This is another installment in a series of articles that Historic City News has been fortunate to receive permission to publish; taken from a collection of nostalgic memories recorded by Geoffrey B. Dobson.
St. Augustine Baseball and the Death of Francis Field
(First of a Three Part Series)
By Geoff Dobson
For many years on the western part of the San Marco Lot at the corner of Riberia and Castillo Drive, there stood a wall, baseball diamond, lights for night games, and backstop. Further to the east were a series of tennis courts. In the northeast corner of the San Marco Lot was a 1911, 28-ton Porter locomotive. The baseball field, known as Francis Field, and the tennis courts were a reminder of its professional baseball team, the St. Augustine Saints and the team’s 1936 manager, Frederick Gomer “Freddie” Francis (1899-1962), after whom the field was named.
Francis Field and the San Marco Lot are gone, replaced by the “Special Events Field” intended to get crowds out of the downtown area and by a parking garage intended to bring crowds to the downtown area. For over a third of a century after the Saints played their last game, residents of the city held onto their beloved Francis Field. The Saints abruptly closed down in mid-season in 1952, but memories persisted. In the late 1970’s the City Commission commissioned a scheme to make Castillo Drive the grand entrance into the historic area of the city. The plans cost the city some $32,000.00 and would have required the lights and the backstop to be taken down and moved six feet.
Red Cox, catcher for the 1946 Saints, realized that government is like the proverbial “camel’s nose in the tent” and that if six feet could be cut off the field, there would be another six feet, then another, and pretty soon the whole field would be gone. Coach Cox organized the ball players of the City. In a boisterous meeting, the City Commission retreated. It was a rout. The Commission retreated like Union General Irvin McDowell after First Manassas.
It has been said that one of the heroes of First Manassas responsible for the Confederate victory was Stonewall Jackson. It has also been said that General Lee’s greatest victory was at Chancellorsville, but it has also been said that it was there that he suffered his greatest loss. At the battle of Chancellorsville, Stonewall Jackson “crossed over the river.” The Army of Northern Virginia never recovered from the loss of Jackson. If Coach Cox was the Stonewall Jackson of the battle to preserve Francis Field, the ultimate result was the same. Red Cox “crossed over the river” some 14 years ago. Then slowly, like Sherman’s advance on Atlanta, the City outflanked Francis Field. First to go was the Porter locomotive, sent into exile in Jacksonville Beach. It had served as a reminder of St. Augustine’s history in railroading, but the history of railroading in the city was unimportant. The removal of the locomotive was the camel’s nose.
Next the tennis courts on the eastern end of the San Marco Lot fell. Tennis had been important to St. Augustine since the 1880’s. Prior to its closing in 1931, Freddie Francis had been the tennis pro at the Alcazar Hotel. The hotel annually hosted major winter tennis tournaments. Freddie had donated the Frederick G. Francis National Professional Clay Courts Tennis Trophy. The trophy was retired in 1952 by Frank Kovacs.
St. Augustine hosted various national winter tennis tournaments since 1887 when the Tropical Tournament was held on the grounds of the Villa Zorayda. The following year in 1888, Henry Flagler donated the magnificent sterling silver Ponce de Leon trophy with its representation of the City Gates. In 1930, the courts behind the Alcazar, now the site of a city parking lot, were recognized by the New York Times as among the best in the nation. A year later, with financial difficulties overcoming the Florida East Coast Railway, the Alcazar and the Cordova were closed. In 1953 a year after the Saints played their last game, St. Augustine lost the National Professional Clay Courts tournament to Hollywood, Florida.
Early baseball in St. Augustine could be interesting. Things would happen that would never be seen in a major league park. One game was delayed on account of a seagull. The seagull was doing low runs over the players. There was a fear that a ball would hit the gull. The game was delayed while the gull continued to do his thing and the umpires and coaches decided on what to do.
A new rule was devised. If a hit ball struck the gull, it would be an automatic double.
On another occasion, the Saints pitcher, Charles M. “Struttin’ Bud” Shaney, stopped the pitcher for the Palatka Azaleas, a man named Leavy, from using a spit ball. Shaney received his nickname as a result of a high school football injury in which he broke a leg. The break was not set right and gave him a peculiar gait making him look like he was strutting.
Oil of mustard burns, burns like H * * *. It was allegedly used on demonstrators in St. Augustine during the civil rights demonstrations. A popular joke at one time was putting oil of mustard on someone’s classroom chair or in a barber chair.. The oil will permeate though cloth. It only takes a few drops. Shaney applied some of the oil to the seams of some of the baseballs which the Palatka pitcher was going to use. Shaney later recalled:
“”Now oil of mustard would burn the living fire out of you and Leavy was a spitballer. I knew the balls were ready for him, but I didn’t think about the umpire. He had a little sack-like thing inside his shirt that he kept half a dozen baseballs in to be used during the game.
“The day was awfully hot, and Leavy worked up a pretty good sweat while he was warming up. When he got to the mound, he started throwing the spitball right off. He’d cup his hands with the ball in them, put the ball to his mouth and give it a big sloppy lick….
“Well, he licked that ball about four times and the oil of mustard hit him…. He was howling his head off.”
Shaney had forgotten about the umpire. The umpire kept the balls in a small sack. The umpire was sweating in the hot Florida humidity. Soon the oil of mustard soaked through the sack and his shirt onto his chest and legs.
Shaney explained: “”he was dancing like a banshee, throwing baseballs out of his shirt, and when he started peeling his clothes off we got him off the field.” As quoted by R. G. Utley and Scott Verner, “The Independent Carolina Baseball League, 1936-1938.” Of course, Shaney was not above using the spitball himself, planting phonograph needles in the balls, or loosening the stitches on the ball.
Bud never lost his love of the game. Even after he was too old to play ball, he worked as a grounds keeper at Asheville’s McCormick Field. He died in 1982.
The Saints, and the city’s previous professional baseball teams the St. Augustine Tossers and the Ponce de Leon Giants, are gone now. In 1996, Joe Pomar Park in West Augustine opened. It was the death of Francis Field.
In 1931, Freddie Francis married Louise Wise Lewis, Henry Flagler’s niece and heiress. According to the New York Times, not withstanding the financial difficulties of the Florida East Coast Railway, she was worth a cool $5,000,000. Freddie was Mrs. Lewis’s third husband. The marriage did not last. In 1936, Louise filed for divorce in Palm Beach County. Freddie later married Jean Goode. He remained active in golf and tennis circles entering and winning tournaments as late as the early 1950’s. Freddie died on the Fourth of July, 1962.
Next Part: St. Augustine’s First Professional Baseball Team.
Photo credit: Bureau of Archives
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer and a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org