Sports

A Brief History of Professional Baseball in Jacksonville

History of baseball in Jacksonville

The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp recently kicked off its 2018 season.

The team, known as the Suns up until last year, has been in Jacksonville since 1962 – with the exception of a one-year hiatus in 1969. But it’s far from the city’s first foray into professional baseball.

The first record of professional baseball in Jacksonville is from 1888, when the Washington Capitals held one of the first spring training sessions in Jax. Four years later, an attempt was made at a small pro league with teams from a handful of Florida cities including Jacksonville. That effort lasted just one year.

The city’s first real professional team, the Jacksonville Jays, came to town in 1904. They were part of the original South Atlantic League, and played most of their games in the baseball park located within Dixieland Park.

In 1911, the team renamed itself the Tarpons. Around this time, the city’s first municipal baseball stadium, Barrs Field, was built along Myrtle Ave. – though it was mostly intended for local amateur teams.

By 1917, the Tarpons changed their names again, this time to the Jacksonville Roses. But the new name lasted just a year, after which the team ceased operations having won two South Atlantic League titles during its existence.

Our second pro team, formed in 1921, latched onto the Florida State League and played at Barrs Field. It limped through two seasons – one as the “Scouts”, and the other as the “Indians” – before disappearing.

In an attempt to make Jax a more alluring option for professional baseball, the city set about purchasing Barrs Field, renaming it Durkee Field. It also began negotiating to bring a Southeastern League team to the city, and out of those negotiations came the Jacksonville Tars.

The Tars then began one of three stints in Jacksonville; the team played here from 1926 to 1930, from 1936 to 1942, and then from ’46 to ’52 before becoming the Braves.

In 1936, Durkee Field burnt down. It was quickly rebuilt by the city, adding more space and – as was a sign of the times – separate seating for African-American patrons. It would remain a strictly segregated stadium through the civil rights era – to the point that a minor league game featuring Jackie Robinson once had to be canceled because the field’s organizers wouldn’t budge on their rules.

Ironically, though, the field served as home to the Jacksonville Red Caps, a Negro League team that played there in 1938 and then again from 1941 to 1942.

By the time the third iteration of the Tars came around in 1946 – this time as members of the South Atlantic League – the team was in bad shape. That third iteration would turn in a losing season five times in seven years as a minor-league affiliate for the New York Giants.

Hoping to turn the team around, local business Samuel Wolfson purchased it and cleaned house. The team became an affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves, and rebranded itself as the Jacksonville Braves.

Wolfson also insisted upon integrating black players, such as a young Hank Aaron, into his team’s lineup – a move considered particularly bold in the mid-1950s South, and one in direct defiance of their host stadium.

The Braves became a hit, and in 1955 Wolfson Park opened to replace the aging Durkee Field and to better accommodate the larger crowds. It was viewed as one of the best minor league parks in the entire country. A year later, the team won the league championship.

In 1957, Wolfson sold off the team. It would continue operating until 1961, when it became the Jacksonville Jets and switched its affiliation to the Houston Astros (then known as the Colt .45s), then folded after the season.

Then, by chance, the city stumbled right back into minor-league action just a year later. A struggling Triple-A franchise, the Jersey City Jerseys, was purchased by the Cleveland Indians who chose to move the team to Jax.

The team was dubbed the Jacksonville Suns, and Wolfson was named its president.

The Suns would play in Jax from 1962 until 1968. The team bounced around between affiliates, going from the Indians to the Cardinals and finally the Mets. As a result, Jax audiences got to see numerous future stars such as Nolan Ryan pass through on their way to the majors.

It won one International League championship in 1968, after which the Mets opted to move the team to Norfolk, VA.

In 1970, the city scored a new minor-league franchise, which would also take on the Jacksonville Suns identity. It joined the Southern League, and became a Double-A affiliate for both the Milwaukee Brewers and Montreal Expos.

Like its previous incarnation, the Suns would bounce between affiliates often. Over the course of the team’s lifespan, it has served as an affiliate for the Brewers, Expos, Indians, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Miami Marlins.

In 1984, the team’s affiliation with the Montreal Expos led it to rebrand itself as the Jacksonville Expos. The team played under this name until 1991, at which point it went back to being the Suns.

The team experienced a great deal of success, drawing consistent crowds and routinely fielding winning teams. The new iteration of the Suns won its first championship in 1996.

In 2002, Wolfson Park was demolished to make room for the new, larger Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Like its predecessor, it has been referred to as among the best in the country.

The 2000s were an extremely successful decade for the Suns, with the team winning the league title in 2001, 2005, 2009, and 2010.

In 2016, the team was acquired by businessman Ken Babby, and underwent its biggest rebrand in 25 years. The Suns became the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, a name that initially drew ridicule but has produced excellent results for the team thus far.

In total, the franchise has won seven league titles, and has fielded future greats such as Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Larry Walker.

With a fresh rebrand and attendance numbers looking better than ever, professional baseball looks set to stick around for a long time.

And even if the Jumbo Shrimp fail, history suggests we won’t go without our nation’s pastime for too long.

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The Coastal
The Coastal is Jacksonville's newest magazine, founded in 2015 to provide news, reviews, and things to do for young people on the First Coast.
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