Edison at the Bat

by Andrew Martin

FORT MYERS POSSESSES a rich tradition of professional baseball that is well known around the country, but few people know that this reputation started in large part because of famous inventor and part-time resident Thomas Edison. Best known for his numerous inventions, including the movie camera and light bulb, Edison was also a dedicated baseball fan and took batting practice with the Philadelphia Athletics in Fort Myers during spring training in 1926 & 1927, making national headlines each time. These episodes provided some of the most unique scenes the city has ever seen and the press coverage helped establish the city’s connection with baseball that remains today.

Edison was a lifelong baseball fan, but seldom played the game. “I was always too busy as a boy to indulge in baseball,” he explained to a reporter. Curiosity and entrepreneurship dominated Edison’s childhood, as he enjoyed conducting experiments, and held a string of jobs to fund them. As an inventor he filed an astounding 1,093 patents, but still found time to follow the game he loved. In 1927 he told the St. Petersburg Times that “Baseball is the greatest of American games. I don’t believe you can find a more ardent follower of baseball than myself, as a day seldom passes when I do not read the sporting pages of the newspaper.”

Only 349 people called Fort Myers home in 1885 when Edison purchased his 13-acre estate that he affectionately called his ‘Florida Eden.’ He loved the area and spent as much time there as his busy schedule permitted; mostly in the winter.

Edison was primarily a snowbird, but he was as excited as anyone when Fort Myers agreed in 1923 to become a spring training site by building a baseball facility named Terry Park for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American League. Terry Park opened in1925 and the emergence of professional baseball accelerated the growth of the city even further. Newspapers came to cover the Athletics, considered one of the best teams in baseball, and players and coaches rented area homes or stayed at local hotels. This provided a level of spectacle and celebrity previously unknown and also had a positive effect on the economy.

The arrival of the Athletics for their first Fort Myers spring training in 1925 came at a time when baseball was just starting to realize the benefits of training in the cooperative climate of Florida. With many cities vying for teams, organizations frequently moved their camps from place to place as better opportunities presented themselves. Edison did his part in making the Athletics feel as welcome as possible. He befriended legendary team manager Connie Mack, often socializing with him and other members of the team, and even occasionally hosting them at his estate.

On February 24, 1926, Edison made one of his frequent spring training stops at Terry Park. After chatting with some of the coaches and players, Edison was asked by coach Kid Gleason, “Think you could hit one?” When Edison nodded that he thought he could, Gleason excitedly exclaimed, “Let’s go!”

The 79 year old Edison stepped to the plate carrying future Hall of Famer Al Simmons’ bat. Gleason assumed the role of pitcher and Connie Mack grabbed a glove and acted as catcher, a position he had played professionally for many years in his youth. Edison swung and missed at Gleason’s first offering, but on the next pitch, he connected squarely and sent a soft line drive past first base and on to the fringe of the outfield. Edison took a few more swings before retiring to the sidelines, but had enjoyed his experience immensely. The story was picked up by a number of newspapers, which reported across the country on the new rookie in the Athletics’ camp.

On March 7, 1927, Edison made an encore performance in the batter’s box. Approximately 50 newspapermen and motion picture camera operators, an unusually high number, were at Terry Park. It was in large part because the legendary Ty Cobb was making his debut with the Athletics after having played the previous 22 seasons with the Detroit Tigers. The presence of Edison and his wife sent the mob of reporters scurrying for a story and they helped convince Edison to take batting practice once again. He had intended to just watch player drills, and was marveling at Kid Gleason hitting high pop-ups to the outfielders when he was asked if he would like to bat again. The Fort Myers Press noted that “movie men swarmed around like bees and Mrs. Edison had trouble in keeping them away,” so Edison agreed to take a few batting practice swings against Cobb. Before it began Connie Mack posed for pictures giving the inventor a few pointers, while Gleason tried to persuade Edison to bat right-handed. Edison refused the advice and batted left-handed against Cobb, who came in half-way from the pitcher’s mound to make his throws.

The stubbornness of Edison to bat left-handed paid off because he lined the first pitch directly back at Cobb, sending him sprawling to the ground to avoid being struck on the shoulder. Fans in the stands immediately shouted, “Sign him up!” A flustered Cobb joked to Edison, “I can hardly be charged for an error.” Edison couldn’t resist poking a little fun at Cobb, responding, “If you’re that spry when you’re eighty, Ty, you still ought to be playing ball.” It was the perfect outcome for the press and the story made headlines across the country the next day.

Fort Myers’ baseball was brought to national attention for the first time because of Edison’s batting practices with the Philadelphia Athletics. For the rest of his life, Edison remained a loyal fan, attending Athletics’ spring training and regular season games. The Athletics continued holding spring training in Fort Myers through 1936, but the city has remained a cradle of baseball as an annual spring training destination, currently hosting the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins during the winter months, and the Twins’ minor league affiliate Fort Myers Miracle during the summer.

Edison’s batting practices fulfilled his passion for the game and contributed in making Fort Myers known nationally for its connection to baseball, a major component of its identity. •

from the July-August 2011 issue

Baseball Hall of Famers Ty Cobb (left) and
Connie Mack (right) with Thomas Edison
at the Philadelphia Athletics'
spring training in Fort Myers.

Edison lined the first pitch
directly back at Cobb,
sending him sprawling
to the ground.

Edison befriended team
manager, Connie Mack,
often socializing with him
and other members of the team,
even occasionally hosting
them at his estate.