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Exploring the roots of spring training in Florida

We’re now in full-blown preparations for spring training. The roots of spring training are still a little cloudy, but we’ve run across a newspaper article documenting Henry M. Flagler‘s efforts to bring spring training in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1890 — complete with an illustration of the ballpark.

The article appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on March 22, 1890, a mass-circulation magazine and one quite popular across the country. It detailed a ballpark built by Flagler as an attraction to lure visitors to St. Augustine, using Brooklyn and Chicago teams as further bait. A baseball enthusiast found the clipping on eBay.

There are a few things to note. First, spring training before the turn of the century was nothing like spring training of today. Teams would gather in a warm-weather locale, play some games for the locals, and then embark on a long barnstorming tour via rail before arriving at their home ballparks for the beginning of the season. They certainly didn’t spend weeks and weeks working out in one place.

Second, it’s interesting to see Henry Flagler associated with this effort. Flagler was an entrepreneur and the man who brought railroads and flashy hotels to Florida’s Treasure Coast, eventually extending the line down to Key West. Along the way he built some flashy hotels and lived the high life. He certainly had associations with baseball: he brought semi-pro baseball to St. Augustine in 1886 and built the ballpark pictured above in 1889. Also, he famously built diamonds at his leading properties (the Breakers and Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana) and then hired African-American players to play exhibitions in the spring. Many of these players ended up playing in Cuba after spring games ended; Smokey Joe Williams was among the many talented players to play for Flagler.

In any case: this is a great look at how baseball was played and marketed before the turn of the century.

Click on the image for a larger version.

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