The World Series Champs … in Breaking Training

Note: This article was originally published at on March 4, 2016, and is reprinted here by permission.


Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. The city of Sarasota has hosted major-league spring training for nearly 100 years, but has never claimed a World Series champion. (Photo: Wikipedia) 

As the Baltimore Orioles gather for spring training in Sarasota, Florida, they’ll be trying to end an obscure 91-year baseball drought. If you’re not aware of this one, well, you’re not alone.

Major League teams have held their spring training in Sarasota almost every year since 1924—and not a single one of those teams has won the World Series at the end of the season. Entering 2016, 33 spring-training cities in nine different states have played host to baseball’s champions, as they get ready for the upcoming campaign. But Sarasota, one of the top tourist destinations on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is not among them.

That first year, in 1924, John McGraw’s New York Giants trained in Sarasota and then played all the way to the 12th inning of Game 7 before falling to Walter Johnson and the Washington Senators in a fall classic for the ages. The Giants left Sarasota after four years without winning it all, and the Boston Red Sox soon followed them to town, training at Payne Park from 1933 to 1958. But despite the presence of future Hall of Famers like Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Ted Williams, and Bobby Doerr, the Red Sox only won one American League pennant, in 1946, the last time any Sarasota-based team even made it to the World Series. Boston’s well-documented World Series drought lasted through the end of the twentieth century until 2004. By then, the team had transferred its operations to nearby Fort Myers.

The Chicago White Sox, who had their own extensive World Series drought to deal with, began training at Sarasota in 1960, the year after they won their first AL pennant since the Black Sox Scandal. But in their 37 seasons in Sarasota, the White Sox only made the postseason twice. The Cincinnati Reds spent a decade (from 1998 to 2009) training there without a single playoff appearance, and the Baltimore Orioles have continued the inglorious trend since moving to Sarasota in 2010.

Only one other city comes close to Sarasota’s nine decades without hosting a World Series champ. Winter Haven, Florida, also held its first spring training in 1924, when the White Sox came to town for one year. Before World War II, it was common for teams to move their spring-training base frequently, for any number of reasons. Sometimes the owner had a home or business interests there, which is how the Chicago Cubs under William Wrigley ended up training at Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. Sometimes management grew tired of the vices available to its players—usually golf or gambling or girls—and opted for a more secluded, sleepy location elsewhere, like Winter Haven.

But Winter Haven’s “drought” includes several long gaps when Major League teams didn’t train there, comprising just 55 team-seasons in those 91 years, most notably the Boston Red Sox’s stint from 1966 to 1992. The Cleveland Indians moved to Chain of Lakes Park in 1993, and with a core group of young superstars like Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Albert Belle, they won the AL pennant in ’95 and again in ’97—when they came within three excruciating outs of winning the World Series in a Game 7 thriller. But their window of opportunity soon closed, and the Tribe eventually left Winter Haven after the 2008 season. No team has trained there since.

Meanwhile, Sarasota has experienced a record 83 team-seasons (and counting!) without a World Series champion calling it home. Next on the list after Winter Haven’s 55 seasons is a California desert oasis, Palm Springs, which hosted 33 seasons of spring training with the White Sox in 1951 and the Los Angeles/California Angels from 1961 to 1992. That was the last year any team held spring training in a state other than Florida or Arizona.

Of course, there’s no real correlation between where a team plays its exhibition games in March and how it performs in October. But it is a curious phenomenon that any town in the Grapefruit or Cactus League can go nearly a century without a trophy of its own—or that just 40 miles separate the most hard-luck spring training site from the city that has hosted the most World Series champions.

Just up the road from Sarasota sits Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, named after the city’s former mayor. Lang was known as the godfather of the Grapefruit League for his efforts to persuade Major League teams to relocate to Florida every spring. The stadium has been converted to a soccer facility now, but for decades, it served as the joint home for two successful National League franchises, the St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Mets. Between 1938, when the Redbirds moved in, and 1997, they combined for seven World Series titles and 11 pennants. The Mets left for Port St. Lucie in 1988 and the Cardinals moved across the state to Jupiter in 1998.

Baseball’s winningest franchise of all, the New York Yankees, also called St. Petersburg home for 33 seasons between 1925 and 1961, spanning from the Murderers’ Row dynasty of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to the heydays of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The Yanks won 17 World Series in the years when they trained at Crescent Lake Park, which is now named after Hall of Fame managers Miller Huggins and Casey Stengel. Legend has it that in Ruth’s first spring training in St. Pete, he ran off the field during practice after spotting an alligator sunning itself in the outfield. After the Yankees left in ’61, the Mets (then managed by Stengel) held their practices there while playing exhibition games a dozen blocks away at Al Lang Stadium.

Thanks in large part to the Yankees—who now train across the bay in Tampa—Florida-based teams have won a vast majority of all World Series played, holding a 73–14 advantage over Arizona-based teams through the 2015 season. Cactus League teams are finally beginning to catch up, having won seven championships in the twenty-first century, including four of the last six. No team based outside of those two states has won it all since 1944, when World War II travel restrictions forced the St. Louis Cardinals to train closer to home in Cairo, Illinois.

In Arizona, the city of Scottsdale finally ended its 54-year championship drought when the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010, launching a modern “even year” dynasty by following it up with titles in 2012 and ’14. Banners celebrating the Giants’ three Series titles can be seen at historic Scottsdale Stadium throughout the year.

The Baltimore Orioles were the very first Major League team to train in Scottsdale, back in 1956. This spring, across the country in Sarasota, manager Buck Showalter and his players probably won’t be thinking about the many teams that have called Payne Park and Ed Smith Stadium home before them. But if they can bring a World Series trophy to Sarasota for the first time, there’s history to be made as one of the longest droughts in baseball would come to an end.