The Grapefruit League has called Florida home for over 125 years.
Each spring, 15 major league teams leave the cold and venture south to soak up the Florida sunshine while preparing for the long season ahead. Florida’s experience with professional sports started with spring training.
It brought the stars to the Sunshine State long before Floridians had pro sports of their own. In 1888, the Washington Nationals traveled to Jacksonville to prepare for the upcoming season. The Nats finished 37 ½ games out of first place that year, convincing all other teams that traveling that far south was not worth the effort. It would be 15 years before major league baseball returned.
Legendary manager Connie Mack brought his Philadelphia Athletics to Florida in 1903. The A’s finished 14 ½ games back in the standings in 1903 and did not return for 11 years. Al Lang, a prominent Pittsburgh businessman who moved to Florida in 1910 for health reasons, turned a brush arbor on St. Petersburg’s Coffee Pot Bayou into Sunshine Park, a state-of-the-art facility with a 5,000-seat grandstand, batting cages, and sliding pits. Lang convinced the St. Louis Browns to make St. Petersburg their home in spring 1914, and baseball’s first spring training camp was born.
The following year, Lang talked the Philadelphia Phillies into making the same move. By 1925, nine of the 12 major league teams were holding spring training in Florida and the Grapefruit League was formed.
Of the nine teams, none were as important or well known as the New York Yankees, who made St. Petersburg their spring home beginning in 1924. Along with Yankee legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig came the New York press, which provided daily dispatches using datelines from small towns such as Lakeland, St. Augustine and Clearwater, providing the cities with immeasurable national publicity.
Prior to the salary boom that began in the late 1970s, most major league players could not live year-round on their baseball earnings, so they took off-season jobs and fell out of shape. Spring training allowed them to get back into playing condition. It also allowed managers an opportunity to evaluate talent while fostering team unity.
As America made sacrifices during World War II, the minor leagues shut down. Major league clubs kept playing, as President Roosevelt believed the National Pastime boosted homeland morale. In order to cut costs, spring training was moved closer to the teams’ home bases: north of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers, and east of the Mississippi. This boundary, known as the Potomac Line, was in place from 1943 to 1945.
Thirty-Five different Florida sites have held spring training, and all but six of today’s MLB teams have trained in Florida at one time or another.
The Yankees first came to Jacksonville in 1919, moved to St. Petersburg from 1924 to 1961, and called Ft. Lauderdale home from 1962 to 1995. The Bronx Bombers moved to their current home in Tampa in 1996. The Yanks play at Steinbrenner Field, the largest facility in the Grapefruit League. The first spring stadium to seat more than 10,000 spectators, Steinbrenner Field features a mini Monument Park — a shrine to Yankee legends of the past – behind home plate.
The Detroit Tigers have been training in Lakeland since 1934 and playing in Joker Marchant Stadium – named after the city’s popular parks and rec director — since 1966. The Pittsburgh Pirates first came to Bradenton — home of Tropicana orange juice — in 1969. The Pirates play home games at charming McKechnie Field, which opened in 1923 and is known as the “Fenway Park of Spring Training.” In 2006, the Bucs signed a 30-year lease to remain in Bradenton, giving future Pirate players a chance to roam the same grass as past greats like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell.
The most famous spring training location in Grapefruit League history is Vero Beach, which for six decades was the training headquarters for the Dodgers. Walter O’Malley took the Brooklyn Dodgers to Vero Beach in 1948, when it was a quiet swamp-and-beaches town of 3,500 residents. Dodger greats from Jackie Robinson to Sandy Koufax to Steve Garvey descended on historic Dodgertown and Holman Stadium, with its famous open-air dugouts.
After moving to Los Angeles in 1958, Vero Beach was the last vestige of the Brooklyn Dodgers and a tangible link to the legendary teams of the 1950s. The Dodgers’ last spring in Vero Beach was 2007. The following year, they moved to Arizona to be nearer their fan base in Southern California. The Dodgers played in Vero Beach longer than they played in Ebbets Field or Dodgers Stadium.
From Ruth to Hornsby to Pedroia to Harper, the Grapefruit League is an annual rite of spring, offering fans hope and renewal.
The league celebrated 125 years in 2013, but today, spring training is more big business than quaint tradition. Teams have been able to extract sweetheart stadium deals from towns and municipalities throughout Florida, allowing MLB to generate huge profits from meaningless exhibition games. In 2017, the Washington Nationals moved into The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, a sparkling new facility in West Palm Beach they share with the Houston Astros.
The experience takes fans through training fields and workout facilities before they ever set foot in the ballpark. In 2016, the Grapefruit League drew over one-and-a-half million fans, averaging 6,897 over 221 games. The Yankees were the league’s biggest draw, averaging 10,051 per game, a mere 230 more per contest than their bitter AL East rival, the Boston Red Sox. The BoSox are the second-most popular team on the Florida circuit, attracting nearly 10,000 patrons to each of the 17 games they play at Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers.
Baseball fans are treated to a wide array of experiences in the Grapefruit League, ranging from expansive Steinbrenner Field – which sits adjacent to Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers – to historic McKechnie Field, [now LECOM Park] which was built in 1923.
The Atlanta Braves play at Champion Stadium within Walt Disney World, while no venue in the league tops Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, where Orioles fans can enjoy crab cake sandwiches. Red Sox fans relish genuine Fenway Franks served at Jet Blue Park, while Blue Jays fans are treated to a taste of Canada at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, where Labatt Blue beer is poured on warm days in Dunedin.
Since the formation of Arizona’s Cactus League in 1947, only teams based in Arizona and Florida have gone to the World Series. Prior to 1947, ten states hosted spring training teams that played in the Fall Classic. More teams have advanced to the World Series after training in Cuba than in Sarasota. Despite hosting spring training since 1924, Sarasota has never sent a team that trains there to a World Series.
The Grapefruit League’s two closest parks are five miles apart [Clearwater –Dunedin], while the farthest [Dunedin – Jupiter] are 214 miles apart. Long bus rides, coupled with wetter weather, make the Grapefruit League less desirable for players and teams than the circuit’s younger sibling, Arizona’s Cactus League, who’s longest trip between camps is 47 miles.
Other long treks in the Sunshine State include Jupiter – Clearwater [209 miles], Jupiter – Bradenton [172 miles] and Port St. Lucie – Dunedin [183 miles]. Spring training’s Grapefruit League is currently comprised of 15 major league franchises, including the Braves, Orioles, Red Sox, Tigers, Astros, Marlins, Twins, Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Pirates, Cardinals, Rays, Blue Jays and Nationals. The 2017 spring season got underway with four games on Friday, February 24 and concludes Sunday, April 1, with the Tigers traveling to Jupiter to face the Miami Marlins.
On this date in 1954, Milwaukee Braves’ outfielder Bobby Thomson broke his ankle during spring training in Bradenton. He was replaced in the Braves lineup by a rookie leftfielder named Hank Aaron.
“People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”