Getty Images

Today in Baseball History: Dodgers commit to Dodgertown

3 Comments

On this day in 1951, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed a 21-year lease with the city of Vero Beach, Florida, for use of their spring training facilities there. The facility would become known as Dodgertown, the most storied spring training facility in baseball history.

Dodgertown owed its existence to Bud Holman, a Kentucky-born Cadillac dealer who had set up shop in tiny Vero Beach, Florida in 1925. In 1929 he and a few other local businessmen established the Vero Beach Airport. Within six years he would manage to convince Eastern Air Lines to make it into a fueling stop and to obtain direct air mail service for the community. At the time, Vero Beach would be the smallest U.S. city to have such service. By the time of World War II, the airport and Vero Beach would become a military community and naval housing would be established. The U.S. Naval Air Station, Vero Beach, Florida was commissioned on November 24, 1942 to provide a Navy and Marine flight training base. In 1946 the Navy gave the facility back to the city of Vero Beach, and Bud Holman and the city leaders needed to find something to do with that land.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Dodgers had been training in a number of places. In 1947 they actually trained in Havana, Cuba, partially because they got a great offer to do so, partially so Rickey could keep the fact that he had invited Jackie Robinson to big league camp as far from the public eye as possible. He was not quite ready to let that news break wide. It’d break wide pretty soon, of course, and as the 1947 season wore on, Rickey and the Dodgers had to figure out where they’d go for the following year’s spring training. They had a decent offer on the table from some interests in the Dominican Republic, but nothing was set in stone. Rickey preferred to come back to the United States the following February, and he wanted a big, self-contained place. The Dodgers had over two dozen minor league teams at the time, and Rickey wanted everyone to train in one location if possible.

Holman heard of the Dodgers’ interest in a big U.S. location and put himself and Vero Beach on Rickey’s radar. Rickey sent an underling — future Dodgers GM Buzzie Bavasi — to Florida to scout Vero Beach and some other places. He’d never make it to the other places thanks to Holman’s sales pitch and, more importantly, the fact that they had a self-contained facility with housing, mess halls, and a private airstrip. It was everything the Dodgers wanted. All they had to do was build the actual baseball diamonds. In December of 1947 the Dodgers and the City of Vero Beach reach a five-year lease agreement for the former U.S Naval Air Station and renamed the property “Dodger Town.” It’d be shortened to one word over time.

Dodgertown — featured on the cover of Life Magazine that spring — housed more than 600 players in its early days. Unlike all previous spring training facilities, it enabled the players to live, work, and spend their leisure time on base. It had a post office, a canteen, a barber shop, a Western Union office and a lounge. All of this was particularly important for the racially-integrated Brooklyn Dodgers, as segregation was still the rule of the day in most of Florida. At Dodgertown, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella and other black and dark-skinned Latino players would live and train on equal footing with their white peers.

As the 1950s dawned — and as Walter O’Malley pushed out Branch Rickey — Dodgertown would see numerous upgrades, transforming it from a utilitarian military-style facility into one of far greater luxuries, both for team executives like O’Malley and for the players. White linens appeared on the tables of the dining facilities and the quality of the food improved. Modern exercise facilities, swimming pools, and a nine-hole golf course were built. In 1953 a 5,000-seat stadium — named after Bud Holman — was dedicated, ensuring that not just training, but a regular slate of big league exhibition games would be played.

Over the years, the luxury and self-contained nature of Dodgertown made it a favorite of players, fans, and the media who covered the team. Players’ family members liked it because they basically had their run of the place, recreation facilities included. Fans liked it because they were given far more up-close and personal access to the players than they’d ever had before. That extended all the way to the games in Holman Stadium, which featured open-air dugouts which backed up directly to the fans:

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

As for the media, ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian described the vibe in a 2017 article from Washington’s WTOP:

“At the places where the teams I covered trained, you would get maybe like a sandwich in this little shack before the game,” he said. “Then we went to Dodgertown and they literally had shrimp cocktail for the writers before the game.”

If that wasn’t fancy enough, there was an actual bar, open to all, including the working media.

“Any media, visiting or home, could go in there and have a drink, have a beer, while they’re writing their story,” said Kurkjian.

Players would wander in after games. Kurkjian even said he saw Davey Johnson, who managed the Dodgers at the time long before he took the same job in Washington, drop by for a beverage.

“It was just amazing to me that this was how things were done in Dodgertown,” said Kurkjian.

The Dodgers moved west to Los Angeles a mere decade after establishing Dodgertown, but due to that 21-year lease — and another one, and extensions beyond that — they kept making the cross-country trek to Florida each spring. Partially because the Dodgers still had a sizable east coast fan base for quite a while after the move who would flock to Florida each spring to see their erstwhile hometown team. Partially because Dodgertown was so damn nice.

As the 2000s dawned, however, it made less and less sense for the Dodgers to make that trek. Dodgertown was getting long in the tooth. So too were Dodgers fans from back east. It had been decades since people truly thought of the Dodgers as anything other than a California team and all the other California teams trained in Arizona. If the Dodgers wanted their fans, most of whom called California home, to see them train, it’d simply make more sense for the club to hold spring training in the desert. They’d hold their last spring training at Dodgertown in 2008. In 2009 they opened up shop at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Arizona, sharing digs with the Chicago White Sox.

I’ve been to Camelback many times and it’s an extraordinarily nice place. The training facilities are, obviously, state of the art. The comfort level for players is top notch. No, there’s no nine-hole golf course or living facilities for the big leaguers, but they’re all rich enough now to rent or own luxurious homes nearby and join any country club they want. There are not any open-air dugouts, but for reasons that are unclear, Camelback is the only Arizona spring training facility where the batter, and the crowd, faces south, which means there is almost zero shade for anyone during those hot late spring training games under the desert sun. Maybe it’s a tribute?

Oh, and the media does not get booze anymore, but I hear rumors that a writer covering the Dodgers at spring training can hide their credential and buy a beer down on the concourse without anyone noticing if they really want one. Don’t tell anyone I told you that, though. I’ll play dumb about that.

As for Dodgertown, it faced some uncertain years after 2008. In 2009 Minor league baseball reopened the facilities and renamed it Vero Beach Sports Village. It held tournaments and umpire schools and other year-round activities, but couldn’t get much traction and closed again in 2012. In 2014 Peter O’Malley and Terry O’Malley Seidler — the son and daughter of Walter O’Malley — and ex-Dodgers pitchers Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo invested in the facility and renamed it Historic Dodgertown. They made upgrades, including youth-sized baseball and softball fields as well as fields for football, soccer, and other outdoor sports. It has seen Korean Baseball teams and Canadian Football League teams train there. It’s a true multi-use facility.

That may not be what anyone figured the place would end up being, but then again, in 1948, no one ever figured that spring training would become the phenomenon it is now, with large training facilities open to the public and all the luxuries players would need. Dodgertown pioneered that too, so why wouldn’t it find a new way forward once again?

Also today in baseball history:

1990: A gambler named Howie Spira is arrested by the FBI for trying to extort money from Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Spira, it turns out, was paid $40,000 by Steinbrenner to dig up dirt on outfielder Dave Winfield, for whom Spira had worked as an unpaid publicist and from whom Spira had borrowed money. Steinbrenner detests Winfield and was looking for a way to sully his reputation or, possibly, find a way out of paying his ten-year contract with the club. In the fallout of the Spira affair commissioner Fay Vincent bans the Boss from having a role in the Yankees’ day-to-day operations for thirty months. Ironically, this works to the Yankees’ and, eventually, Steinbrenner’s benefit, as his being unable to engage in his characteristic meddling with baseball decisions, the club’s front office is able to make deals, signings, and draft players who would become the heart of the mid-late 1990s Yankees dynasty.

2009: The Miami-Dade County commissioners approve a deal to build a new 37,000-seat, retractable roof stadium for the Marlins. The project breaks ground in July and opens for the 2012 season. The deal to use public funding for the stadium becomes a political headache for basically everyone involved except Marlins owner Jeff Loria, who makes out like a bandit.

Today in Baseball History: The Yankees become The Yankees

Getty Images
3 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the Cubs became the Cubs. In the course of that post I talked about how fluid and casual team nicknaming was in the early 20th century. Sometimes the press named a team, informally, and it stuck. Sometimes the team’s owner switched the name back and forth multiple times. It was sort of all over the place.

That was true, too, of baseball’s most storied and, let’s be honest, stuffy organization, the New York Yankees. Rather than proclaim, from on high, what their name — what their brand — would be, they got their name through the same haphazard way so many other teams did. But, on this date in 1913, they became the Yankees for good. Let’s talk about how they finally got there.

They didn’t start in New York, actually. They started in Baltimore, as the Orioles. But they weren’t even the original Baltimore Orioles. That ream was a National League club — led by John McGraw — that the National League contracted along with the Cleveland Spiders following the 1899 season. McGraw cooled his heels in St. Louis In 1900 but then, the following year, the upstart Western League, led by Ban Johnson, upgraded itself to self-proclaimed major league status and reformed as the American League. They put a team in Baltimore, called itself the Orioles and brought John McGraw back via the offering of an ownership stake.

Ban Johnson and McGraw didn’t get along too well and they were in pretty constant dispute. Johnson also didn’t think too much of Baltimore as an AL city and wanted to move the team to New York — Manhattan, specifically — to compete head-to-head with the New York Giants. McGraw, seeing the writing on the wall, but not wanting to let Johnson tell him where to go, left the Orioles in the middle of the 1902 season and joined the New York Giants as their manager and part-owner. Ever the pain-in-the butt, he gave his ownership interest in the Orioles to the Giants, which was a problem given that they were a member of the rival league which wanted to see the AL crushed and eliminated. Add that to the list of many AL-NL disagreements bubbling up at the time.

It was all solved, for the most part, after the 1902 season when the AL and NL entered into what amounted to a peace treaty. They stopped the widespread practice of teams poaching each other’s players and settled various ownership and territorial disputes like the one between the Giants and the Orioles. Finally, as a part of that agreement, the NL agreed to let Johnson to move the Orioles to New York for the 1903 season. What the Giants would not permit, however, is the new AL club to play in the Polo Grounds, so they had to find a new ballpark.

The New York club hastily constructed a new wooden park seating about 16,000 fans on the west side of Broadway between 165th and 168th streets. It was originally called American League Park and housed The New York Americans Baseball Club. The place would eventually be nicknamed Hilltop Park because of its relatively high elevation compared to the rest of Manhattan. The Americans eventually came to be called the Highlanders. For years most people believed that that was solely because they played on literal high land, but more recent research reveals that it was at least in part a play on the last name of the team’s president, Joe Gordon, combined with a reference to the famous British military unit, the Gordon Highlanders. Either way, the Highlanders they were throughout the oughts.

The Polo Grounds was devastated by a fire in 1911 and needed to be rebuilt. Despite their past disagreements, the Highlanders generously allowed the Giants to share their home at Hilltop Park while the Polo Grounds were being rebuilt. McGraw and his club remembered this kindness two years later when they allowed the Highlanders, who were looking for a new place to play given that Hilltop Park was already falling apart, to move into the rebuilt Polo Grounds.

By then the whole “Gordon Highlanders” thing was no longer as amusing as it had initially been. Between that and the team literally abandoning the high ground between 165th and 168th streets, the name “Highlanders” was not really apt. As noted above, teams often had a lot of nicknames, and the Highlander’s third name — apart from that and “Americans” — was the “Yankees.” With a new home in 1913, the club decided to formally adopt it. They played their first game as The New York Yankees on April 10, 1913. 107 years ago today. They lost to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators (Americans? Nationals? It was confusing!) 2-1.

What’s a “Yankee” anyway?

In the 19th and early 20th century it referred broadly to residents of New England those descended from the original English settlers of the region. This is how Mark Twain used the word in his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” During the Civil War it was used broadly to anyone from up north and, when not referring to the baseball team, is still used that way today. But where did the word actually come from?

Most people who think they have an idea about it are wrong. It’s often told that the word “Yankee” is an anglicization of any number of Native American words — like “eankke” or “y’an-gee” or some such — with the story often having it be an honorary term bestowed by Native American warriors on European settlers who fought bravely. Not surprisingly, linguists have debunked that self-serving notion. There is no evidence for it at all, actually.

The best accepted theory, among linguists and historians anyway, is that it’s of Dutch origin. Sometimes used as a term of derision toward Dutch colonists after England took possession of what is now New York or, possibly, a term of derision used by Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam toward English colonists in neighboring Connecticut. From Wikipedia:

Michael Quinion and Patrick Hanks argue that the term comes from the Dutch name Janke, a diminutive form of Jan (John) which would be Anglicized as “Yankee” due to the Dutch pronunciation of J as the English Y. Quinion and Hanks posit that it was “used as a nickname for a Dutch-speaking American in colonial times” and could have grown to include non-Dutch colonists, as well. Alternatively, the Dutch given names Jan and Kees have long been common, and the two are sometimes combined into a single name (e.g., Jan Kees de Jager). Its Anglicized spelling Yankee could, in this way, have been used to mock Dutch colonists. The chosen name Jan Kees may have been partly inspired by a dialectal rendition of Jan Kaas (“John Cheese”), the generic nickname that Southern Dutch used for Dutch people living in the North.

The Online Etymology Dictionary gives its origin as around 1683, when English colonists used it insultingly in reference to Dutch colonists (especially freebooters). Linguist Jan de Vries notes that there was mention of a pirate named Dutch Yanky in the 17th century. The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves (1760) contains the passage, “Haul forward thy chair again, take thy berth, and proceed with thy story in a direct course, without yawing like a Dutch yanky.” According to this theory, Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam started using the term against the English colonists of neighboring Connecticut.

That’s a lot to take in, but know that the name “Yankees” can, basically, be traced back to people calling each other names. Which, with all due respect to my Yankee fan friends, I must say is not the most inappropriate baseball team name out there.

 

Also today in baseball history:

 

1947: Jackie Robinson becomes the first African-American in the modern major leagues when the Dodgers purchase his contract from Montreal. He’ll make his big league debut five days later.

1962: Dodger Stadium opens in Chavez Ravine in Los Angeles. The Dodgers lose to the Reds 6-3.

1962: The Houston Colt .45s play the first major league game in Texas, beating the Chicago Cubs 11-2.  Of note:

1964: With the Mets having moved to Shea Stadium, demolition begins on the Polo Grounds to clear the way for a housing project.

1971: Veterans Stadium in Philly sees its first game ever played. The Phillies beat Montreal 4-1.

1973: Kansas City’s new Royals Stadium — now Kauffman Stadium — debuts as the Royals beat the Rangers 12-1.

1981:  In his first game for Chicago, Carlton Fisk hits a three-run home run in the eighth inning to lead the White Sox to a 5-3 victory over his his old team, the Red Sox, at Fenway Park.

1989: Ken Griffey, Jr. hits his first major league home run in Seattle’s 6-5 win over the White Sox.