Florida’s Baseball Icons Are Open For Spring Visitors

This week opens another season of Florida’s Grapefruit League and there are still baseball sites that true fans should visit if they are in the state.

MCKECHNIE FIELD in Bradenton has been a spring baseball facility since 1923.  For years the Spanish mission building had no lights, no official parking lot, and only local vendors.  Recent upgrades and enlargements for the Pittsburgh Pirates have not changed the neat old-time atmosphere of Florida’s oldest spring training park.  It is a must visit for its preservation of baseball atmosphere.

floridatraveler mckechnie field

McKechnie Field Is Still A Classic

Florida’s oldest spring facility is the JACKIE ROBINSON BALLPARK in Daytona Beach.  Built in 1914, the same year as Wrigley Field, today it only hosts minor league and college teams.  On March 17, 1946, Jackie Robinson made his professional major league debut and a wonderful statue of the Dodger great is outside the field.

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Jackie Robinson Statue in Daytona Beach

GEORGE STEINBRENNER FIELD in Tampa is relatively new but the $30 million dollar 11,000 seat facility not only has a duplicate of the Yankee Stadium field inside, it has a Monument Park filled with the famous placards and quotations of Yankee history.

Historic DODGERTOWN was deserted by the Dodgers in 2009, but the 110 acre complex, the brainchild of Branch Rickey, is now filled with college and high school players and even football teams (Gads) in training.  It is worth a stop if you are driving past Vero Beach.

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Dodgertown Plaque

AL LANG FIELD, the birthplace of Florida spring baseball competition, has been converted into the Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer field, but baseball fans visiting St. Petersburg should take a ten block walk from Al Lang along Central Avenue to Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays.

This “Baseball Boulevard” contains some 85 brass home plaque plaques describing the history of professional baseball in the area from the 1913 St Louis Browns to the arrival of the Rays.  Plaques describe key events such as the 1939 collapse of Lou Gehrig in a spring game.

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Lou Gehrig on Baseball Boulevard, St Pete

Some Florida baseball landmarks are hidden away from visitors.  My favorite spot in Tampa is on the University of Tampa campus where Plant Field once housed spring training.  On April 4, 1919, Babe Ruth of the Red Sox hit a 587 foot homer against the New York Giants.  Evangelist Billy Sunday was given the ball so this plaque is the only sign of that event.

floridatraveler BABES HOMER

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Florida: Home of Sports Hall of Fames

Florida is not only a state where 95 million vacationers visit to get some sunshine on the beaches, play some golf or tennis, or even go fishing; Florida is a state that hosts a number of great sports Hall of Fame.  They are tourist attractions in themselves.

The most spectacular is the World Golf Hall of Fame, 8 miles north of Saint Agustine, just off exit 323 of I-95. Surrounded by a golf course, this palace of golf’s immortals has eye-popping exhibits and just beautiful artwork.  There is even an amazing simulator that lets you play the most famous golf holes at the most famous golf courses on this planet.

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The Beautiful Golf Hall of Fame

The International Swimming Hall of Fame on Fort Lauderdale Beach is not just an amazing archive of books, medals, and artifacts of the sport of swimming; there is an Olympic pool and a research center for sport historians.  Visitors will be shocked to see the role of swimming in the careers of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

floridatraveler SWIMMING HALL OF FAME

Water Is A Major Factor at the International Swimming Hall of Fame

The IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame and Museum at 300 Gulf Stream Way in Dania will excite the average fisherman with its exhibits and paintings.  Kids will love the replicas of famous sport fish from around the world.  The fishing library is probably the largest in the world.

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The IGFA Fishing Hall of Fame

Not all Florida Halls are big time sports. Just off I-75 outside Ocala is the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame (also known as the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing). Not only are the drag racing greats honored in photographs and artifacts, some 60 incredible racing cars cover the entire history of the sport.  There are another 50 antique automobiles in the Garlits collection.

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Big Daddy Garlits’ Dragster

The one Sports Hall of Fame that lacks visitors and identity is the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.  The Hall was once a feature at Cypress Gardens, then moved to Lake City in 1990, and finally rescued in 2008 by the City of Auburndale.  The Hall is located at the Lake Myrtle Sports Complex and despite its many exhibits and artifacts, few Floridians even know of its existence.

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Florida’s Best Tropical Gardens – It’s Azalea Season

While people in my native Boston are digging out from six feet of snow, visitors to my new home in Florida are touring the state’s  spectacular tropical gardens.  February to April is azalea time and even North Florida’s gardens seem to be blooming.

Bok Tower Gardens off US27 is still the most distinctive gardens to visit. With its unique singing tower atop 300 foot Iron Mountain, the gardens offer wonderful trails past a mountain lake and lush gardens.

floridatraveler BOK TOWER

Florida’s best tourist-oriented gardens are the huge Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables.  To properly experience the 83 acre complex of 10 ponds and two miles of walkway, visitors need to take a tram tour and later select their favorite places to visit.  Fairchild is always adding exhibits of note.

floridatraveler FAIRCHILD GARDENS

If you like roses, you will love the Harry P. Leu Gardens in Orlando.  Besides Florida’s largest rose gardens, Leu Gardens has dozens of inspirational garden designs and clever ideas for gardeners.

On the Gulf Coast is the 10-acre waterfront Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota.  It is one of the world’s top research centers for bromeliads and orchids, but I love the huge banyan trees, forest of ferns, and the mangrove trails.

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The huge banyan trees in Selby

If you like formal gardens surrounding a historic house then you will like Alfred B. Maclay Gardens in Tallahassee. This is a great place for azaleas and camelilias when in season.  Since this is a State Park, there are nature trails, kayaking, and fishing.

For a change of pace, visit the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach.  This is one of the most beautiful Japanese gardens in the nation and the site of many cultural events in the winter months.

floridatraveler MORIKANA MUSEUM

Here is my choice for forgotten gardens attraction: Ravine State Gardens in Palatka. This 1930’s WPA project contains a 1.8 paved road that weaves around a ravine filled with azaleas and exotic plants.  There are bike routes and nature trails in this unusual spot near the St. Johns River.

floridatraveler RAVINE GARDENS bridge

Old postcard of the bridge across the ravine.

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Florida Spring Baseball 100 Years Ago: Black and White

Florida newspapers are starting to run articles about the upcoming Florida Grapefruit League. Professional baseball has a long history in the state. The first exhibition game took place in Jacksonville in 1888 between the Washington Nationals and New York Giants.

Connie Mack, who was a player on the first visit, was manager in 1900 when the Nationals returned to spring train in Jacksonville.  Mack felt the lack of good competition and distance from major cities made Florida a poor choice to play baseball.  He could hardly imagine his grandson Connie Mack III would one day be a U.S. Senator from Florida.

It was not until 1913 when the Chicago Cubs  and the St Louis Browns came to Tampa that Florida spring training was reborn. The next year the St. Louis Cardinals arrived in Saint Augustine and the Philadelphia Athletics selected Jacksonville.

One hundred years ago a real spring baseball league was scheduled for these four teams, but they weren’t the only professional league in Florida.  For ten years the Palm Beach resort hotels – the Breakers and the Royal Poinciana – had operated baseball games with their African-American employees to entertain the winter guests.

In 1915 the Breakers hired players from the Lincoln Giants of the Negro League while the Royal Poinciana recruited players from the Indianapolis ABCs.  Although outscored 61 to 49 in the contests, the Breakers Hotel team won the series 9 games to 6 games.

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The 1915 Breakers team: 4 Hall of Fame Players

Led by pitcher Joe “Smokey” Williams, the Breakers team had four players (Williams, Pete Hill, Louis Santop, John Henry Lloyd) now in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  The top hitter for the Poinciana team was Ben Taylor, another Hall of Famer.

One hundred years ago, spring professional baseball exhibition games were both black and white.  Interestingly, the tourist elite of Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans were watching the black teams.

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Florida’s Best Wineries Are Growing Attractions

Florida will never compete with California or France for its vineyards. Most Florida wineries produce variations of sweet and semi-sweet muscaline grape wines.

Traditionalists like my wife will not be very impressed with these fruit-oriented wines, designed to attract customers.  In fact, some Florida wineries produce some of the most outrageously experimental wines you can imagine.  Visiting a Florida vineyard, however, has become a popular tourist and resident activity.

What are our favorite Florida wineries?

Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards, just off US27 in Clermont, is so close to Orlando and WDW, it can’t help be the most visited free wine-tasting tour and exhibit.  The entire complex is easy to see in the rolling Central Florida rolling hills.

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The Lakeridge Winery Is A Popular Destination

The Rosa Fiorelli Winery, located east of Bradenton, is the most European styled winery with rustic barns and acres of muscadine grapes.  Fiorelli makes only traditional wines and has many award-winning selections.

Schnebly Redland’s Winery, located south of Miami in Homestead, is not a vineyard asmuch as a large winery complex with a colonial style main house and gardens with waterfalls and tiki-huts.  This is an exotic fruits-only place so if you are not into passion fruit or avocado wines, this might not be your show.

Monticello Vineyards and Winery near I-10 (exit 225) in Monticello in the Panhandle is operated by Ladybird Organics.  Their 18 varieties of muscadine grapes are perhaps the best in Florida.  The shortcoming is its location and it is only open Saturday to Monday.

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Monticello Vineyards in October

Florida’s funkiest winery is the Henscratch Farms Vineyard and Winery off US98 via Orange Blossom to 980 Henscratch Road in Lake Placid.  The 12 acre working farm has vineyards filled with 200 free roaming chickens including Aracuana hens that lay green eggs.  Your kids will love feeding the hens and visiting the antique country store.  It’s Dr. Seuss selling Red Rooster and Country Blueberry Wine.

floridatraveler Henscratch Farms

The Henscratch Farms Vineyard

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Florida Food: In Search of the Perfect Deviled Crab

There are a lot of Florida food favorites such as Key Lime Pie and Stone Crab Claws, but no food can cause more debate than the humble Deviled Crab.

A deviled crab (called croqueta de jaiba in Spanish) is a large crab meat croquette beloved by both Latin and non-Latin, rich and poor throughout the Tampa Bay area and across Florida.

The deviled crab was created in Ybor City in the 1920’s during a long cigar-workers strike and the deviled crab, made from local blue crab meat, day-old Cuban bread, and Cuban-style chilau sauce, became almost over night the cheap lunch break meal of choice.  The food spread to non-Latin locals and then to winter visitors.  Today, some tourists seek out deviled crabs for their first local dish in Florida.

floridatraveler deviled crab and Cuban sandwich (no mayo)

A deviled crab & Cuban sandwich (no mayo)

A good deviled crab should have a thick enough shell so it can be held up and eaten by one hand, the original way the immigrant workers eat this meal.  Putting a fork to one is unacceptable.  If you must have a fork: go back to your Maryland crab cakes. But the cake should be a golf ball size chuck of crab meat inside or you will also feel the wrath of true deviled crab enthusiasts.

My wife’s family would drive across Tampa to the Seabreeze Restaurant on  Causeway Boulevard on McKay Bay just to buy their popular deviled crabs.  I even remember people loading up with deviled crabs to take into the Causeway Drive-in down the road.

When this seafood institution closed down, there was panic among its regulars. Knowing the Seabreeze name was meaningful, several small restaurants were started by former employees in Brandon and Ybor City, but for whatever reason they weren’t the same.

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 A New Seabreeze Restaurant in a Historic Tour Bus

In the last few years a new recreation of Seabreeze was opened on North Boulevard, near the west side of the Hillsborough River.  The Seabreeze Deviled Crabs and Seafood is hardly a dining experience.  People come because the deviled crabs are made like the old restaurant by a former employee.

Besides an open-aired stand selling live blue crabs in tanks, this Seabreeze makes its deviled crabs and Cuban sandwiches in a converted tour bus once used by the Weeki Wachee tourist attraction.  The classic bus was found in a dump and restored as a classic food wagon.

It seems fitting to me that deviled crab making is located in a mobile food spot since that is how the Florida dish was first sold in the 1920’s.

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The Tamiami Trail Was Conceived 100 Years Ago

floridatraveler US41 postcard

In 1915 a group of Fort Myers businessmen began a plan to build a Tampa to Miami highway along the curving coastline of Southwest Florida and then across ninety miles of the most famous swamp in America, the Everglades.

Their efforts were made expedient for a group of inland political leaders were proposing a Cross State Highway from Tampa to Arcadia then to LaBelle and Immokalee and across the interior on a horizontal line to Miami.  This latter road would avoid the west to east route across the Everglades, a feat considered impossible to many engineers in 1915.

In the political conflict between the inlanders and the coastal developers and city folk, the latter gained state approval.  It helped that urban counties like Hillsborough, Manatee, and Sarasota contributed money to the development of their area of “the Tamiami Trail“, known to most tourists today as US41.

It was in Southwest Florida where the two lane highway faced financial obstacles until a New York developer named Barron Collier (Collier County) donated the outrageous sum of one million dollars in private funds.  Collier was also a marketing genius promoting the project during the Florida Land Boom as a crusade to conquer the Everglades.

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Marksman at top of dredge is looking for alligators.

Despite these efforts, construction stalled by 1921 when builders tried to build a roadbed into the Everglades.  By April of 1923, many residents thought the project was doomed, until a group of 23 daring West Coast civilians with two Seminole guides decided to cross the swamps in a motorcade of one commissary truck, seven Model T Fords, and an Elcar.

These Tamiami Trailblazers reached Miami and affirmed the possibility of completing the roadway.  The next year the Florida State Road Department incorporated the Tamiami Trail into the Florida Highway System.

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The Tamiami Trailblazers Prepare for the Everglades

The Tamiami Trail was completed in 1928, a task that took 13 years of hardship. Besides the swamp and alligators, the workers had to build bridges to allow the north-south flow of water into the Everglades.

Today most tourists choose Alligator Alley, a toll road and part of I-75 to go from East Naples to Miami (Fort Lauderdale).  Driving the old Tamiami Trail, however, connects you with the Old Florida, although I confess I dreaded the drive during summer thunderstorms when I went from Fort Myers to the University of Miami.

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