Phillies set for 70th Spring Training in Clearwater

Phillies set for 70th Spring Training in Clearwater

Thanks to the Bill Veeck, owner of the Cleveland Indians, the Phillies are holding their 70th consecutive Spring Training in Clearwater, Fla., this year. Veeck bought the Cleveland Indians in June 1946, and he decided to move their Spring Training camp from Clearwater to near his Tucson, Ariz., ranch in '47.

When asked by Clearwater city officials to reconsider, Veeck reportedly asked for time to think about it. In the meantime, city officials received responses from two big league teams (the St. Louis Browns and Phillies) and two Minor League teams (Newark and Kansas City). After the Browns opted for Miami, the Phillies accepted an invitation to move out of Miami Beach for Florida's west coast. Clearwater's population was around 15,000 at the time.

A couple of days after camp opened, Veeck reportedly headed to Clearwater to negotiate sharing Athletic Field with the Phillies. His Indians were hampered with daily dust storms in Arizona. Phillies manager Ben Chapman didn't take the report too kindly to the idea of sharing.

• Phillies alumni

"I'm against the proposition," said Chapman. "We have only one park, and it's not big enough for two clubs. We want no competition here while we're training -- competition for the fans, I mean. Nor do we welcome any distractions."

On March 7, the Phillies agreed to exclusive use of the park for nine more seasons, ending Cleveland's hope of returning.

Athletic Field was first occupied by the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) for Spring Training in 1923. While training in Winter Haven, Fla., the Phillies played Brooklyn at Athletic Field in 1936.

Home plate was located near the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seminole Street; left field ran parallel to Palmetto Street, and right field parallel to N. MLK Jr. Avenue. It was 340 feet to left field and 290 to right. A wooden grandstand behind home plate originally seated 3,000. The field was surrounded by a wooden fence.

The players dressed in a small clubhouse on the third-base side.

"It was more like a wooden shack," said Andy Seminick, a Phillies catcher in 1947. "It looked like it might fall down any minute. It was so cold, the city finally agreed to install a pot-belly stove. The shower area was small, and the water was mostly cold."

Curt Simmons' first Spring Training there was 1948.

"I remember the clubhouse was a dinky wooden structure," said Simmons. "Very close quarters, nails to hang your clothing. I was a year out of high school and just thrilled to be there."

As a rookie in 1950, pitcher Bob Miller went to Spring Training at Athletic Field.

"Small clubhouse. We were always bumping into each other," said Miller. "It didn't matter to me. I was so proud to wear a Phillies uniform every time I stepped onto that field. The clubhouse guys washed the uniforms every day and hung them to dry on a couple of long lines outside the clubhouse. Can still see that."

Lunch for the players consisted of one sandwich and one small milk. Players stayed at the Fort Harrison Hotel and walked to and from Athletic Field.

Chapman put the Phillies through their first workout on Feb. 24. Their first game was a 13-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers on March 11. Chapman exploded: "I don't intend to take any more 13-1 lickings. We're playing every game as if it counted in the standings. This is not a tryout camp, and it's not a resting place for worn-out ball players. I've already separated the sheep from the goats, and the goats are on the way out."

In March 1948, Babe Ruth paid a visit to Athletic Field. In Robin Roberts' book, The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant, he wrote: "Babe Ruth visited our training camp one day while I was warming up. The Babe was talking to a sportswriter, Stan Baumgartner, and it occurred to me that my mother would really appreciate an autographed ball from Ruth. So, I got a brand-new ball out of the ball bag and asked to borrow a pen from Baumgartner. I asked Babe to sign the ball and he said, 'Sure, kid' with his raspy voice. Of course Babe's visit was in March, and he died that August of throat cancer."

In 1955, the Phillies moved into a new ballpark -- Jack Russell Stadium. It remained their home until 2004, when Bright House Field opened.

The Athletic Field grandstand was destroyed by fire on April 12, 1956, but the playing field remained. With only one field at Jack Russell Stadium, the Phillies often used Athletic Field as a second location, a place for rookies to practice. The field was in terrible physical shape, prompting the nickname, "Iwo Jima," with no disrespect to the battle during World War II. The island of Iwo Jima was made of inhospitable terrain and that was pretty much the condition of the baseball field.

The North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex now stands on the site. Athletic Field will become an official Florida Heritage Site this spring, when an historical marker will be dedicated where the ballpark was located.