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  • Historic City Memories: First pro baseball team

    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.

    Henry Flagler brings semi-pro baseball to St. Augustine

    (Second of a Three Part Series)

    By Geoff Dobson

    Was Henry Flagler both a baseball and Gator fan?

    Indeed, one might think so. In 1889, Flagler constructed St. Augustine’s first dedicated baseball park replacing use of the Fort Green as a field.

    Three years before in 1886, Flagler introduced professional baseball to St. Augustine. Later, Flagler constructed two others ball parks in Palm Beach. Until 1952, St. Augustine maintained a connection with professional baseball and the major leagues.

    As for the University of Florida, Henry Flagler donated the University’s gymnasium and sports facilities when the University was in Lake City. The city had, however, already changed its name from Alligator to Lake City –allegedly because the major’s wife disliked the town’s name.

    The sports facilities included a baseball field (but apparently no football field.). The University did not field a varsity football team until 1906. The Gator was not adopted as the University Mascot until 1911 several years after the move to Gainesville. Thus although Henry Flagler may have supported the University, he was not technically speaking at the time of the donation a “Gator” fan.

    Flagler’s construction of the baseball park and support for semi-pro teams in St. Augustine and Palm Beach were not his major contribution to baseball in St. Augustine.

    Baseball has been traced back to at least the War of Jenkins’ Ear. An 1844 British children’s ditty likened baseball to British sailors raiding Spanish ports. Each base, represented by a post, was a sanctuary. The idea was after hitting the ball to make it about the field from sanctuary to sanctuary without being put out by the opposing Spanish:

    The Ball once struck off,
    Away flied the Boy
    To the next destin’d Post,
    And then Home with Joy.


    Thus Britons for Lucre
    Fly over the Main;
    But, with Pleasure transported,
    Return back again.

    Others have traced baseball back to the 14th Century. There is some evidence that George Washington at Valley Forge played baseball.

    Three things made professional baseball possible: (1) Adoption of our present-day “New York Rules” about 1846; (2) The spread of baseball by the Army during the Mexican and Civil Wars. There may have been differences between Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, but they were agreed on their love of baseball; (3) Construction of railroads made inter-city baseball possible.

    Without Flagler’s and Henry Plant’s railroads, spring training in Florida was impossible. With the coming of the railroad, friendly rivalries between cities arose.

    By 1910, St. Augustine teams led by their star pitcher, J. Capo regularly played Gainesville, Fort Pierce, Hastings, and Ocala. Although, the Ocala Evening Star, June 28, 1901, reported one minor difficulty in a proposed Fourth of July Game between Ocala and St. Augustine. Ocala had neglected to pay the rent on the park, and the owner fenced off part of the field. The editor of the paper assured his readers that the rent would be paid.

    In 1886, Baseball was the nation’s pastime. It has now been surpassed by newer sports: football, NASCAR and rodeo. The beginning of professional baseball in St. Augustine commenced in 1886 when a small advertisement appeared in the St. Augustine paper:

    “The colored employees of the Hotel Ponce de Leon will play a game today at the fort grounds with a picked nine from the Alcazar. As both teams posses some of the best colored baseball talent in the United States being largely composed of the famous Cuban Giants, the game is like to be an interesting one.”

    By inclusion of members of the Cuban Giants team, the Flagler Hotel teams were what would now be considered black “industrial league” teams.

    Industrial League baseball was employer sponsored baseball in which there would be a mix of employees and professional players. Industrial teams were a common practice. Carnegie Steel, the Southern Pacific Railroad, Endicott Shoe, and even the Actors Guild of the United States sponsored teams. It built up employee morale. A vice-president of Reading, Pennsylvania, Steel Casting Company bragged that the company had the best industrial baseball team in the United States. Small wonder, the 1918 roster included among others Babe Ruth and Del Pratt of the New York Yankees, Lefty Williams and Joe Jackson from the White Sox and Frank Shulte from Washington.

    The Flagler teams were, thus, “semi-pro” teams including both amateurs and professionals.

    Henry Flagler’s interest was not altogether altruistic. Baseball improved employee morale, provided entertainment for the guests of the hotels, and made St. Augustine attractive as a prospective spring training site which would presumably gain business for the hotels. Indeed in 1926 when the New York Giants trained in St. Augustine, they stayed at the Alcazar.

    For the first two years of its existence, the Cuban Giant’s home park was in St. Augustine in the winter and Trenton, New Jersey, in the summer. Later, the Cuban Giants would winter in both St. Augustine and West Palm Beach. Although, they may have played one exhibition game in Havana, they were not Cuban and, indeed, did not speak Spanish. The adoption of the name “Cuban” avoided discrimination that was otherwise exhibited by white baseball fans and players against blacks.

    Prior to the late 1880’s, several professional teams had black players. These included Moses Fleetwood Walker of the Toledo Blue Stockings’ and George Stovey of the Newark Little Giants’.. The Chicago White Stockings [Present-day Cubs] manager, Adrian C. “Cap” Anson, however refused to play against any team which had a black player. The whites did not exhibit the same aversion to participating in games played by Cubans or American Indians but avoided games in which blacks participated, a bias that was not resolved in the major leagues until Jackie Robinson and Johnny Wright were employed by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946. Robinson made his debut for the Dodgers in 1947.

    At that time, many teams such as the Dodgers did not have permanent spring training facilities and negotiated annually with various cities for spring training facilities. St. Augustine was thus in the running for Spring Training ever since 1890 when the Pittsburgh team rented for $700.00 a baseball diamond in St. Augustine from Cap Anson.

    Jacksonville hosted the Cleveland Spiders. The first major league game ever played in Florida was between the Pirates and the Spiders. The first league play in St. Augustine was in 1886 when the opening game for the newly-formed Southern League of Colored Baseballists was played in the city. The League survived for only a few games.

    Nevertheless during Spring Training for the Dodger Organization, both Robinson and Wright faced extreme difficulties. When Robinson was to play in a game in Jacksonville, the park was padlocked. In Sanford, both Robinson and Wright were threatened with arrest if they played. In Deland, there was a sudden and unexpected power failure which caused a game in which the two were to play to be cancelled.

    American Indians did not face the same discrimination. Baseball spread among the Indian Tribes through the Army and by being played at Indian Schools such as Carlyle. Allegedly, Geronimo played baseball while at Fort Sill. Jim Thorpe, a graduate of the Carlyle Indian School, played semi-pro baseball before joining the major leagues where he played as an outfielder for New York, Cincinnati, and Boston from 1913-1919. Jim Bluejacket, a Shawnee, pitched in the 1914 and 1915 for the Brooklyn Tip Tops of the Federal League. In 1916, he pitched three games for the Cincinnati Reds before he joined the Greybull Bisons, an industrial league team.

    The Federal League was a short-lived major league. The presence of the third league provided opportunity for players to jump ship, so to speak, and caused salaries to increase. The American League, the National League, and most of the minors recognized the so-called “reserve clause,” which prevented players from moving from one team to another. At the end of the 1915 season, important owners from the Federal League, in exchange for $800,000 and two new expansion teams in the two older leagues, agreed to disband the Federal League.

    The owners of the Baltimore Terrapins were left out in the cold. With the dismantling of the league, there was no one for the Terrapins to play. The owners of the Terrapins sued for violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, arguing, among other things, that the reserve clause was invalid as a restraint of trade.

    The appellate courts held, not withstanding that players and equipment were moved across state lines, that each game itself was particularly local; that is, a game was not played across state lines. Instead, each individual game was played in a single location. Therefore, baseball was not interstate commerce, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Act did not apply to baseball. Players who had previously played for an American League or National League team and violated the Reserve Clause by jumping to a Federal League team, were, for the most part, blackballed.

    Following the demise of the Federal League, they were able to find employment as a ball player only in industrial league teams such as the Bisons.

    Next Week: Spring Training Comes to [and leaves] St. Augustine

    Photo credit: Contributed photo by 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