Play Ball!

babe ruth

By Mike Goldman // from the June issue of Jacksonville Magazine

It was in Jacksonville where historians say one of the celebrated and oft-repeated quotes about baseball legend Babe Ruth originated. When Yankee Ping Bodie, who roomed with Ruth in Jacksonville, was asked about what kind of person his roommate was, he replied "I don't know, I don't room with Babe Ruth. I room with his suitcase."

Both Ruth and his suitcase spent a month in Jacksonville in 1920 while he prepared for his first season as a New York Yankee (after being sold by the Red Sox in January 1930), working on his golf game and narrowly avoiding a major altercation with a knife-wielding fan.

Jacksonville was the spring training home for several Major League teams seeking warm weather practice sites in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Florida Grapefruit League historians say the city hosted the first spring training camp ever in Florida when the old Washington Nationals trained in Springfield in March 1888. About 1,200 spectators saw the Nationals play a game against the New York Giants at Waterworks Park in Springfield. No grandstands existed. Spectators surrounded the field with horse-drawn wagons and buggies.

The Nationals trained in Jacksonville until the end of the 1800s. In various years during the early 1900s, the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Athletics and Boston Braves all had spring camps in Jacksonville. Iconic Philadelphia manager Connie Mack said training in Jacksonville contributed to his team's lackluster record in the 1903 regular season. Mack said his star pitcher, Rube Waddell, was sidetracked by extracurricular activities in the River City—like getting involved in a wrestling match with an alligator.

"Jacksonville was attractive for spring training because of the weather and its rail service," says Joel McEachin, a City of Jacksonville planner and historian. "Jacksonville had the best rail connections in Florida at the time."

To the delight of the local Chamber of Commerce, the city attracted considerable national media attention with Ruth's arrival. The Dodgers trained in what is now J.P. Small Memorial Park at 1701 N. Myrtle Avenue while the Yankees played at the old Southside Park in the Dixieland Amusement Park area (now home to many Southbank commercial buildings).

With the excitement surrounding Ruth, fans wanted to see his home run prowess and some grew impatient with the slugger's slow start in spring training. The Florida Times-Union reported early in March 1920 that "no Jacksonville citizen has sued Ruth for fence breaking." During the ninth inning of a game in late March, a fan heckled Ruth, and The New York Times reported Ruth "jumped over the fence and threatened to obliterate the man who was abusing him." After the man pulled a knife on Ruth, the incident was broken up by a Yankee teammate who followed Ruth into the grandstand. Newspaper reports said Ruth held off throwing a punch after seeing the small size of his heckler, reported to be approximately 5’4”. At 6’2”, Ruth towered over him and was admonished by Yankee management for his reckless behavior.

The 1920 spring training season was highlighted by a four team double header featuring the Yankees, Dodgers, Reds and Senators with pitching great Walter Johnson. The New York Times reported the double header as: "Jacksonville's baseball jubilee day, the biggest baseball event ever put on in Florida...A major league double header in Dixie is a new innovation of the present season."

As the games were played on a weekday, Mayor John W. Martin urged government agencies and private employers to give workers the afternoon off to attend. Quicker ferry service was added so fans could get to the ballpark.

Box seat tickets for the double header sold for $2 and grandstand and bleacher seats went for a dollar. As an incentive to the teams, the Levy stores offered a $15 silk shirt to any player hitting a home run. Only one was hit during the two games and, much to the fans' disappointment, it wasn't by Ruth. The Florida Times-Union reported 4,800 fans attended.

Spring training ended in Jacksonville in 1922. The Yankees, who spent 1919 and 1920 training here, left after the 1920 season. They trained in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1921 and in the mid-1920s held spring training in southwest Florida where the Yankees still play to this day.

Jacksonville spring training and early baseball memories remain in a museum at J.P. Small Memorial Park. The museum, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, contains nostalgic narratives, photos and displays of the history of baseball in Northeast Florida including famous players (notably Henry Aaron) and the teams that played here over the years.