Summer is upon us, and that means baseball season. You may or may not be aware that baseball was an immense driver of tourism in the early days of St. Pete, with many tourists choosing their spot to winter where they could take in exhibition games and practices in the sunny climate.
If you’ve been around St. Pete long, you’ve definitely heard of former mayor Al Lang (mayor 1916-1920). He was famously known as “Mr. Baseball” around St. Pete and was the person who led the charge to bring the first professional team here for Spring Training. But Lang wasn’t just an aficionado, he had connections and a bit of influence up north. Lang had grown up in Pittsburgh watching his hometown team the Pirates for years, even sneaking out of school to go to the ballpark. One of his school friends and partners in crime Barney Dreyfuss also loved the game as much as Lang did. In fact, Dreyfuss became a baseball exec and ended up purchasing the Pirates in 1913.
Lang saw this as a slam dunk and visited his friend back in Philly to convince him to bring the team to the hamlet of St. Pete for Spring Training, but Dreyfuss declined his friend’s offer noting that St. Pete was a too small a town. Anyway, the Pirates already trained in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Dreyfuss, Lang’s friend, turned him down.
Undaunted, Lang kept up his search. He finally found the worst team in the league, the St. Louis Browns, receptive to coming to St. Pete for Spring Training starting in 1914. But hey, you have to start somewhere. To get the Brown here, the city had to build a field, pay the team’s expenses, and make the team comfortable. And that they did.
So here is the interesting part you may not know. The first field was located at Coffee Pot Bayou. The land was donated by Perry Snell and his partner at the time J.C. Hamlett who had just purchased the large swath that would become the Old Northeast / Grenada Terrace and Snell Isle. Snell wanted the traffic to his north-of-town location to attract buyers, and letting the city improve the land seemed like a no-brainer. That said, a number of other developers made similar offers, and the Snell offer was finally chosen because there was no land purchase or rental required of the budget-conscience city. So St. Pete built that field in a rush to open for the 1914 season. Stands, grass, clay, everything was brought in and the park was a hit. The Bayou was just past center field and provided a great backdrop for the game. Tampa and other nearby towns also hosted teams, so the Browns had a pretty full training season. So interestingly, and stayed tuned, because this is cool… the precise location of the field has been lost to time. This author and a historian friend have been working diligently on finding the location, and we think we have it… so stay tuned for a future post! The Coffee Pot field was used for a few years, until the second stadium was opened in St. Pete and the CPB field was relegated to history.
The second major league field in St. Pete was called Waterfront Park. And WOW! Check this enhanced photo! If you are familiar with Al Lang Stadium, the park was located more or less right where the parking lot is now. The field was opened in 1922 and was a more professional field in every way, and was located right downtown.
The Browns had led the way for other teams to call St. Pete home for training after going from the worst team in the league to among the best, citing Spring in St. Pete as a contributing factor. So then you got the Phillies, Yankees, other pro teams, and the Grapefruit League. The Waterfront Park was immensely popular, and operated until 1947 when the current stadium, very appropriately known as Al Lang Stadium, was built.
We all know Al Lang Stadium, which today is of course home to the Rowdies. Now of course we have the Trop, but it seems like its days are numbered. While fields and parks were good enough for the early teams, apparently covered indoor fields with stands for thousands isn’t good enough. But who am I to judge? And what comes next? Time will tell.
Anyway, stay tuned. This is a topical look at this brief history of the parks. There is so much more under the hood, like the location of the Coffee Pot Field!