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Kickoff dinner evokes spring training memories

Posted by Charles Fountain  February 28, 2009 05:08 AM

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The governor's baseball dinner is a feel-good evening for the Grapefruit League and its people, a way to sort of forget what ails Florida and its communities for a while, and spend an evening among friends. Some 900 people, most of them representatives of the 16 major league teams training in Florida and people from the communities that host them, filled the outfield turf at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg for the dinner on Tuesday. Nine Hall of Famers sat on the dais with Gov. Crist and Selig. Nobody mentioned economic woes, though Selig did allude to the fact that the past few weeks have "to say the least, been very interesting," a veiled reference to the Alex Rodriguez steroids story. "But I promise you we will make our way through any problems we encounter," he said, the only acknowledgment all evening that there was anything in the baseball world beyond the hope and sunshine that the start of spring games was going to bring.

The governor's baseball dinner is a tradition that dates to the 1920s. It was started by Al Lang, the World War I-era mayor of St. Petersburg, and the man most responsible for the creation of the Grapefruit League. It was a St. Petersburg-only affair at the beginning, a lavish soiree at the Jungle Club Hotel. As the Grapefruit League grew, so did the dinner, and in the 1940s the Florida governor became the host. It had a near 50-year run as the governor's dinner before going away in the mid-90s. But Crist, a baseball guy, who once worked as the staff counsel for minor league baseball, brought it back a year ago. He brought it back to St. Petersburg, his hometown, but, more importantly, the city that has been the heart and soul of spring training in Florida.

St. Petersburg is the most history-rich of all the spring training towns. Florida spring training didn't begin here, but arguably the Grapefruit League did. Yankee teams from Babe Ruth and Miller Huggins to Mickey Mantle and Casey Stengel trained in St. Pete, and the "ST. PETERSBURG" datelines in New York newspapers helped grow the place from a sleepy village to bustling city. But the Yankees never trained in St. Petersburg alone; they shared the city, first with the Braves, then with the Cardinals. When the Yankees left for Fort Lauderdale in 1962, the Mets came in to join the Cardinals, keeping St. Pete spring training's only two-team town until the Expos joined the Braves in West Palm in the early '70s.

And it wasn't just that St. Petersburg was abuzz with baseball, it was the St. Petersburg waterfront that was abuzz with baseball. Baseball is played in coastal towns up and down the Gulf and Atlantic coasts. But St. Petersburg was the only city that ever played it on waterfront property. Baseball and beaches. Nowhere else in spring training could you watch a shortstop turn a double play while a sailboat passed on the horizon.

The history is all still there along the downtown waterfront, less than a mile or so from Tropicana Field. At the corner of Beach Drive and First Avenue South is Al Lang Field, first built in 1922, and rebuilt in 1947 and 1977, and named for the man who brought all those teams to St. Petersburg, and worked to nurture the relationships during nearly a half-century association with the game. Officially now it's Progress Energy Park, home of Al Lang Field, but no one with a sense of baseball history ever calls it anything but Al Lang.

Follow the waterfront north for a mile or so, and you'll find yourself in Vinoy Park, looking out at The Pier, the city's downtown landmark. In another time this land was know as Coffee Pot Bayou, and it was there, in 1914, that Lang first brought spring training to St. Petersburg, when he persuaded Branch Rickey and the St. Louis Browns to visit, with an offer to cover all of the team's expenses, including those for the newspaper people covering the team.

And halfway in between Al Lang Field and Coffee Pot Bayou is the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, which is the early 1960s was in the center of a civil rights firestorm that helped to finally bring about the integration of spring training housing. The St. Petersburg chamber of commerce held an annual "Salute to Baseball" breakfast every year, inviting members of the Cardinals and Yankees to the St. Petersburg Yacht Club for the event. The invitation list in 1961 included more than 40 players from both teams, including a number of major league rookies, but not all-stars Elston Howard of the Yankees or Bill White, Curt Flood and Bob Gibson of the Cardinals. Like most places in Florida then, the St. Petersburg Yacht Club was a segregated facility.

Cardinals first baseman Bill White decided he had had enough. A number of different integration battles were unfolding that spring, and White decided to open another offensive. He went to UPI sportswriter Joe Reichler. "How much longer must we accept this without saying a word?" he asked rhetorically. Reichler put it on the wire and it quickly became a national story. The Chamber of Commerce relented under the pressure and reluctantly invited the black players. White, Gibson and Flood caucused and determined that there was more dignity in declining the invitation than there was in accepting.

Alas, history is the only baseball experience a fan can get along the St. Petersburg Waterfront these days. Al Lang Field is dark this year, the first time since 1922 that there will be no spring training baseball played on that beautiful spot by the water. The Tampa Bay Rays, successors to the Braves, Yankees, Cardinals and Mets, have decamped for Port Charlotte, 80 miles south. They hope by taking spring training out of their regular-season city, they'll generate the buzz that's been missing from spring training during their 11-year history. The city supported the move, and did not actively seek a team to replace the Rays. And it's just now beginning to feel the loss.

"It's tough. I miss having spring training here," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker after the governor's dinner. "I could see that it was good for the Rays, and I supported it. But it's still tough not to have spring training. Maybe some day we'll look into getting it back with another team."

Under the March Sun
Charles Fountain is a journalism professor at Northeastern and has authored a book on the history and culture of baseball spring trainng, titled "Under the March Sun."

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