Plant Field, Tampa

Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

Tampa's Original Field Of Dreams
By BOB KERSTEIN Special to the Tribune
Published: Oct 7, 2007 Tribune archive from 1990
With excerpts from Wikipedia

Most Tampa residents are familiar with the distinctive minarets of the University of Tampa, originally the Tampa Bay Hotel opened by Henry B. Plant in 1891.

But they may not know that the railroad tycoon did much more than build a hotel. He also offered a variety of activities for his guests. Some took place on his property west of the building, designated as Plant Field years after his death in 1899.

Plant Field was the first major athletic stadium in Tampa.  It was originally built by Henry B. Plant, owner of the Tampa Bay Hotel, in 1899 as an area to provide various activities for his guests. Plant Field drew Tampa residents and visitors to see baseball games, horse racing, car racing, entertainers and politicians. The stadium hosted the first professional football and first spring training games in Tampa.

Plant built a horse track on the grounds east of North Boulevard and south of Cass Street, now the site of the UT athletic fields. During the 1898-99 tourist season, races were sponsored by the Tampa Agricultural Racing and Fair Association.

The Track at Plant Field, 1920
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

"The true American of either sex is fond of horses, fond of that emulative strife which sends the noble animals coursing around the track for purses and honor," a brochure noted. "At Tampa Bay, the finest track in the world has been laid out, with ample accommodations, commodious stands and all the conveniences known to the best tracks."

The Track at Plant Field, 1924 Florida State Fair
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

In February 1921, car races were added to the South Florida Fair. The 1/2 mile oval dirt track opened on February 3rd, 1921, and operated until February 14th, 1942. It reopened after WWII on February 5th, 1946 and operated until 1980, when the fairground was moved east of town.

1931 Florida State Fair Auto Race at Plant Field Race Track
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

The track was also known as the South Florida Fairgrounds, Tampa Speedway, and the Florida Fair and Gasparilla Exposition. Plant Field was a venue for dirt-track races sanctioned by the International Motor Contest Association. Until the mid-1970s, races were held each year during the South Florida Fair, which became the Florida State Fair after it was moved to Tampa from Jacksonville.

Sprint car racing at Plant Field, 1966
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

The country's most famous drivers raced there. Pete Folse, a local driver, became a national champion, and Frank Luptow, who became a Tampa resident, was an IMCA dirt-track champion.

Baseball's "boys of spring" also had a long tradition at Plant Field.  Local teams played at what was then called the Tampa Bay race track diamond as early as 1899.

The field was the spring home for a succession of major league teams. The first was the Chicago Cubs in 1913. Lured by Mayor D. B. McKay and a booster's committee, the team was offered an incentive somewhat less than the norm today: $100 for each player and additional money to cover team expenses.

That first year, the Cubs played against only the Havana Athletics, who included several members who had played college baseball. The Cubs won the first game, 4-2, on Feb. 26. They also won the next two games.

The next year, the Cubs returned for spring training games against other major league teams, and Plant Field served as their spring training home through 1916.

Washington Senators spring training, 1923
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System


Tampa Smokers baseball team at Plant Field, 1922

The Boston Red Sox brought major league ball back to the field in 1919. It became home for the Washington Senators during the 1920s and the Detroit Tigers in 1930. The Cincinnati Reds played their home spring training games there from the 1930s through 1954, and the Chicago White Sox took it in 1954.

Dodgers and White Sox at Plant Field, 1954

A most noteworthy game at Plant Field took place April 4, 1919. Babe Ruth, playing in his last season for the Boston Red Sox, hit a home run 587 feet against the New York Giants during an exhibition game. It was considered the longest home run of his career.

With one swing of the bat on an April afternoon in 1919 in Tampa, George Herman "Babe" Ruth changed the course of American sports history. As pitcher for the Boston Red Sox from 1915 to 1918, Ruth had emerged as the American League's premier left-hander, winning 78 games and leading his team to two World Series titles. But Babe loved to hit and wanted to play every day. Team owner Harry Frazee disagreed. When the team arrived in Tampa for spring training in March of 1919, Ruth wasn't among them, holding out for $15,000--an unheard of salary. And he wanted to play outfield, not pitch.

With the rest of the team in Tampa, Frazee and Ruth met in New York and came to terms: $10,000 a year for three years...but Ruth would stay on the mound. Babe signed, then caught the midnight train to Tampa. He arrived in time for Boston's first exhibition game, on Friday, April 4 against the New York Giants, to be played at Plant Field, located on the site of the current McKay Auditorium at the University of Tampa. Bases had been laid out on the vast grounds of a racetrack.

At 4:15pm Friday, Billy Sunday (Rev. Dr. William Ashley Sunday, his real name) , the nation's leading evangelist, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Sunday, who had starred in professional baseball before his conversion, maintained his identity with the sport. Often he'd rush from his tent to Plant Field, and there he'd umpire the Spring training games of the big leaguers. He also tossed the first ball from the pitcher's box for this game. Ruth led off the bottom of the second. Giants pitcher George Smith hurled a fastball down the middle. Gripping the bat so far down the handle his right pinky actually hung off the butt-end, like a society matron sipping tea, the Babe swung and the ball rocketed toward right field. Giants outfielder Ross Youngs turned and ran, but halfway to the fence he stopped. The ball was still climbing. It bounced clear across the race track and rolled to a stop. A youngster retrieved the ball.

After the game, won by Boston 5 to 3, sportswriters asked Youngs to show them where Ruth's ball had come to rest. Laboriously, the writers paced the distance back to home plate. The phrase "tape-measure shot" hadn't been invented yet, but it soon would be. The blast measured somewhere between 587 to 600 feet. Even Giants' manager John McGraw, a crusty old bird not given to hyperbole, called it "the longest ball I've ever seen hit." It was the longest ball anyone could ever remember seeing hit. And by a pitcher!

Later that evening, the ball--signed by Babe and Barrow--was presented to Billy Sunday at his tent. Headlines in Saturday's Tampa Tribune screamed: "RUTH DRIVES GIANTS TO DEFEAT AND MAKES 'EM DRINK, TOO, B'GADS." The reporter, calling Ruth's homer a "wallop stupendous," wrote: "The Giants were still marveling last night. Many of them have never seen the Tarzan perform since he annexed his slugging habits."

Photos and story from the Florida Historian website

Many other greats played at Plant Field, too. Walter Johnson pitched for the Senators and Ted Williams played with the Red Sox against the Reds.

But it wasn't just sports that drew crowds. In November 1905, during the Florida State Fair, members of an important new club in town, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, paraded into Plant Field for the first time. It began a long tradition: The Gasparilla parade ended at the Plant Field grandstands until the fair moved to its present site east of Tampa in 1976.

Florida State Fair Entrance, 1940s,  parade at bottom right
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

Hav-A-Tampa Car Float at Plant Field Track, 1950s
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System


In 1912, "Buffalo Bill" Cody performed on the field with hundreds of American Indians who traveled with him as part of his show.


Tampa hosted the national reunion of the United Confederate Veterans in 1927, and some of the veterans stayed in quarters under the Plant Field grandstands. (Right: Reception Committee ribbon)

In November 1950, the Jackie Robinson All-Stars played a local black semiprofessional team, the Tampa Rockets, at Plant Field. Robinson's team included major-leaguers Roy Campanella and Larry Doby as well as several Negro League players. At least four of the players on the Rockets still live in the area: Raydell Maddix, Benjamin "Billy" Felder, Clifford "Quack" Brown and Walter Gibbons

The baseball diamond sometimes became part of a football field. On New Year's Day 1926, the Chicago Bears, starring Red Grange, defeated a team featuring Jim Thorpe.

On New Year's Day 1926, the Chicago Bears, led by Red Grange, defeated the Tampa Cardinals, a traveling pick-up team featuring Jim Thorpe, 17-3. This game marked the first professional football game played in Tampa. 
Burgert Bros. photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

The University of Tampa played its home games at Plant Field from 1933 to 1936 before moving to the new Phillips Field. Plant and Hillsborough high schools competed on Plant Field and played against each other in annual Thanksgiving games.

Presidential candidate Henry Wallace spoke at Plant Field in February 1948. Wallace insisted that the audience be integrated. This probably marked the first political speech in Tampa during which blacks and whites could mix. Paul Robeson sang at an integrated Wallace rally at Plant Field in October.

During the 1952 presidential campaign, Dwight D. Eisenhower appeared at Plant Field.

In 1971, the UT Board of Trustees approved the transaction that granted the university possession of Plant Field and the rest of the fairgrounds. The land was turned over to the University of Tampa and converted to athletic fields. The university built new sports facilities in 2002.  The original grandstands were used by the University until they were torn down and replaced in 2002, and the name Plant Field faded into history. However, a plaque on campus commemorates Ruth's historic home run.

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