In 1915 the Philadelphia Phillies assuredly did not invent spring training, just like The Beatles didn’t invent rock’n’roll, Henry Ford didn’t invent the car or the assembly line, and Michelangelo didn’t invent sculpting. But just like “Love Me Do,” the Model T, and David, the Philadelphia Phillies 1915 spring training fundamentally changed things.
Spring training had existed for nearly 50 years in nascent forms. The first evidence of a team going somewhere warmer to practice, not surprisingly, occurs in 1870 when the first two pro teams- the Cincinnati Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings– went to New Orleans.
The first team to spend a recognizable part of time in Florida was the Washington Statesmen in 1888, who went to Jacksonville for about a week. That club finished 37 and a half games out of first place, blamed most of it on Florida, and didn’t come back. It should be noted that was the second-best season the Statesmen ever had. The four-year NL franchise went 163-337 with a .326 winning percentage, so blaming their ills on spring training was something akin to the story of the pot and the kettle.
The first complete spring training in one location was orchestrated in 1903 by a former catcher on that 1888 Washington team who was now a manager in the upstart American League looking for an edge. Connie Mack took the Philadelphia A’s to Jacksonville as well, but when the A’s finished up 14 and a half games behind the eventual first-ever World Series Champion Boston Americans, Mack blamed it on the warmth of Florida.
The business of baseball and Florida as a tourism destination continued to grow on two separate paths. Finally, 10 years after the A’s time in Jacksonville, according to the excellent history on FloridaGrapefruitLeague.com, the Mayor of Tampa essentially bribed the former White Stockings and now Cubs to come to Florida in 1913, promising to cover $100 in expenses per player. The next year, the A’s, defending World Champs, returned to Jacksonville and this time won the pennant.
St. Petersburg, trying to one-up its neighbor Tampa, made the biggest move for ballclubs at this time, convincing the St. Louis Browns to show up for 1914 spring ball by not only also promising to cover expenses, but building the Browns a five-thousand seat stadium. Like baseball legends go, it was built, and they came.
However the Browns- and then-GM Branch Rickey– got into a dispute with St. Petersburg officials about just how many of the teams expenses were actually covered by the city. (I’m just going to go out on a limb here and guess it had something to do with alcohol, food, and cigars.) The Browns, as a result, refused to come back for the 1915 season, leaving St. Pete with a new five thousand seat stadium and nobody to play in it.
Here’s where the Phillies come in. The second team in Philadelphia because of the success of the A’s and never having won a pennant despite being National League members since 1883, they were desperate for a change in fortunes. Seeing the A’s train in Jacksonville and then win the pennant and also knowing that St. Pete had new and now empty facilities likely caused the Phillies to become the new tenants for 1915.
Not much attention was paid to the Phils during preseason camp. They had finished second in 1913, their highest finish since 1901, but a sixth-place finish in 1914 seemed to indicate that the Phils had slipped back to the norm. But when they opened the 1915 season by winning eight straight and 11 of their first 12, both the city of St. Pete and the Phils were quick to point to the Florida training. The city probably was a little louder about it than the Phillies were. The club was at least tied for first place from July 13th on and won their first pennant by six and a half games.
Would Florida eventually have become the go-to place for spring training even without the 1915 Phillies? Probably, because Florida was growing as a tourist destination in the winter anyway, especially for rich team owners. Athletes were finding the place in order to train on their own and enjoy other aspects of the good life as well. But because the Phils were perennially so bad and in 1915 they were so good, the cause-and-effect of Florida spring training was amplified, probably mostly by mayors in Florida. Perhaps the best example is the Boston Braves, the Miracle 1914 team who finished second to the Phils in 1915. In 1916 the Braves became the first team to have spring training in Miami, and that cannot be any sort of coincidence. By the mid-1920’s 10 of the 16 Major League clubs were in Florida for spring training on at least a part-time basis.
Despite staying in St. Pete for three more seasons, the Phils weren’t able to duplicate the success of 1915. In 1916 they finished 2.5 games back of Brooklyn, who called Daytona Beach home, in 1916 and second to the Marlin Springs, Texas-trained New York Giants in 1917. (Philly then didn’t sniff success until coming out of nowhere again and winning the pennant in 1950, after they’d settled for good in Clearwater.) It probably didn’t hurt that Hall of Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander had a season for the ages on the hill in 1915, going 31-10 with a 1.22 ERA and a career-high 241 strikeouts for an MLB-high 10.4 WAR. Outfielder Gavvy Gravath set a then-modern MLB-record with 24 homers in a single season and had one of his best statistical years as well.
A final note on Florida spring training- the first team to spend a full preseason in the Sunshine State and then win the World Series was a descendant of the very first team to spend any time in Florida- the American League Washington Senators, who went to Tampa in 1924. By then going south for spring training was as sure as the change of seasons, and the next frontier was the west. Although the Cubs were the first team to go to California in 1903 and were training on Santa Catalina Island outside of L.A. by the mid-1920’s, the Detroit Tigers were the first team to head for in Arizona in 1929. But that is a story for another day.