In Depth Story

Why Tinker Field Is Worth Saving

Tinker Field on West Church Street

Tinker Field on West Church Street

As the Citrus Bowl is undergoing a much-needed major renovation, the new facilities could be a threat to historic Tinker Field. (Story)  What would Orlando be losing by demolishing an old rundown stadium?  This is a look at the history of one of the oldest Major League Baseball Spring Training stadiums left in United States and its link to Orlando’s baseball past.

The story of Tinker Feld starts with its namesake, Joe Tinker.

Joe Tinker

Joe Tinker

Joe Tinker

Two Orlando entries on the National Register of Historic Places bear his name: the Tinker Building on West Pine Street and Tinker Field on West Church Street.

Known for his baseball career from 1902 to 1916 with the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, Joe Tinker was one of the early baseball greats.   He earned his way to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Retired from play by 1920, Tinker moved to Orlando.  The climate here was better for his ailing wife.  He remained working in baseball as the owner and manager of the Orlando Tigers (Florida State Baseball League).   He led the team (nicknamed Tinker’s Tigers) to win the league championship in 1921 and take the championship trophy, the Temple Cup, away from rival Tampa Smokers.

The Tigers became the Orlando Bulldogs and Tinker was team general manager.  Around this time he remained involved in Major League Baseball as a scout for the Cincinnati Reds.  His affiliation with the Reds was key in their decision to bring spring training to Orlando in 1923.

Tinker Building on Pine Street

Tinker Building on Pine Street

Tinker took a break from baseball and focused on his real estate company.   His Central Florida investments included the Longwood Hotel and an Orlando billiard parlor that was a popular spot for visiting baseball greats.  After the repeal of prohibition, he opened one of the first places to order a legal drink in Orlando:  Tinker’s Tavern on Wall St.

Joe Tinker’s Pine Street office building, built during the 1920’s, stands today with “Tinker” spelled out in decorative tile along the top.   It was added the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.  The Tinker Building has been renovated and well cared for over the years in a manner fitting for a local landmark.   Unfortunately, Tinker Field has not enjoyed the same fate.

Tinker Field in the 50's

Tinker Field in the 50’s

Tinker Field

Orlando has played baseball where Tinker Field stands today since 1914.  In 1923, a $50,000 1500-seat wooden stadium was dedicated on April 19th and named after Joe Tinker.   Opening day tickets were sold at the cigar counters of the Angebilt Hotel and across the street at the San Juan Hotel.  Prices were 85¢ for the grand stand and 55¢ to sit in the bleachers.  Businesses closed and 1700 people turned out to see the Orlando Bulldogs defeat the Lakeland Highlanders 3 to 1 in their new state of the art stadium.

Most years between 1919 and 1972 Orlando had a baseball team in the Florida State League.  The team names varied over the years, but won eight FSL Championships between 1919 (Orlando Caps were co-champions with the Sanford Celeryfeds) and 1968 (Orlando Twins).

Tinker Field’s real significance is as a spring training park.  It is one of the oldest remaining spring training stadiums in the country and dates back to the era of Wrigley Field and Fenway park.  An amazing list of baseball legends played here: Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Babe Ruth.

From 1923 until 1990, this was the spring break home a number of major league teams:  Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers and for over 50 years the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins.

(Link to a previous Orlando Retro post about the Minnesota Twins Spring Training in Orlando)

Tinker Field brought major league baseball to Orlando.   The New York Times archive has many articles about the Dodgers training here in the thirties.  For example, a 1935 New York Times article reported 2000 fans at a March spring training game.  Fans saw Ken Strong from the New York Giants train with the Dodgers.  (He didn’t make it out of spring training.)   In 1949, a larger crowd of over 2400 paid tribute to baseball veterans Connie Mack (86 at the time) and Clark Griffith (79) before an exhibition game.

Even in recent years, the Orlando Monarchs called Tinker their home field.

Electric Daisy Carnival at Tinker Field (2013)

Electric Daisy Carnival at Tinker Field (2013)

Outside baseball, Tinker Field has been the scene of many community and entertainment events:

  • 1928: an athletic charity event to benefit an African-American hospital
  • 1935: 10,000 attended a barbecue honoring Florida Governor David Sholtz
  • 1935: The Orlando Festival included 20 Central and South American countries participating in elaborate pageants for “the entertainment of Winter visitors”.  
  • Over the years, concerts from Marilyn Manson to the Beach Boys.
  • 2011-2013: The venue for Electric Daisy Carnival Orlando, an electronic music festival.

Martin Luther King, Jr made his only Orlando appearance at a newly renovated Tinker Field in 1964 and spoke from the pitcher’s mound.  In ’63, the wooden stadium was replaced with the larger stadium that stands today.  Over  2000 people heard Dr. King speak that March day.  It was at the height of the civil rights movement.  The Orlando visit was only weeks before his St. Augustine arrest for protesting segregation.  President Johnson signed the 1964 civil rights act in July of the same year.

In the last decade, maintenance was not kept up and it has been left to deteriorate.   As the city builds and improves sports venues, Tinker Field should not be overlooked.   A world-class basketball arena, planned improved Citrus Bowl, and new MLS soccer stadium are important to the city, but also important are our connections to our baseball past and community history.  If the stadium is not saved, it would be a shame to lose Tinker Field without some significant tribute to this landmark.

Cincinnati Reds training on Tinker Field in the 1920's

Cincinnati Reds training on Tinker Field in the 1920’s

Sources:

  • New York Times:  Mar 18, 1935, Apr 7, 1935, Feb 7, 1937, Apr 4, 1949
  • Remembering Orlando, Tales From Elvis to Disney, Joy Wallace Dickinson, 2006
  • Tinker, Evers, and Change: A Triple Biography, Gil Bogen, 2003
  • Orlando, A Centennial History, Eve Bacon, 1975
Categories: In Depth Story | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Intriguing History of the Cherry Plaza Hotel, Part 2

Twins Cover

Cherry Plaza Hotel, Part 1

Cherry Plaza Hotel, Part 2: 

Old postcard images can give an idealized view of the past.  Looking back at the 63 year history of the former Cherry Plaza Hotel, events like Walt Disney’s press conference and LBJ’s visit are most often remembered.  Many Orlandoans still have fond memories of pool parties,  dancing in the night club, or dinners at Lee’s Lakeside.    But the Cherry Plaza’s story wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the role it played in one of final chapters of discrimination in professional baseball.

Segregation and Spring Training in Orlando

There may be little evidence of it today, but Orlando has a long history with baseball.   Tinker Field was built in 1914, and was the spring training site for the Washington Senators as far back as 1936.  In 1960, the Senators became the Minnesota Twins when owner Calvin Griffith moved them to Minnesota.   After the transition, the Twins remained in Orlando for Spring Training.   Yet Orlando was not the multicultural city it is today, and the lack of racial equality here brought major challenges for the new Twins.

Tinker Field was the site of spring training for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins from the 30's until 1990.

Tinker Field was the site of spring training for the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins from the 30’s until 1990.

Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier for baseball in 1947, and by 1959 all teams were integrated.  But spring training was another story, because into the early 1960’s many teams did not house  black and white players together during spring training.  Most spring training was in Florida or Arizona.  Teams training in Arizona largely accommodated players in the same facilities, while most teams training in Florida had to house black players separately in different hotels or private homes.   This was the situation in Orlando: the Twin’s spring training headquarters were at the Cherry Plaza Hotel, but the  African-American players were provided rooms at the Sadler Hotel on West Church Street.

The team had been promised integrated, first class hotel facilities would be available, but such accommodations were not available by 1961.  The first year of spring training as the Twins, there was little controversy over the segregated facilities.  Most baseball teams training in Florida were separating their players that year, although this would quickly change.   By 1962, as other teams were integrating their spring training accommodations, the public and state officials back in Minnesota began to push the team into fixing the inequality.  The Cherry Plaza would not allow black players to stay there.

Concerned with his state’s reputation, Minnesota Governor Elmer Anderson became personally involved in encouraging change.  It was important to him to separate Minnesota from the racial discrimination occurring in the South.  He not only put pressure on team owner Calvin Griffith to find appropriate accommodations,  he also exchanged a series of letters with the manager of the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando.  Frank Flynn, hotel manager, wrote the Governor in return.  His letters were mostly evasive about the hotel’s segregation policies, but were firm in stating the hotel’s contract was with the team and not the State of Minnesota.  After a few letters, Flynn attempted to write the disagreement off as difference of opinion.  To which Governor Anderson replied, “This is not a matter of opinion… Questions of discrimination are not of limited private concern.”    The  governor’s letters made no progress.

Sadler Hotel - Henry Sadler built and operated this hotel to serve the African-American community.  Ray Charles and James Brown were once guests here.  Sadler had a long history with the hotel business in Orlando.   He worked for as a bellman at the hotel San Juan from 1929-1972, operated the Sadler Hotel until 1983, and then worked guest relations at the Court of Flags until the late 1990s.

Sadler Hotel – Henry Sadler built and operated this hotel to serve the African-American community. Ray Charles and James Brown were once guests here. Sadler had a long history with the hotel business in Orlando. He worked as a bellman at the San Juan Hotel from 1929-1972, operated the Sadler Hotel until 1983, and then worked guest relations at the Court of Flags until the late 1990s.

In Minnesota, publicity and negative public opinion was growing, but the Twins organization reported Orlando had no hotels other than the Cherry Plaza to accommodate the team.   Discrimination complaints were filed within the Minnesota state government, yet none of the efforts were resulting in change.    Fewer and fewer teams were segregating their players.  In fact by spring of 1963, the Twins were one of only five teams left not integrated.

The Sadler Hotel, where the black players stayed, was operated by Henry Sadler.  Sadler had financial backing from Twins Owner Griffith in building a hotel to serve Orlando’s African-American community.  Early Battey was one of the African-American players on the team during this time.   He spoke out to some degree about the need for integrated housing, but was aware an unintended consequence of integration was that African-American businesses could be hurt.  Battey made a point to speak highly of local African-American businesses.  He was quoted as saying that the need for integration was, “no reflection on Henry Sadler’s business.  The Sadler has a good coffee shop and there are three or four good restaurants for Negroes in Orlando.”

The public outrage in Minnesota peaked as 1964 Spring Training approached.  The Twins by this time were the only team not providing their players with integrated accommodations.  Future U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale was Minnesota Attorney General then and spoke out publicly at the team’s lack of progress.   The NAACP began organizing a protest to be held at the team’s season opener.   This was enough for the Twins to finally take action.

The four-year controversy came to an end — not with cooperation from the Cherry Plaza — but by relocating the spring training headquarters.  In 1964 the Twins put out a statement.  “Effective March 4, the spring training headquarters of the Minnesota Twins will be the Downtowner Motel in Orlando, Fla.”  And with that the team moved to the newly built Downtowner where all players were welcomed.

Downtowner Motel welcomed all players in 1964

Downtowner Motel welcomed all players in 1964

Stories about inequality and discrimination are usually complex.  A final anecdote to this story involves Frank Flynn, the Cherry Plaza Hotel manager who could not be persuaded to allow African-Americans into his hotel.  In 1963, one the most tragic events of the civil rights movement was the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls.   It was Flynn who, with two other businessmen, set up an interfaith response to assist the victims of the bombing.    A fund was collected from area churches for the Birmingham families.  As Flynn upheld policies of discrimination at his hotel, he took action and led the community in displaying compassion to those hurt by the racial unrest of the times.

______________________________

  • “Bigotry is Bad for Business: The Desegregation of Spring Training Camps in the Minnesota Twins Organization, 1960-1964” by Charles Betthauser, Fall 2007, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire
  • Orlando Sentinel, 2/11/1992; 2/21/2010; 9/28/2000
  • Cool of the Evening: The 1965 Minnesota Twins, By Jim Thielman
  • Twins Journal: Year by Year & Day by Day with the Minnesota Twins Since 1961, By John Snyder
  • Swinging for the Fences: Black Baseball in Minnesota, by Steven R. Hoffbeck
  • New York Times, 1/19/1961
  • Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal, 3/4/1964
  • Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 9/17/1963
Categories: In Depth Story | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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