(This post was originally published on February 16, 2011)
For 16 years, Tampa has been the Yankees’ spring training home, but it still seems like just yesterday when the team’s camp was located down the coast in Ft. Lauderdale. I am sure most fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s still reflexively hearken back to those days of yore, while the real old timers’ memories probably take them all the way back to St. Petersburg, where Yankees’ legends from Ruth to Mantle toiled under the Florida sun.
Over the years, spring training has evolved significantly. Once upon a time, it was a pre-season retreat designed to help out-of-shape ballplayers shed the pounds added over the winter. In the early part of the last century, before even reporting to camp, players would often attend spas in places like Hot Springs, where they would purge their bodies of the inequities from the offseason. Then, games would either be played among split squads (in the old days, the camps would be split into teams of veterans and hopeful rookies, the latter often called Yannigans) or against local minor league and college ballclubs. Finally, the teams would barnstorm their way back up north before finally kicking off the regular season.
Today, spring training is more big business than quaint tradition. Thanks to the growing competition between cities in Arizona and Florida (each state now hosts 15 major league clubs), teams have been able to extract sweetheart stadium deals, allowing them to turn the exhibition season into a significant profit center. Still, at the heart of spring training is hope and renewal, as teams begin the long journey that is the baseball season.
The Yankees’ spring history has been a journey all its own. Below is an outline of some significant mileposts along the way.
1901-1902: The Orioles of the brand new American League began preparations for their inaugural season in Baltimore, the same city in which they would play their regular season games. Unfortunately, the rainy weather in Baltimore would make for a less than efficient camp and lead to excessive “loafing” by the ball players. In 1902, manager John McGraw took his ball club down to Savannah, GA, where the franchise trained while a member of the National League (before folding at the end of the 1899 season). In the Baltimore Sun, McGraw vowed to have a more productive preseason and proclaimed that there would be “no loafing” this time around.
1903-1904: When the Orioles assembled in Atlanta for spring training, they no longer played in Baltimore and weren’t really the Orioles. During the offseason, American League president Ban Johnson had finally succeeded in his attempt to place a franchise in New York, and the Orioles were the team selected to move. The only problem was there was no place to play and an unwelcoming political environment in New York that had no interest in helping out. With McGraw now managing the Giants, and that team’s owner committed to keeping the A.L. out of his city, Johnson had to race against the clock to ensure that his orphan team would soon find a home in the Big Apple. In the meantime, Johnson stocked the New York Americans, as they were being called, with stars like Clark Griffith, Wee Willie Keeler, Jack Chesbro and Jess Tannehill. Instead of focusing on getting ready for the season, this group of talented ball players spent more time worrying about whether they would be paid in the upcoming season. Despite rumors of possible defection, Johnson found a home and an owner for the Highlanders, as they would officially be called for the better part of the decade.
1905-1906: After spending two springs in Atlanta, manager Clark Griffith took his team to Alabama in 1905 and 1906. The first year, the team settled in Montgomery at the Highland Oval. According to newspaper accounts, Griffith had his troops march to and from the team hotel, which was located two miles away. One of the interesting stories that spring centered on a bat that catcher Pat Duff brought back from Cuba. “The wood is light, but with more wood in the stick to it heavier, it ought to be good, as the ball leaves it swiftly,” said Griffith, who planned to order a batch for the team.
In 1906, the Yankees set up camp at the Birmingham Training Grounds, but the city was stricken by poor weather. “It is exercise of the legs only that the Greater New Yorks are able to get here,” The New York Times reported. “Cold has set in good and stout, and the city is as frozen as New York.”
1907-1912: During this period, the Yankees hopped around the state of Georgia, playing in Atlanta, Macon, Athens and then Atlanta again. In 1910, manager Gene Stallings named Hal Chase team captain, and the following year Prince Hal would return to Macon as skipper. Not one to shy away from a good time as a player, Chase took a much more serious tone as a manager, beginning with a strict training camp in 1911. Unfortunately for Chase, it would be his only spring as manager. The following year, under the leadership of Harry Wolverton, the Yankees returned to Atlanta for the third and final time, and once again ran into bad weather. Midway through March, so much rain had fallen that the team had to move from its flooded training facility and set up camp at the University of Georgia’s Herty Field.
1913: Perhaps seeking refuge from the cold and rain that seemed to dominate past spring trainings, the Yankees moved their camp outside of the country for the first and only time. On March 3, most of the squad set sail for Hamilton, Bermuda, but rampant seasickness from a rough voyage set manager Frank Chance’s timetable back a bit. The facility used was a converted cricket field, and most of the games took place against an overmatched local team from Jersey called the Skeeters. Still, team owner Frank Farrell was said to be so pleased with the experience that he was considering the establishment of a permanent training grounds on the island. The biggest news, however, came at the end of spring when Chance, who ran the camp as a disciplinarian, lifted his ban on pie and cake. Interestingly, the same scenario would play out nearly 100 years later when new manager Joe Girardi opened his first camp with a series of strict guidelines that included the banishment of candy and gum.
1914: The Yankees’ gave Texas a try when they opened up camp in Houston. Still the disciplinarian, Chance opened the spring by fining pitcher Ray Caldwell the hefty sum of $50 for violating his training rules.
1915-1918: Under Bill Donovan, the Yankees returned to Georgia for one last stint, including a three-year stay in Macon, the team’s longest tenure in one location to date.
1919-1920: The Yankees joined a growing trend in baseball by relocating its preseason training program to Florida in 1919. In fact, all three New York teams decided to relocate to the Sunshine state: the Giants selected Gainesville, while the Yankees and Dodgers settled in Jacksonville. According to a note in the Providence News, “The villagers burst into a wonderful display of straw hats…when the New York delegation of Yankees got into town”. Because the Dodgers were training nearby, the two teams broke from tradition by scheduling several exhibition games against each other. “The clubs expect to benefit by the arrangement, for it will give each club the advantage of playing against major league opposition from the very start of the training season,” explained the New York Times.
In 1920, the Yankees returned to Jacksonville, but this time they brought an added attraction. Over the off season, the Yankees acquired Babe Ruth from the Red Sox, so all of New York and Jacksonville anxiously awaited his arrival in camp. When he finally appeared, Ruth had more success hitting golf balls than baseballs at first, but eventually found his homerun swing. In the meantime, he also exhibited some of the eccentric behavior that made the Red Sox anxious to trade him. During a Saturday exhibition, Ruth jumped into the bleachers to confront a noisy fan upset by the slugger’s frequent strikeouts. However, after the fan brandished a knife, Ruth quickly hopped back on to the field, averting a tragedy that could have ended his Yankee career before it started.
1921-1924: The Yankees took their show on the road to Louisiana in the early-1920s. The first stop was in Shreveport, where hordes of amateur photographers descended on the Yankee camp to get a snap shot of the Babe. Before his arrival, a local optician took out an ad in the morning paper promising a $5 prize for the best photo of the Bambino, but the anxious fans probably didn’t need the incentive. Shreveport went crazy for Ruth, but nothing topped March 14, the day he knocked three mammoth blasts and tallied six hits in one game versus the local Gassers.
From 1922 to 1924, the Yankees held their training program in New Orleans, returning to the site of the old New York Mutuals tour of the south in 1869-70, which first brought East Coast baseball to the Gulf. Spending several weeks in the Big Easy must have seemed like paradise to Ruth, at least until he lost a $1,000 bill in 1924.
1925-1942: After much lobbying by Florida State League president Al Lang, not to mention a brand new $35,000 practice facility paid for by the city, the Yankees returned to the Sunshine State by establishing camp in St. Petersburg. On February 23, Lang tossed out a ceremonial first pitch to Yankees manager Miller Huggins, inaugurating Crescent Lake Park and signaling the beginning of a lengthy relationship between the team and city. Following the death of the Yankees’ skipper in 1929, the facility was renamed Miller Huggins Park before the 1930 season, giving the Yankees a constant reminder of their former manager for many decades to come. Although the Yankees trained at Crescent Lake/Miller Huggins Park during this time, exhibition games were held at Waterfront Park, which the team shared with the Boston Braves and then later St. Louis Cardinals.
1943-1945: War time travel restrictions forced most teams to train close to home, which unfortunately for the Yankees meant trading in the warm Florida sun for the still chilly Jersey shore. In 1943, the team used a high school in Asbury Park before spending the final two years of WWII training in the 112th Field Artillery Armory and playing exhibition games at Bader Field in Atlantic City.
1946-1950: The end of the war meant the Yankees could return to their spring time home in St. Petersburg. However, years of neglect weren’t kind to old Waterfront Park, so after the 1946 training season, a new stadium was erected. In 1947, the city of St. Petersburg unveiled a brand new stadium called Al Lang Field, which would serve as the joint spring home for the Yankees and Cardinals.
1951: The Yankees and Giants agreed to swap training facilities in 1951. As a result, the Yankees spent their first and only spring preparing in Arizona, while the Giants became the first team other than the Yankees to utilize Miller Huggins Park. The one-year trade was agreed upon by the Giants as a courtesy to Yankees’ co-owner and vice president Del Webb, whose hometown was Phoenix.
Despite only spending one year in Arizona, it was an eventful one. First, the team suffered salary holdouts by pitcher Eddie Lopat and catcher Yogi Berra, and then Joe DiMaggio announced his intention to retire after the season. One positive, however, was the play of a young rookie named Mickey Mantle, whose prodigious hitting ability would force his way onto the roster for the 1951 season.
Also in 1951, a Negro League team was permitted to train at Miller Huggins Field for the first time.
1952-1961: The Yankees returned to St. Petersburg in 1952, but over the team’s waning years in the city, grumblings of dissatisfaction began to emerge. Not only were the Yankees’ unhappy with the portion of the spring training proceeds being taken by the city, but they also bristled at perceived favorable treatment extended to the Cardinals. So, in the spring of 1961, rumors about a potential shift to Fort Lauderdale were finally confirmed. “In St. Petersburg, we practice on one field and play on another,” said Yankees co-owner Dan Topping. “In Fort Lauderdale, we would have the town to ourselves”.
St. Petersburg wasn’t without a second team for long, however. Shortly after the Yankees announcement, the New York Mets decided they would train at Miller Huggins Park before the 1962 season.
1962-1995: The Yankees brand new $600,000 Ft. Lauderdale Stadium opened up in 1962. The facility included an 8,000 seat stadium to accommodate larger crowds as well as unheard of spring amenities like air-conditioned clubhouses and offices on the premises. By moving to the east coast of Florida, the Yankees joined four other teams who had broken away from the center of the state: Orioles (Miami), Dodgers (Vero Beach), Senators (Pompano Beach), and Athletics (West Palm Beach).
In 1965, the five-time defending American League champions had a miserable spring, foreshadowing the team’s imminent decline under new manager Johnny Keane, who the previous year had led the St. Louis Cardinals to victory over the Bronx Bombers in the World Series. Not only did the Yankees struggle on the field in the spring, but they also had their share of troubles off it. In late March, Roger Maris and Clete Boyer were both charged with assault stemming from their involvement in a brawl outside Nick’s Cocktail Lounge in Ft. Lauderdale. Although Maris was found innocent of all charges before breaking camp (Boyer plead no contest and paid a $175 fine in November), the eventful preseason was an ominous sign of things to come.
During the 1970s, spring training in Ft. Lauderdale served as each season’s opening act of the Bronx Zoo. From salary disputes to Reggie Jackson’s “straw that stirs the drink” interview to fallout from Sparky Lyle’s book, Yankee camp was always chock full of entertaining stories. However, they could just as easily have taken place in Ocala, where new owner George M. Steinbrenner owned a horse farm. Shortly after taking over as principal owner in 1973, Steinbrenner was reportedly dissatisfied with the state of the Ft. Lauderdale facilities and reached out to Ocala power brokers about making another switch. On more than one occasion, Steinbrenner used that leverage to extract improvements to the Yankees’ training facility from the city government, including the furnishing of a private box in 1980, the relocation of a motorcross course in 1985 (Steinbrenner felt that its proximity to the ballpark was not aesthetically pleasing), and significant renovations to locker room facilities and concessions in 1989.
In 1993, Ft. Lauderdale was the backdrop for Steinbrenner’s triumphant return from suspension, but it also marked the beginning of the end for the Yankees relationship with the city. With the team’s most recent lease set to expire that year, the Yankees started actively negotiating with other cities in Florida before finally settling on Steinbrenner’s adopted hometown of Tampa.
1996-Present: Over 30 years earlier, the Yankees abandoned the Tampa area to lead a pilgrimage to Florida’s east coast. Now, they were leading the charge back. In 1996, the Yankees unveiled Legends Field, a state-of-the-art $30 million facility that was constructed to the identical dimensions of Yankee Stadium. The new facility opened to rave reviews as new manager Joe Torre held his first training camp with the Yankees. That season, the Yankees not only ushered in a new preseason home, but also staged a return to past glory. Future legends like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada entered that first camp in Tampa without even being guaranteed a job, but all emerged as prominent leaders in the organizations dynastic revival. Later on in the era, Legends Field was also host to episodes of infamy when Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte and Alex Rodriguez were all forced to address PED allegations. At the heart of it all…both the good and the bad…was the Boss. In 2008, at the recommendation of the Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa City Council, the facility was renamed Steinbrenner Field in honor of the Yankees’ principal owner.
Yankees’ Spring Training Facilities, 1901 to Present
|Birmingham||AL||1906||1906||Birmingham Training Grounds|
|Atlanta||GA||1907||1908||Ponce de Leon Park|
|Atlanta||GA||1912||1912||Ponce de Leon Pk, Marist College Fld|
|Hamilton||Bermuda||1913||1913||Hamilton Cricket Field|
|Jacksonville||FL||1919||1920||South Jacksonville ballpark|
|New Orleans||LA||1922||1924||Heinemann Park|
|St. Petersburg||FL||1925||1942||Crescent Lake/Miller Huggins Fld, Waterfront Pk|
|Asbury Park||NJ||1943||1943||Asbury Park High School|
|Atlantic City||NJ||1944||1945||Bader Field|
|St. Petersburg||FL||1946||1950||MH Field, Wfront Park (1946)/Al Lang Field|
|St. Petersburg||FL||1952||1961||Miller Huggins Field and Al Lang Field|
|Ft. Lauderdale||FL||1962||1995||Fort Lauderdale Stadium|
|Tampa||FL||1996||Pres||Legends Field/Steinbrenner Field|