A Half-Century of Springs: Vero Beach and the Dodgers

This article was written by Andy McCue

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “From McGillicuddy to McGwire,” the 2000 SABR convention journal.

 

It was 1947, and Branch Rickey had two spring training problems, both of his own making. Bud Holman had one, but it loomed large for him.

It took Rickey and Holman a while to find each other, but they proved to be each other’s solutions. The relationship they established, despite rocky moments, has endured for over half a century. Vero Beach, then a community of 3,000 people clinging to the east coast of Florida, has become a city of over 18,000 people identified with the Dodgers and spring training.

At the end of 1942, Rickey had taken over management of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He knew that for his new team to dominate, he could not just imitate the success he’d had with the St. Louis Cardinals. Too many other teams had begun to build minor league farm systems for him to think that tactic alone would propel the Dodgers to the top and keep them there.

Rickey took a couple of new directions. Unlike other baseball executives, he calculated World War II would end. Other teams cut back on their scouting because young men were going into the military. Rickey expanded his effort, and signed hundreds of promising players before they disappeared into the service. He also decided to break baseball’s unwritten ban on African-American ballplayers. In late 1945, the Dodgers top farm team in Montreal announced they had signed Jackie Robinson, a shortstop for the Negro Leagues’ Kansas City Monarchs.

The first decision meant he’d need a spring training site where he could work with the 700 or so ballplayers the Dodgers had under contract. The second decision meant he’d need a place where the weather as warm but the South’s code of racial separation would not be enforced. In 1946, the Dodgers went to Daytona Beach. In 1947, it was Cuba, plus other Caribbean stops. The minor league organization had spent those years in the Florida cities of Sanford and Pensacola, where former military bases offered feeding and housing facilities.

Those experiments had been expensive and, in some senses, unsatisfactory. In 1947, the major league team had lost $25,000 on spring training because of higher travel and lodging costs. The Pensacola minor league camp had cost $127,000.1 In both Daytona Beach and Havana, Robinson and other African-American players were placed in segregated housing. The Caribbean itinerary also meant the Dodgers didn’t face major league teams for most of spring training. They played the Montreal Royals. This was part of Rickey’s plan to let the Dodgers appreciate Robinson’s skills in preparation for his promotion, but it also reduced the overall level of competition. And, because the minor leaguers were elsewhere, Rickey hadn’t been able to organize the training program as thoroughly as he would like.

Bud Holman’s problem was the Navy’s decision to turn back the flight training base it had created out of Vero Beach’s prewar municipal airport.2 Holman had parlayed exceptional skills as a mechanic into, first, a Cadillac dealership in Vero Beach, Florida, then acres of orange groves and cattle ranches in the area. He’d also managed to persuade Eastern Airlines to make Vero Beach a stop on its flights up and down the eastern seaboard despite the city’s having little to offer the airline except Holman’s reliable service. Holman had wound up on Eastern’s board of directors.3

The Navy hadn’t used the base for nearly two years, and its facilities, many built with the idea they only had to last a few years, had begun to deteriorate. Holman had browbeaten the Navy into repairing the runway lights and making sure three of the base’s seven runways were operable, but he wasn’t sure how the airport could be made to pay for itself and help Vero Beach grow.4

The 1947 experience in Pensacola had made Rickey aware of the advantages of former military bases. The facilities the military had built to house and feed thousands of men only a few years earlier meant the Dodgers were spared expensive construction. They merely had to create diamonds, batting cages, pitching mounds, sliding pits, and similar facilities. As the 1947 season unfolded, Rickey was looking for something more permanent and more profitable. He examined El Centre, California, and other sites in the west as well as prospecting around Florida.5

Holman, who acknowledged he hadn’t known much about baseball, said he’d heard Rickey was looking for a former military base through a friend of one of Rickey’s daughters.6 He’d also evidently tapped into friends at Eastern Airlines and at General Motors.7 In the early fall of 1947, Buzzie Bavasi took a train ride down to Vero Beach to look at the base and estimate the cost of converting it to meet the Dodgers’ needs.8  Although the public announcement of a deal wasn’t made until December 11, 1947, Rickey was telling the Dodgers’ board of directors as early as October that he expected a “favorable” deal for next spring in Vero Beach.9

The five-year deal called for the Dodgers to pay $1 a year in rent for 104 acres while taking over responsibility for maintaining the existing barracks facilities in their area and building their own baseball training facilities.10 The city of Vero Beach, while giving up any significant revenue from the property, was hoping the publicity attendant to spring training and the crowd of New York writers who would come with it would raise the city’s tourism profile both in New York and around the country.

For 1948, the Vero Beach complex, which Rickey christened “Dodgertown,” was still a minor-league site. The Dodgers trained in the Dominican Republic, where they received a $60,000 subsidy from the government.11 They played just a couple of quick exhibition games in Vero Beach against the Montreal Royals.

However, the organization lost money again and the strain of racial relationships continued to plague the team.12 Sam Lacy, the veteran sportswriter for the Baltimore Afro-American who covered all of Jackie Robinson’s early spring trainings, says one of the reasons the Vero Beach complex was so appealing was that the Dodgers would provide the police service on their property, reducing the possibility of confrontations between their growing cadre of black stars and the local police.13

In 1949 the Dodgers joined the minor-league teams for the early weeks of spring training before moving to Miami to begin exhibition play. This would set the pattern for most of the 1950s. The Dodgers would play up to four major-league exhibition games in Vero Beach each year, with the proceeds of one game going to the city to supplement the $1 year rent. But, in an effort to offset the spring-training costs, many exhibition games would be played in Miami or on a barnstorming tour back to Brooklyn or Los Angeles. The spring-training costs also were offset by the sale of ballplayers force-fed through the Dodger system and the spring camps.

By 1951, Walter O’Malley had replaced Rickey as president of the team. While O’Malley had reservations about the original Vero Beach deal, he had come to accept it as useful, especially after Bavasi pointed out to him that the camp allowed players both to be pushed ahead with intensive instruction and to be showcased for sale to other organizations.14 Still, O’Malley hoped to get more. The Miami stay raised spring-training revenues but also hiked costs. He needed a stadium in Vero Beach to make money there but didn’t want to make the investment until he had a more stable relationship with the city.

In 1952 O’Malley and the city negotiated a 21-year lease for the property, with a Dodger right of renewal for a second such period.15 The rent was still $1 a year plus the proceeds of one exhibition game.  The  Dodgers’  president, a lawyer by training, plowed through two densely printed pages of the contract specifying what would happen if the Dodgers didn’t pay the rent. Then he peeled off $21 in cash and handed it to a Vero Beach official.16 The long-term lease gave O’Malley the confidence to invest $50,000 to build a stadium with just under 5,000 seats for spring training games.17 The stadium, named after Bud Holman, who had joined the Dodgers board of directors, opened in 1953. In building the stadium, the Dodgers had obtained dirt by hollowing out a nearby field. Afterwards, O’Malley filled it with water as a fishing hole and then, when a sulfurous smell appeared, named it Lake Gowanus after Brooklyn’s odiferous canal.18 Later in 1953, he added a pitch- and-putt golf course.19

But all wasn’t fishing and birdies. In 1951, Bavasi says, the mayor of Vero Beach came to him and complained about the growing number of African-American players on the Dodgers. Bavasi sent traveling secretary Lee Scott to the racetrack to bring back $20,000 in $2 bills. He then had his wife and Kay O’Malley stamp “Brooklyn Dodgers” on each $2 bill. He gave each Dodger staffer some of the money and told them to spend it in town over the weekend. The mayor called Monday morning to tell Bavasi he’d gotten the message.20 Still, as late as 1971, black Dodgers were complaining that if they wanted to play golf, eat at a restaurant, or go to a movie in town, they couldn’t.21 These complaints played a role in O’Malley’s decision to improve the food, add a movie theater, and eventually to add golf facilities at Dodgertown. It also led O’Malley to unilaterally take down the segregated seating signs at Holman Stadium in 1962.22

First, however, team and town had to survive the greatest threat to their relationship. It started in the late 1950s, as the new Federal Aviation Administration began to look into airports around the country. In Vero Beach, the FAA said, the city was violating the terms of the transfer of land from the federal government. Specifically, it was not making enough income from the land, and it was not using the money it did make purely for airport development and promotion.23  If the FAA’s complaints weren’t resolved, the federal agency could repossess the entire airport, including Dodgertown.

Over the five years the dispute took to resolve itself, the FAA was at pains to say it had no quarrel with the Dodgers.24 But it was saying to the city that the land leased to the Dodgers must generate more income. The figures varied a bit in the early years but eventually settled at $12,000 a year.25

Within the Vero Beach City Council, two schools of thought emerged. The Dodger supporters pointed to the economic benefits the team brought the city. They pointed to Dodger-related tourism, name recognition that helped broader tourism, and the team’s direct expenditures. They had no figures to support this, but the team regularly received votes of support from the chamber of commerce, tourism interests, and similar groups.26

Their opponents argued that the Dodgers were receiving 104 acres from the city that provided them with a wonderful training facility at next to no cost. The Dodgers, they said, should simply pay their fair share.27

The dispute became intimately involved in the politics of Vero Beach. The FAA’s action affected about 100 other tenants, including Holman, who actually ran the airport as a lessee (the Dodgers were his sublessee) and Piper Aircraft, which employed over 230 people at a factory on airport land.28 Piper was the biggest industrial enterprise in the city. Holman, after nearly 40 years of civic affairs, had his enemies. There were multiple lawsuits between the city, Holman, and individual city council members.29 There were whispers of fraud and missing money. “It was a bad time,” said Sig Lysne, a flying-school operator who sued Holman over the airport contract. Allegations flew that the Dodgers’ contract30 had never been approved by the Civil Aviation Administration (the FAA’s predecessor) and that a 21-year contract was illegal under the city charter.31

Walter O’Malley’s position remained consistent. The Dodgers had signed a legal contract with the city. The Dodgers had met every one of the conditions of the contract and, in fact, had invested some $3 million in developing Dodgertown over the dozen years they had been there.32 This, he noted, came with a return of only $122,000 from exhibition games. The Dodgers wanted to stay in Vero Beach and were happy to work with the city to resolve issues, but they weren’t willing to pay more rent.33 Other teams might pay rent for spring training facilities, but they didn’t have to pay to build those facilities, he said.

That didn’t stop people from approaching the Dodgers about moving, and O’Malley was only too happy to let that fact leak back to Florida to give him leverage in the Vero Beach discussions. The Dodgers looked at sites in California and considered other areas in Florida.34 Former Dodger outfielder Lee Walls tried to interest them in 2,000 acres near Palm Springs.35

In 1962, the issue apparently was solved when the city council agreed to make up the difference between the city’s spring training benefit game and the $12,000 minimum demanded by the FAA. But this wasn’t particularly satisfactory. For the city, a poor matchup or rain could ruin the take from their game. For the Dodgers, they knew that each year, a possibly different city council would have to approve making up the difference.36

The temporary solution was strong enough to hold until an idea that had been bandied about for nearly 20 years came to fruition. The idea of the Dodgers’ purchasing the Dodgertown land had surfaced as early as 1949. The idea hadn’t flown then because the Dodgers were offered a deal which cost them little cash at a time when O’Malley was pushing the board hard to conserve as much cash as possible to prepare to replace Ebbets Field.37 With the FAA problems, the idea had resurfaced but remained on the back burner.

With the tenuous city council resolution of 1962, the idea soon came to the fore.38 The negotiations dragged on through much of 1964 and into early 1965.39 Then the deal was struck. The Dodgers would buy 113 acres from the city. Some 13 acres of the original Dodgertown land, including the site of the first major league game played in Vero Beach, were to be turned over to an expansion-minded Piper Aircraft. The Dodgers would keep the core of the development and the city would add some additional property to the west. The price tag was $133,087.50.40

Title to the land gave O’Malley confidence to do make some considerable investments. A nine-hole golf course was begun on the new western property within four months of the sale.41 He entered into negotiations with the city that summer for an additional 180 acres northwest of Dodgertown.42 In 1971, that property would become the site of an 18-hole public golf course called Dodger Pines. It had eating facilities open to the public. The Dodgers eventually would own 413 acres in Vero Beach.43 Peter O’Malley and his sister, Therese Seidler, also would buy 54 acres in the area.

Landlord O’Malley also turned to the housing problem. When the Dodgers moved in, one of the attractions was the two two- story barracks erected at the airport for the pilots in training. The barracks could house 480 people, had facilities for feeding the men, and provided space for offices, lounges, and similar amenities. Although the buildings had looked good in 1947, they had been built to last out the war, not the centuries, and were beginning to look pretty shabby by the 1960s.

“The decor shows what can be done with plywood and a blank mind,” said Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, “They tell me this place used to be a barracks for the Navy. Up till now, I didn’t know the Confederacy had a Navy.”44 Other commentators told of toilets that needed plungers and roofs that leaked.45 “A deluxe room came with two buckets, which filled quickly during tropical rainstorms,” said Los Angeles Herald Examiner sports columnist Melvin Durslag, “and the walls were so thin that one could lie awake and take his neighbor’s pulse.”46

In 1969 the Dodgers announced the barracks would be replaced by new housing units.47 In a burst of characteristic humor, O’Malley surreptitiously put up signs protesting the demolition of the barracks and calling for their return.48 With the six- or seven-team minor league systems of the 1960s, the organization didn’t need the same space as the 22-team systems of the late 1940s. The new housing was 90 units resembling rooms in a nicer motor court. They were completed in time for spring training 1972 and declared a “unanimous hit.”49

Over the next few decades, the Dodgers would invest further millions in the site, building conference rooms, weight rooms, a new clubhouse, tennis courts, a commercial laundry, a broadcasting studio, a new kitchen, and dining rooms. Housing would be built around the Dodger Pines Golf Course.50

Some of O’Malley’s investments were less successful. There was the “Dodger Cafeteria,” a restaurant featuring Southern-style cooking and housed in an eatery formerly known as “The Shed.” There was the papaya plantation that died in a winter freeze. There was the idea that the seeds of the Australian pines at Dodgertown were an exceptionally fine protein fertilizer for birds of paradise.51 The additional facilities were part of an attempt to turn Dodgertown into a year-round facility. The Dodger Conference Center opened in 1977, bringing in corporate groups for meetings where they easily could break for golf, tennis, swimming, or other recreation. The Dodgers put one of their minor-league clubs in the complex beginning in 1980. Fantasy camps, started in 1983, are run every year in November and February. National Football League clubs and major college programs have rented the facilities for training camp or to prepare for a big game.52

For nearly 30 years from the land purchase, the relationship between team and city went smoothly. By the late 1970s, the team was playing its entire home schedule at Holman stadium. Then came Fox.

When Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Television took over the Dodgers in 1998, the new management team looked at every facet of the organization. In Los Angeles, there was talk of dumping Dodger Stadium. In Florida, there was talk of dumping Vero Beach. An Indian tribe near Phoenix offered to build a $20 million (later escalating to $50 million) complex and lease it to the Dodgers at low prices. Vero Beach discussed the idea of buying Dodgertown from the team and leasing it back.53 Other cities surfaced, but were discarded.54

Vero Beach responded. The chamber of commerce put together a study that showed the Dodgers were worth millions every year to the Vero Beach economy. The local annual payroll was more than $4 million. Local purchases totaled $1.2 million while another $90,000 was donated to Indian River County charities. They noted that the O’Malley’s properties in the city contributed $320,000 in property taxes and $450,000 in state and local sales taxes. They suggested that the city’s growth from 3,000 people when the Dodgers arrived to almost 18,000 in 1998 was related to the image of the city as the spring home of the Dodgers.55

Within a few months, the tribe’s offer fell victim to financial questions. Their proposals weren’t as attractive as first described, and the Dodgers declined their final offer. Vero Beach’s special relationship survives, and with Dodger traditionalist Robert Daly running the team, the relationship seems stable, at least for now.

 

NOTES

  1. Minutes, board meeting of the Brooklyn National League Baseball Club (hereafter board minutes), 10, 1947. Branch Rickey papers, Library of Congress.
  2. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Nov. 7, 1947, p.1A.
  3. The Sporting News, March 24, 1954, 5.
  4. Interview, Harry “Bump” Holman, Vero Beach, Feb. 7, 2000.
  5. See George Williams to Rickey, Feb. 6, 1947 in Rickey papers. Also, The Sporting News, Apr. 16, 1947, p. 11 and Aug. 20, 1947.
  6. The Sporting News, 24, 1954, p. 5.
  7. Holman interview, op. cit.
  8. Interview, Buzzie Bavasi, La Jolla, CA, Aug. 30, 1994.
  9. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Dec. 12, 1947, p. 1A and board minutes, Oct. 15, 1947.
  10. President’s Report to the stockholders of the Brooklyn National League Baseball Club, Inc., Oct. 23, 1950, Rickey papers.
  11. The Sporting News, Oct. 15, 1947, p. 13.
  12. President’s Report, Oct. 23, 1950, op. cit. Rickey reports the Dodgers themselves, with the subsidy, made a profit of $40,000 for spring training. The Vero Beach operation, including some improvements, cost $176,000. Since some other clubs trained outside Vero Beach, the organization’s net spring training loss was $168,000.
  1. Lacy, Sam with Moses Newson. Fighting for Fairness. Centreville, Md: Tidewater Publishers, 1998, p. 67.
  2. Bavasi interview, op. cit.
  3. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Jan. 31, 1952, p. 1A.
  4. The Sporting News, March 12, 1952, 9.
  5. Dan Parker, New York Daily Mirror, March 14, 1953.
  6. The Sporting News, Feb. 4, 1953, p. 6 and March 18, 1953, p. 17.
  7. The Sporting News, Nov. 4, 1953, p. 9.
  8. Bavasi interview, op. cit. Larry Reisman, editor of the Vero Beach Press-Journal told me (Jan. 11, 2000) that Bavasi had told him the same story. There was no mention of the incident in the paper at the time, and Reisman said he spent some time with older residents trying to pin the story down. He said he never found direct confirmation but came to trust Bavasi’s memory on the incident.
  9. Roseboro, John with Bill Glory Days with the Dodgers. New York: Atheneum, 1978, pp. 110-114. See also Melvin Durlsag column, Los Angeles Examiner, Feb. 19, 1961, Pt. 6, p. 1 or The Sporting News, March 20, 1971, p. 46.
  10. The Sporting News, April 11, 1962, 18.
  11. Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1960, IV, p. 3. Vero Beach Press-Journal, June 23, 1960, pps. 1A and 2A, and Nov. 17, 1960, p. 1A.
  12. Vero Beach Press-Journal, April 6, 1961, 5B.
  13. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Feb. 23, 1961, p. 1A. The $12,000 was the bottom range of a spread (to $15,000) suggested by the FAA, but quickly became the standard in further Vero Beach Press-Journal, Sept. 11, 1960, p. 1A shows figures as high as $30,000.
  14. Vero Beach Press-Journal, June 22, 1961, p. 1 A and 5A; Sept. 11, 1960, p. 1A, March 2, 1961, 1A. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 10, 1963, p. E4.
  15. Vero Beach Press-Journal, April 13, 1961, 7B.
  16. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Sept. 11, 1960, p. 1A.
  17. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Nov. 3, 1960, p. 1A. Vero Beach Press-Journal, June 29, 1961, 1A, March 1, 1962, p. 2A, Vero Beach Press-Journal, May 17, 1962, p. 1A, Aug. 11, 1960, p. 1A, March 23, 1961, p. 1A, April 13, 1961, p. 1A.
  18. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Dodger Spring Training 50th Anniversary Edition, February 1998, 7.
  19. Vero Beach Press-Journal, April 13, 1961, p. 7B. Over time, the violation of the city charter seemed to be an accepted fact, but the Dodgers vehemently denied their contract was not approved and provided documents to newspapers that seemed to back their case. Their opponents and the FAA, however, offered other Since the contract never went to court, there was never a resolution of this issue.
  20. Fresco Thompson to Vero Beach Press-Journal, July 7, 1960, 7A.
  21. Vero Beach Press-Journal, March 2, 1961, 1A.
  22. Los Angeles Examiner, Feb. 27, 1961, Pt. 4, p. 2, Sept. 21, 1961, Pt. 4, p. 2 and Nov. 20, 1961, Pt. 4, p. 2. Also, The Sporting News, July 27, 1960, p. 15.
  23. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, April 8, 1963, Pt. C, p. 3.
  24. Vero Beach Press-Journal, April 26, 1962, 1A, May 10, 1962, p. 7C.
  25. Board minutes, March 7, 1949, Rickey papers. O’Malley’s running concern with replacing Ebbets Field is apparent through the minutes from 1946 to When the Dodgers were faced with replacing the stadium in Ft. Worth after a May 1949 fire, his comments were particularly pointed.
  26. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Feb. 9, 1961, p. 1A, Nov.9, 1961, p. 1A and April 4, 1963, 1A. Also, The Sporting News, March 30, 1963.
  27. Vero Beach Press-Journal, Feb. 20, 1964, p. 1A, June 18, 1964, p. 1A., June 18, 1964, p. 1A.
  28. Vero Beach Press-Journal, March 18, 1965, 1A.
  29. Vero Beach Press-Journal, July 8, 1965, 1A.
  30. Vero Beach Press-Journal, July 29, 1965, 1C.
  31. Vero Beach Press-Journal, 50th Anniversary Spring Training Edition, February 1998, op. cit.
  32. Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1962, Pt. III, p. 1.
  33. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 8, 1963, Cl.
  34. The Sporting News, March 18, 1972, 36.
  35. Los Angeles Herald Examiner, March 8, 1969, B2.
  36. The Sporting News, April 19, 1969, 10.
  37. The Sporting News, March 18, 1972, 36.
  38. Los Angeles Dodgers 1999 Media Guide, 94.
  39. The Sporting News, March 22, 1969, 2.
  40. Dodgers 1999 Media Guide, op. cit.
  41. The Associated Press, Nov. 10, 1998, Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1999, p. D1.
  42. Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif., Jan. 30, 1999.
  43. Vero Beach Press-Journal, 50th Anniversary Spring Training Edition, February 1998, op. cit., p. 22.

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