(In 1997, the Atlanta Braves’ final season of spring training in West Palm Beach, I wrote a story highlighting the team’s 35 years here.
There’s some pretty interesting stuff in here, particularly if you are new to the area and didn’t know there used to be a stadium where the Home Depot now sits at Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard and Congress Avenue.
Even better, the Braves are hustling now under a deadline to find a new spring training home because their Disney World site no longer rings all the bells. They could have stayed in Palm Beach County, could have been part of the Roger Dean Stadium deal in Jupiter, could have done a lot of things.
Here, though, if you’re in the mood to do a little reminiscing, is what they actually did do here, back in the days when former Braves owner Ted Turner said “As long as I own the Braves, there is one thing I’ll never change and that’s spring training in West Palm Beach. We’ll always be here.”)
By Dave George
Palm Beach Post
Feb. 23, 1997
WEST PALM BEACH – The original contract called for a five-year relationship between the Milwaukee Braves and West Palm Beach back in 1963. With caution the two parties entered into a spring-training relationship. No one could see 35 years down the road.
Frankly, seeing into the outfield was difficult enough at the time, so thick was the cloud of construction-site sand blowing across the undeveloped plain.
Players draped their faces in towels as they huddled in the dugout that first spring, baseball bedouins in a strange land where snakes lurked just beyond the outfield fence and the aroma of popcorn was overpowered by that of fresh paint and freshly poured parking lot pavement.
As the grounds crew gathered to chalk the lines of the batter’s boxes for the opening exhibition game, somebody noticed that home plate had been planted in the ground backwards.
Of course, that would never happen at Disney World, where the Braves will train beginning next year, but there the franchise will never be more than a corporate partner. In West Palm Beach the team of Hank Aaron and Phil Niekro and Dale Murphy and yes, even Biff Pocoroba, was almost like part of the family. We observed each other up close, warts and all, and shared every emotion from hilarity to grief.
Palm Beach County isn’t being robbed of spring training, not with the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals scheduled to open a new Jupiter facility next year. But the annual visit of the Braves, at various times through the years the best and worst team in baseball, will be missed. Before they were America’s team, or even Atlanta’s, they belonged to West Palm Beach.
And to think it all began with a box of alligators.
The late Ray Behm wasn’t just a city commissioner in 1963. He also was owner and operator of Uncle Bim’s hardware store in West Palm Beach, where customers went for everything from rain gutters to pet reptiles.
Therefore when Behm accompanied West Palm Beach Mayor C. Ben Holleman on a goodwill visit to Milwaukee, he decided against the overused gift of a crate of oranges. Baby alligators would be more fun, Behm figured, and would ensure that West Palm Beach stood out in the minds of Braves officials as they shopped around for a place to transfer their training camp from Bradenton.
“They brought all of us small alligators in cardboard containters,” said Palm City’s John McHale, then the Braves‘ president. “The problem was what to do with them. It was 5 below zero when they got up there.”
The zoo is open
After that introduction, it should have come as no surprise to the Braves that the first few weeks in West Palm Beach were a zoo.
The West Palm Beach Auditorium and Palm Beach Mall weren’t even in the planning stages back then and the residential developments of Lou Perini, former Braves owner, were yet to come. Municipal Stadium, in other words, was an oasis of civilization in the midst of a vast palmetto patch that ran west to the horizon.
Veteran pitchers Lew Burdette and Warren Spahn delighted in catching snakes on the stadium property and dumping them among teammates on the clubhouse floor. Rookie Len Gabrielson, a 6-foot-4 outfielder, made the mistake of screaming out his phobia about snakes and running for safety, which guaranteed a daily discovery of the animals in his locker.
Such adventures could have been avoided had the Braves simply moved into ancient Connie Mack Field in downtown West Palm Beach. The team wanted a new stadium, however, and Perini, whose original plans called for the Boston Red Sox to join Milwaukee here, wanted a centerpiece for his real estate venture.
The Kansas City Athletics trained in West Palm Beach for 17 years prior to Milwaukee’s arrival, but city officials were eager to rid themselves of Charlie Finley, the cantankerous owner of the A’s and the man who introduced the designated hitter and night World Series games to baseball. Upset at being “treated like a second-class citizen” by city officials, Finley took his team to the Braves‘ old facility in Bradenton. Ironically, however, the A’s were back in 1963 to provide the opposition for Milwaukee at Municipal Stadium’s opening game.
Working in the dark
There was no roof on the stadium that day, nor would there be until 1964. What’s more, Jim Fanning had to spend the night at the stadium guarding opening-day tickets with a shotgun because there was no lock on the box-office door. Fanning, who went on to become manager and general manager of the Montreal Expos, also worked by flashlight with Braves spring training coordinator Pete Skorput bolting seats into the grandstands at the last possible moment.
Expos manager Felipe Alou arrived in West Palm Beach in 1964 following a trade from the San Francisco Giants and made quick use of the new Palm Beach Lakes Golf Club across the street from Municipal Stadium. Snakes no longer were a problem, but hooks were. Alou broke the window of a passing car with an errant drive.
“It only cost me $42 to fix it,” Alou said. “I wonder what that would cost today?”
No telling, but here is what it cost to watch a Braves exhibition game when they first arrived at Municipal Stadium. One dollar for general admission and $2.50 for a field-level box seat.
Spahn, Burdette and Eddie Mathews once toured the Palm Beach estate of Joseph Kennedy, presenting the father of the sitting president with an autographed baseball and a season pass.
Not always, however, has the community interaction been so positive.
`Beeg boy still hit’
In 1968, for instance, Braves third baseman Clete Boyer and catching coach Bob Uecker were involved in a wild brawl at the Cock and Bull, a downtown bar. Uecker had a beer bottle broken over his head and reported to camp the next day with a turban-like bandage under his cap. Paul Richards, the Braves general manager, fired Uecker, clearing the way for an announcing career far more successful than anything the clubhouse clown ever achieved in baseball.
That same spring outfielder Rico Carty found himself feeling run down in the final days of training camp, even though he was leading the team in exhibition RBI at the time and batting .316. A physical exam revealed the Dominican star had tuberculosis and would miss the 1968 season.
“That was scary,” Alou said. “Luckily nobody else caught it but the whole camp – players, coaches, reporters, everybody – had to ride down to the doctor’s to get tested. What a tumult.”
Carty received treatment at the Southeast Florida Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Lantana for several months, then returned to Municipal Stadium in the spring of 1969 to rejoin the team. The first batting practice pitch that was delivered to him Carty pounded over the left-field fence.
“Beeg boy still hit,” Carty said with a laugh, as all around the batting cage joined in. “Beeg boy always hit.”
Montreal joined the National League as an expansion franchise in 1969 and the Expos were invited by the city to share Municipal Stadium with the Braves. Atlanta kept the main diamond for workouts, however, which caused a few disputes.
Once Expos manager Gene Mauch had to be chased off the main field by Skorput. Mauch had laid claim to his team’s use of the diamond by arriving early in the morning. Skorput found the manager sitting on a bucket by the pitcher’s mound and reading a newspaper.
Aaron’s pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record was the story of spring training 1974. The Hammer stayed at a condo across the street from the stadium and was escorted by security guards everywhere but home plate.
`We’ll always be here’
Ted Turner blew into town in 1976, a 37-year-old communications executive and yachtsman who bought the Braves for $12 million. “As long as I own the Braves,” Turner told city commissioners, “there is one thing I’ll never change and that’s spring training in West Palm Beach. We’ll always be here.”
Nothing, however, lasts forever, not even the blessing of Dale Murphy in a baseball uniform. Like so many other stars, he broke into the major leagues at a West Palm Beach training camp. What’s easily forgotten are the times he was sent back down, a 6-4 catcher who couldn’t get the ball down to second base with any accuracy. Once, after a particularly wild workout, Dale’s dad, Chuck Murphy, was overheard saying, “Don’t worry Dale, if that guy had been stealing center field, you would have had him pegged.”
There have been tragedies, too, during the Braves‘ stay in West Palm Beach. New York Mets manager Gil Hodges died of a heart attack at Good Samaritan Hospital in 1968 after playing 18 holes at Palm Beach Lakes. John Mullen, a Braves vice president who had been with the organization for more than 30 years, also suffered a fatal heart attack in his Palm Beach Gardens hotel room in the spring of 1991. Then, two springs ago, replacement pitcher Dave Shotkowski was murdered while walking along Australian Avenue.
This story overflows, however, with smiles, and not all of them have to do with the official spring training period.
The Braves‘ minor-league offices were destroyed on a summer night in 1984 by a rampaging bull that had escaped from its parking lot pen at the auditorium. The animal, part of a traveling rodeo show, crashed through the plate-glass doors of the Braves‘ complex and smashed everything in sight once inside the building.
For a couple of summers in the late 1970s, the city allowed a motocross promoter to haul thousands of tons of dirt onto the stadium infield for a series of motorcyle races. This displeased the Braves mightily, but there was nothing in their lease to prevent it. The respect of a World Series participant wasn’t always due the team, particularly when Atlanta was consistently finishing in last place.
“I can remember walking from the parking lot to the clubhouse with no one saying a word to me,” Mark Lemke said. “A couple of times I had to convince one of the guards of who I was. He wasn’t going to let me in.”
And now the Braves are preparing to get out. So eager is the team to get to Orlando that an exhibition game is scheduled this spring at the new Disney World facility. When they go, so will the celebrity sightings on a spring afternoon. The Harlem Globetrotters yukked their way through a couple of workouts in Braves uniforms 20 years ago. John Goodman was here in 1994 filming a movie about Babe Ruth and taking a few pinstriped cuts in the cage. Christie Brinkley dropped by last spring to wow players with her prowess as a photographer.
Come March 26, the final home exhibition game, the Braves‘ long-running West Palm Beach show will be shut down for the final time. But the scrapbook, it stays open forever.