Convicts, Henry Flagler, Babe Ruth and conch fritters are all team players in The Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s new exhibit For the Love of the Game: Baseball in the Palm Beaches, now through July 1, 2017 at the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in the 1916 Palm Beach County Court House.
The exhibit run will coincide with the Spring training at the new stadium in West Palm Beach and the museum will have special guest speaker Kevin McCarty, author of History of Baseball in Florida giving a talk and book signing in January.
America’s national pastime is on memorabilia-filled glorious display in this new free exhibit. I got a tour from Benjamen Salata, the curator, who started the history story with Henry Flagler, founder of the city and railroad magnate, whose luxurious turn of the century hotels were filled with winter weary patrons who clamored for outdoor sporting pastimes. Flagler obliged by bringing players from all over the county.
Hometown teams were usually comprised of black porters, busboys, and waiters from his hotels who played on the weekends and in their off hours. These were called the Hotel Leagues and the Negro Leagues. Teams were also formed from local prisons using convicts who got to play against the police teams. Talk about team rivalry. The exhibit has an early 1900s grey and white striped convict team jersey on display as well as posed photos of the cops and robbers all posing together in a fascinating show of uneasy solidarity, although the robbers are not real, they were socialites posing as convicts and included Woolworth Donahue, Edward F. Hutton, Walter P. Chrysler, and a New York judge and police commissioner.
All told it’s a detailed filled celebration of modern Major League teams and players, minor leagues, Little Leagues, local players, and fans — 120 years of baseball in Palm Beach County. I liked the displays of early handmade balls and bats, eventually replaced by budding sports equipment manufacturer Spalding in Philadelphia, PA. Early photos show the games being played in a large baseball field with high bleachers in the lot where the Kravis Center now has their parking garage.
Some major baseball traditions were created in Florida – Bill McGowan, the umpire whose loud shouts and hand motions of “SAFE!” and ‘YOU’RE OUT!” were started because some of the early players were deaf and he had to yell and gesture to communicate.
Early photos show teams named for Native Americans like the West Palm Beach Indians and the Braves. Controversy about such names continues to this day as to whether this is racial stereotyping.
There’s a whole section dedicated to player Gary Carter, a Baseball Hall of Famer who played with several national teams. After his retirement as a player, Carter served as an analyst for the Florida Marlins television broadcasts from 1993 to 1996. He also appeared in the movie The Last Home Run (1998) which was filmed in 1996. He died in 2012, the exhibit contains his book, uniform, signed bats and other personal memorabilia.
There’s an interesting film on how baseball bats are made, from the harvesting of the trees to the science of carving them with just the right weight and balance. Tens of thousands of bats are used nationally in one season.
Food at baseball games has played a major role, early photos in the exhibit show smiling vendors plying tuna salad sandwiches wrapped in wax paper along with ice cream sandwiches for 15 cents, sweet chocolate milk and bottles of Coca Cola, along with homemade conch fritters – a delicacy that was probably not served at any other baseball game in the world.
I got a big kick out of the rusted metal box that had been used as a way to keep score in early games. It was probably hooked up to a basic board with screw in bulbs that showed the inning and score – the unit was called a Scorebrain built by the Electro-Mech Corporation in Wrightsville, GA and had switches for STRIKE, INNING, HOME, VISITOR and OUT.
Early stadium seats on display are hard looking blue painted metal, which replaced long benches, installed in West Palm Beach’s Municipal Stadium, which was built in 1963. When the team arrived the stadium stood alone in the middle of a vast lot filled with rattlesnakes. Welcome to Florida boys.
The charming novelty of these early game foods, score machines and seats in is stark contrast to today’s high-tech stadiums that put on games for tens of thousands with luxe box seats for big spenders, food courts filled with healthy offerings and craft beer tap rooms, and digital scoreboards that show flashy films, player stats, replays and half time shows.
The new stadium being built in West Palm at a cost of $144 million stadium, will be just south of 45th Street on the east side of Haverhill Road, and will be the spring training home of the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. Doubling the number of local spring training teams, and the tourism boost that could bring, the new stadium has been hailed by local business leaders and other baseball backers as the chief selling point for building a second stadium.
“It is historic,” County Mayor Shelley Vana said about the new stadium. “It will change the lives of the people who live in this area.”
The county’s Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter is already the spring training home for the Miami Marlins and the St. Louis Cardinals.
From the games initiated by Henry Flagler as a way to entertain his hotel guests, to the future Ballpark of the Palm Beaches now underway, visitors to this fun, free exhibition will discover the rich history of this beloved sport right here in Palm Beach County.
This exhibit has something for baseball fans and history buffs, with interesting anecdotes and artifacts to the science of a strike. As they say, it’s a home run.
The Historical Society of Palm Beach County’s offices are located inside the restored 1916 Courthouse in Downtown West Palm Beach at 300 North Dixie Highway.
The Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum is located on the 2ND Floor of the Courthouse
If you visit the Baseball Exhibit…
300 N. Dixie Highway, Downtown West Palm Beach, FL 33401
Hours: Monday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. , Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Ongoing thru July)