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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: August 8, 2022 12:45 pm PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

Baseball history must be savored and saved.

Rick Vaughn is the perfect man for the job after serving more than 30 years in lead roles in the sports communications field with the Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay Rays and in the NFL, back when the Commanders were known as the Washington Redskins.

Truth be told, MLB has had many terrific public relations directors through the years that I worked closely with, but Rick Vaughn was the best, not only because of his relentless work ethic, and the respect he earned from the players, but he understood the game better than anyone else in public relations. Better than a lot of GMs, in fact, after having been a pitcher at George Mason University and throwing the school’s first no-hitter back in 1976, during his sophomore season. That team went to the 1976 NAIA College World Series.

Vaughn’s catcher that day was Bill Brown, who went on to coach baseball at George Mason for 41 seasons before retiring after this past season.

Rick Vaughn gets it.

Baseball is in his blood and that is obvious in page after page of Vaughn’s terrific new book: 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront: How the Game Helped Shape A City.

“I found that the papers in the Northeast, when they were using the dateline St. Petersburg, they didn’t even bother to put Florida in it because everybody knew where it was…”

This is the most comprehensive book I have ever seen dealing with spring training in one city. Anyone who has ever watched a game at Al Lang Field overlooking the gorgeous St. Pete waterfront will love this book which brings back those sunshine memories of perfect spring training days and so much history.

I have talked to many writers from the Mets time in St. Pete and their eyes get a bit misty just thinking back to those days.

To say the research is exhaustive is an understatement. Vaughn has spent a lifetime digging up interesting facts from his public relations days, so he slid headfirst into this project.

“Research is what I’ve been doing my whole life,’’ Vaughn told BallNine. “It wasn’t foreign to me.’’

Vaughn is presently the executive director of Joe Maddon’s Respect 90 Foundation.

“I called the Hall of Fame a few times for some help and those guys know me on a first name basis,’’ Vaughn said with a laugh. “Their staff is great and have so much material to go through. I love working with those guys because they love baseball, they love the game.’’

This book came from the heart.

Rick Vaughn.

“I did not intend to write a book,’’ Vaughn told me. “I was trying to get the city aware there is nothing down there to commemorate this stuff.’’

Al Lang Stadium is no longer a ballpark. It is a soccer field. Nothing wrong with soccer, but baseball helped St. Petersburg grow into the city it became because of the efforts of businessman Al Lang who became the mayor back in 1916. “I just did it because I love baseball,’’ Vaughn said. “For a quarter of the year every year, St. Petersburg was like the media center of the country with New York and Boston playing there. The New York writers used to kid Al Lang and say that St. Petersburg was discovered in 1925 because that’s when the Yankees came.’’

Vaughn had a conversation with city officials a year ago and said, “Can’t we do something here because next year is the 100th anniversary when Major League Baseball started playing down there.’’

The first spring training in St. Petersburg was 1922.

Vaughn had started his research but no one called him back from the city, so all of a sudden he had the workings of a book that would be published by Arcadia Publishing and The History Press, out of Mount Pleasant, S.C., the nation’s leading publisher of books of local history and local interest.

Arcadia’s mission is to connect people with their past, with their communities and Vaughn did just that.

It was perfect.

Al Lang originally moved to St. Pete from Pittsburgh for health reasons and suddenly found himself the king of spring training. It’s a remarkable story and Vaughn takes you every step of the way.

“I had so much fun doing this and I kept putting it together and I kept telling my wife Sue, ‘I didn’t know hardly any of this stuff.’’’

Longtime friend Tim Kurkjian encouraged Vaughn that it was time to put it all together in a book.

“I was almost sad when it was over,’’ Vaughn said. “Every time I found something I didn’t know, it was like finding a rare stamp. It was a blast.’’

New York Yankees Gil McDougald (12) and Mickey Mantle (7) before spring training game vs St. Louis Cardinals at Al Lang Field. St. Petersburg, FL 3/11/1957 (Photo by John G. Zimmerman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The forward is written by Kurkjian. This weekend Kurkjian was in Cooperstown to receive the coveted BBWAA Career Excellence Award and Vaughn attended the Hall of Fame ceremonies.

In 1974 Kurkjian was a high school senior and his family drove to Florida from Maryland for vacation and he attended a game at Al Lang Field – his first spring training game – and his passion for baseball grew. Through the years Tim, a longtime friend, has been to well over 50 minor league ballparks but that day remains so special.

“The Cardinals Ted Simmons, a favorite, hit a homer to right field. It was unforgettable, a perfect day, because it happened at Al Lang Field,’’ Kurkjian wrote. “Al Lang Field is still the best. Rick Vaughn, who like my dad, has a great love and feel for the best game in the world, brings Al Lang Field and its predecessor, Waterfront Park, back to life 100 years after its birth in this beautifully written and meticulously reported book.’’100 years cover

Spring training is the best time of year – baseball paradise – and throughout its long history St. Petersburg has had an amazing amount of baseball heroes play along that waterfront.

Vaughn came up with the fact that 193 Hall of Famers played there, 193! Amazing, including these names: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax.

No stone or base was left unturned.

Consider Vaughn’s conversation with Steve Garvey. Garvey’s father was a bus driver for Greyhound in Tampa and one day in 1956, as Garvey told Vaughn, “My dad comes home one evening in late March, months after the Dodgers had finally beaten the Yankees in the World Series, and when we sit down, he asked me if I want to skip school the next day. I said, ‘Well yeah, where are we going?’

“I have a charter to pick up the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Tampa Airport and take them to St. Pete to play the Yankees in an exhibition game, and I think it might be a good day for you and me,’’ said his father, a Dodgers fan.

What a day it was.

With his baseball cards in hand, seven-year-old Steve was on the tarmac as the Dodgers filed off the team plane – the Kay O’Malley, named after the wife of Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley.

“It was like they were walking right off their baseball cards,’’ Garvey marveled.

New York Mets coach Yogi Berra (8) stretching with his players during spring training workout at Al Lang Field. St. Petersburg, FL 3/1/1967 - 3/31/1967 Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The last two players off the plane were Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. Jackie asked Joe Garvey, “Does your son play baseball?’’

Joe Garvey tells Jackie his son’s season starts next Saturday and Jackie Robinson tells Steve, “Well kid, if you practice hard and work hard, maybe you will be a Dodger someday.’’

When they arrived at Al Lang Field shortly after, Steve was asked to be the batboy for the day and the next thing he knew he was playing catch with Gil Hodges, who finally, thankfully, was inducted into the Hall of Fame Sunday.

Mickey Mantle was taking batting practice and one of Hodges throws hit Steve in the chest. Hodges checked on him and said, “You weren’t watching Mickey hit, were you?’’

Steve fessed up and Hodges said, “Son, we’re the World Champions.’’

“I didn’t watch Mickey hit anymore,’’ Steve said.

For the next six years Steve was able to be a batboy for games in the area. Twelve years later, in 1968, as Jackie prophesied, Steve Garvey was the Dodgers No. 1 pick in the draft.

What a wonderful story and that is just one example of the incredible information in the book.

“Garvey was so good to me,’’ Vaughn said. “He was very gracious with his time and told me the whole story about that so that was pretty cool.

“Just the history around the ballpark and how it really did shape the city is amazing,’’ Vaughn said. “I think the forefathers there knew that tourism was going to be the industry, but they hadn’t figured out how to make it run and I think Al Lang came along and said we are going to put it on the back of baseball. And I think that is basically what they did.’’

St. Pete was put on the map by spring training baseball.

“I found that the papers in the Northeast, when they were using the dateline St. Petersburg, they didn’t even bother to put Florida in it because everybody knew where it was and it mainly – because of the Yankees being there and Boston being there, it wasn’t the Red Sox, it was the Braves ­– those big media markets really helped carry the message,’’ Vaughn said. “I really like how when the Yankees first got there they weren’t that excited about it, but a couple of years later they all swore by it.’’

St. Louis Cardinals Lou Brock (20) in action, hitting popup during spring training at bat at Al Lang Stadium. St. Petersburg, FL 3/5/1966 (Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

There are plenty of written accounts from reporters about spring training life in St. Pete and as Louis Effrat of the New York Times wrote of a Yankees-Dodgers encounter on March 29, 1953 – won by the Dodgers, 1-0 before a record crowd of 8,809– a game that was called the greatest game to take place in St. Petersburg: “Remove the palm trees, take the beautiful bay from the background, change the date, reduce the temperature by 30 degrees and Al Lang Field might have been Ebbets Field or Yankee Stadium today. Certainly, it was a World Series setting.’’

Spring training then was much different. In the ninth inning of that game, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Johnny Mize came to the plate, three future Hall of Famers with Johnny Podres working the first six innings for the Dodgers and Joe Black working the final three for the save.

In the 1953 season, attendance for the 25 dates at Al Lang Field was a record 85,970.

Nugget after nugget appear on the pages along with some delightful pictures. The Cardinals and Yankees shared the park for 10 seasons and that’s why you would see so many pictures of Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial together. Musial played there for 19 springs and one of his home runs hit the right-field light tower, sending glass down on First Street, Vaughn wrote, not unlike Roy Hobbs’ walk-off home run in Barry Levinson’s 1984 hit movie The Natural.

In 1956, Mickey’s Triple Crown season, he crushed five home runs at Al Lang Field, all going more than 400 feet and two of them landing in the Tampa Bay waters – Splash Shots long before Barry Bonds was hitting them into the water at AT&T Park.

Shoeless Joe Jackson was supposed to manage a team called the Saints in the winter Florida Resort League in 1920 and Lefty Williams was to be one of his pitchers, but the Black Sox scandal of 1919 put an end to that. The Boston Braves arrived two years later in the spring and played at Waterfront Park. In 1925 Yankee manager Miller Huggins helped Al Lang to get the Yankees to move their training camp from New Orleans to St. Petersburg.

Babe Ruth first said of the town, remember, Babe had his fun in New Orleans, “Why the heck does anybody want to train in a town like that? That’s an old man’s town, ain’t it?’’

Babe soon came to love St. Pete. He spent much of his free time golfing, fishing and hunting. The Yankees spring training party numbered 100. Al Lang Field was opened in 1947. Lang, an incredibly successful businessman, died in 1960 at the age of 89.

Former New York Mets manager Casey Stengel sitting on bench during spring training at Al Lang Field. Stengel's name is painted on the bench. St. Petersburg, FL 3/1/1967 (Photo by Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Other teams made St. Petersburg their spring home. The expansion Mets arrived in 1962 with Casey Stengel as their manager after the Yankees left. Casey was there with the Yankees as well, of course, so he was coming back to his spring training home.

Thirty years to the day that Al Lang Field was christened, the renovated ballpark was opened: Al Lang II in 1977. The Mets moved across the state in 1988 to Port St. Lucie.

“I loved Al Lang Field,’’ Ron Darling told Vaughn, who was the Rays director of public relations from 1996-2016. “So many memories, I remember the baritone vendor. I loved hanging with George Thorogood and I think the best burgers I ever had was at El Cap (on Fourth Street).’’

The Cardinals went across the state to Jupiter in 1997 after that Grapefruit season and in 1998 the Devil Rays moved into Al Lang, spring training at home.

When the Cardinals left it meant that coaching legend George Kissel who first went to Waterfront Park in 1946 would be going to a different spring training home. Kissel died in 2008, and Vaughn noted that was the last year for Al Lang as a spring training site when the Rays left town. Kissel’s memorial was held on the field that was his classroom all those decades.

Vaughn went through each season with highlights.

“I really got to the point where I couldn’t wait to turn on my computer to start going through the next spring,’’ he said.

The book will be released in the Tampa Bay area August 4th and Vaughn has a book signing lined up at The St. Petersburg Museum of History.

“They were really helpful too,’’ he said. “I spent a lot of time in their offices.’’

“In 1968, 28 Hall of Famers played there that year,’’ Vaughn told Baseball or Bust, “and 193 overall, that’s crazy, that’s a big number.’’

View of New York Yankees (L-R) Enos Slaughter (17) and Joe Collins (15) exiting taxi in uniform outside of stadium before spring training game vs Milwaukee Braves at Al Lang Field. St. Petersburg, FL 3/29/1957 (Photo by John G. Zimmerman /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

In the epilogue, Vaughn points out that Al Lang’s name needs to be honored.

“There are more than four thousand historical markers in Florida,’’ he pointed out. “Al Lang’s grounds haven’t merited one.’’

In 1977, 17 years after his death, city officials dedicated a 12-by-18 inch bronze plaque in his memory and that “remains inconspicuously there now on a small pedestal outside the park, next to a green and yellow plastic newspaper box filled with free tourist guides,’’ Vaughn said.

That’s it. Try to find his name on the soccer stadium.

Vaughn refers to Lang as The Godfather of Florida Baseball. The memory of Al Lang deserves better. Here we are 100 years later, and it would be nice if the city stepped up to the plate for Lang like Al Lang stepped up for the city.

“Now that I’m getting older,’’ Vaughn concluded. “I see the importance of keeping these things alive. Let’s keep the memory of baseball alive here.’’

This wonderful book: 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront does just that.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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