The Grapefruit League: Baseball in Florida
April 3, 2017 is Opening Day, marking the beginning of the baseball regular season following over a month of spring training. Baseball fans are already aware that many teams hold their spring training here in Florida because winters are relatively temperate. Due to this Florida connection, our Chronicling America newspapers are a treasure trove for fans of baseball history and its surrounding culture. As baseball moves into the regular season, let’s take a look at some articles that discuss spring training in Florida, including the rumored origin of the name “Grapefruit League.”
According to Kevin M. McCarthy’s Baseball in Florida, baseball teams have been heading to the Southern U.S. for spring training as far back as the 1870s. Spring training, at the beginning, was intended to get players back in shape for the new season after their winter off. In the age of highly trained and well-paid professions, spring training allows teams to try out new players and ease into the season. It also gives fans the chance to see their team play in smaller, more intimate venues. The first team to use Florida as the site for their spring training was the Washington Capitals (also called the Senators) who went to Jacksonville for three weeks in 1888 (McCarthy 141). While baseball players didn’t have the best professional reputation in the early 20th century, it was economically advantageous for Florida cities and towns to court teams for spring training and did so by offering teams new fields and improved facilities. While costing municipalities initially, in addition to bringing the team and support staff to town, the spring training season also brought spectators and their families who were likely to patronize hotels, restaurants, and other local attractions.
Baseball teams have held spring training in Florida since the late 19th century, but the Grapefruit League, the name for the group of teams who train in the Sunshine State, originated in the early 1910s. McCarthy nails down 1914 as the year the league was established, but the event that is rumored to have led to the naming of the league didn’t occur until 1915 when a grapefruit was tossed out of an airplane with rather explosive results (McCarthy 146). While multiple versions of this legend exist, The Daytona daily news, the newspaper of the city where the incident occurred, published their version of the event on March 17, 1915 while Daytona was hosting the Brooklyn Dodgers during their spring training. In their report, famous woman aviator Ruth Law devised a promotional stunt with Wilbert Robinson, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, during which she would toss a baseball from an airplane for him to catch. Law claims that she forgot the agreed upon baseball and instead “substituted a grapefruit” which she had in her plane. Robinson missed the fruit, which “walloped him on the arm” leaving quite the bruise. Another version of the story also mentions that the fruit exploded “all over his face, showering him with freshly squeezed grapefruit juice” (Gardner). One can only speculate how badly he would have been hurt if he had been hit by a baseball falling from around 500 feet above the ground!
Coverage of spring training in Chronicling America’s Florida papers varies from title to title and the depth of coverage is largely contingent on if the municipality was hosting a team during a given year. However, there are reports in most papers about spring training throughout the state. In our collection, The Daytona daily news during the years 1915 and 1916 stands out for its coverage of the Brooklyn Dodgers (Officially named the Brooklyn Base Ball Club but also referred to in our papers as the Superbas), who held their spring training near the city during those years. In addition to reporting the grapefruit debacle, the paper, as you would expect, reported upcoming games as well as offering summaries after they occurred. But beyond reporting sports news, The Daytona daily news treated the Brooklyn Dodgers like local celebrities, including stories in the paper about their leisure activities including their success while fishing, going on plane rides with the aforementioned Ruth Law, and a banquet held in their honor by local civic groups.
Beyond just the team, The Daytona daily news, like many local papers at that time, also included brief notices about important out of town visitors. In the time period before and after Daytona hosted the Brooklyn team, the paper also reported the coming and going of the club owner, other team staff including doctors and managers, and even the out of town press who accompanied the team to cover training. Daytona, already a well-established tourist destination by 1915, apparently had sufficient infrastructure for the press who, according to this April 6th article, were happy with the telegraph services available in Daytona. Nevertheless, while the city was under the impression that Daytona would be home to Brooklyn Baseball spring training “for next five years, if not longer” in March 1915, after 1916 the Dodgers only returned to Daytona once for spring training in 1946. After this, mentions of the Superbas fade from the pages of The Daytona daily news. Due to it being a seasonal paper, there are no issues of The Daytona daily news during October 1916, when they played (and lost) the World Series to the Boston Red Sox.
There is undoubtedly more information about spring training in Florida newspapers that haven’t been digitized yet, and our incomplete record demonstrates the need for projects like ours, which ensure public access to primary sources. For example, we haven’t yet digitized issues of Gainesville papers for the years 1919 or 1921 when the Giants and the Phillies, respectively, held their spring training there. Today, fifteen teams, including the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals, still come to Florida for spring training and to play exhibition games against one another, providing entertainment for yet another generation of native Floridians and tourists alike.
Citations and Additional Sources
Gardner, Dakota. “The amazing story of ‘Uncle Robbie’ Robinson’s plane-assisted grapefruit catch.” Cut4 (blog) . March 13, 2014. http://m.mlb.com/cutfour/2014/03/13/69250856/wilbert-robinson-airplane-baseball-grapefruit-catch.
“History.” Florida Grapefruit League. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://www.floridagrapefruitleague.com/home/history/.
McCarthy, Kevin M. Baseball in Florida. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press, 1996.
Semchuck, Alex. “Wilbert Robinson.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed March 22, 2017. http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/5536caf5.