Spring training is again in the air for baseball. The state of Florida hosts seventeen spring training sites -- the most of any state -- an annual rite which began in 1888. But you don’t have to go far from Orlando to find the game.
Daytona Beach, 60 miles away, is well-known for the minor league’s Jackie Robinson ballpark located on City Island, about one block east of downtown. The park overlooks the water and a bridge. There’s also a picnic area. The atmosphere is similar to minor league ballparks everywhere, but prices are reasonable. There’s a $10 all-you-can eat package on Monday nights with typical not always-tasty ballpark food. Parking is free. Daytona’s famous Riverwalk features numerous plaques and activities dedicated to the first black player to crash the Big Leagues. A timeline of Robinson's accomplishments on and off the field can be found on the western wall of the Daytona Cubs clubhouse. The plaques touch on such subjects as his visit to Daytona Beach in 1946 and his meeting with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey. There’s also a Jackie Robinson Museum that is free to the public. Interactive displays allow visitors to compare their skills in basketball and track and field, sports in which Jackie Robinson competed and excelled in while attending Pasadena Junior College and UCLA.
Only about 90 miles away, the St. Petersburg Museum of History has designed two prime rooms to display what is known as the “World's Largest Collection of Autographed Baseballs” (something like 4,818 of them). It’s like a little Cooperstown here in Florida. Try naming almost anyone important to the sport and you'll find an autograph here. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams among them. Not everyone represented here is associated closely with baseball, however. There’s a baseball signed by both Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio in 1952 (she gave it to him as a gift while they were dating). Another ball is signed by legendary aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Just not at the same time (there's no rule that a baseball gets autographed in one session -- some take decades to complete). Some names may surprise visitors. For example, many may not know the name William "Dummy" Hoy -- a deaf major league player from 1888-1902. The display around his autographed ball tells how Hoy was instrumental in teaching teammates’ sign language and making umpire "hand signals a part of the game." Autographed balls also help tell the story of the Negro Leagues, as well as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (fictionalized in the movie "A League of Their Own," but with real teams such as the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, and the Milwaukee Chicks.).
Alas, one local memorial to the past, Tinker Field in Orlando may be striking out at long last. Tinker - the man, not the stadium - is perhaps best known as a member of the double-play team of Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. After a successful career in baseball, Tinker moved to Orlando in the 1920s to manage a team. He also got into real estate.
Tiinker died on his birthday in 1948 at age 68, and he’s buried less than five miles from Tinker Field at Greenwood Cemetery near downtown Orlando. Tinker Field was dedicated in his honor in 1963. Several Major League Baseball teams played their spring training games at the field. But those days are long gone. At this writing, city officials are planning to raze the field. ###