Florida Time: The history of baseball in the Sunshine State
Readers: In November 1997, this writer met, at the Miami Book Fair, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Weeks earlier, the Florida Marlins, in just their fourth year, had won the World Series. Goodwin had grown up in Brooklyn and had her heart broken by the always also-ran Dodgers, then moved to Boston and had her heart broken by the cursed Red Sox, who in 1997 had gone eight decades. (They finally would win in 2004).
Goodwin said, "No offense, but it doesn't seem fair you have had to wait just four years." I replied, "With all due respect, I waited 41 years. For the first 37, I didn't even have a team."
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Florida's had a strange relationship with baseball. It hosted operations of various configurations dating back to the 1800s. But it didn't get its two major league teams until the mid-1990s.
Keep in mind that early on, baseball players were one step up from carnival workers, and some boarding houses turned them away. But Florida, with its good year-round weather, was a natural for the sport, which soon was firmly established.
When the Marlins and Rays showed up in the 1990s, they counted on transplants who'd followed teams up north most of their lives to switch allegiances to what now was the home team. But for the most part, Yankees fans in Tampa and Miami remained Yankees fans, and so on with the other teams. That's sharply hurt attendance in both places.
Florida Time archives: Get caught up on the stories you’ve missed
In 1996, University of Florida professor Kevin McCarthy wrote "Baseball in Florida." He covered the early years, youth leagues, high school and college teams, women and blacks in baseball, along with the major and minor leagues and spring training.
Some highlights from McCarthy's book and our archives:
Jacksonville claims the first spring training, hosting the Washington Statesmen of the National league in 1888. What's believed to be the first major league game in the area drew 12,000 fans. A minor league team in Jacksonville was founded in 1904.
In 1913, Panama City banned Sunday games, saying they were forbidden by "the laws of Florida and the law of God."
In 1930, Babe Ruth, vacationing in South Florida, threatened to retire and play golf unless he was paid an outrageous $85,000 --- nearly $1.25 million in today’ dollars. He got $80,000, $5,000 more than what President Herbert Hoover made. Ruth later would quip, "I had a better year."
The first official game by Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier, actually was in Daytona Beach. SIgned by the then-Brooklyn Dodgers, he came to Florida with their minor league Montreal team. At a game in Sanford, the police chief ordered him off the field. Jacksonville officials canceled a game rather than have him play. And the Daytona Beach officials made sure the Dodgers knew Jackie would have to stay at a separate hotel from the rest of the team. The stadium where he played now is named for him.
READER REWIND: Everyone has their own piece of Florida history. Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at (850) 270-8418.
Next week: The Everglades
From a reader: As a new resident of Florida I find your stories interesting. Never realized how far back the history of this state went. Keep them coming! - Roger G.
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Submit your questions, comments or memories to Corvaya Jeffries at cjeffries@gannett. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.