SI Vault
Horace Sutton
March 04, 1957
The Florida Gulf Coast, which has cornered the market on white sand, shuffleboards and septuagenarians, also has a near monopoly on spring baseball. In the short strip of water-washed preserve from Clearwater south to Sarasota, a distance of perhaps 50 miles as the locker-room rumor flies, no fewer than seven ball clubs are dug in, waiting for April as impatiently as lovers.
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March 04, 1957

Tampa Bay: A Lively Corner On Spring Baseball

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That starched swank of past patrician days is still preserved, however, in the neighboring community of Belle-air, particularly at a manicured preserve known as the Belleair Biltmore, where once upon a time the private railway cars of society's pillars were stacked up at the hotel's private siding like Eldorado Cadillacs today. Anyway, the grounds, roughly the size of Rhode Island, are dotted with white frame buildings, tennis courts and a pair of 18-hole golf courses. Meals are served in a skylight-covered armory, the tables set out on either side of a 100-yard straightaway. There are 375 aging rooms, $36 to $46 for two, American plan, and a boat will fetch you to and from the cabana beach club.

One of the most delightful excursions is the ride up to Tarpon Springs just 12 miles north of Clearwater where a colony of several thousand Greeks sail out in their curved-bow caiques to comb the floor of the Gulf for sponge. If you have 25 minutes and a dollar to spend, the Greeks will take you downstream a few yards and give you a sponge lecture while a diver goes over the side to demonstrate the technique.

Pappas Restaurant, nestled among the sponge stalls on the clock (it also has a branch in St. Petersburg), is a real find if you stay with such Greek dishes as pastitsio, a sort of Aegean lasagne flavored with cinnamon; Greek salad, which has roka, a Greek watercress grown locally by an Italian farmer, yellow Salonica peppers, black olives and chalky feta cheese, all imported from the old country; and keftedes, a Hellenic hamburger which, since it is flavored with mint, comes with its own built-in digestive. A tiny shack known as Sophia's next door serves Turkish coffee and Greek pastry supplied by Tarpon Springs' three Greek bakeries.

Down at St. Petersburg, at the corner of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the annual arrival of the Yankees and Cardinals, both of whom train here, does serve to leaven the average age of transients. But no one ought to labor under the notion that St. Pete is all canes and cardiacs. At Mirror Lake Park the members of the Lawn Bowling Club, Inc. bowl on the sandy lawn, shuffleboarders push the pellets by day and under floodlights at night, often to a full grandstand of spectators, and the roque players swing their abbreviated croquet mallets with whacking gusto, sending the hard-rubber ball caroming off the octagonal steel-sided court toward wickets that have only one-sixteenth of an inch clearance on either side. Across the street in the Coliseum there is dancing in a huge ballroom, and down on the pier the city gives square-dance lessons daily. Twice a week the Kids and Kubs, a pair of teams whose members are required to have reached their 74th birthday to be eligible, play each other in a rousing game of softball, complete with four umpires on the field, spotless white uniforms, a white-haired bat boy and, frequently, a red-faced rhubarb.

The Yanks work out at Miller Huggins Field, the Cards at Al Lang Field, where most exhibition games are played, both in town. However the better mid-city hotels, such as the social Vinoy Park and the transient Soreno, have made no price adjustment because of their age. The Soreno extracts $16 a day for an outdated single room without meals, and the Vinoy, which takes guests on recommendation, asks $19 to $24 for singles, $28 to $38 for two with meals. The keys that lie offshore from St. Petersburg—Reddington Beach, Madeira, Sunshine and Treasure Island—are studded with motels and hotels either flush on the sand or across the street from it. Newest and grandest of all is the Doctors' Motel, which is not on the offshore sandspit but at the very entrance to the Sunshine Skyway, an over-the-water causeway that leads south to Bradenton and Sarasota.

The Milwaukee Braves roost in Bradenton on the south side of the skyway, occupying quarters in the sleepy Manatee River Hotel, a pink stucco palace decorated inside with standing chrome ashtrays and plants wrapped in silver foil. Manatees or sea cows floated in the local waters in bygone days, but the only one left today lives in a tank alongside the Chamber of Commerce, a gray, bloated Shmoo that rolls over on command. The River Queen, last of the red-hot stern-wheelers, has just tied up at the Bradenton docks, fresh from its most recent cinema appearance with Clark Gable in Band of Angels. It is to be a permanent fixture with restaurant, museum and Gay Nineties theater.

If Bradenton is quiet, there is enough going on down the line at Sarasota to keep a man both broke and breathless. Aside from the gymnastics provided by the itinerant Boston Red Sox, snakes slither at the Reptile Farm, dogs race at the Kennel Club, flamingos preen at the Jungle Farm, actors tread the boards of the Players Club, and the circus, which is in winter residence here, begins rehearsals, open to the public, on March 1. Meanwhile, there is a Sunday circus at Little Madison Square Garden, and visitors can watch aerialists and animal acts at almost any hour.

John Ringling's home, built like the outr� abode of a Venetian doge, is now a museum, and besides that he also built a museum whose corridors are filled with mammoth oils and whose Versailles-sized courtyard is filled with Greek and Roman statuary, not excluding a bronze casting of Michelangelo's David, all collected in the course of talent searches on the Continent. There is a Museum of the American Circus on the Ringling grounds, and the circus Hall of Fame, privately operated, offers exhibits and exhibitions. The Bobby Jones Golf Course has 27 holes ($1.50 for nine holes, $2.50 a day), the Lido Beach Casino offers free beach or pool swimming. And while the Sarasota Ski School teaches the sport to humans, Sunshine Springs & Gardens exhibit a water-skiing elephant. Motels out on the beach strip come high, the newest running $18 to $28 a day, and reservations only.

The Boston Red Sox inhabit the—what else?—John Ringling Hotel, which comes complete with a M'Toto Room, and play ball at Payne Park. The best places to eat in Sarasota are the Plaza, a cool, dark and pleasant den of many nooks that features Spanish food but serves everything; the Holiday House, a full-scale supper club on Route 31; and Casa Canestrelli, near the winter quarters of the circus. Mama Canestrelli sings, Papa juggles, and daughter Tosca is billed as The World's Only Bounding Rope Sensation. The cuisine is Italian, the whole place is built like an arena, and when the circus show goes on nightly at 9 there is no telling when you are liable to get a flying young man along with the fettucine.

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