Florida Grapefruit League


Florida's Experience with pro sports started with spring training. It brought the stars here before Florida had pro sports of its own.
Photos courtesy of the St. Petersburg Museum of History

Big league baseball -- the spring training version -- is a Florida tradition dating to the early years of the century. Nearly all the immortals -- from Ruth to Hornsby to Mays and Clemente and most recently Jeter and Cabrera -- have trod the basepaths of St. Petersburg, Bradenton and points south and north in the state.

There have now been over 130 Years of Major League Baseball Spring Training in Florida.  Here's a look back decade by decade.

The Washington Nationals travel the farthest south any team had previously traveled, to Jacksonville, to prepare for an upcoming season.   A young reserve catcher for the Senators in 1888, Connie Mack, the grandfather of Connie Mack III, (a former U.S. Senator from Florida) had played in Jacksonville's first big league exhibition game, won by the New York Giants 10-2.  Washington worked out for three weeks in Jacksonville, which led to the Nationals finishing with a 48-86 record, 37 ½ games out of first place that year convincing Washington and all other teams traveling that far south wasn't worth the travel.  It was 15 years before Major League Baseball returned.

Having rebounded from the bad experience of 15 years prior the now American League champion Athletics, and Manager Connie Mack, were the first major league team to spend an entire spring training season in Florida. Again the experience was not to their liking and the team did not return to the state for 11 years, largely because the 1903 Athletics finished a disappointing 14 1/2 games behind the Red Sox. Predictably, Mack blamed the year-long slump on the tropical temptations of Jacksonville, where his star pitcher, Rube Waddell, had been distracted by several misadventures, including a wrestling match with a live alligator and an attempted suicide following a jilting by a local brunette.

February 1913, the Chicago Cubs arrived in Tampa for the region's first spring training. Lured to Tampa by Mayor D.B. McKay's promise to cover the team's expenses up to $100 per player, the Cubs began workouts at Plant Field (just north of the elegant Tampa Bay Hotel, the present site of the University of Tampa).  At the same time, St. Petersburg, and businessman, Al Lang, persuaded Branch Rickey, the fledgling manager of the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns, to bring his team to St. Petersburg. By the spring of 1914, the Sunshine State had the makings of a rudimentary league with the Cubs in Tampa, the St. Louis Browns in St. Petersburg, the St. Louis Cardinals in St. Augustine and Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics in Jacksonville.

By the time Mack returned to Jacksonville in 1914, the Athletics were the reigning World Champions and Florida, no longer an isolated backwater in the world of baseball, was on the verge of becoming the hub of spring training. As improved train and auto travel made the state more accessible, the natural advantages of Florida's warm, dry winters and the enticements offered by local boosters began to draw the attention of baseball executives.

In the years immediately preceding the great Florida boom of the 1920s, offering a major league training site became an essential part of the high-stakes competition for tourists and winter residents. At one time or another, nearly every Florida city tried to acquire a spring training franchise, but no community devoted more time and effort to the baseball bidding wars than Al Lang's St. Petersburg.

A prominent Pittsburgh businessman who moved to Florida for health reasons in 1910, Lang tried unsuccessfully to convince Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss to bring his team to the "Sunshine City" in 1912.

"You must think I'm a damn fool," Dreyfuss told Lang, "suggesting that I train in a little one-tank town that's not even a dot on the map."

Bloodied but unbowed, Lang went after Miller Huggins' Cardinals in 1912 and the Cubs in 1913, but in both instances came up empty. Finally in 1914, he persuaded Branch Rickey, the fledgling manager of the cellar-dwelling St. Louis Browns, to bring his team to St. Petersburg. Although the exact terms of the agreement were later disputed, Lang's syndicate of local boosters reportedly promised to pay all of the Brown's expenses, including the tab for five Missouri newspapermen covering the team.

When the Browns arrived, they were pleased to discover that Lang's group had turned a brush arbor at the northern end of Coffee Pot Bayou into Sunshine Park (also known as Coffee Pot Bayou Park pictured at right), a state-of-the art facility with a 5,000-seat grandstand, batting cages, sprinting lanes and sliding pits. Historians would later regard Sunshine Park as "baseball's first all-purpose training camp," and the first game held there, played before 4,000 fans and won by the Cubs 3-2 was a milestone in the history of spring training.

The Browns did not return to St. Petersburg in 1915, but for the next three springs Sunshine Park was home to the Philadelphia Phillies. It was during these years that the famous Grapefruit League took shape. When the 1915 Phillies won 14 of their first 15 games and went on to win the National League pennant, St. Petersburg's and Florida's reputation as the nation's premier training ground was sealed.

World Series Winners
1919 Cincinnati Reds
1918 Boston Red Sox
1917 Chicago White Sox
1916 Boston Red Sox
1915 Boston Red Sox
1914 Boston Braves
1913 Philadelphia Athletics
1912 Boston Red Sox
1911 Philadelphia Athletics
1910 Philadelphia Athletics

The New York Yankees rule the Baseball World and the Tampa Bay area.  Babe Ruth is the Toast of the Town in St. Petersburg as hordes of fans followed Ruth through the streets from tavern to tavern.  “The place does attract a lot of oldsters,” said the Babe. “But a strong guy of 28, with his name in the headlines, doesn’t have much trouble kicking up some dust in any town. McKechnie Field is built in Bradenton in 1923 and by 1929, 10 of the 16 Major League teams trained in Florida.

World Series Winners
1929 Philadelphia Athletics
1928 New York Yankees
1927 New York Yankees
1926 St. Louis Cardinals
1925 Pittsburgh Pirates
1924 Washington Nationals
1923 New York Yankees
1922 New York Giants
1921 New York Giants
1920 Cleveland Indians

Detroit Tigers settle in Lakeland in 1934.  Lakeland had previously hosted Cleveland Indians for five seasons beginning in 1923 at Adair Field.  The City of Lakeland purchased the historic site of Adair Field, now Henley Field, in 1924 for $100,000.  The park was renamed Henley Field Ball Park after Clare Henley, a Lakeland Drug Store owner.  The park still is in use in its original site.  The Tigers played at Henley Field until Joker Marchant Stadium opened in 1966.

World Series Winners
1939 New York Yankees
1938 New York Yankees
1937 New York Yankees
1936 New York Yankees
1935 Detroit Tigers
1934 St. Louis Cardinals
1933 New York Giants
1932 New York Yankees
1931 St. Louis Cardinals
1930 Philadelphia Athletics

During World War II, teams did not hold spring training in Florida due to travel restrictions. In 1946, Commissioner Kennesaw Landis erased the "Potomac Line," allowing teams to resume the practice of traveling south to prepare for the season in a warm climate. For the preceding three years, in order to free up space on railroad lines carrying troops and supplies for World War II, teams had been prohibited from training south of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers or west of the Mississippi River. Philadelphia Phillies find a home in Clearwater in 1947 and Branch Rickey redefines the concept of Spring Training when he bought a former Naval air base in Vero Beach, now known as Dodgertown, and turned it into the Dodgers first spring home. Al Lang Field, named after Florida’s Spring Training Pioneer opens in St. Petersburg.

World Series Winners
1949 New York Yankees
1948 Cleveland Indians
1947 New York Yankees
1946 St. Louis Cardinals
1945 Detroit Tigers
1944 St. Louis Cardinals
1943 New York Yankees
1942 St. Louis Cardinals
1941 New York Yankees
1940 Cincinnati Reds

Boston Red Sox enter third decade of Spring Training in Sarasota.  The Red Sox began training in Sarasota in 1933, when it was a village of about 2,500 citizens.  Red Sox Hall of Fame second baseman Bobby Doerr recalls, “I can remember the early years that once you left the downtown area it was just open land. Miles and miles of palmetto grass with nothing built on it.”

World Series Winners
1959 Los Angeles Dodgers
1958 New York Yankees
1957 Milwaukee Braves
1956 New York Yankees
1955 Brooklyn Dodgers
1954 New York Giants
1953 New York Yankees
1952 New York Yankees
1951 New York Yankees
1950 New York Yankees

Pittsburgh Pirates become sixth team to call Bradenton home and stay for next 40 years.  Joker Marchant Stadium opens in Lakeland on March 12, 1966 and the Tigers beat the Minnesota Twins 4-2 before a crowd of 4,919

World Series Winners
1969 New York Mets
1968 Detroit Tigers
1967 St. Louis Cardinals
1966 Baltimore Orioles
1965 Los Angeles Dodgers
1964 St. Louis Cardinals
1963 Los Angeles Dodgers
1962 New York Yankees
1961 New York Yankees
1960 Pittsburgh Pirates

Dunedin welcomed the American League expansion Toronto Blue Jays in 1977 and they have never left.

In 2002, Dunedin Stadium was ranked by Sports Illustrated as one of the top 5 places to watch a spring training game, a remark that is oft cited in most write ups of the quaint little 5,509-seater.

While having seats fairly close to the field is a common trait, and part of the appeal, of each spring training ballpark, Dunedin Stadium is fairly unique in its retention of charm, despite major renovations in 1990 and 2002.

More than a little charm has been lost as stadiums are renovated, rebuilt or opened in the past two decades, but charming is an adjective that still applies to Dunedin Stadium. Part of that has to do with its residential location and the fact it is actually a community ballpark, serving as the home field to the local high school powerhouse baseball team. The Dunedin High School Falcons, Toronto Blue Jays and Dunedin Blue Jays all receive equal billing on the stadium’s brick supported marquee sign. No other local team receives that kind of recognition at a Cactus or Grapefruit League park.

World Series Winners
1979 Pittsburgh Pirates
1978 New York Yankees
1977 New York Yankees
1976 Cincinnati Reds
1975 Cincinnati Reds
1974 Oakland Athletics
1973 Oakland Athletics
1972 Oakland Athletics
1971 Pittsburgh Pirates
1970 Baltimore Orioles

Houston Astros begin training in Osceola County and debut the four-field cloverleaf design practice facility.  The idea was that fields would fan out from the clubhouse, located in the center.  All fields would be equally close to the lockerroom and training room.  The proximity of the fields made it easy for coaches and instructors to move from one to the other.  The cloverleaf was a design that proved revolutionary in its efficiency, and it has become the industry standard, not just in spring training complexes but in parks and recreation complexes around the country.  After 25 years in St. Petersburg, New York Mets trade coasts and head to Port St. Lucie. 
Payne Park, a fixture of Sarasota spring training baseball since 1925 officially closes, on March 30, 1988, and the Chicago White Sox move to Ed Smith Stadium.

World Series Winners
1989 Oakland Athletics
1988 Los Angeles Dodgers
1987 Minnesota Twins
1986 New York Mets
1985 Kansas City Royals
1984 Detroit Tigers
1983 Baltimore Orioles
1982 St. Louis Cardinals
1981 Los Angeles Dodgers
1980 Philadelphia Phillies

Atlanta Braves step inside the Magic Kingdom.  Braves manager Bobby Cox, a veteran of the 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees comments, “I didn’t think we would ever have spring training at a theme park.”  New York Yankees open play in Tampa at Legends Field in 1996 with a seating capacity of more than 10,000 making it the largest park in Florida.  In front of the park are 15 plaques honoring the Yankees retired numbers.  Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle and all the rest.

World Series Winners
1999 New York Yankees
1998 New York Yankees
1997 Florida Marlins
1996 New York Yankees
1995 Atlanta Braves
1993 Toronto Blue Jays
1992 Toronto Blue Jays
1991 Minnesota Twins
1990 Cincinnati Reds

The Philadelphia Phillies take residence in the newly constructed Spectrum Stadium in 2004 and it sets off a new look in spring training stadium design with a 360 degree walkway completely around the stadium.  Fans from the Philadelphia area and Northern New Jersey flock to Clearwater during the month of March.

The new look Tampa Bay Rays call renovated Charlotte Sports Park home beginning in 2009.

Renovated Stadiums for Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota, Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins in Fort Myers and Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton begin new chapter in Florida Spring Training.

World Series Winners
2009 New York Yankees
2008 Philadelphia Phillies
2007 Boston Red Sox
2006 St. Louis Cardinals
2005 Chicago White Sox
2004 Boston Red Sox
2003 Florida Marlins
2002 Anaheim Angels
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks
2000 New York Yankees

The Baltimore Orioles, who have bounced back and forth for years at various Florida Spring Training sites, finally find a home in Sarasota.  After playing the 2010 season at Ed Smith Stadium, left vacant by the Cincinnati Reds, the stadium is renovated and the Orioles sign a 30-year lease to keep the team in Sarasota.

The Boston Red Sox begin play at Jet Blue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers in 2012.  The park has similar features of the team's Boston regular season home, including a Green Monster in left field.  Jet Blue Airlines begins a direct route from Boston to Fort Myers to shuttle Red Sox fans to Southwest Florida for the Spring Training season.

The FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches becomes the second two-team facility in Florida as the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals begin play in West Palm Beach in 2017.  After their first spring training at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the Houston Astros win their first World Series Championship.

World Series Winners
2018 Boston Red Sox
2017 Houston Astros
2016 Chicago Cubs
2015 Kansas City Royals
2014 San Francisco Giants
2013 Boston Red Sox
2012 San Francisco Giants
2011 St. Louis Cardinals
2010 San Francisco Giants

Thirty-five different Florida sites have held spring training. All but six of today's major league teams trained in Florida (Anaheim Angels, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks).

The Florida cities with the most years of spring training are St. Petersburg and Tampa (87 years), Bradenton and Clearwater (76 years), Lakeland (75 years), Sarasota (74 years), Fort Myers (64 years), West Palm Beach (63 years), Orlando (62 years), Vero Beach (58 years) and Winter Haven (55 years).