Pirates salute Bradenton’s 100 years of baseball history

February 26th, 2023
A display outside LECOM Park commemorates 100 years of baseball in Bradenton.Harrison Barden

This year marks the 100th anniversary of baseball in Bradenton -- and the Pirates, who have made this scenic town on Florida’s Gulf Coast their southern home since 1969, are saluting the area’s long and storied history with the national pastime.

Bradenton’s association with the sport began when the St. Louis Cardinals played their Spring Training games at City Park in 1923 and 1924. The 1,300-seat facility, located slightly east of what is currently LECOM Park, was built on the site of an old golf course, reportedly at a cost of $2,000.

City Park later became Ninth Street Park (1927), Braves Field (1948), McKechnie Field (1962) and LECOM Park (2018). The Cardinals returned to Bradenton for seven years, from 1930 to 1936. Before the Pirates arrived, the Philadelphia Phillies (1925-27), Boston Red Sox (1928-29), Boston Bees (1938-40), Boston-Milwaukee Braves (1948-1962) and Kansas City-Oakland Athletics (1963-68) also made Bradenton their Spring Training home.

The Pirates concluded a 14-year run in Fort Myers in 1968, then relocated to Bradenton. That was on the eve of what turned out to be a decade of dominance for Pittsburgh. During the 1970s, the Pirates won six National League East titles and a pair of World Series championships. Superb players such as Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Dock Ellis, Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen, Dave Parker, John Candelaria and Bill Madlock led the way.

That got the Pirates and Bradenton off to a great start together. Today, that partnership is stronger than ever.

“We are proud to be a stable presence in this community for the past 55 years and have developed what truly is the model relationship between a community and team,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said. “During that time, together with the city of Bradenton and Manatee County, we have attracted a countless number of visitors and new residents to the area. We are thrilled to once again welcome fans back to Pirate City and LECOM Park to further express our appreciation for their support.”

Bradenton mayor Gene Brown was 12 years old when the Pirates defeated the Baltimore Orioles to capture the World Series title in 1979. Back then, his mother was secretary-treasurer of the Bradenton Boosters. As an adult -- and especially after eight years on the city council and two more as mayor -- Brown has a deep understanding of how important the Pirates are to Bradenton.

Dave Parker runs the bases during a Spring Training drill in 1977.AP

“The Pirates have always been a great partner with the city from the standpoint of, ‘What do we need? What can we do? Let’s work together. Let’s make this a great thing for Bradenton,’” he said. “That 1979 saying, ‘We Are Family,’ that’s truly how we feel with the Pirates. Plus, having them here is such a great economic driver. We’re talking tens of millions of dollars.

“This year, we’re really excited because there’s no COVID and there’s no lockout -- and we have a full Spring Training schedule. We’re anticipating great weather, great crowds and great baseball.”

Jim Trdinich has been a member of the Pirates’ front office since 1989 and has spent time in Bradenton every year since 1992. In his new role as director of player relations and team historian, he’s run point on the ballclub’s plans to recognize the 100th anniversary.

Trdinich shared that 5-foot-by-3-foot panels -- 11 in all, featuring historical facts and photographs from each decade -- will be on display at LECOM Park during Grapefruit League games, down the right-field line near the entrance to the Pirates’ clubhouse. Also, on selected weekend dates, former Pirates players will sign autographs for fans before games in front of the display.

Even though Trdinich is very knowledgeable about baseball in general and baseball in Bradenton in particular, he admits he learned a lot while conducting research for the project.

“Diving into this was eye-opening for me,” he said. “As much as I love baseball history and Pirates history, there was a lot I didn’t know -- especially about the teams that were in Bradenton before us.

“For instance, the St. Louis Cardinals of the 1930s became known as the ‘Gashouse Gang’ because Dizzy Dean had a gas station in Bradenton. He lived in Bradenton -- and the Cardinals, who won the World Series in 1931 and 1934, would hang out at Dizzy’s gas station. You uncover stories like that.”

Dizzy Dean works out during Spring Training in Bradenton in 1931.AP

Here are additional notes of interest about baseball in Bradenton:

• The Bradenton Growers of the Florida State League (1923-24, '26), Bradenton 9 Devils of the Florida State Negro League (1937-1956), Bradenton Explorers of the Senior Professional Baseball Association (1989-90) and Bradenton Marauders of the Florida State League (2010-present) have also called this city home. The Marauders, a Minor League team owned and operated by the Pirates, won league titles in 2016 and '21.

• In 1941, the ballpark was closed and taken over by the U.S. Army because of World War II. Originally known as Camp Bradenton, the name was changed to Camp Weatherford in 1943 in honor of Pfc. Willie M. Weatherford of Miami, who was killed in the Philippines. A historical marker denoting that remains in front of the nearby Bradenton Public Works building. Baseball returned to the facility in 1948.

• In 1962, the ballpark at the corner of Ninth Street West and 17th Street West was renamed McKechnie Field in honor of Bill McKechnie, the Hall of Fame former Pirates player and manager. McKechnie was a Pittsburgh-area native and longtime Bradenton resident. As manager, he led the Pirates to a World Series triumph in 1925.

• LECOM Park is the third-oldest stadium currently used by a Major League team. Only Fenway Park in Boston (opened in 1912) and Wrigley Field in Chicago (opened in 1914) are older. LECOM Park is the oldest stadium used for Spring Training games. In 2018, the naming rights were acquired by Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, which has its main campus in Erie, Pa., and another in Bradenton.

• Although LECOM Park is the oldest stadium used for Spring Training games, it doesn’t look the part. It’s a beautiful and thoroughly modern facility, thanks to major renovation projects that took place from 1992 to 1993 as well as in 2008 -- when lights were added -- and 2013, when the 19,000-square-foot outfield boardwalk was unveiled. The first night game at what was then McKechnie Field took place on March 19, 2008, when the Pirates hosted the New York Yankees.

• Among the many Hall of Famers who played in Bradenton are: Hank Aaron, Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Wade Boggs, Jim Bottomley, Roberto Clemente, Dizzy Dean, Frankie Frisch, Burleigh Grimes, Roy Halladay, Barry Larkin, Mickey Mantle, Eddie Mathews, Bill Mazeroski, Jack Morris, Mariano Rivera, Ivan Rodriguez, Babe Ruth, Mike Schmidt, Red Schoendienst, Warren Spahn, Willie Stargell and Ted Williams.

A 19,000-square-foot outfield boardwalk was unveiled at the Pirates' Spring Training home in 2013.Gene J. Puskar/AP

Evidence that Bradenton is a terrific place to live is the fact that several former Pirates currently reside in the area. The group includes Mike Bielecki, Mike LaValliere, Milt May, Jim Morrison, Don Robinson, Scott Sauerbeck, Ian Snell and others -- as well as former managers Jim Tracy, John Russell and Clint Hurdle.

Jeff Podobnik is in his second stint overseeing the Pirates’ operations in Florida. The first was from 1990 to 1999 and the second began six years ago. He’s also currently chairman of the board for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to being the home of Spring Training camp for the Major League club, Bradenton enjoys a year-round presence from the Pirates -- with the Bucs' farm clubs' (the Marauders and Gulf Coast League Pirates) seasons -- plus Florida Instructional League activities and ongoing rehab and workout opportunities for players -- also in the mix.

And Podobnik loves being immersed in all of it.

“The Pirates have a big presence in this community and rightfully so,” he said. “We enjoy giving back to this community and the community supports us by coming to the ballpark and also by supporting our initiatives.

“We’re all part of 100 years of baseball in Bradenton together and we’re going to celebrate it. And the Pirates making up 55 of those 100 years is special. We’re here to stay. We’re not going anywhere.”

“Bradenton has had a great relationship with baseball over the past 100 years -- and the majority of it has been with the Pirates,” Brown added. “I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of different players and fans over the years. It’s been a great history.”