PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Bradentown Growers were Marauders' forerunners

vmannix@bradenton.comApril 8, 2010 

— Their white uniforms bore an elegant B over their hearts.

They wore short-billed caps and resembled the cinematic players in "Field of Dreams."

They were the Bradentown Growers of 1919.

A first-year ballclub in the new Florida State League, they are predecessors of the Pittsburgh Pirates' new Bradenton Marauders.

"I imagine a lot of people don't know about the Growers," said Bob Beall, chairman of the Bradenton-based department store chain, gazing at the team photo hanging in his office.

It includes his grandfather - and namesake - who founded the family business and was the ballclub president and majority owner.

Bob Beall is kneeling next to Si Young.

No, not that Cy Young.

"Almost," Beall's grandson joked.

The Growers played at Ninth Street Park, where McKechnie Field was built four years later for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Their opponents in the Class D FSL's inaugural season, according to manateebaseball.com, were the distinctly named Bartow Polkers, Lakeland Highlanders, Orlando Caps, Sanford Celeryfeds and Tampa Smokers.

The atmosphere of a Growers' opening day victory over Lakeland was captured in the April 12, 1923, Manatee River Journal by attorney Dewey A. Dye, who moonlighted as a sports writer:

"The gayety of the afternoon was contributed to by fair attendance, a concert by the Bradentown Band prior to its departure for the April Follies in Jacksonville, and splendid weather conditions. The park was bathed in sunlight and flooded with warmth of the variety that fills the soul of a ball team with delight."

So who were the Bradentown Growers?

"Most of these players were a whole circuit of guys who would come in from around the South," said Kent Chetlain, a historian, former Manatee County commissioner and Bradenton Herald sports editor. "Right after World War I, the "Tin Lizzie" (Model T Ford) came in and when everybody got discharged, they had money, got on the highway to escape winter like they do today and found out about baseball.

"They'd show up, ask for a tryout and they'd sign, play a game or two. Some got released, the rest stuck around. They were lucky if they made $100 a month, but it didn't matter. All kinds of guys wanted to be ballplayers."

They still do.

Marauder players and Floridians like pitcher Mike Felix from Panama City and catcher Tony Sanchez of Miami would not recognize Bradentown, then a community of 4,000.

In fact, the whole of Manatee County, which still included Sarasota until 1921, had slightly more than 18,000 people, according to the Manatee County Historical Records library.

"Just the name "Growers" gives you a flavor, an insight into what Manatee County was like," said David Montgomery, a baseball historian and president of the Manatee Adult Baseball League. "It's fascinating how a kid would come to rural Florida, because back then baseball's farm system hadn't been established. All the teams were independent. Players heard there was a team here and were hoping to catch on."

Among the 1919 Growers were Logan Drake, 19, of Spartanburg, S.C.; Walter Cleveland "Lefty" Stewart, 18, of Sparta, Tenn.; and Gene Elliott, 30, of Fayette City, Pa., according to Baseball-Reference.com. Many of the Growers rosters also include players' names with question marks, last names only, and no dates of birth or hometowns.

Years later, the Growers would include players like Joe Buskey, 21, of Cumberland, Md.; Doc Nance, 28, of Prosperity, S.C.; Al Niehaus, 24, of Cincinnati; Dixie Parker, 31, of Forest Home, Ala.; and Artie Schact, 19, Mike Kelly, 23 and Butch Kern, 39, all of St. Louis.

Of these players, Stewart would enjoy a 10-year career in the major leagues, post a 101-98 record and pitch Game 1 of the 1933 World Series for the Washington Senators.

The most famous of the Growers would not join them until the 1923 season, and he didn't have to travel far.

He was Bradenton's Henry Johnson, 17-year-old son of Morgan Johnson and the scion of a pioneer family of cattlemen who owned vast tracts of grazing land and whose herds roamed freely over unfenced land in Manatee County.

"Most of the roads were dirt roads then," Opal Johnson Richards, a teenager when her brother joined the Growers, said in a 1991 Bradenton Herald interview. "They used to drive the cattle down Manatee Avenue ... to ship them to Cuba."

Johnson would pitch almost two years for the Growers, then go on to a 12-year career in the majors, including seven with Yankees powerhouses that won the World Series in 1928 and 1932. He also pitched for Cincinnati's 1939 National League champions. He finished with a 63-56 record.

"Henry was a big physical specimen," Chetlain said of Lou Gehrig's former roommate. "When Morgan Johnson was asked how it is his son had such a fastball, he said Henry would take two wagonloads of oranges and throw them across the Braden River every day."

Johnson's sister recalled Yankee greats Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey and Gehrig visiting him in the offseason and getting a taste of his upbringing on the family's ranch.

"He'd get out Daddy's cow whip and show the boys how to do it," Richards said. "They'd get all tangled up in it."

Ballplayers vacationing or training here were part of Bob Beall's vision.

Agriculture, cattle, fishing and tourism were the pillars of local commerce, but he saw baseball as part of the equation.

"He loved baseball and thought bringing a team here would do a lot to promote tourism and bring winter visitors," his grandson said.

Beall convinced Cardinals' owner Sam Breadon to move his ballclub to Bradenton for spring training in 1923 - the linchpin for the construction of McKechnie Field, now home to the Pirates the last 42 years.

But the Growers were his baby.

"Beall had the biggest financial interest and considered them his team," Chetlain said. "He told me, "I was such a fan, whenever we played at home I'd close my store and go to the game.' He said Sheldon Moody, the big local banker at the time, told him if he kept doing that he was going to go broke."

"That sounds like my grandfather," said Beverly Beall, director of Beall's Charitable Foundation. "He once said he spent too much time on public affairs, but enjoyed it immensely.

"Grandpa believed baseball was good for the community."

The Growers only played five seasons and didn't compete in 1921, 1922 and 1925.

"It was a volatile business," Chetlain said. "Teams would start out like gangbusters in April, but by the end of season they were lucky to have all the ballclubs finished. When they weren't winning, they weren't drawing crowds, and without money they had to shut down."

According to Chetlain, when Beall sold Johnson to the Yankees for a then-princely sum of $6,500, it cleared the club's debt and enabled the Growers to resume play again in 1926.

It was their final season.

Eighty-four years later, the Marauders revive that bit of forgotten Bradenton history.

"It's a fascinating legacy," Bob Beall said.

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