Yankees Magazine: Greetings from Asbury Park

This season won’t be the first time that extenuating circumstances force the Yankees to train up north

June 25th, 2020

Ed. Note: During the current stoppage in baseball, Yankees Magazine is periodically putting some of its archival material online for the first time. The original version of this story appeared in the Spring 2010 edition. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

For three and a half weeks, the defending American League champs tried their best to get ready for the 1943 season. The warm sunshine and fleeting rain showers of St. Petersburg, Florida -- where the Yankees had trained since 1925 -- were a distant memory, replaced by bone-chilling temperatures, snow, hail, rain and arctic blasts of wind whipping off of Deal Lake. 

Although Yankees manager Joe McCarthy tried to put a good face on the team’s progress throughout the exhibition season, no one was too upset to be boarding the 3:15 p.m. train out of Asbury Park this Thursday afternoon. Milan Ross, chairman of the Asbury Park board of education’s athletic committee, presented gifts to McCarthy and traveling secretary Rex Weyant, but the quickie send-off ceremony roused little fanfare. Some students walking home from school stopped to watch while disinterested commuters barely looked up from their newspapers as the most famous team in sports squeezed single file into the last car on the train. 

McCarthy turned to Asbury Park Mayor Clarence V. Mooney and quipped, “If we come back next year, see if you can fix it so we don’t get stuck behind a coal car.” 

It was a fitting end to a trying few weeks. 

Nearly eight decades later, it is practically inconceivable that a big-league team would hold its spring training at the Jersey Shore. In the Northeast, planning any outdoor activity in March is a dicey proposition, and the weather gods did not let the Yanks off easy in 1943. 

The decision to leave Florida behind and train up north was not a voluntary one. U.S. railroads were flooded with servicemen traveling to bases and civilians journeying to far-off munitions plants, so baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis decided that to conserve man-miles, training activities would be held north of the Potomac and Ohio rivers and east of the Mississippi. 

The news sent towns and cities across the map into a frenzy. 

“Localities which in other years would never have so much as wasted postage on a folder addressed to a big-league club seemed to pop up at every turn of the clock with inviting offers,” wrote The New York Times’ John Drebinger. “If a courier were to come down on sledge from the Yukon, he would be assured of a polite and attentive ear from the local club owners.”

Roland J. Hines, a civic-minded Asbury Park businessman who would later become mayor, thought: Why not here?  

He contacted Frank Savage, executive secretary of the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce, who immediately drafted a letter extolling the virtues of his city and sent it to the heads of each local club, including Yankees president Ed Barrow. 

The letter drew a response faster than anyone could have imagined. Barrow announced he was sending his chief scout, Paul Krichell, the next day to inspect several potential training sites in New Jersey, including the Rutgers University gymnasium, Lakewood and Asbury Park. Just four days later, on Jan. 11, 1943, came the official word that the New York Yankees were coming to Asbury Park.

Barrow, who would be saving a fortune in travel costs, sounded more than pleased. 

“There are golf courses, which we will not use; a fine, clean ocean, which we will not need; and Broadway only one hour and one-half away for the bored baseball writers,” he said. “From the Albion Hotel to the ballpark is just seven blocks. No cars, you know, no taxis. Just leg it, something like the good old days.” 

With the Yankees’ arrival less than nine weeks away, the staff at Asbury Park High School -- where the team would train -- went to work. The locker rooms under the stadium received a fresh paint job. A phone was installed in football coach William “Clipper” Smith’s office, where McCarthy would set up shop. Signs welcoming the Yankees were posted.  

The excitement was palpable. 

“The Shore is all hepped up over baseball, and why not?” wrote Asbury Park Evening Press sports columnist Bob Prall. “We think that the coming of the New York Yankees to Asbury Park is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to the city, and we’re not limiting the claim to the confines of sports.” 

This being World War II, however, there were scarcely any Ruthian figures coming to the Shore. By the time the Yankees broke camp in mid-March, 144 players had joined the armed services from the eight-team American League alone. The contingent of Yankees that arrived in Asbury Park bore little resemblance to the team that lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1942 Fall Classic. Phil Rizzuto and George Selkirk reported to the Navy shortly after the Series. Tommy Henrich joined the Coast Guard. Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez and Red Rolfe left for a variety of reasons. 

For the citizens of Asbury Park, the biggest blow was the announcement that Joe DiMaggio had enlisted in the armed forces. They’d have to settle for the likes of Oscar Grimes, Tuck Stainback and Bud Metheny -- hardly Murderers’ Row. 

The first player, left-hander Tommy Byrne, arrived at the Albion Hotel amid a snowstorm on Saturday, March 13. Marius Russo, Marv Breuer, Bill Zuber and others showed up the next day, and at first glance, the Albion seemed like an ideal headquarters. It was located on Second Avenue, across the street from Asbury Park’s famous boardwalk. Completely modern and fireproof, the stunning edifice overlooking the ocean had opened for business just a year earlier, after the original wooden structure burnt down. A staircase and murals from the 1939 New York World’s Fair were reportedly used in the hotel’s elegant Rainbow Room, where nightly dancing provided an attractive spot for the single ballplayers to mingle with the local ladies.

On their first night at the Albion, however, the Yankees were reminded that they weren’t in Florida anymore. The two floors they occupied had been shuttered for the winter, and the hotel management had forgotten to turn the heat back on in that wing. With fuel being heavily rationed, it normally would take a special permit (and a number of days) for the additional supply to arrive, but a special delivery was made and the athletes had warm rooms to sleep in. 

On Monday morning, a handful of fans gathered in the 7,200-seat high school stadium to watch nine players and several coaches run through a 90-minute workout in brisk winds. Driving rainstorms and freezing temps kept the Yanks off the field for much of the first week, but the unbaseball-like weather did little to temper local enthusiasm and participation. 

Coach Smith was enlisted as a conditioning coach and would begin each day’s practice by running the ballplayers through a spirited set of calisthenics. Between classes, students would sprint out to the stadium to get a peek at their famous co-habitants and fish for autographs. One boy, a freshman named Joe Weiner, drew the envy of his friends when he was named the Yankees’ official bat boy of spring training and received his own uniform.  

With field and weather conditions remaining uncooperative, the Yankees shot basketballs in the gym or -- much to McCarthy’s chagrin -- laced up boxing gloves and performed sparring exercises. When it wasn’t too frigid, pitchers played toss underneath the stadium grandstand.  

The lack of baseball activity meant the players had excess energy to burn, and there was no shortage of options in Asbury Park. The Yankees had their choice of movie theaters, restaurants and stores (bowling and roller-skating were discouraged, however) within walking distance of the hotel. At night, a mile-long curtain was lowered along the Boardwalk to create a “dimout” -- a tactic employed by coastal cities to thwart enemy submarine attacks -- but the Yanks had a 10:30 p.m. curfew anyway. 

McCarthy reiterated that the Yankees were coming along just fine and that the weather was affecting every team, not just his. But after a week of little more than running and stretching, Marse Joe sat in a corner of the Albion Hotel lobby, carefully eyeing the ash of his cigar as he finally relented to a group of reporters during his daily news conference.

Joe McCarthy

“There’s no use kidding ourselves,” he said. “We all miss Florida.” 

On Sunday, March 21, some 500 onlookers gathered at the stadium to watch the Bronx Bombers unsheathe their lumber for the first time. Catcher Ken Sears was the lone man to put a ball in Deal Lake -- 412 feet away in dead center and 562 feet down the left-field line -- igniting an unofficial contest among his teammates. 

Any more lake shots would have to wait, however, as the mercury dipped again and snow covered the field throughout the early part of the week. At the Albion, players slept in cold rooms and ate dinner with coats and hats on. 

“Some are asserting the fuel oil is being used to heat the night club operated in the hotel basement,” reported the Newark Evening News’ Fred J. Bendel. “An indignation meeting was threatened if something is not done. Everyone from the Asbury Chamber of Commerce to the hotel management got a raking over.” 

As the days went on, players who had been embroiled in contract negotiations with Barrow, including veterans Joe Gordon, Charlie Keller and Bill Dickey, showed up one by one. The weather turned favorable, and large crowds of spectators, many of them soldiers carrying rifles, showed up for the workouts. Patrons would fight for balls hit into the stands, but then throw them back at the request of club management.  

The Yankees played road games in Plainfield and Sandy Hook over the weekend while Asbury Park prepared to host its first exhibition game on Tuesday, April 6. Unfortunately, when Tuesday arrived, so did Old Man Winter. The temp dipped below freezing, a strong wind prevailed, and the game against the Newark Bears, a Yankees’ farm team, was postponed.

Tommy Byrne

That night, the Asbury Park Chamber of Commerce sponsored a community dinner at the Albion in which the Yankees were “formally” welcomed to town. Those present hoped that the welcome wasn’t also a farewell. With the team set to depart for New York on Thursday, Wednesday was the last chance for an exhibition game in Asbury Park.  

Mercifully, the clouds parted, the winds relented, and fans streamed in from Shore points near and far. It was declared a half holiday in Asbury Park. Businesses closed and schoolchildren were let out early for the 2:30 p.m. game. The Asbury Park High School band and drum corps marched onto the field and provided pregame music, followed by the national anthem. Lt. Col. J.R. Philbrook of the Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth was on hand to represent the military. Mayor Mooney, sporting a baseball cap, delivered the ceremonial first pitch. 

The game itself was also a spectacle. The Bears committed six errors and, while no one reached the lake, the Yankees collected 15 hits in a 14-0 romp. The highlight of the game may have been the fifth inning, when a dog wandered onto the field and plopped down on home plate. 

“The mongrel with the sad eyes stole the show,” Prall reported.  

The headline in the Asbury Park Evening Press the next day read “5,000 Watch Yankees Thrash Bears Here, 14-0,” but the official attendance was given as 3,584, including more than 350 area youths whose admission was paid by an anonymous donor. 

After an informal workout on Thursday morning, “with the ballplayers all giving as many autographs as were asked for and bandying words back and forth from the field to the stands,” the Yankees said goodbye to Asbury Park and boarded their train for New York.  

Maybe the cold hotel rooms and Coach Smith’s workouts in the freezing rain helped toughen the squad, which set a franchise record in 1943 with 17 walk-off wins, won the American League by 13 1/2 games, then vanquished the Cardinals in five games for their 10th world championship.

Five weeks after the World Series ended, McCarthy announced that the team would shift its spring training activities to Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1944. The Yanks returned to Florida in 1946 and, with the exception of a one-year stand in Phoenix in 1951, have trained in the Sunshine State ever since -- until the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 shut down the sports world in mid-March and it was deemed safer for the Yankees to train at Yankee Stadium rather than return to Florida when the exhibition season resumed. 

As for the Asbury Park high school stadium on Sunset Avenue, it still stands today and looks much the same as it did in 1943, when the frozen-fingered New York Yankees splintered their bats trying to blast home runs into Deal Lake.