The list of legends who trained or played at St. Petersburg’s waterfront baseball park reads like a dream roster. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Stan Musial, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron and plenty more. A total of 193 Hall of Famers played or managed on this hallowed baseball ground.
What’s now Al Lang Stadium, the home field of the Tampa Bay Rowdies, was re-designed for soccer in 2016.
Rick Vaughn worked in Major League Baseball for 30 years, as a public relations man and facilitator, and it occurred to him that Waterfront Park – as the city-owned site was originally known – is 100 years old in 2022.
Vaughn’s book 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront: How the Game Helped Shape a City (The History Press) began as a research project for city administrators, who were considering some kind of memorial to St. Pete’s history as ground zero for spring training in the 20th century.
“The more research I did,” Vaughn says, “the more stuff I kept finding. And I thought ‘I’m a baseball guy, and I didn’t know that, and I didn’t know this …’” Suddenly, turning it all into a page-turner seemed like the better idea.
The most delightful place on the planet to watch an exhibition is St. Petersburg beside the rippling waters of Tampa Bay. My introduction to spring training began in 1963, when the second-year Mets and the historic Cardinals shared the rudimentary Al Lang Stadium.
George Vecsey/The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2008
Babe Ruth hit what’s known to be the longest home run in history during a 1919 spring training game in Tampa, as a member of the Boston Red Sox. The measured distance was 587 feet.
The New York Yankees trained in St. Petersburg for three decades, beginning in 1925. It is believed, Vaughn writes in his exhaustively researched tome, that the Sultan of Swat bettered that in 1934 St. Petersburg, in an exhibition game during his last year with the Yankees.
Many historians are convinced the left-batting Ruth knocked one over right field and onto the second-floor patio of the West Coast Inn – more than 620 feet.
While 100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront is packed with stats, facts, quotes and anecdotes – all related in a breezy, enjoyable style – it is, more than anything, a testament to the will and charisma of Albert Fielding Lang.
A wealthy laundry magnate from Pittsburgh, Al Lang was 39 years old when he moved to St. Petersburg for his health. He’d never heard of the city; according to Vaughn, Lang and his wife merely took the train south to “the end of the line,” which happened to be St. Pete.
Nevertheless, Lang became the city’s biggest booster, and during his term as mayor (1916-20) did much to beautify St. Pete, as well as market and promote its clean air, sunshine and citrus.
He was also a rabid baseball fan.
“This guy was pretty important to our city,” says Vaughn. “Al Lang was smart enough to realize he could put tourism on the back of baseball – and baseball could help carry this thing pretty good. He saw that it could be a great communication tool to get the image of the city more well-known throughout the country.’
Although spring training in St. Pete actually began in 1914, on a dirt diamond near Coffee Pot Bayou, it wasn’t until the Boston Braves began to train at Waterfront Park that the storied history of the majors in the city really began.
It happened because Al Lang not only knew people, he could sell anything to anybody.
“I don’t know that you could ever have a greater advocate for the city,” declares Vaughn. “Two things were always on his mind – the city and baseball. He didn’t just bring baseball here, he brought the industry to Florida. Teams were coming to him to get their spring training to Florida. He was the conduit for it. It wasn’t just St. Pete. People leaned on him pretty heavily to find out the virtues of training in Florida.”
After the Yankees came in 1925, “the city exploded. Some of the Northeast newspapers dropped Florida from their datelines – they just said St. Petersburg, and everybody knew where St. Petersburg was. That right there gives you a pretty good indication of how people became so familiar with it.”
The Yankees initially worked out at Miller Huggins Field, near Crescent Lake; they made the permanent move downtown in 1947, the year a freshly-remodeled Waterfront Park was re-named for Al Lang.
Concurrently, the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training home was Waterfront Park/Al Lang Field from 1938 to 1997 (with four years’ hiatus during World War II).
Team owner August Busch arranged for the Cards, and the stadium, to host a crew from Paramount Pictures on the morning of March 22, 1954 to shoot the opening scene of the drama Strategic Air Command, in which third baseman Dutch Holland (James Stewart) is recalled to active duty as an Air Force bomber pilot.
Vaughn got to know the area during his decade with the Baltimore Orioles organization, and again during the 20 years (1996-2016) he spent as PR head for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a.k.a. Rays.
Today, he’s executive director of Respect 90, the charitable organization set up by former Rays (and Los Angeles Angels) manager Joe Madden.
One of the company’s proudest achievements, according to Vaughn, was the refurbishment of Miracle League Field, the St. Petersburg park where special needs kids can play ball. The $100,000 it took to rehab a badly-aging site was raised by Respect 90 and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation.
Respect, in fact, is on Vaughn’ mind a lot these days. He idly wonders why the city has yet to honor Al Lang, or the legendary edifice that still bears his name, with a statue, a museum exhibit or even a nice-sized plaque.
“Think about the growth of the city since the Rays,” Vaughn says. “Think about how many people have moved to the city, even close by the ballpark, who probably don’t really have an idea what went on there.”
100 Years of Baseball on St. Petersburg’s Waterfront: How the Game Helped Shape a City is available through Amazon.