Friday, February 14, 2014

Governor's Baseball Dinner celebrates 100 years of baseball in Florida

In 1912, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates dismissed a sales pitch to train here by Al Lang, the man who would become mayor of St. Petersburg.

But in 1914 — 100 years ago — Lang struck gold when he persuaded manager Branch Rickey to bring the St. Louis Browns here with an offer of free lodging. The first game was played in Coffee Pot Park, writes Nevin D. Sitler in his book Warm Wishes from Sunny St. Pete. The Cubs traveled across the bay by boat from Tampa and won 3-2.
So began the local roots of the Florida Grapefruit League and spring training in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. On Thursday evening that rich century of baseball was celebrated at the 2014 Governor's Baseball Dinner held on the outfield at Tropicana Field.
The evening's nostalgic look back came with a resolute look forward and a message: The days of the rival Arizona Cactus League poaching teams from the Florida Grapefruit League are over.

"We've stopped the migration of teams to Arizona, and now we're working on bringing back a team from Arizona," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, from the podium at the Trop dinner.
Gov. Rick Scott agreed, saying incentives are now in place to help Florida cities keep the baseball teams they have and perhaps recoup some of the ones they have lost. The state incentive package mimics what Arizona used to poach the Cleveland Indians from Winter Haven in 2009 and the Cincinnati Reds from Sarasota in 2008.

Scott attended the event with his wife, Ann — "a better baseball player than I was," the governor confessed. Scott shared how he grew up cheering for the local Kansas City Athletics and listening to the St. Louis Cardinals via a distant AM radio station. He even spent one of his Florida "working days" as governor selling shortcake and scraping mud from baseball cleats at Joker Marchant Stadium, the Lakeland spring training home of the Detroit Tigers.

The 30 Major League baseball franchises are now perfectly split. Fifteen teams play in Florida, and 15 play in Arizona.

Today's Florida Grapefruit League appears reasonably healthy and is part of the Sunshine State's massive tourism industry. Last year, Florida's spring training games drew 1,638,457 fans who attended 247 games. It was the second consecutive season of more than 1.6 million fans.

In an interview at the baseball dinner, John Webb, president of the Florida Sports Foundation, said the Florida Grapefruit League has five teams with short-term leases remaining on their spring training stadiums. But most of the teams here are signed for the long haul.

Said Webb: "It feels good."

Just don't expect Arizona to let its recruitments to the Cactus League get plucked back too easily.
One Florida group tried to recruit the Chicago Cubs to leave Arizona for a new facility near Naples. Arizona responded with a brand new Cubs Park in the town of Mesa, backed by $99 million in funding.

As if baseball fever was not high enough at the Trop, even Thursday's dinner entertainment — impersonator Frank Caliendo — came ready to reminisce. When younger, the comedian played outfield in an AAU game at Al Lang Stadium. And in 1964 his father played for the minor league Sarasota Sun Sox.
Contact Robert Trigaux at

Couple Buys 80-year-old Penthouse of Babe Ruth

James Thorner, Times Staff Writer
Tampa Bay Times

 As house maid to Babe Ruth, Nora McIntyre collected the baseball star's cigar butts, tossed his empty booze bottles, pressed his baseball uniforms and averted her eyes to his extramarital dalliances.

But McIntyre's chores extended well beyond the requirements of her $25-per-week salary. She once coaxed the Bambino out of a suicidal depression and helped raise his three grandchildren when Ruth cast them out of his life.

The ultimate self-centered celebrity of his day, Ruth never repaid McIntyre for her dedication. A gold watch fob in the shape of a baseball and a couple of autographed photos was all the former maid, who died 15 years ago, could show for her years working for America's most famous athlete.

Click to Enlarge
That's about to change.

McIntyre's daughter and son-in-law, Dorothy and Ken Patterson, are buying a piece of Ruth, namely his former penthouse at St. Petersburg's Flori-de-Leon apartments.

The 1,420-square-foot apartment at 130 Fourth Ave. N hit the market in 2007 with an ad in the Wall Street Journal. Ruth leased the place between 1927 and 1934 during spring training with the New York Yankees. As the team's star athlete he enjoyed bay views from the apartment's Spanish-style rooftop terrace and relaxed evenings beside a fireplace bracketed by carved wood pillars.
Over almost two years, the housing slump pushed the asking price down from $339,000 to $179,900. The Pattersons followed the proceedings from their home in Northville, Mich. They were curious about Ruth's Florida sojourns, some spent with McIntyre.

"When it was first listed I said, 'Well, that's out of my league,' " Ken Patterson said. "But when it dropped below $200,000 I said, 'Now we're talking.' "

When McIntyre was alive, her mantelpiece included a photo of her standing beside Ruth at a house in St. Petersburg. McIntyre wore a lace-trimmed housekeeper outfit. Ruth was decked out in a jaunty open collar and two-toned shoes.

It wasn't the Flori-de-Leon in the photo — the Pattersons have never found that particular house. But the penthouse, graced with the same bathroom tile and hardwood floors Ruth once trod, would be a suitable stand-in.

"Here's a piece of real estate that means so much that's now being taken care of by someone connected to Babe Ruth," said Realtor Jan Kokernot of Engel & Voelkers. "Her spirit must be smiling up in heaven to think this is happening."

Aside from his baseball heroics, including his then-record-setting 714 home runs, Ruth was renowned as a boozer, glutton and philanderer. McIntyre's up-close-and-personal recollections shared with family members after Ruth's death in 1948, confirmed the image.

The house maid occasionally stumbled upon Ruth with his latest romantic conquest. He'd roguishly advise McIntyre to keep the news from his second wife, Claire.

"She once came upon Babe in a hotel with a female," Ken Patterson said. "Babe said, 'Nora, if you don't tell Claire I'll teach you how to hit a baseball.' "

One time Ruth swished into the kitchen proudly wearing a new pair of tailored silk pajamas, courting approval from McIntyre and his Finnish cook, Hilda. To McIntyre it made him seem like a big, needy kid.

Another story told of how Ruth, drunk and desperate at being passed over for a baseball coaching job, threatened to jump from the window of his New York apartment. McIntyre helped talk him down.

A New York newspaper article from Oct. 24, 1937, mentions "Nora The Irish Maid" serving tea to the Sultan of Swat, one of Ruth's many nicknames. The Pattersons can only laugh at the journalistic malpractice. Ruth wasn't known for quaffing that kind of brew.

Perhaps the seediest side of the Ruth legend was the story of his daughter by his mistress Juanita Jennings. Ruth adopted the girl, named Dorothy Helen, but was not a sterling father.

When Dorothy got pregnant by a New Yorker named Danny Sullivan in 1940, Claire Ruth kicked her out of the house. Babe meekly complied.

McIntyre, who left Ruth's service in 1942 and bought a farm in Michigan with her husband, became a substitute mother for Ruth's three grandchildren by Sullivan.

Dorothy Patterson is named for Ruth's daughter Dorothy. They even share the same middle name, Helen.

"When my Dorothy was born in June 1942, Nora decided she would name her for the first person who visited her," Ken Patterson said. "Luckily it was Dorothy Helen Ruth. Lucky it wasn't Hilda the cook, or she'd have been stuck with Hilda McIntyre."

After two months of studying Realtor snapshots of the St. Petersburg penthouse, the Pattersons flew down to visit the 80-year-old apartment in December.

They were intrigued to learn the owners discovered antique cigar butts, presumably Ruth's, in the bathroom wall while updating wiring and plumbing. Kokernot, the Realtor, took them to dinner at another of the Bambino's old haunts, the Vinoy hotel.

A couple of days later, the Pattersons signed the contract for Unit 702 of the Flori-de-Leon. Lou Gehrig, Ruth's teammate on the Yankees, rented the unit next door.

The Pattersons, retired schoolteachers, will use the apartment to escape from the Michigan chill but are equally intent on honoring McIntyre. Dorothy Patterson admits she cared little about the Ruth stories when her mother was alive, but her husband made up for her lack of curiosity.

"What I want to do is show her story and hang pictures in there. It will be a small gallery of sorts,'' Ken Patterson said.

But just as he did in life, Ruth refuses to be overshadowed. Even Patterson feels the Babe's presence when he enters the antique bathroom and kitchen.

"You wonder about the fun times and craziness he had in there,'' he said.