More Than Just Spartans

Hundreds of students make their way along the path between Straz Hall and the McNiff Fitness Center each day.

Few, however, realize they are standing in the same spots that baseball legends Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson did less than a century ago.

The long-demolished Plant Field hosted decades of early major league spring training and exhibition games and also served as a race track, football field, and platform for political rallies.

Today all that remains of the once bustling field is a small plaque commemorating the site’s historical significance and the race car drivers who lost their lives there.

Teams like the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Washington Senators all called Plant Field home to their spring training program at various points during the twentieth century.

Babe Ruth hit a 578-foot home run, recognized as the longest of his career, on the historic field during his last season with the Boston Red Sox in 1919.

Ruth was one of the first players to be elected into the baseball hall of fame and was ranked the “greatest player ever” by Sporting News.

According to a City of Tampa publication, the home run was witnessed by more than 4,300 people and a plaque on the west side of John Sykes College of Business now marks the spot where the ball landed.

According to historical author and longtime Tampa resident Fred Hearns, another important moment in Plant Field history has gone largely unnoticed.

“What you won’t find is that Jackie Robinson played a game here on the same field (as Babe Ruth),” he told the St. Petersburg Times.

According to UT history professor Bob Kerstein, the Jackie Robinson All-Stars played the Tampa Rockets on the field in November of 1950.

Robinson, first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, was the first African-American baseball player to be integrated into a previously all-white league.

He broke many records throughout his career and is recognized as a pioneer in desegregating American baseball.

Ted Williams, nicknamed “the greatest hitter of all time,” played against the Cincinnati Reds on the UT field.

Williams won the Triple Crown twice during his career with the Boston Red Sox and is the last player to ever earn a season batting average of over .400, a feat he accomplished during the 1941 season.

During the Great Depression, teams facing a lack of funds made use of what commodities were available.

A.M de Quesada’s publication “Baseball in Tampa Bay” claims that when baseball supplies were short during the 1920s and ’30s, oranges were used in lieu of baseballs during team practices.

The field doubled as a football field and in 1926 hosted the Chicago Bears and American Football League founder Red Grange as well as professional football and baseball player Jim Thorpe, according to Kerstein.

Tampa Tribune reporter Mike Wells wrote that dangerous auto races were held at the field up until the 1970s and that “several drivers lost their lives at Plant Field.”

A plaque on the south side of the Pepin Stadium now honors the drivers who died on the Tampa Speedway, and the original banking of the track is still visible underneath the soccer scoreboard.

The University obtained the field in the early ’70s and eventually demolished it in order to make room for newer facilities.

“After the University of Tampa acquired the property, I imagine they had to modify the field to accommodate their different teams,” said Kerstein who serves as a Hillsborough County historian.

Although many students are unaware of the historical impact of UT’s athletic fields, some like sport management major Dan Schlindwein said the school is blessed to be able to boast such an impressive history.

“For anyone who is interested in sports history, it’s interesting to walk around and think about what used to be here,” the junior said.

“We’re lucky to have it.”

The new Tampa Bay History Center, located in the Channelside District, will feature an exhibit on baseball in Tampa Bay beginning in December of 2008.

Reference librarian Mickey Wells, Dr. Robert Kerstein, and Professor Ross Bartow contributed to this report.

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