Although the Devil Rays are the first Major League Baseball team to host regular season games in the area, Tampa Bay's big league roots go back more than 85 years. The area has a very rich professional and amateur baseball history. More major league spring training games have been played in St. Petersburg than in any other city.
Major League Baseball's roots in Tampa Bay can be traced back to 1913 when the Chicago Cubs moved their spring training operation from New Orleans to Tampa. The following year the St. Louis Browns came to St. Petersburg for spring workouts. Except for the years between 1942 and 1945 when wartime restrictions limited travel for spring training, major league baseball has had a presence in Tampa Bay ever since.
Even during the war years, the area found a way to keep the National Pastime alive. To fill the wartime void, Tampa fashioned the Inter-Social League in 1943. Crowds averaged several thousand in West Tampa and Ybor City to see players that included the fathers of future major leaguers Lou Pinella and Dave Magadan.
Eight teams have trained in St. Petersburg: the Boston Braves (1922-37), St. Louis Cardinals (1938-42; 1946-97), New York Yankees (1925-42; 1946-50; 1952-61), New York Giants (1951), New York Mets (1962-87), Baltimore Orioles (1993-95); St. Louis Browns (1914), and the Philadelphia Phillies (1915-18).
Tampa has been the spring home of six major league clubs: Chicago Cubs (1913-16), Cincinnati Reds (1931-42; 1946-87), Boston Red Sox (1919), Detroit Tigers (1930), Washington Senators (1920-29), Chicago White Sox (1954-59) and the New York Yankees (1996-).
St. Petersburg has hosted at least one team for spring training in 78 of the past 84 years and had two teams train for 63 years. The city has been home to minor league baseball for 60 of the past 78 years beginning with the St. Petersburg Saints in the Florida State League in 1920. Tampa has been a major league spring training site for 72 of the past 85 years and has had minor league baseball for 55 of the past 79 years.
In 1910, a former Pittsburgh laundry owner named Al Lang moved to St. Petersburg for his health. He soon became the business manager of a ballpark in St. Pete and focused on two goals: to make better use of the facility and help the sagging tourism industry. The answer was to attract a major league baseball team to St. Petersburg for spring training. So successful was he, that in 1916 and again in 1918, he was elected the mayor of St. Petersburg.
At first, he was rebuffed by the Pittsburgh Pirates whose owner Barney Dreyfuss told him: "Al Lang, you must think I am a damn fool, suggesting I train in a little one-tank town that's not even a dot on the map." Lang did convince the Chicago Cubs to leave New Orleans as their spring training home, but they chose Tampa instead in 1913. A year later he lured the St. Louis Browns, under manager Branch Rickey, to move to St. Petersburg. A baseball committee, formed to attract a major league team to the city, raised $20,000 to buy a large tract of land for a ballpark. The site chosen for the field was Coffee Pot Bayou in St. Petersburg, where a 2,000 seat grandstand was built.
Although, the location offered easy access to fishing, swimming and boating, the players did not like the fact that the movie houses in St. Petersburg closed at 9:30 p.m. and the city had only one dance a week. Most distressing was the fact that the city was "dry." Only the Elks club served liquor.
The first game between two major league teams in the area took place in 1914, as the Grapefruit League was established, in which teams played a five-week schedule of exhibition games. On March 26 of that year, at Plant Field on the campus of the University of Tampa, the host Chicago Cubs edged the Browns, 3-2, despite making six errors. The Cubs were fueled early by a first-inning, two-run home run by C. Williams, a blow described the next day by the St. Petersburg Independent as "lucky." Elmer Koestner and Zip Zabel shut out the Browns through eight innings.
The next day, the two teams met at Coffee Pot Bayou and the result was the same, a 3-2 Cubs win. James Leslie (Hippo) Vaughn was the winning pitcher for the Cubs as an estimated 4,000 looked on including many sitting in their automobiles, parked beyond right field. Schools and most offices shut down at mid-day. It later became custom for merchants to close their doors on Monday and Wednesday afternoons to allow employees and customers to attend games.
The Browns vacated St. Petersburg after one year following a dispute over who would pay for the team's expenses. The Philadelphia Phillies replaced them in 1915. After the Phillies moved on three years later, Lang convinced 20 local residents to each contribute $1,000 to build a new ballpark, Waterfront Park, a little north of today's Al Lang Field, built in 1947 in honor of the great baseball promoter.
After a three-year absence, baseball returned in 1922 in the form of the Boston Braves. The Yankees followed in 1925. It probably was not a coincidence that Yankees Manager Miller Huggins had recently purchased a home in St. Petersburg.
It is said that the fact that the Yankees stayed at the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Petersburg Beach in the early 1930s saved the hotel from financial ruin. With players, club officials and media, the Yankees occupied some 125 rooms and filled the hotel restaurant where the players enjoyed steak and unlimited amounts of milk.
With the Yankees came Babe Ruth and his flamboyant lifestyle. On the train ride home from their first spring training in St. Petersburg, Ruth collapsed reportedly from overindulging his large appetite for food and drink. The "stomachache heard around the world" caused him to miss the first month of the regular season. He was subsequently suspended in August of that season for poor performance.
On April 4, 1919 while Ruth was in Tampa for spring training with the Boston Red Sox, he hit what many consider his longest home run, a 587-foot blast against the New York Giants at Plant Field. The feat is commemorated on a plaque at the field.
In 1928, the spring after Ruth's record setting season, 270,000 fans saw Yankees' spring games in St. Petersburg. As a result, Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert cleared a $60,000 profit before heading north.
While with the Yankees on the first day of spring training in 1925 at the team's headquarters at Crescent Lake Field, Ruth gave up shagging balls in rightfield because several alligators had emerged from the lake which bordered the outfield. The park is today known as Huggins-Stengel Field, in honor of former Yankee managers Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel. That field was the first ever used by the expansion New York Mets, who took the field there for the first time in 1962, replacing the Yankees, who ended a 35-year relationship with the St. Petersburg the year before.
When the Boston Braves left for Bradenton in 1937, the St. Louis Cardinals came to St. Petersburg the following year and would stay 57 of the next 60, missing only the war years. Only the Detroit Tigers, who have trained in Lakeland for 61 years, have ever had a longer association with a spring training home. The Cardinals asnnounced they were leaving St. Petersburg this spring for a new home in Jupiter, Florida, a facility they will share with the Montreal Expos. Upon the Cardinals' exit announcement, the Devil Rays pledged they would carry the torch in St. Petersburg thus becoming the first modern day team to conduct spring training in its home city.
Three minor leagues have had affiliates in the Tampa Bay Area: the Florida State League (1919-), the Florida International League (1946-54) and the Southeastern League (1928-30). The area is also home to the Gulf Coast Rookie League.
Minor league baseball began in Tampa Bay in 1919, when Tampa became a charter member of the Class D Florida State League. After finishing dead last the first year, Tampa went 89-28 in 1920, a .745 winning percentage, still the best in FSL history. It was that year that the St. Petersburg Saints entered the FSL. By 1922, the Saints had won an FSL crown of their own, the first of seven they would win, tied with Ft. Lauderdale as the most in league history. Included in that impressive list is the championship won in 1958 when St. Petersburg became the only FSL ever to win 100 games. St. Pete set an FSL attendance record in 1989 when it drew 202,383 as a St. Louis Cardinals' affiliate. Among Tampa's six first place FSL finishes, was the title earned by the 1961 team led by Reds farmhand Pete Rose who set a still existing FSL mark with 30 triples that year.
The teams from St. Petersburg and Tampa alone have played more than 13,000 minor league games. Add Dunedin, Clearwater and Lakeland and the number soars to 20,000.
Another professional league had a presence in Tampa Bay albeit briefly. The Senior Professional Baseball Association, a league of former major leaguers who were at least 35 years of age or older, sprang up for one season, 1989-90. The St. Pete Pelicans were the first and only league champions.
The prolonged absence of a permanent major league team in this area was not for a lack of effort. Tampa Bay actively pursued major league baseball through expansion and made numerous attempts to lure an existing franchise.
That dogged pursuit lasted some 19 years. Along the way, it appeared a number of teams were headed for Tampa Bay: the Minnesota Twins, Oakland A's, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants all seemed destined to move to the area. None did. In 1990, the Suncoast Dome was completed with the intent of attracting a baseball team. But, in 1991 Major League Baseball expanded to Miami and Denver.
Still not defeated, Tampa Bay officials kept the area in the forefront and on March 9, 1995 the dream became reality. On that date, Vincent J. Naimoli, President and Chief Executive Officer of Anchor Industries International, headquartered in Tampa, and his entirely local ownership group were awarded an expansion franchise for Tampa Bay. The announcement came at the owners' meetings in West Palm Beach, Florida. The vote among league owners was 28-0 to admit the Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks as the 13th and 14th expansion teams in major league history. The reaction in the Tampa Bay area was one of pure ecstasy as the emotions of 13 years of disappointment were swept away.
The Tampa Bay Area has produced a multitude of major leaguers including Hall of Famers Al Lopez and Wade Boggs, Lou Pinella, Tony LaRussa, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez, Howard Johnson, Dave Magadan and Brad Radke.
Lopez, elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1977, caught almost 2,000 games in the major leagues and was a successful manager of the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox.
Boggs was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.