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St. Pete's best spring training stories

By Marc Topkin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 10, 2008


There are so many stories, tales and anecdotes about spring training, you could write books about them, and some have. By no means a complete list, here are a few of the more interesting ones:

Looking for Mr. Finch

Sports Illustrated sent the media - including our own Dave Scheiber - into a tizzy with a 1985 story about a supposed Mets phenom named Sidd Finch who learned to pitch in Tibet, wore one boot, played the French horn and threw 168 mph. The only problem: The story was a hoax, published in the April 1 issue.

Babe-fest

Babe Ruth enjoyed his time in St. Petersburg, playing golf, fishing for grouper and going out on the town then taking the party (and typically a woman) back to his room at the Don CeSar, Princess Martha, Flori-de-Leon (he liked the penthouse), Hotel Dennis (Room 310) or wherever he was staying that spring.

But two of the most famous stories had to do with an alligator and a president. In 1925, during the Yankees' first spring in St. Petersburg, Ruth bolted off the practice field near Crescent Lake. "I ain't going out there anymore," Ruth told manager Miller Huggins. "There's an alligator."

Five years later, Ruth was engaged in his usual spring contract squabbles with Yankees owner Col. Jacob Ruppert. He wanted a big raise after hitting .345 with 46 homers and, after threatening to quit, signed for $80,000. When a reporter pointed out that he now had a higher salary than President Herbert Hoover, Ruth is said to have replied: "I had a better year."

Sign of trouble

Lou Gehrig's brilliant career was headed toward a tragic end due to the illness that now bears his name, and one of the first signs came when he collapsed during spring training in 1939. He retired in July and died two years later.

Hello, Norma Jeane

The Yankees certainly had enough star power of their own, with a roster that included Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio. But that was nothing compared to the fuss when starlet Marilyn Monroe - who was briefly DiMaggio's wife, and longtime friend after their divorce - came to visit St. Petersburg, creating what was their day's ultimate celebrity couple, even after he retired from playing.

'Don't be a meanie,buy a weenie'

The players were the stars, but some days the most famous person in the ballpark was the late Tommy Walton, the singing hot dog vendor who entertained crowds for nearly 20 years - earning a "lifetime contract" - before retiring in 1991.

Hot foot

Joe DiMaggio's career got off on the wrong foot due to a training-room accident during his 1936 rookie spring. He was getting treatment for an injury and, without knowing any better, severely burned his foot when he kept it in a diathermy machine too long.

Social studies

St. Petersburg made national headlines in 1961 when the Yankees sought - unsuccessfully - to have their black players join their white players in staying at the Soreno Hotel and end the segregation policies, widespread throughout the state, that forced the black players to stay in boarding houses. The Cardinals, who stayed at the Vinoy, made a similar request after spring training. Also, Cardinals first basemanBill White spoke out when he thought (incorrectly, officials said) he was not invited to a "Salute to Baseball" breakfast because he was black, saying: "When will we be made to feel like humans?" By the next spring, when the Mets replaced the Yankees, the teams worked out arrangements for all their players to stay under one roof - the Mets at the Colonial Inn at the beach, the Cardinals at the Skyway Motel.

Strike that

Baseball's labor pains were often felt in St. Petersburg, such as the 1976 strike that led to virtual All-Star teams working out informally at Eckerd College. But nothing compared to 1995, when teams opened camps with "replacement" players.

First things first

Two teams were born in St. Petersburg. The Mets took the field at the Huggins-Stengel complex for the first time in the spring of 1962 - their uniforms having been modeled previously by Don Zimmer. And the Rays took their first steps across town at what is now the Naimoli complex in 1998.

Trading places

In 1951, the Yankees and Giants agreed to swap spring training sites, with the Yanks going to Arizona and Giants such as Sal Maglie, Monte Irvin, Bobby Thomson and manager Leo Durocher coming to St. Petersburg.