The Sound of Spring in Florida: Baseball Meets Bat

By: Jon Wilson

15 Major League Baseball teams train in Florida cities.

Major League Baseball's spring training wraps us in its magic.

Fifteen teams start practice in mid-February, with pitchers and catchers the first to arrive. Their teammates appear about a week later, and the first full schedule of games begins in March. Over the coming days, more than 200 games will be played.

Spring training ranks among Florida's most cherished traditions. Fans love it and business people look forward to the boomlet it brings.

Precisely when it began remains a matter of argument, but the pioneer team may have been the National League's Washington Capitals of 1888. They conducted a four-day camp in Jacksonville, and it is said that hotels turned away some of the players because of their reputations for bad behavior.

But that was then. Florida soon embraced the spring players with all its heart.

In 1913, Tampa Mayor Donald McKay paid the Chicago Cubs' expenses so the team would train in the Cigar City. St. Petersburg Mayor Al Lang followed suit the next year to lure the St. Louis Browns.

In some cities, merchants closed to encourage employees and customers to attend games. Principals winked at absenteeism among students (and faculty) when a favorite team came to town. 

Baseball brought rivulets of prosperity to a state still emerging from its frontier days. In 1925, Burt Whitman of the Boston Herald wrote: "It is a matter of Chamber of Commerce records... that since the (Boston) Braves have been training in St. Pete, the number of tourists visiting that city from northern New England has jumped tremendously." 

The economic impact continues. But ledgers aside, the real meaning rests in the hearts of the fans – and often the players.

Said all-time all-star Rogers Hornbsy, who played for five teams during his 23-year career: "People ask me what I do in the winter when there's no baseball. I'll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring."

"The Rajah" is one among a legion of titans who have entranced the faithful. They come from every era. Think of seeing Alex Rodriguez step to the plate. Or of Ozzie Smith stealing second, nearly in mid-season form. Or of Pete Rose and his confident swagger. Sandy Koufax mesmerized batters as masterfully as he did fans. Mickey Mantle winked at eager kids. Dizzy Dean cracked his corny jokes and Lou Gehrig rode a horse down a city's main drag while Babe Ruth partied.

Every one of them made his mark during the days of Florida springs.

Roberto Clemente was another who won the hearts of fans. The Pittsburgh Pirates' rightfielder helped pave the way for Hispanic players, becoming the first to be elected to baseball's Hall of Fame and to win a most valuable player award. Fans admired the Puerto Rico native for 18 years in Fort Myers and Bradenton.

But the season was not always sweet. Decades ago, it reflected the South's Jim Crow ways. African American players usually could not stay in the same hotels as their white teammates. Such segregation policies began to change in 1961 after the St. Louis Cardinals' Bill White and his black teammates were excluded from a Chamber of Commerce "Salute to Baseball" event.

But that, too, was then.

On the cusp of spring, the issue is simply the time remaining before the sun spills across a green infield and the first inning begins.

Listen – perhaps you already can hear the sounds...

For More Information

Many websites offer information about teams, schedules and tickets. Here are two to get you started:    

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