The Grapefruit League – The Boys of Spring
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Can you imagine a time in history when the Chicago Cubs were actually a baseball dynasty of sorts? Well not many people alive today can recall it but back 1906, 1907, 1908 and 1910 they were the National League Champions.
But in 1912 the powerful Cubs had slipped to third place and hall-of-famer player-coach Johnny Evers took his team to Tampa in hopes the warm Spring weather would snap them back and so the Grapefruit League was born.
In its early years the Grapefruit League had some tough going simply because there wasn't much in the way of professional competition. In 1913 the Cubs were playing against a pick up team from local cigar factories.
They took a boat ride out to an Army post to play against the soldiers there. They were amazing amusement for the locals but basically they were playing games against themselves.
The next year however, Florida attracted four teams for Spring Training and that gave the league the boost it needed. The Cubs stayed in Tampa, the St. Louis Browns were in Saint Petersburg, the other St Louis team, The Cardinals were in Saint Augustine and Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics were in Jacksonville. Attendance was amazing. Locals, and then tourists were attracted to the games where admission ran from twenty-five cents to a dollar.
The league suffered a brief setback when Connie Mack blamed an unsuccessful season on the distractions offered by Florida during the spring training. But the distractions he was talking about weren't the great quality of the local ruby red grapefruit and other citrus fruits. Specifically he blamed the poor performance of his star pitcher, Rube Wadell, on the unfortunate experiences he had during training including a wrestling match with an alligator and an attempted suicide after being dumped by a local brunette.
But that certainly was not enough to stop what turned out to be a steamroller effect for the Grapefruit League. The 1920s began the big Florida boom and every town vying for tourist dollars almost had to build a stadium and host a team if they wanted to be competitive.Even though growing high quality citrus fruits, like tangerines, is one of the main sources of income for Florida the money that is made from tourism is also important to the state's bottom line.
If you fast forward today you can see the success of the Grapefruit League. All but six of today's major league teams have trained in Florida at some point in time. Springtime baseball is a longtime tradition for many Florida towns and cities With St Petersburg and Tampa holding the record with 87 years each. You can still hear the crack of a wooden bat and watch the pros during daytime games (the way the sport was meant to be played) with fifteen teams still calling the Florida Grapefruit League home for the warm up season.