Historic City Memories: Spring training


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.

Spring Training Comes to [and leaves] St. Augustine

(Third of a Three Part Series)

By Geoff Dobson

As one drives by the “Activities Field,” perhaps from the past, one can hear the roar of a crowd and the yell of an umpire, “Play Ball.” But it is no more; professional baseball and major league spring training have left St. Augustine. Major League baseball teams had played in St. Augustine either for Spring Training or in exhibition games since 1890. Spring training had been a part of Florida since 1888 when the Washington Statesmen trained in Jacksonville. Among teams who had all or a part of their spring training in St. Augustine were Pittsburgh, the Cardinals, Newark Bears (of the International League), the Giants and the Cubs. The Cubs, for several years, maintained an affiliation with the local semi-pro team, the St. Augustine Saints. For a brief period of time the New York Yankees had a connection with the city through their major farm team, the Newark Bears.

St. Augustine had an advantage in attracting spring training. It was readily accessible by railroad and had an attractive park. Henry Flagler constructed the first park, complete with a press box, and two private boxes. The original field had been designed by baseball equipment manufacturer Albert Spaulding. Later Francis Field was constructed. But best of all, the city had in the words of the New York Times, March 15, 1920, a “strong semi-pro club.” The Times reported that Charles Ebbets, the president of the Brooklyn Robins [now the Dodgers] organization, was unhappy with spring training at Jacksonville’s Barr Field and was inspecting St. Augustine as a possible site for the following year’s spring training camp.

In those days, major league teams did not have regular spring training facilities and regularly moved from town to town displaying all the fickleness exhibited by university athletic associations towards a football coach with several losing seasons under his belt. Until 1949 when the Dodgers finally settled down in Vero Beach, they conducted spring training in places as diverse as Charlotte, North Carolina; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Havana, Cuba; and Ciudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic. Indeed, the teams were just as fickle as to their names. In addition to being called the Brooklyn Robins, the Dodgers at various times went under the names the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, the Bridegrooms, the Superbas, and now the Los Angeles Dodgers. As an aside speaking of Robins and Los Angeles, during World War II, former Florida Governor Leroy Collins served for a period of time in California. One time, he commented that the only thing he missed about California was waking up in the morning to the sound of the coughing of the birds. Nevertheless, the Times was optimistic as to St. Augustine’s chances. It reported that Brooklyn might play a series in St. Augustine. It was not to be. Brooklyn went to New Orleans.

Six years before in 1914, St. Augustine had hosted the St. Louis Cardinals for spring training. The Cardinals were just as fickle. The following year, the Cardinals moved to Hot Wells, Texas. Later they did spring training in places as diverse, as Orange, Texas; Bradenton, Florida; Avon Park, Florida; Stockton, California, and Jupiter, Florida. In early years, they were just as fickle about their name, starting out as the St. Louis Brown Stockings, then the Browns, followed by the St. Louis Perfectos before becoming the Cardinals.
In 1926, the Giants trained at Sarasota. Before the end of spring training, they moved to St. Augustine staying at the Alcazar Hotel. The move was attributed by the New York Times to the presence of Sunday baseball in the Ancient City. There was an aversion in many areas to allowing sinful activities such as baseball to desecrate the Sabbath. Thus in most cities in Florida, the playing of baseball on Sunday was a criminal offense. In 1905, the Florida Legislature had provided that the playing of baseball on Sunday was punishable by a fine of not exceeding $100 or by the fine and imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding three months. Soon William C. West, manager of the Jacksonville semi-pro team and an official of the South Atlantic Baseball League, was arrested and imprisoned for playing baseball in Duval County on a Sunday. West appealed his conviction to the Florida Supreme Court where it was sustained.

After West was sent off to his dungeon cell in the Duval County jail, the Legislature had second thoughts and allowed Sunday baseball as a local option. Nevertheless, Sunday baseball remained illegal in most parts of the State. Some areas of the country compromised, by allowing the sinfulness only after morning services had ended and before evening services commenced. This created, however, a problem with double-headers when games had to be called on account of church services. By 1926, however, St. Augustine had opted out of the ban of Sunday baseball. St. Augustine was recognized in many parts of the state as a hotbed of sin. Certainly, there may have been a perception that city and county officials looked the other way on sin. One old timer as a small boy remembered seeing the line of sailors waiting to enter a local “hotel” of dubious reputation. Sheriff Davis was perceived as looking the other way as to moonshining and other activities.

Governor Sidney J. Catts, ran on a platform that a “poor man in Florida had but three friends-Jesus Christ, Sears Roebuck and Sidney J. Catts” Governor Catts in political advertisements railed against sin including the two twins of wickedness in St. Augustine, the Florida East Coast Railroad and the St. Augustine Record.

The Giants were just as fickle as the Cardinals. The following year, the Giants returned to Sarasota. In 1928, they moved to Augusta, Georgia, followed in 1929 by San Antonio, Texas. In 1928, St. Augustine landed the Newark Bears of the International League.

The Saints had played in various leagues over the years, In the early 1920’s, the team had played in the original Florida State League. In 1926, a hurricane had hit South Florida and ended the Florida Boom. Its impact was devastating to the economy of the State. D. P. Davis’ mammoth development in St. Augustine came to a halt and eventually filed for bankruptcy. On a trans-Atlantic voyage, the Company’s founder mysteriously disappeared from the Royal Mail Ship Majestic. On August 18, 1927, officials of the Florida State League met in a crisis. The Tampa Smokers could not meet payroll. The players refused to play in a scheduled game against the St. Petersburg Saints. With the loss of the Smokers, there were not enough teams to sustain the league. With the league’s failure, the St. Augustine Saints and the Jacksonville Tars completed the season in the Southeastern League. The Saints moved to Waycross and became the Waycross Saints. Teams in the league included the Albany Nuts and the Selma Selmians.

The Florida State League was resurrected in 1937, closed down for World War II and resumed following the war. After the Cubs gave up their affiliation with the Saints, the team managed one more season. Following, the 1950 season, the Saints moved to Cocoa to become the Cocoa Indians. A new Saints was formed in 1952, but folded in mid-season. With the loss of a semi-pro team and the closure of the large hotels, spring training and exhibition baseball left St. Augustine, perhaps never to return.

Next Week: Barbershops and the Chautauqua.

Photo credit: Contributed photo of St. Augustine Saints from Geoff Dobson

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 horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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