Baseball is back, and A1A offers a chance to get close to the ballpark for the 2021 season, with some changes at the beginning of the season at least. Miami Marlins fans enjoyed opening day against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 1 with an allotted 25% capacity.
In honor of baseball’s return to its fans, and to Minor League Baseball’s return on May 4 after last year’s cancelled season, here is some information on baseball teams that compete near A1A and some connected baseball history, starting with the Marlins of Major League Baseball.
The Marlins, known for having up and down seasons, have nevertheless won two World Series titles: in 1997, during its fifth year in Major League Baseball; and in 2003, led by manager Jack McKeon, who at age 72 became the OLDEST ever to win a World Series. That season, the Florida Marlins defeated the New York Yankees at the original Yankee Stadium, the LAST team to win a World Series there.
A Triple-A version of the Miami Marlins played from 1956-1960 at Miami Stadium. A memorable moment from the Triple-A Marlins occurred on August 7, 1956; 57,000 fans at the Orange Bowl watched Satchel Paige, at age 50, pitch a victory against the Columbus Red Birds. Miami Stadium served as the spring training site of the Baltimore Orioles from 1959-1990; demolished in 1999, the location is now the home of Miami Stadium Apartments along with a historical marker.
Known as the “Father of Florida Tourism,” Henry Morrison Flagler developed the Florida East Coast Railway and established resort hotels along the way, especially in St. Augustine and Palm Beach. Flagler also had baseball grounds established at these resorts and hired African-American ballplayers, who also worked as service workers during the baseball off-season, to field teams representing his resorts: the Royal Poinciana and The Breakers in Palm Beach, and the Ponce de Leon and Alcazar in St. Augustine. Kevin Reichard, founder of Baseball Digest, wrote “Exploring the roots of spring training in Florida” on January 5, 2011:
“Flagler was an entrepreneur and the man who brought railroads and flashy hotels to Florida’s Treasure Coast, eventually extending the line down to Key West. Along the way he built some flashy hotels and lived the high life… Also, he famously built diamonds at his leading properties (the Breakers and Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana) and then hired African-American players to play exhibitions in the spring. Many of these players ended up playing in Cuba after spring games ended….
Flagler and his railroad have received credit for bringing baseball to Florida, especially spring training, thus enriching its baseball history, especially in St. Augustine. A good read by Florida history writer Geoff Dobson can be found here.
Another cool connection between St. Augustine and baseball—when the St. Augustine Amphitheater was built in 1965; seating was brought from the legendary Polo Grounds, home of baseball’s New York Giants, which was demolished in 1964.
Jacksonville, part of Double-A baseball from 1970 to 2020 with the Southern League, makes the move up to Triple-A baseball this season with its Jumbo Shrimp playing in the realigned Triple-A East’s Southeast Division against the Charlotte Knights, Durham Bulls, Gwinnett Stripers, Memphis Redbirds, Nashville Sounds, and Norfolk Tides.
Though Jacksonville has never fielded a major league team, it has a storied, and at times infamous, baseball past. Mike Goldman’s article “Play Ball!” for Jacksonville Magazine (June 19, 2015) mentions Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees spring training in Jacksonville in 1920:
“The Florida Times-Union reported early in March 1920 that “no Jacksonville citizen has sued Ruth for fence breaking.” During the ninth inning of a game in late March, a fan heckled Ruth, and The New York Times reported Ruth “jumped over the fence and threatened to obliterate the man who was abusing him.” After the man pulled a knife on Ruth, the incident was broken up by a Yankee teammate who followed Ruth into the grandstand.…”
Even more infamous is the story about Jackie Robinson playing for the Montreal Royals, a farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. From Andre Ellis of DuvalSports.com (“Jackie Robinson Day: You Should Know Jackie Robinson….” in June 2016):
“When they (Montreal Royals) arrived in Jacksonville to play a scheduled spring game, the stadium was padlocked by the city’s parks and public property director. Other cities followed like Deland and Daytona, but Daytona eventually agreed to allow the team to play. So on March 17th 1946, Robinson became the first black player to play in the minor leagues in Daytona Beach, Florida. But it quite easily could’ve been Jacksonville.”
Many baseball players, from the 1880’s to recent years, have gone onto tremendous, even Hall of Fame careers playing in Jacksonville as minor leaguers. This includes Hank Aaron, who in 1953 helped break the color barrier in the South Atlantic League, playing one season for the Jacksonville Braves. Aaron earned MVP honors that season and helped the Braves win the league title.
Aaron is one of 11 Major League Hall of Fame inductees that played for Jacksonville over the years.
Fans of Aaron should read The Jaxson’s “Four Hammering Hank Aaron Sites in Jacksonville” by Ennis Davis (February 24, 2021). This would be a nice Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, pre-game adventure.
Very recently, the Jacksonville City Council voted to rename J.P. Small Park, the baseball grounds where Aaron played, “Henry L. Aaron Field at J.P. Small Memorial Park Stadium.” The ballpark houses a small museum honoring Jacksonville’s baseball past.
Another connection to baseball in North Florida focuses on Forrest “Lefty” Brewer, who went to high school in Jacksonville and played for the St. Augustine Saints of the Florida State League in 1938. His remarkable play, which included pitching a no-hitter against the Orlando Senators, caught the attention of the then-Washington Senators of Major League Baseball.
Instead of playing in the majors, however, Brewer was drafted for military service and at the age of 26 participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy as a US Army paratrooper; he was one of five professional baseball players killed on D-Day.
His name appears on the Veteran’s Memorial Wall near Jacksonville’s 121 Financial Ballpark. The memorial wall is the second largest in America, the largest being the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The Jumbo Shrimp are affiliated with the Marlins, as is the Jupiter Hammerheads of the 10-team, Low-A Southeast League. The other three Low-A minor League teams along A1A—Daytona Tortugas (Cincinnati Reds), St. Lucie Mets (New York Mets), and Palm Beach Cardinals (St. Louis Cardinals)—also play in the league, made up of teams from the former, High-A Florida State League.
As part of the Grapefruit League during spring training, five of the 15 Major League teams train at three ballparks close to A1A: New York Mets in Port St. Lucie; St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins in Jupiter; and Houston Astros and Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, who left the Grapefruit League and relocated to Arizona’s Cactus League after the 2008 spring training season, left behind the most historic of all spring training sites—Dodgertown.
Located in Vero Beach, Dodgertown, now known as the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, served as the Dodgers spring training site since 1947. While the complex now hosts events that would capture the attention of the most fervent sports fan, Dodgertown does not offer much for tourists—except to place yourself at one of America’s most historic baseball locations.
This should be reason enough to pay a visit.
Another excellent read on Dodgertown comes from Noah Frank of Washington D.C.’s WTOP News. Titled “What Happened to Dodgertown?” (March 28, 2017), Franks writes about Dodgertown’s historical significance, and its connection to Dodger fans and the Vero Beach community.
“From Jackie Robinson to Sandy Koufax to Mike Piazza, generations of Hall of Famers have called Dodgertown home in February and March. But the Dodgers are hardly the only franchise with a laundry list of legends. The difference at Dodgertown was their accessibility to the fans.“
I can attest to this, having seen several spring training games in my younger days at Holman Stadium, located within Dodgertown. My memories include meeting Tommy Lasorda—twice—as he canvased the training facility on a golf cart. He, and the ballplayers, were very approachable to fans. During games, only a dugout fence would separate the players from the stands, and the players didn’t seem to mind.
The five minor league teams along A1A will enjoy opening day on May 4.
The Jumbo Shrimp open at home on May 4 for a six-game homestand. The last time Jacksonville fielded a Triple-A team was from 1962-1968 in the International League; the then-Jacksonville Suns moved to Virginia and became the Tidewater Tides—now the Norfolk Tides—who the Jumbo Shrimp will face in the 2021 opener.
The Jumbo Shrimp play their home games at 121 Financial Park, considered one of the top Minor League ballparks in the country.
The Tortugas open their season on the road against the Palm Beach Cardinals on May 4. Their first homestand will be 12 games, beginning with the St. Lucie Mets on May 11, at historic Jackie Robinson Ballpark and Museum, the fourth oldest ballpark still in use for professional baseball. Named after the groundbreaking hall of famer, it is the first ballpark which Robinson played—on March 17, 1946—as a professional for the Triple-A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Montreal Royals, thus officially integrating the game.
The Mets begin a six-game homestand against the Jupiter Hammerheads on May 4. The Mets play their home games at Clover Park; this is also the spring training site of the New York Mets. Port St. Lucie is where Megan Fox, of Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, spent her formative years. It is also the home of Robert Matthew Van Winkle. I’ll let you figure this one out.
The Cardinals, known locally as the Beach Birds, and the Hammerheads share space at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium, which is also the spring training site of the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. It is located in Jupiter, which in turn is located in Palm Beach County. The Beach Birds get first dibs at home, opening against the Daytona Tortugas; the Beach Birds stay for the next series as the visiting team against the Hammerheads for a six-game stand beginning May 11.
While Minor League Baseball begins play on May 4, the Marlins begin a six-game homestand at loanDepot Park against the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Milwaukee Brewers. With minor league affiliates Jacksonville and Jupiter playing near A1A on the same dates, Marlins fans can see all three play in a weekend.
A final note: Key West was home to four minor league teams from 1969-1975, including the Key West Conchs (1972-1974). So what is now on my Christmas list?
Happy shopping—I mean traveling!