changed the way everyone. … looked at spring training,” Fountain wrote.
Gone were the days of utilitarian, joyless ballparks and treating spring training as a drag on the bottom line.
“Suddenly the light goes on,” Fountain said.
That was evident two years later and a few miles away.
In 1993, the Boston Red Sox moved out of Winter Haven and into City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. City of Palms was another distinctive stadium, this one fringed by palm trees. The Red Sox, by the way, won the 2004 and 2007 World Series.
In 2012, the Red Sox moved into JetBlue Park.
That park with its cantilevered roof and weight rooms and suites and Green Monster in left field symbolizes how much spring training has changed. The JetBlue price tag was about $80 million.
When the Pirates moved into Terry Park in 1955, a new grandstand was built. The cost? $80,000.
No fancy suites or weight rooms or video rooms back then.
So much else has changed with spring training. When the Pirates began training in Fort Myers, Jim Crow still ruled Florida. Clemente wasn’t allowed to stay with white teammates at the downtown Bradford Hotel or play golf at Fort Myers Country Club.
There was a “colored” seating section at Terry Park. Clemente rented a room at Etta Powell’s house in the Dunbar neighborhood.
This was how it was for black players then. That was the case with a young Cincinnati Reds outfielder named Curt Flood when he showed up in Tampa for spring training. He stayed in a place called Ma Fletcher’s Boarding House.
Things changed. Integration came. And spring training’s popularity has grown with it. In 1981, total spring training attendance topped one million for the first time, according to Fountain. By 1991, it was up to two million and only three years later it hit three million, combined between Florida and Arizona.
In 1969, when the Royals played their first game at 5,500-seat Terry Park, only 1,768 fans showed up. In 1987, when they played their final game in Terry Park, the attendance was 3,781.
In 2012, the average attendance in Florida for spring training games was 6,965.
No wonder teams are now welcome in the finest hotels, unlike the Washington Senators in 1888 in Jacksonville.
Florida spring training timeline
1888: First team trains in Florida (Washington Senators in Jacksonville)
1914: St. Louis Browns begin training in St. Petersburg
1925: Philadelphia A’s start training in Fort Myers’ Terry Park
1929: A’s win American League pennant and the World Series
1930: A’s win pennant and World Series again
1931: A’s win pennant but lose World Series
1936: Final year in Fort Myers for A’s
1940-41: Cleveland Indians train in Fort Myers’ Terry Park
1955: Ending a 14-year hiatus without a team the Pittsburgh Pirates move to Terry Park
1960: Pirates win National League pennant and beat the New York Yankees in the World Series
1968: Pirates final year in Fort Myers. They moved to Bradenton in 1969 and are still there
1969: Expansion Kansas City Royals replace the Pirates at Terry Park
1985: Royals win the American League pennant and World Series
1987: Royals final year in Fort Myers
1987: Texas Rangers move to Port Charlotte from Pompano Beach
1991: Minnesota Twins move from Orlando to the Lee County Sports Complex and also win the World Series
1993: Boston Red Sox move from Winter Haven to City of Palms Park in Fort Myers
2002: Rangers last year in Port Charlotte
2004: Red Sox win American League pennant and World Series
2007: Red Sox win another pennant and World Series
2009: Tampa Bay Rays start training in Port Charlotte. They previously trained in St. Pete
2011: Red Sox final year in City of Palms Park
2012: Red Sox move into JetBlue Park
2013: The125th anniversary of first Florida spring training