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Mudville: July 14, 2024 1:45 pm PDT

Tampa Tales

BY KEVIN KERNAN

Spring training really is the best time of the baseball year and this week I will make my annual return, heading to Port St. Lucie and then Jupiter. In a few weeks I will drive over to the west coast of Florida and go to my favorite Florida spring training site of all, Phillies BayCare Ballpark in Clearwater.

A big part of spring training is not only the baseball, but the food and I can already taste the chicken parmigiana at Mario’s in Stuart and delight in the joy of a late afternoon sunset stop at The Dolphin Bar in Jensen Beach.

Over on the west coast, a grouper sandwich from the Original Frenchy’s in Clearwater is a must.

I’ve always been fascinated by the history of spring training, especially in the days before it was all about metric readings, spin rate and launch angle. I liked when it was about baseball and development. Some of that is lost right now and talk to any veteran baseball man and they shake their head at what passes for “development.’’

Evidently, placing baseballs into the spinning wheels of a Jugs machine instead of hitting fungos into the high sky is what it is all about these days in outfield play, yet turn on any game in the spring and the broadcaster is talking about how difficult it is to catch those (missed) fly balls and popups in the high sky.

How about practicing them, fellas.

“It’s not that difficult if you work at it,’’ a former pitcher told BallNine on Tuesday. “Every day I shagged fly balls and every day I got better at it.’’

If you want to see if your team has good development coaching just watch a spring training workout and if the coach is lifting high flies off a fungo bat, that’s a good start.

This spring training in Florida is packed. The Grapefruit League has officially become an event, spring break for adults. Interestingly enough, I’ve noticed the crowds are not as large out in the Cactus League.

All this brings us to today’s topic. One of the most historical spring training sites is Tampa, home to George M. Steinbrenner Field. If you want to understand the history of Tampa Spring Training there is a new wonderful little book out there that was just published by Arcadia Publishing, the nation’s leading publisher of books of local nonfiction.

Think of it as Small Market Publishing.

Baseball fans need to pick up a copy of Tampa Spring Training Tales by my friend, longtime sports communications maven Rick Vaughn. Two years ago he wrote 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront, named one of the best baseball books of 2022 by Sports Collector’s Digest.

Vaughn has done it again with his new book but before we get to Tampa Tales, check this out.

It just so happened that I was speaking to former Yankee super-scout Gordon Blakeley on Tuesday and he told two terrific Tampa Tales I had never heard before but are classic Yankee Tales. Both, of course, involve George Steinbrenner and both are something George would do; but you would never catch Hal Steinbrenner doing because George had his way of doing things and that is what made him so unique as a baseball owner.

“The Boss had problems with phones,’’ Blakeley began.

Did he ever.

As we all know the Boss was not a patient man. I remember being in the old Yankee Stadium one day in a room where Yankee front office people would pass through on their way in and out of the ballpark, right next door to the press gate. I forget why I was there, but I was waiting by the desk. All of a sudden The Boss appeared, he was in a hurry. He wanted a soda and dropped some coins into the slot of the soda machine and the machine ate his coins. No soda.

By the time I left that area, the two men had already tracked down a loading dolly and a truck and the thieving soda machine that took Steinbrenner’s money was gone. Their jobs survived another day.

George was not happy.

He did what we all do. He banged on the machine to see if his coins would be freed. That rarely works and it didn’t work for George Steinbrenner.

At this point, Steinbrenner lost it and told the two men working the desk. “When I come back this machine better be outta here or else you are both fired.’’

That was a standard Steinbrenner line.

“Fix it or you’re fired.’’

Sometimes it was just: “You’re fired!’’.

You really weren’t fired, though, it was just Steinbrenner’s way of letting off steam. Blakeley told me he was twice “fired’’ by Steinbrenner. The first time he was un-fired by the time he loaded up his brief case and walked around his L-shaped desk on his way past Steinbrenner.

The second time he was “fired’’ by The Boss he actually went home. Steinbrenner called him later that night to say he wasn’t fired – and Blakeley wound up getting a hefty raise out of the entire “ordeal.’’

The two Yankee employees were not waiting around to see if they were going to be un-fired. By the time I left that area, the two men had already tracked down a loading dolly and a truck and the thieving soda machine that took Steinbrenner’s money was gone.

Their jobs survived another day.

Two other objects weren’t as lucky as Blakeley recalled.

Blakeley witnessed both instances of phone trouble. In the first, George had such problems with a phone back in the day while driving on Interstate 75, he rolled down the window and heaved the phone out. Goodbye phone.

In the second instance, Steinbrenner didn’t throw the phone out the window. This time his car pulled into the Yankee Stadium minor league complex with Steinbrenner, saying “Watch this.’’ He took the faulty phone and placed it under the back tire. He then had his trusty companion, essentially his bodyguard, drive the vehicle over the phone.

Goodbye phone.

End of phone trouble.

New York Yankees owner George Stienbrenner helping the grounds crew get water off the field circa 1985 before the start of a MLB spring training game in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Here at Baseball or Bust we understand such frustration and can understand where The Boss was coming from with those actions. Without George Steinbrenner, the Yankees would not have made Tampa their spring training home since 1996 and that is well chronicled in Tampa Spring Training Tales.

The Tampa Sports Authority built Legends Field for the Yankees for $31 million, about the price Blake Snell wants for a season of work. The city of Tampa had first made a pitch to the Yankees way back in 1919, but owner Jacob Ruppert decided on Jacksonville.

Tampa was the perfect home for the Yankees because it was Steinbrenner’s home, he had moved his family and ship-building business to Tampa in 1976. He loved the community and helped in so many ways but in a quiet fashion, those close to Steinbrenner have told me through the years. Tampa had been the long-time spring training home of the Reds. In 1988 the Reds moved to Plant City. The Yankees have called Tampa their spring training home the last 29 years.

Vaughn gives the entire history of spring training in Tampa and it is remarkable information. I did not know that in 1940 Tampa was selected over St.Petersburg and Miami for the one-time only spring training All-Star Game. Nowadays you are lucky if you see a few “regulars’’ in a spring training game, especially for the visiting teams. In 1940 you could watch an All-Star team. Tampa is known as Cigar City and it was in 1908 that a major league team first made an appearance there. On their way to Cuba, Vaughn noted, the Reds with second baseman and future Hall of Fame manager Miller Huggins, visited for a pair of games against the semipro Tampa Perfectos.

The Perfectos were far from perfect, losing 11-3 and 11-0 as they made 13 errors.

See, spring training games can be bad in any era.

Cigars and Tampa go way back.

Vaughn gives us the tobacco history of Ybor City.  Hardworking cigar factory workers arrived from Cuba, Spain and Italy in the 1870s and ‘80s.

(Original Caption): A general view of the playing field and the new football stadium under construction beyond the left field corner of the ballpark prior to a minor league game for the Tampa Tarpons, single-A affiliate for the Cincinnati Reds, in April, 1976 at Al Lopez Field in Tampa, Florida. The football stadium, Tampa Stadium, will be used by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, one of the new franchises in the National Football League. (Photo by 1976 Diamond Images via Getty Images)

“In the first years of the twentieth century, no other southern city was as synonymous with baseball as Tampa,’’ University of South Florida professor Paul Dunder said in the book. “Street corners, recreational parks, and the local stadiums all became sites of baseball. Cigar factories, and city neighborhoods all established teams and leagues … As the cigar factories grew, so did the importance of baseball in the city.’’

Tampa was a cigar and baseball hotbed.

Vaughn notes that Tony LaRussa’s parents met when they both worked at the Perfecto-Garcia cigar factory in Ybor City. Most of those factories are closed now, but it wasn’t that long ago they were going strong.

A few years ago I was inducted in the New York State Baseball Hall of Fame in the same class as Tino Martinez, and Tino talked about learning the value of hard work at an early age in Tampa. Tino is a winner. He won a State Championship at Tampa Catholic High School as a freshman first baseman and won four World Championships with the Yankees.

Blakeley played an instrumental role in acquiring Martinez in a trade with the Mariners and told George Steinbrenner at the time Tino would be a difference maker and a leader.  Tino’s dad, Rene, was the general manager of the Villazon Cigar Factory on Kathleen Street in West Tampa. During school breaks, summer and Christmas holidays, Rene hired his three sons to unload the heavy bales of tobacco leaves from Honduras.

Martinez told Vaughn, “It wasn’t just once in a while, we would unload all day long. It was just hard labor, heavy labor but it was great, it was a great learning experience. If we had a game that day, we would leave work around noon and walk home (one block) get lunch and get ready for the game.’’

And now you know why and how Tino had those home run crushing forearms.

The weight room of life and a cigar factory made the difference.

New York Yankees during spring training with pop-up machine before game vs Cincinnati Reds during spring training at Al Lopez Field. Tampa, FL 2/19/1961 (Photo by Art Rickerby /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Times wrote that at one time there were 200 cigar factories in Tampa. Today only two dozen remain and out of those 24 there is only one still producing cigars, around half are protected as local historic landmarks.

Tampa has produced so many major leaguers, including Lou Piniella, Tony LaRussa, Doc Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Jose Fernandez, Pete Alonso, Kyle Tucker and many more. There was Hall of Famer Al Lopez, a former catcher who was inducted as a manager in 1977 by the Veteran’s Committee.

The first major league spring training game in Tampa was in 1914 when the St. Louis Browns played the Cubs. The Browns manager was Branch Rickey. According to Vaughn’s amazing research, Ted Williams spit at fans on March 18, 1951, during Boston’s ugly 15-12 loss to the Reds in Tampa. Five years later he infamously spit at the fans at Fenway Park.

The press report at the time noted Williams grounded out to the pitcher, jogged to first and then heard it from the 4,012 fans gathered for the game at Plant Field. “(Williams) turned toward the customers and spat elaborately.’’

Of course, in the next at-bat, the Splendid Splinter/Spitter, drilled a long home run. In 1970 Williams told Tampa Tribune’s Tom McEwen, who was good friends with Steinbrenner: “So I hit one out of the park like it was a pea and spat at the fans.’’

Evidently, Ted was not happy to make the trip from Sarasota to Tampa that day saying he had a “lousy cold and just a short while ago one of those jerk sportswriters from our town asked me if the arm injury I suffered in the All Star Game last summer would affect my throwing. Guess he didn’t know that it was my left arm that I hurt and throw with my right.’’

And so it goes. In the 1950s Tampa mayor Curt Hixon kept baseball alive in the city by buying the land and getting Al Lopez Field built. Al could not be there for the official dedication on March 20, 1955 because he was busy managing his Indians out in the Cactus League. Hixon also got the White Sox to come to town giving Tampa two teams, the Reds and White Sox. In the glowing press report about the beloved Al Lopez, it was written that this is “the story of a man without an enemy, a man who remained as simple, as humble, as thoughtful of his fellow citizens when he became nationally famous as when he was a struggling youngster in Ybor City.’’

Lopez enjoyed a 44-year career in baseball and caught more than 1,900 games and managed another 1,400. He set the record for career games caught, surpassing Gabby Hartnett’s mark in 1945, a record that was not broken until 1987.

(Original Caption): Al Lopez (L), newly appointed Manager of the Chicago White Sox, gets a warm welcome from White Sox vice president Charles Comiskey on his Arrival at Midway airport in Chicago circa 1956. Lopez, former manager of the Cleveland Indians, was signed to manage the White Sox following the resignation of Manager Marty Marion. (Photo by Steve Marino/Sporting News via Getty Images)

After six years managing the Indians and winning the pennant in 1954, he became manager of the White Sox in 1957 and was able to manage in spring training in his hometown.

So many great players would pass through Al Lopez Field, including Frank Robinson, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. The White Sox didn’t stay long and in 1963 they were playing out of Sarasota. In a game on April 2, 1963, at Al Lopez Field against the Reds, the White Sox manager got in an argument with umpire John Stevens over an interference call at first base,

Al Lopez, recalling the incident to the St. Petersburg Times years later, told the ump, “You can’t throw me out of this ballpark. This is my ballpark, Al Lopez Field.’’

“Yer outta here!’’

Al Lopez was ejected from his own ballpark.

Lopez also won the AL pennant in 1959 with the White Sox, thus, as it notes on his HOF plaque, Lopez was “only manager to interrupt Yankees’ pennant dynasty of 1949-64, guiding Indians to ’54 flag with AL record 111 wins and piloting White Sox to 1959 title.’’

Pretty cool.

And how is this for baseball symmetry? On April 3, 1981, Vaughn writes, the Reds’ Tom Seaver, 36, pitched seven innings in a 5-4 loss to the Mets at Al Lopez Field. Less than four miles away at the same time, 16-year-old Dwight Gooden, pitched seven innings for Hillsborough High in an 8-1 win over Leto.

On August 28, 1988 the last baseball game was played at Al Lopez Field as the Florida State League Tampa Tarpons defeated the PSL Mets, 6-1.

Eight months later came the wrecking ball.

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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