Hall of Famers Ty Cobb
(center), Eddie Collins,
Zach Wheat and
Connie Mack in Fort Myers
with the Philadelphia
Athletics in 1928.

Hall of Famer Bob Feller
in Fort Myers with
the Cleveland Indians
in 1941.

Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx
(far left) in Fort Myers
with the Philadelphia
Athletics in 1934.

Hall of Famer Roberto
Clemente in Fort Myers
with the Pittsburgh
Pirates in 1960.

The History of
Spring Training in Fort Myers

by Jeff Berlinicke

FORT MYERS IS HOME now to two state-of-the-art spring training stadiums, but the heart and the history of baseball in Fort Myers will always live in Terry Park.

Terry Park was once one of the gems of the Grapefruit League and, although the grandstands that were once packed with nearly 3,000 fans a game (and now holds about 900), were demolished several years ago, the wrecking ball couldn’t take away the history of the ballpark.

The Minnesota Twins and Boston Red Sox have been training in Fort Myers for nearly a decade in brand new ballparks, but the history of baseball in Fort Myers goes way back, all the way back to 1921 when the Terry family purchased 25 acres of cow pasture in Lee County to build a ballpark. Baseball teams were only starting to migrate to Florida for spring training. The stadium originally hosted 600 fans and were first inhabited by the then-Philadelphia Athletics from 1925–1936.

Philadelphia Athletics

The Athletics brought the best and the worst baseball to Fort Myers. They reached the World Series three straight years, from 1929–1931 with future Hall of Famers such as Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Lefty Grove. The problem was the team was owned and managed by Connie Mack. Mack has by far the most wins and the most losses in major league history, partly due to longevity – he managed for 50 years. But as an owner, Mack had a problem: baseball was his only business. Twice during those 50 years, Mack put together powerhouses only to then be forced to gut the teams completely. His final Athletic teams in Fort Myers were truly awful.

Cleveland Indians

A few years later, the Cleveland Indians started a two year run at Terry Park. Bob Feller was the big star of the team and the Indians might have lasted longer, but World War II rolled around and travel restrictions kept every major league team above the Mason-Dixon Line every spring.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Things changed when a fire burned down most of Terry Park in 1943. The park was rebuilt with steel and concrete instead of wood, and the Pittsburgh Pirates came to town in 1955.

The Pirates that moved into the new stadium had been a lot of things, mostly awful, for almost a quarter of a century. Ralph Kiner hit tons of home runs, but that was about all the Pirates had until a young Puerto Rican named Roberto Clemente joined the Pirates in Fort Myers in 1955.

Clemente, who would become a Most valuable Player, 12-time All Star, four-time batting champion, 12-time Golden Glove winner, and Hall of Famer, spoke no English and was extremely shy. One of the first things he noticed about Fort Myers, where he played with major leaguers for the first time, was that Jim Crow spoke loudly in Fort Myers as well as every other spring training site in Florida.

Clemente, who died tragically in an airplane crash during a humanitarian trip to Nicaragua in 1972, made a name for himself that spring and became the building block to a Pirates team that won the 1960 World Series on a Bill Mazeroski homer in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7.

Kansas City Royals

The Pirates had a 14-year run in Fort Myers before heading to Bradenton, but Terry Park didn’t remain empty for long. In 1969, the expansion team Kansas City Royals had their first-ever practice in Fort Myers. The Royals were a team of kids, not castoffs like most expansion teams. They got good pretty quickly, finishing second in only their third year of existence. By 1973, players like future Hall of Famer George Brett and other building blocks of a mini-Royals dynasty were prepping for the majors, wearing their powder blue uniforms and playing on Terry Park’s artificial turf infield. The Royals won division titles three straight times, from 1976–1978, and trained there when they won the 1985 World Series.

But by the late 1980s, Terry Park was getting old and negotiations between the Royals and the city weren’t going anywhere. The park didn’t have the necessary seating, Arizona was offering lots of money to any team that would listen, and a thing called Boardwalk & Baseball was being put together in Haines City, close to Orlando. It was half-amusement park, half-baseball stadium. It was also new and considered to be a big improvement over Terry Park.

The Royals took off for Central Florida. Baseball teams put together their own spring training schedules and Fort Myers was considered off the beaten path by most teams. Opposing players disliked the drive south to Fort Myers, which was somewhat isolated from the rest of the Grapefruit League teams.

Minnesota Twins

Boston Red Sox

Today, the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins have their own stadiums in Fort Myers and, while there still are no teams particularly close by, their state-of-the-art ballparks are popular even if most visiting teams have to convince a small smattering of stars to make the bus ride.

It will never be quite the same as before, but baseball continues to generate a lot of money in Fort Myers, especially from people from Minnesota and New England who would rather spend a day at the ballpark in Florida instead of shoveling snow up north.

Terry Park still stands and plays host to amateur baseball events. It suffered severe damage in 2004 when Hurricane Charley swept through town. It doesn’t look the same as it did when it was first built, then rebuilt again, but for those who are still angry about losing the Kansas City Royals to an amusement park, there is some solace. Boardwalk & Baseball was a disaster. The Royals are now training in Arizona. •

March-April 2015