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Updated: 10/20/2014 10:59:55PM

Baseball goes back to Florida’s beginning

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Former Detroit Tigers left fielder Willie Horton shares a moment with UF professor Dr. Kevin McCarthy at Tuesday's Baseball in Florida program at the Polk History Center in Bartow.


Dr. Kevin McCarthy, UF professor emeritus, told a full house about Baseball in Florida at Tuesday's Lunch N Learn program at the Polk History Center in Bartow.

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Florida was almost the original sandlot for baseball . It had the sand, lots of it, and its origins as THE game in Florida go back almost to the beginning of baseball, said Dr. Kevin McCarthy, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, on Tuesday at the Lunch ‘n’ Learn session at the Polk County History Center.

McCarthy, who has authored dozens of books about sports in Florida, told a full house how baseball came to Florida in the 19th century, primarily as entertainment for guests at Henry Flagler’s and Henry Plant’s hotels.

“The land was flat, the weather was good year-round and it was a natural for Florida,” he said.

He walked the roomful of baseball fans through Florida’s baseball history, punctuated with photos from bygone times, including some of staff teams from Flagler’s Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach.

“Flagler organized teams from his staff members to entertain the first real tourists,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy also said baseball helped ease the state’s transition from a Spanish culture-dominated state to more Americanized customs.

“Plus it was ready entertainment that linked communities through baseball games. Towns would put together teams and compete against each other, bringing communities together,” he said.

In the early 20th century, organized leagues from the north recognized that Florida’s moderate climate provided perfect spring training locales and drew national teams that included such stars as Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth to Florida.

“Many came for spring training but wound up returning time and again in the off seasons,” McCarthy said.

“Babe Ruth held clinics in Miami and Tampa and that influenced travel not only by northern visitors and developers, but people from everywhere,” he said.

Florida baseball also blossomed during the Second World War, the professor explained.

“With the military bases, impromptu teams emerged from the soldiers stationed here,” he said. “There even was a women’s baseball league that competed here while the men were off in the war.”

Such greats as Buck O’Neil, John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron all played here.

“And every time they played here, it was reported across the country, keeping Florida in the news,” said McCarthy. “People knew that if the greats played here, it must be a good place to play.”

McCarthy explained that since the early days, baseball has grown into a major industry throughout Florida, with more than a dozen National and American League teams holding spring training in central and south Florida. He said there are presently more than a dozen major league teams playing in Florida.

“There are teams in St. Petersburg, Bradenton, Fort Myers, Charlotte County and, of course, the Detroit Tigers have been in Lakeland for 78 years,” he said. He added that those teams each pump about $300-$500 million into the local economy per season.

As an added surprise for those attending the monthly Lunch ‘n’ Learn program was the appearance of former Detroit Tigers left-fielder, Willie Horton and Florida Operations Director Ron Meyer.

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