"How old is this ballpark?" someone asks Jordan Kobritz, the principal owner of the Daytona Cubs.
"As near as anyone can document," says Kobritz, "it's 55 years old."
"Sixty," says Buck O'Neil. "It's at least 60 years old. I played here in 1934 for the Miami Giants, on our way up to face the Jacksonville Red Caps, a good team made up of railroad porters. Over there, that's where the Jim Crow section of the bleachers was."
The field in question is now known as Jackie Robinson Ballpark because this is where Robinson played his first integrated game in organized ball, as a member of the 1946 Montreal Royals. O'Neil has come to Daytona to rekindle some memories and visit his niece, Sally Griffin.
There's nobody on the field on this June afternoon, but O'Neil can still see the Giants: "That's me over there on first base. 22-year-old Foots O'Neil from Sarasota [Fla.]. On second, Winky James from Key West. Our shortstop is Bill Riggins, who played for the New York Black Yankees, and at third base is Oliver Marcelle. Ollie was a Creole from New Orleans, a fine-looking man. But he got part of his nose bit off in a fight in Cuba, and he had to play with a piece of tape on the nose. He'd been so proud of his looks, so he was never the same after that."
Griffin has brought along some mementos, one a 70-year-old report card from a school in Sarasota for sixth-grader John O'Neil. He earned excellent grades, including an A in personal hygiene, which will come as no surprise to people who know how meticulously he dresses.
Back then he was known as Foots because he had size-11 feet, pretty big dogs for a 12-year-old. He was also a pretty good first baseman, and one day the manager of the semipro Sarasota Tigers asked Emma Booker, the principal-teacher at Foots's small school, if he could borrow the kid for a game. She said yes, and soon Foots, not yet in his teens, was traveling all over the state playing baseball. He also got to see a lot of the white man's game during spring training: John McGraw's New York Giants trained in Sarasota. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were based in Tampa, and Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics were in Fort Myers.
But there was work to be done, and because his father, John Sr., was a foreman in the celery fields, Foots became a box boy, carrying the crates of celery. "I was considered a good box boy because, while most of the box boys could only carry two crates at a time, I was big and strong enough to carry four," O'Neil says, "I did that for about three years, at $1.25 a day. One day I was having lunch by myself next to a big stack of boxes, and it was so hot, I said out loud. 'Damn, there has got to be something better than this.'
"It turns out my father and some of the older men were on the other side of the stack having their lunch. That night my father told me, 'I heard what you said today.' I thought he was going to reprimand me for swearing, but he said, "You're right. There is something better than this. But you can't find it here. You're going to have to go out and get it.' "