Mooning Over Baseball in Miami

Miami has a rich baseball history, and it even includes the Orange Bowl. (via Totenkopf)

A quick examination of National League attendance figures might lead one to believe that the Bermuda Triangle has swallowed up the Miami Marlins’ fan base. As I write this, the Marlins have drawn just 617,012 fans in 2019, which breaks down to an average of 10,114 per game, roughly 27.5% of capacity (36,742). They are buried so deep in the cellar of the attendance rankings that the team just above them–the Tampa Bay Rays, playing in the oft-maligned Tropicana Field–is averaging 15,306 per game. The Marlins will likely fail to draw a million fans. These days, that is disastrous, no matter how low your payroll.

The Marlins have greatly improved their farm system, though, so maybe one day CEO Derek Jeter’s deals will bear fruit and Marlins Park will rock. If so, it won’t be the first time that baseball fans flocked to this location. In a sense, Miami baseball history began here.

Even by American standards, Miami is a young city. It was incorporated in July 1896, thanks to Henry Flagler extending his Florida East Coast Railway south from Palm Beach. The locals wanted to call the town Flagler but he demurred and persuaded them to name the new town after a local Native American tribe, the Mayaimi. Had Flagler not been so modest, baseball fans today might be rooting for the Flagler Flounders rather than the Miami Marlins.

Thanks to Flagler’s railroad, South Florida was no longer remote. A real estate boom ensued, followed by the inevitable bust in 1925. Market downturn or not, Miami was literally and figuratively on the map. Its climate and rapidly growing population, permanent and seasonal, all but mandated a professional baseball team–and a ballpark.

The first pro team was the Miami Magicians of the East Florida State League who first took the field in 1912. Their ballpark, Tatum Field, followed a year later, or according to some sources, three years later. The reason for the confusion may be that the field was there before the grandstand was built.

At any rate, Tatum Field–later Miami Field–was the focus of professional baseball for more than three decades. It was located at NW 3rd Street and NW 16th Avenue, which would place it adjacent to the southwest corner of present-day Marlins Park.

Not surprisingly, the ballpark also found tenants for spring training. Tatum/Miami Field hosted the Braves from 1916 to 1918, the Reds in 1920, the Dodgers in 1933, the Giants in 1941 and 1942, and the Browns in 1947.

Fans in Florida got to see Babe Ruth in a Yankee uniform before regular season fans in American League cities. In 1920, the Yankees, then training at Southside Park in Jacksonville, traveled to South Florida to play three games against the Reds, the defending world champions–albeit tainted world champions, as they had defeated the Black Sox. Two games, on March 15 and 16, were scheduled for Tatum Field, and a third for Palm Beach on the 17th.

The Babe’s arrival at spring training was clearly a big media event–in those days media meant newspapers and newsreels. The previous spring training, Ruth, as a member of the Red Sox, had written his name in Florida baseball history when he clubbed a 587-foot home run in Tampa. Expectations for Ruth and the Yankees in 1920 were just as prodigious, so no less a writer than Damon Runyon was assigned to follow the Babe around Florida for The New York American. I think that would qualify as a plum assignment.

Then as now, the geography of Miami made it amenable to boat-borne contraband. Prohibition, enacted on New Year’s Day in 1920, had created a market for illicit booze. Consequently, when Babe and the Yanks arrived to take on the Reds, liquor flowed freely. The Babe, never one for moderation in anything, graciously availed himself of the local hospitality. This was no way to turn around his slow start–the Yanks’ first exhibition game was on March 13, yet he didn’t hit his first home run till April 1.

When not partying heartily, the Babe played center field in both Miami games and went just 1-for-6. More importantly, his appearance at Tatum Field provided an opportunity for photographers–and cinematographers.

While curating an exhibit on Babe Ruth for the Hall of Fame in 2014, archivist Tom Shieber determined that a motion picture of Ruth taking batting practice at Tatum Field was his first appearance in a Yankee uniform in a motion picture. In the ensuing years, Ruthian photo ops would be far more plentiful.

Perhaps the most memorable event of the three-game series occurred in the Palm Beach contest. In Palm Beach, when the Yanks took the field, it was just that–a field, not a ballpark. The baseball diamond was on the vast grounds of the Royal Poinciana Hotel, which had opened for business in 1894. Even so, a bit of baseball history had been made there, as a number of Negro League ballplayers worked there in the offseason and occasionally played exhibition games against their counterparts from The Breakers, another renowned Palm Beach hotel – both built by Henry Flagler, by the way. The Royal Poinciana was done in by a 1928 hurricane and the Depression; the Breakers is still in business.

As richly appointed as the Royal Poinciana was, the amenities did not include a fence around the ball field. Consequently, a palm tree was in play on the day when Ruth was warming up in the outfield.

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Many people have hangovers the day after St. Patrick’s Day; the Babe chose to have his on St. Patrick’s Day. His legendary appetite aside, even the Babe at the peak of his powers–he was 25 years old at the time–could go too far, and it appeared that his sojourn in Miami was one such instance. Thanks to his hangover, Ruth collided with the intrusive palm tree during pre-game practice and was knocked out. “I guess my reflexes were a bit off,” he commented.

Well, a hangover will do that to you. Even so, he recovered enough to play in the game and even managed to double in a run in a 7-3 Yankee victory.

Alarmed by this incident involving his newly acquired slugger, Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert vowed that the Yankees would never return to South Florida, and they never did while he was owner: He died on January 13, 1939.

The first minor league team to call Tatum/Miami Field home was the Miami Hustlers who played in the Florida State League (Class D) in 1927 and 1928. The competition included teams in Orlando, Sanford, Sarasota, Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Daytona Beach.

In 1940 the University of Miami Hurricanes played their first game at Miami Field. The March 3 contest resulted in a 13-12 victory over Newberry College. The Hurricanes proceeded to lose their next four contests, thus ending their short season with a 1-4 record. The Hurricanes then went on hiatus till the 1946 season.

In 1941 pro ball returned in the form of the Florida East Coast League (still Class D). The first team was known as the Wahoos; they were followed by the Seminoles in 1942. After three years of hiatus due to World War II, play resumed in 1946, this time with a franchise in the Class C Florida International League. Originally nicknamed the Miami Sun Sox, the team was known as the Tourists in 1947 and 1948 before the nickname reverted to the Sun Sox in 1949. That year the league moved up to Class B. The team was affiliated with the Dodgers and managed by Pepper Martin.

Miami Field was the home park for these FECL and FIL contests until August 31, 1949, when Miami Stadium, located at 10th Avenue and 23rd Street in the Allapattah neighborhood, opened for business.

The new stadium surpassed Tatum/Miami Field in terms of capacity and amenities, prompting an upgrade to Triple-A via the Miami Marlins of the International League, and a long-term spring training commitment from the Baltimore Orioles from 1959 to 1990. In 1987 the stadium name was modified to Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium in honor of a former Cuban baseball executive who had fled the Castro regime. The facility was torn down in 2001 but the name lives on. Bobby Maduro Drive now parallels the south side of Marlins Park. After 1949, no more minor league teams took up residence at Miami Field.

The site was still a magnet for sports fans, though. Burdine Stadium, adjacent to Miami Field and boasting an initial capacity of 23,330, opened in 1937. Named after Roddy Burdine, a civic leader and department store magnate, the new facility was built for the University of Miami football team. Re-named the Orange Bowl in 1959, the facility went through numerous expansions, with its capacity eventually topping out at 80,045, dwarfing neighboring Miami Field in the process. The old ballpark was taking up space badly needed for parking (the Miami Hurricanes were drawing big crowds and the NFL Miami Dolphins were due to start play in 1966) so it was knocked down in 1964.

While it was in use, Miami Field was literally just a long fly ball from the Orange Bowl. In fact, home runs hit to deep left-center field occasionally hit the Orange Bowl. A contemporary parallel situation was taking place in Orlando where the 1936-built Orlando Stadium–a.k.a. the Tangerine Bowl, the Citrus Bowl, and Camping World Stadium–was erected adjacent to baseball’s Tinker Field, which opened in 1914.

Fittingly, the Orange Bowl also included a memorable baseball game: an attempt by Bill Veeck, working for the Miami Marlins in between his gigs with the Brown and the White Sox, to set a minor league attendance record. He had signed 50-year-old Satchel Paige, whom he had employed with the Indians and Browns, for the 1956 season. Paige had performed admirably, thus drawing big crowds, but their Miami Stadium home was not conducive to record-setting. The only venue in Miami where an attendance record could be set was the Orange Bowl.

Veeck probably got the idea from Dick Burnett, owner of the Texas League Dallas Eagles. In 1950 Burnett tried to set a minor league attendance record at the Cotton Bowl by bringing back a group of legendary old-timers to take the field on Opening Day. (My account of that game is here.)

So the Orange Bowl was rented on August 7 for Paige’s fourth start of the season. The result was a 6-2 victory over the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate. Paige not only won the game (he left after 7.2 innings), he clubbed a 330-foot double to left-center that knocked in three runs.

Whether an attendance record was set was open to question, as various sources list the crowd at from 51,713 (not a record) to 57,713 (a record). A minor point, however, considering that the proceeds from the game were turned over to a children’s charity.

The game was just one highlight of many for Paige in 1956. He finished the season at 11-4 with a 1.86 ERA over 111 innings. One suspects that if the Marlins’ parent club, the Phillies, had been contending that season they might have called him up.

Obviously, the Orange Bowl was no venue for baseball on a regular venue. Much like the Los Angeles Coliseum during the Dodgers’ tenure there, a short porch (in right, not left) was unavoidable and a screen was installed to knock down potential line-drive home runs. Unlike the Coliseum, the Orange Bowl had precious few seats behind home plate or on the first base side.

Nevertheless, the Orange Bowl was called into duty once again for the 1990 Latin American World Series but the attendance was disappointing. The 1990 champion was Los Tigres del Licey, a Dominican Republic powerhouse (10 championships from 1971-2008) managed by Felipe Alou. And that was the end of baseball in the Orange Bowl.

Understandably, the Orange Bowl is the most famous sports venue to occupy that particular chunk of real estate. After all, it was the home of the Miami Hurricanes (60 seasons) and Miami Dolphins (21 seasons) and hosted Super Bowls (five) and New Year’s bowl games (60 seasons). It was razed in 2008 to make way for the major league Marlins. Not much history at Marlins Park yet (aside from the 2017 All-Star Game) but time will tell.

In 2019 it should be remembered that there was baseball buzz in this neighborhood long before Marlins Park opened for business, long before the neighborhood was known as Little Havana, and long before the Orange Bowl was built. There may not be much to watch during the 2019 season, but there is more than meets the eye when it comes to baseball history in this location.

References and Resources

Baseball-Reference (accessed August 2019.)

Cohen, Alan. “Satchel Paige: Twilight with the Marlins.” The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State, 2016.

Creamer, Robert W. Babe: the Legend Comes to Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Czerwinski, Kevin T. “Paige Added to Legacy During Stint in Minors.” MiLB.com, February 6, 2006.

Filichia, Peter. Professional Baseball Franchises: From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians, New York: Facts on File, 1993.

George, Paul S. “The Bambino in Miami.” Biscayne Times, January 2016.

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl  (accessed August 2019).

Iraola, Abel. “Miami at bat: A history of baseball in the Magic City,” The New Tropic, August 4, 2015.

Jackson, Frank. “Thinking Big in Big D in 1950.” The Hardball Times, January 20, 2012.

Mayo, Jonathan. “These are the most improved farm systems.” MLB.com, August 6, 2019.

McCarthy, Kevin M. Baseball in Florida. Sarasota: Pineapple Press, 1996.

“MLB Attendance Report – 2019.” ESPN.com, 2019.

National Baseball Hall of Fame (accessed August 2019).

“Orange Bowl Site History.” MLB.com, 2019.

Pastore, Eric, and Wendy Pastore. Ballparks, From Wooden Seats to Retro Classics, 2nd ed. Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2016.

Reisler, Jim. Babe Ruth: Launching the Legend. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Richards, George. “Babe Ruth, Satchel Paige and A-rod Part of Miami’s Long and Storied Baseball History.” Miami Herald, July 5, 2017.

Smelser, Marshall. The Life That Ruth Built. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.

Smith, Steve. “The Long Forgotten Florida International League.” The National Pastime: Baseball in the Sunshine State, 2016.

Stadiums of Pro Football (accessed August 2019).

Wood, Allan. “Happy 114th Birthday, Babe Ruth.” Joy of Sox, February 5, 2009.


Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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browns44
Member
browns44

Thanks for this wonderful look back into the mostly forgotten history of Miami baseball. For more information on the Magic City’s illustrious history check out the book, Baseball Under the Palms: History of Miami Minor League Baseball the Early Years: 1892-1960, a must read.

Lanidrac
Member
Lanidrac

Florida works for Spring Training Baseball (as well as the World Baseball Classic) in March, and Minor League teams don’t need the same levels of attendance to support themselves, but I maintain that MLB teams in Florida will never draw well due to one simple reason: the people with most of the money don’t live there during the summer! MLB really should’ve known better before expanding to the Snowbird State.