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Tortugas announce Kelly Field renovation plan

Jackie Robinson with Montreal RoyalsSome notable news on baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day, as the Daytona Tortugas (High A; Florida State League) announce plans to restore Daytona Beach’s historic Kelly Field, where Jackie Robinson trained as a member of the International League’s Montreal Royals.

The Tortugas and their Tortugas Care Foundation are bringing baseball back to the site, now an empty patch of grass in Daytona Beach’s Midtown neighborhood, and raising awareness of its illustrious history and importance to the social fabric of baseball in America.

Here’s the background, which we wrote about in our The Complete Guide to Spring Training 2020 / Florida. When Robinson was signed by Branch Rickey to a contract in August 1945 with the International League’s Montreal Royals, it meant a 1946 training camp at Sanford Municipal Athletic Field in the bucolic community of Sanford, northeast of Orlando. Robinson was not the only black player signed by Rickey, with pitcher Jimmy Wright joining Robinson in Sanford. The major leaguers training at Daytona Beach’s City Island Ballpark (now Jackie Robinson Ballpark), and the minor leaguers were scattered across eastern Florida. Kelly Field, located in the black part of Daytona, was pressed into service as a training site, and after soliciting advice from Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber, who recommended his Florida hometown as a training site, Rickey selected Sanford for Royals and St. Paul Saints (American Association) workouts.

Training camp did not start smoothly for Robinson: on the second day he was warned that Sanford residents did not want him there, leading Rickey and the Dodgers to move the Royals training camp to Daytona Beach. Robinson’s presence there did not generate the same sort reaction it did among some quarters in Sanford—and, indeed, it’s hard to say whether loudmouths who promised violence in Sanford really spoke for any sizable portion of the populace. But as long as the Dodgers and Robinson promised to recognize the city’s segregation laws, local officials promised peace. In the end, the Royals practiced at the aforementioned Kelly Field, in the black part of town, near Bethune-Cookman College. While his white teammates rode into and out of the Midtown neighborhood each day by bus from their hotel, Robinson and Wright, his African-American teammate, stayed in private homes near the field and walked.

Other baseball greats who played at Kelly Field include Hall of Famers such as Satchel Paige, Larry Doby and Roy Campanella. Kelly Field also once hosted games for Bethune-Cookman University and served as a center of social life in the predominately black neighborhood.

According to a press release, the Tortugas will create a ballfield on the grounds readily accessible to the surrounding community. The organization also plans to create a permanent display honoring the field’s history to inspire the next generation of barrier breakers and World Series champions from Daytona Beach.

In addition, the Tortugas plan to supply sporting equipment and regular community engagement programming at the site, which is near the intersection of George Engram Boulevard and Keech Street behind the Midtown Cultural & Educational Center. Work on the project will begin as soon as public health allows.

“Bob Fregolle, Rick French and I are as proud of this initiative as anything we’ve undertaken together in owning this hallowed ballclub,” said Reese Smith III on behalf of the Tortugas ownership group via press release. “To be able to honor the history of Negro Leagues baseball, Jackie Robinson’s role within it, and the many baseball legends who paved the way for diversity and inclusion at the Major League level is something we are immensely proud.”

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