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Lefty, Growers coming back to life

David Montgomery, attorney at law and president of the Manatee Adult Baseball League, is also a baseball historian, which is how he came to learn of the Bradenton Growers last May while researching the history of the Florida State League.

The Growers were one of the original six teams back in 1919 when the FSL was a Class D league and had teams in Tampa, Orlando, Sanford, Lakeland and Bartow.

“I bet a lot of people don’t know about the Growers,” Montgomery said.

The original Growers had a pitcher named Walter Cleveland Stewart, “Lefty” to his teammates, who eventually reached the major leagues and would start Game 1 of the 1933 World Series for the Washington Senators.

The Growers lasted seven years in the FSL. Stewart lasted just that one, but that was long enough for Montgomery, who decided to honor Lefty tonight when he and members of the MABL play at Tropicana Field following the Tampa Bay Rays-Florida Marlins game.

“(Former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher) Kent Tekulve once told me that if you’re a lefty and you have a pulse, you can pitch forever,” Montgomery said. “I’m a lefty and I have a pulse.”

And Lefty was a lefty, so sometime during today’s game — Montgomery thinks it will be the fifth and sixth innings — Lefty Stewart, winner of 101 major leagues games during a 10-year career, including 20 in 1930 with the St. Louis Browns, will return to a major league mound in the form of Montgomery.

That’s a nice tip of the cap to a part of Bradenton’s past.

Problem was, Montgomery didn’t know what color hat the Growers wore or what their uniforms looked like.

Montgomery couldn’t find any old photos of the old Growers, and if he did, they would be black-and-white photos. Sure, an old, grainy image would let Montgomery know what the uniforms looked like, but the color?

Part of being a baseball historian is having a keen eye for detail, and if Montgomery was going to resurrect Walter Cleveland “Lefty” Stewart, the pride of Sparta, Tenn., he was going to look the part in an authentic flannel uniform that he ordered and which arrived Friday afternoon.

So Montgomery guessed.

It was an educated guess.

He studied pictures of minor league and college teams from that era and gave it his best shot.

“I figured with a name like ‘Growers,’ the color had to be green,” Montgomery said.

So he order an off-white flannel uniform with a raised collar, knickers and stirrup socks with the hat, collar, socks and lettering in hunter green.

Montgomery based the design on the uniforms worn by the 1919 University of Miami nine.

“I was trying to mimic them as much as I can,” he said,” just to make sure my efforts were as authentic as possible.”

Montgomery will use a glove that is a replica of the one used by Babe Ruth that year, a split-fingered model with a one-inch strap that serves as the web.

And, since the designated hitter at that time was just a wild dream of Philadelphia Athletics owner Connie Mack, Montgomery will get to bat swinging a piece of wood that in today’s game might be confused with a foul pole.

“It‘s huge,” Montgomery said. “They’re clubs. They’re war clubs.”

His bat is 35 inches long, weighs at least 34 ounces and has a thick handle.

Montgomery will play for the visitors tonight, and he will stick to his rule that requires every player to dress in the uniform of a professional team. Montgomery was going to wear the Rays uniform he received as a Christmas present in 2007. But then he came across the Growers and Lefty and, well, change of plans.

Montgomery will play some at first base.

“I’m left-handed. Where else can I play if I don’t pitch?” he asked.

And then in the middle innings, the 5-foot-10 Montgomery will take the mound and do his best to channel the 5-10 Walter Cleveland “Lefty” Stewart. The 56-year-old Montgomery will do his best imitation of Stewart, who as 18 when he pitched for the Growers.

There will be no confusing the two, Montgomery said.

“I can tell you I don’t look anything like Lefty Stewart,” Montgomery said. “The only thing we have in common is the height. He was lanky. No one has ever accused me of being lanky.”

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