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The Grapefruit League - 100 Years Old and Counting!

Posted by Benjamin Dona on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014 at 7:28pm.

Florida's Spring Training Grapefruit LeagueThe Grapefruit League turned 100 years old this past Thursday. Naturally, the local newspapers here covered the story pretty extensively. You see, we take Major League Baseball spring training very seriously here in Southwest Florida. And that's rightfully so, when you consider the history of how it all came to pass. When you throw in the warm sunshine and the beautiful weather to boot, there's just no better way to enjoy watching your favorite ballplayers working off the winter's rust.

So, I've grabbed up the news stories and did some research on the web and here is what I came up with that I thought you all might find interesting, funny and entertaining about the history of the Grapefruit League. Note, the funny comes at the end of the post. And, kudos to all those folks (writers and researchers) who made this story possible to tell. You're just too many to list and not have it take away from the tale!

In February, 1914, the Chicago Cubs, led by future Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan, boarded a steam-powered paddleboat and headed south across Tampa Bay. Their destination was the modest facilities that had been constructed a year prior near the inlet of Coffee Pot Bayou, located near the southernmost point of the Pinellas peninsula and home to the St. Louis Browns, led by player-manager Branch Rickey.

That day had been declared a holiday by St. Petersburg Mayor Al Lang and over 4,000 spectators (in a town with a population of just 7,200) filled the wooden grandstands of Sunshine Park in what became the first organized exhibition game between Major League Baseball teams in the state of Florida. The game, a 3-2 win by Chicago Cubs, was the first of a formalized five-week schedule that later became known as the Grapefruit League. It also began the love affair between Sunshine State residents and visitor's and the game of baseball that, even 100 years later, is still going stronger than ever today.

Prior to that day in St. Petersburg, professional teams had been traveling to Florida to take advantage of the warmer climates and work themselves into shape for the upcoming season, for as long as the nation’s railway system had reached across the state’s border. In 1888, the Washington Senators were the first of those teams to begin the journey to "Opening Day"  underneath the Florida sun. Back then, the concept of "spring training"  was spending a week or two sweating off their collective offseason beer bellies before going on a barnstorming tour along the rail lines, playing semipro, college, and local factory teams on the way back to their regular-season home parks.

It wasn't until Lang was able to bring enough teams into the same geographic vicinity that an organized exhibition season was possible. Then, Tampa Mayor D.B. McKay and the completion of Henry Plant's South Florida Railroad, helped give Lang the opportunity to form a "true"  League of teams.

Lang had been instrumental in bringing the Browns to St. Pete after convincing the team to relocate from its previous training site in Waco, Texas. The following year, he convinced the Philadelphia Phillies to spend springs in the quiet resort town too. The Phillies went on to win the league pennant that year, and sparked a mass migration to the Tampa Bay area for teams looking to prepare for the long season ahead. In 1919, the Boston Red Sox relocated to Tampa, and by 1925, Lang also had convinced the Boston Braves and New York Yankees to call St. Pete home. By 1929, 10 of the 16 Major League Baseball teams moved their spring training to Florida.

The southward migration of spring training directly mirrored the construction of the Tamiami Trail. The highway, as its name implies, intended to connect the cities of Tampa and Miami. Beginning in 1915, the Tamiami Trail carved its way south, connecting resort towns like Sarasota with fishing communities like Punta Gorda and Naples. Major League teams quickly followed. In 1923, McKechnie Field opened in Bradenton as the spring home of the St. Louis Cardinals. The following year, Payne Park in Sarasota opened its gates to the New York Giants. In 1925, owner-manager Connie Mack and the Philadelphia Athletics set up shop in Fort Myers at Terry Park. Convincing the A to move to Fort Myers was considered a major coup at the time. The team also was being courted by Miami and Tampa. Mack, an avid golfer, was persuaded by the many courses the town offered. The promise of paid accommodations at the luxurious Bradford Hotel helped seal the deal, and the team remained until 1936. Philadelphia went on to win the World Series in 1929 and 1930.

Throughout the 30s, competition among Florida cities to attract a big league teams was fierce. City officials knew the value of having a team and its legion of fans each spring, and the influx of tourism dollars that inevitably followed. Writers covering the team sent reports back home to areas often still caught in winter’s grip, providing national exposure and free positive publicity for what otherwise were small retirement or beachside communities.

Spring training continued to gain momentum until the start of World War II. Once the United States joined in the war efforts, all unnecessary travel was curtailed across the nation, including teams heading south for the spring. In 1943, the Kenesaw Landis Line was imposed on teams, forcing them to move camps to northern locales like Muncie, Ind., and Medford, Mass., until 1945. After the war, spring training really took off. The creation of an interstate highway system, and an emerging, affluent middle class made Florida a premiere vacation destination. Spring training and the Grapefruit League helped play a major role in the growth of Southwest Florida into what it is today - a mecca for residents and snowbirds alike.

So, how did the Grapefruit League get its name? Here's a one of the more humorous stories as to how it began as recounted by Hall of Fame manager Wilbert Robinson in his autobiography, "Uncle Robbie."

As a manager with the Dodgers, Robinson frequently bragged about his exploits from his playing days as a catcher. In the spring of 1915, Robinson's starting catcher, Casey Stengel, later a Hall of Fame manager himself, decided to call Robinson out on his boastings, and wagered that he couldn't catch a baseball from a passing airplane. Robinson accepted the challenge. With a little help from the famed pilot Ruth Law, who was in town performing at a local air show, Stengel took off, with the intent of dropping a baseball out of the open-air cockpit for Robinson to catch.

Stengel, a notorious prankster, failed to inform his manager that the baseball was to be replaced with a grapefruit. Upon impact with Robinson, the grapefruit exploded, coating the manager with grapefruit juice and pulp, and knocking him out cold. Upon his returning to consciousness, Robinson cried out that "he was covered in blood, and that the baseball had torn his chest open."  Stengel quipped that "Robinson just couldn't cut it in the Grapefruit League,"  thus coining the phrase for history.

Even if you're not a big fan, you've just got to love Major League Baseball history with a story like that.


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