Although the Devil Rays were the first Major League Baseball team to host regular season games in the area, Tampa Bay's big league roots go back more than 100 years. The area has a rich professional and amateur baseball history.
Major League Baseball in Tampa Bay can be traced back to 1913, when the Chicago Cubs moved their Spring Training operation from New Orleans to Tampa. Major League Baseball has had a presence in the area ever since, except for 1943-45 when World War II prohibited teams from traveling south for Spring Training.
Tampa has hosted at least one team for Spring Training in 93 of the past 106 years. Tampa has been the spring home of seven Major League clubs: Chicago Cubs (1913-16), Boston Red Sox (1919), Washington Senators (1920-29), Detroit Tigers (1930), Cincinnati Reds (1931-42; 1946-87), Chicago White Sox (1954-59) and New York Yankees (1996-).
St. Petersburg has been a Major League Spring Training site for 82 of the past 106 years and had two teams train for 60 years. Nine teams have trained in St. Petersburg: St. Louis Browns (1914), Philadelphia Phillies (1915-18), Boston Braves (1922-37), New York Yankees (1925-42; 1946-50; 1952-61), St. Louis Cardinals (1938-42; 1946-97), New York Giants (1951), New York Mets (1962-87), Baltimore Orioles (1993-95) and Tampa Bay Devil Rays/Rays (1998-2008).
In 1910, a former Pittsburgh laundry owner named Al Lang moved to St. Petersburg to benefit his health. He soon became interested in the local economy and focused on trying to help the sagging tourism industry. As a baseball fan, he believed the answer was to attract a Major League team for Spring Training.
At first, he was rebuffed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose owner Barney Dreyfuss told him: "Al Lang, you must think I am a fool, suggesting I train in a little one-tank town that's not even a dot on the map." Lang did convince the Chicago Cubs to leave New Orleans as their Spring Training home, but they chose Tampa instead. A year later, he lured the St. Louis Browns, under manager Branch Rickey, to move to St. Petersburg.
A baseball committee, formed to attract a Major League team to the city, raised $20,000 to buy a large tract of land for a ballpark. The site chosen for the field was Coffee Pot Bayou in St. Pete, where a 2,000-seat grandstand was built.
Lang was later elected the mayor of St. Petersburg in 1916 and again in 1918.
The first game between two Major League teams in the area took place on March 26, 1914 as the Grapefruit League was established and teams played a five-week schedule of exhibition games. At Plant Field on the campus of the University of Tampa, the host Cubs edged the Browns, 3-2, despite making six errors. The Cubs were fueled early by a first-inning, two-run home run by C. Williams, a blow described the next day by the St. Petersburg Independent as "lucky." Elmer Koestner and Zip Zabel shut out the Browns through eight innings.
The next day, the two teams met at Coffee Pot Bayou, with the Cubs making the trip by steamboat across Tampa Bay. The result was the same, a 3-2 Cubs win. James Leslie (Hippo) Vaughn was the winning pitcher for the Cubs as an estimated 4,000 looked on including many sitting in their automobiles parked beyond right field. Schools and most offices shut down at mid-day. It later became custom for merchants to close their doors on Monday and Wednesday afternoons to allow employees and customers to attend games.
Although, the location offered easy access to fishing, swimming and boating, the players did not like that the movie houses in St. Petersburg closed at 9:30 p.m. and the city had only one dance a week. Most distressing was the fact that the city was "dry." Only the Elks club served liquor.
The Browns vacated St. Petersburg after one year following a dispute over who would pay for the team's expenses. The Philadelphia Phillies replaced them in 1915. After the Phillies moved on three years later, Lang convinced 20 local residents to each contribute $1,000 to build a new ballpark, Waterfront Park, a little north of today's Al Lang Field, built in 1947 in honor of the great baseball promoter.
After a three-year absence in St. Petersburg, baseball returned in 1922 in the form of the Boston Braves. The Yankees followed in 1925. It probably was not a coincidence that Yankees Manager Miller Huggins had recently purchased a home in St. Petersburg.
It is said that the Yankees staying at the Don CeSar Hotel on St. Petersburg Beach in the early 1930s saved the hotel from financial ruin. With players, club officials and media, the Yankees occupied some 125 rooms and filled the hotel restaurant, where the players enjoyed steak and unlimited amounts of milk.
With the Yankees came Babe Ruth and his flamboyant lifestyle. On the train ride home from their first Spring Training in St. Petersburg, Ruth reportedly collapsed from overindulging his large appetite for food and drink. The "stomachache heard around the world" caused him to miss the first month of the regular season. He was subsequently suspended in August of that season for poor performance.
On the first day of Spring Training in 1925, at the team's headquarters at Crescent Lake Field, Ruth gave up shagging balls in right field because several alligators had emerged from the lake which bordered the outfield. The park is today known as Huggins-Stengel Field, in honor of former Yankee managers Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel.
Six years earlier, while Ruth was in Tampa for Spring Training with the Boston Red Sox, he hit on April 4, 1919 what many consider his longest home run, a 587-foot blast against the New York Giants at Plant Field. The feat is commemorated on a plaque at the field.
In 1928, the spring after Ruth's record-setting season, 270,000 fans saw Yankees spring games in St. Petersburg. As a result, Yankee owner Jacob Ruppert cleared a $60,000 profit before heading north.
Though the Boston Braves left for Bradenton in 1937, the St. Louis Cardinals came to St. Petersburg in 1938 and would stay 57 of the next 60 years, missing only the war years. Only the Detroit Tigers, who began training in Lakeland in 1934, have ever had a longer association with a Spring Training home. When the Cardinals announced they were leaving St. Petersburg for a new home in Jupiter, the Devil Rays pledged they would carry the torch in St. Petersburg. The Devil Rays became the first modern day team to conduct Spring Training in its home city.
Even during the war years, the area found a way to keep the national pastime alive. To fill the wartime void, Tampa fashioned the Inter-Social League in 1943. Crowds averaged several thousand in West Tampa and Ybor City to see players that included the fathers of future Major Leaguers Lou Piniella and Dave Magadan.
Three minor leagues have had affiliates in the Tampa Bay area: the Florida State League (1919-), Southeastern League (1928-30) and Florida International League (1946-54). The area is also home to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
Minor League Baseball began in Tampa Bay in 1919, when Tampa became a charter member of the Class-D Florida State League. After finishing last the first year, Tampa went 89-28 in 1920, a .745 winning percentage which remains the best in FSL history. It was that year that the St. Petersburg Saints entered the FSL. By 1922, the Saints had won an FSL crown of their own, their first of seven to tie for the most in league history. Included in that impressive list is the championship won in 1958, when St. Petersburg became the only FSL team ever to win 100 games. St. Pete set an FSL attendance record in 1989, when it drew 202,383 as a St. Louis Cardinals affiliate. Among Tampa's first-place FSL finishes was the title earned by the 1961 team, led by Reds farmhand Pete Rose, who set a still-existing FSL mark with 30 triples that year.
There was one other professional league in St. Petersburg prior to the Rays arrival in 1998. The Senior Professional Baseball Association-a league of former Major Leaguers who were 35 years of age or older-sprang up for one season, 1989-90. The St. Pete Pelicans were the first and only league champions.
The prolonged absence of a permanent Major League team in the area was not for a lack of effort. Tampa Bay actively pursued Major League baseball through expansion and made numerous attempts to lure an existing franchise.
That dogged pursuit lasted some 19 years. Along the way, it appeared a number of teams were headed for Tampa Bay: the Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners and San Francisco Giants all seemed destined to move to the area. None did. In 1990, the Suncoast Dome was completed with the intent of attracting a baseball team. However, Major League Baseball expanded to Miami and Denver in 1991.
Still not defeated, Tampa Bay officials kept the area in the forefront and on March 9, 1995, the dream became reality. On that date, Vincent J. Naimoli, President and Chief Executive Officer of Anchor Industries International, headquartered in Tampa, and his entirely local ownership group were awarded an expansion franchise for Tampa Bay. The announcement came at the owners' meetings in West Palm Beach. The vote among league owners was 28-0 to admit the Devil Rays and the Arizona Diamondbacks as the 13th and 14th expansion teams in Major League history. The reaction in the Tampa Bay area was one of pure ecstasy as the emotions of 13 years of disappointment were swept away.
The Tampa Bay area has produced a multitude of Major Leaguers, including Hall of Famers Al Lopez and Wade Boggs, Lou Piniella, Tony LaRussa, Dwight Gooden, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez, Howard Johnson, Dave Magadan and Brad Radke.
Lopez was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1977. He caught almost 2,000 games in the Major Leagues and was a manager for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. Boggs was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.