Whitey Ford waves to the crowd

Whitey Ford waves to the crowd at his most recent appearance at Yankee Stadium for the Old-Timers’ Day that honored many of the New York Yankee legends.  Ford has spent his retirement years living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.     (Courtesy photo).

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA — The stadium sits rotting in the South Florida sun. The scoreboard in leftfield is rusted and the score will forever be 0-0. The grass is now either brown or just a year-round hot bed of dirt. The gates to the stadium are padlocked and the concession stands are shuttered forever. The Baltimore Orioles’ logo at the front gates is all that’s left of what was major league baseball here. Baseball is long-gone from Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Whitey Ford is 88-years-old now and lives somewhere on the Galt Ocean Mile. It’s been awhile since he has been seen at his favorite restaurant and tavern here in Fort Lauderdale. His doctor says that the last time he saw Ford was when the New York Yankee Hall-of-Fame pitcher took the time to sign a baseball for a patient in the office parking lot. The doctor produces an autographed Hall-of-Fame baseball card that he keeps in a special place. A friend of Ford says that unfortunately, Whitey will not be available for an interview.

All that’s left of baseball here in Fort Lauderdale is that stadium with the padlocked gates and a long-retired Yankee great, who today represents a memory of what spring training was like here when Marilyn Monroe was seen in the lobby at the Oceanfront Yankee Clipper Hotel looking for a Yankee special instructor, the great, yet mercurial Joe DiMaggio. Today, that hotel named for the late Yankee great DiMaggio - the original ‘Yankee Clipper’ - is the B Oceanfront Resort located at the end of Fort Lauderdale Beach. Back when the Yankees were training and carousing here, the cruise ship-shaped structure was known for its’ mermaid shows in the water tank at ‘The Wreck Bar’ inside the hotel. In 2010, the hotel was reopened as the Sheraton-Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel before it was sold for $107 million in 2014. For Yankee players who needed second jobs to make ends meet after their baseball seasons ended, those numbers would seem mind-boggling to say the least.

Those Yankees were the Bronx Bombers of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. The team moved to Fort Lauderdale from St. Petersburg, Florida in 1962. The bars and hotel lobbies were filled with players and fans. Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon were here filming “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “Where the Boys Are.” Maybe that’s when Annette and Frankie signed that faded photograph on the wall behind the bar at the Elbow Room. Back then, the Elbow Room was filled with spring breakers who were fans of the Yankees and Whitey Ford. Today, the breakers who frequent the Elbow Room (yes, it is still here) on Fort Lauderdale Beach have no clue who Ford was. Back then, as many as eight major league teams held spring training in Miami, Cocoa Beach and Fort Lauderdale.

Major League Baseball here in South Florida today has the Miami Marlins, and the Marlins have won two World Championships, but both titles came when the team was known as the Florida Marlins. No one here really has ever cared about the Marlins, whether they were winning championships or they were mired in last place. Mostly, they have been mired in last place. Back in 1962, Fort Lauderdale really cared about Whitey Ford and the New York Yankees.

People who are old enough to remember those Yankees are left with the memories of what was baseball here in 1962. Jan Lendi remembers when Whitey Ford would come into her candy store in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. She remembers when he autographed that black-and-white photograph that catches your eye as you walk in the door of Jan’s Homemade Candies.

“He would come in and buy candy for his neighbors as gifts,” she says while holding the framed photo of Ford pitching at Yankee Stadium. “I remember that he signed this for me when the store opened 16 years ago.” He hasn’t been seen much since, she says. She would love to see him again and thank him for being so nice to her that day 16 years ago.

Back in the spring of 2003, I remember being surprised to see a line of cars waiting to get into Fort Lauderdale Stadium for an exhibition game between the Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles. There were scalpers with fists full of tickets asking double what they were worth. The Orioles came to Fort Lauderdale after the Yankees left town for Tampa in 1996. The Orioles would be gone by 2009, packing their gear for the trip to Sarasota.

The Red Sox even have a history with Fort Lauderdale Stadium. After the Yankees (1962-1995) and the Fort Lauderdale Yankees (1962-1992) of the Florida State League left, the Fort Lauderdale Red Sox played their games here in 1993, but only after an unsuccessful attempt to move from Winter Haven to Fort Myers. The following spring those Red Sox minor leaguers played in Sarasota. Memorabilia from those Red Sox teams are considered rare items - about as rare as a baseball game is here in Fort Lauderdale today.

The land where Fort Lauderdale Stadium sits just off a busy stretch of road known to the locals as “Commercial” is controlled by the Federal Aviation Commission, and the FAA must approve any reuse of the property. Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport sits east of the stadium. Sometimes neighbors get a bit nervous when the jets buzz their homes late at night. The City of Fort Lauderdale has always operated the park, but the land that it sits on is part of the 64 acres that make up the airport.

There was a proposal being considered that would have the city purchase the land from the FAA to get a plan started for the construction of a water park on the site. Nothing has been advanced for several years, so now the place sits, rotting in the South Florida sun. There were times when the stadium seemed to be holding Father Time, the politicians and the FAA at bay. There were times when the sun shined on some events for charity and the pure enjoyment of sport. Lockhart Stadium sits next to the baseball park, and it was here that professional soccer’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers played their games until this year, when ownership could no longer afford to pay the players. As recently as a year ago, the University of Miami football team played its spring game at Lockhart Stadium. Fans came to buy hot dogs, munch on nachos and celebrate some memories. It was all they had left. But even those events would soon leave. A Yankee great would still be attached to one of those events many years later.

YANKEE CLIPPER LENDS HIS STATURE

For several winters, I put the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game on my then-Snowbird schedule. The game was an exhibition that benefited the great work done at the hospital here that bears DiMaggio’s name. DiMaggio - the ‘Yankee Clipper’ to Ted Williams’ Splendid Splinter’ - often gave his time and money to finding a cure for pediatric cancer, and it was by chance that I met the mother of a young man whose survival depended upon the doctors, nurses, social workers and volunteers at the hospital.

Myrna was the mother of a teenage boy who had survived brain cancer. We talked before the game as the fans sought shade under the cover of the old grandstand. I learned a lot that day. Myrna was the neighbor and a friend of Charles Johnson, the starting catcher for the 1997 World Champion Florida Marlins. I took several photos of her son a year later when he returned to take the field with many of the former major league players, including “The Spaceman”- retired Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee.

I wrote a feature story about Myrna’s family and how they coped with their son’s diagnosis. Myrna and I exchanged emails for at least one winter before we lost track of one another. I remember that she loved Fort Lauderdale Stadium and the fact that at least once a year the old ballpark came to life again. There was still some baseball left to be played in this shell of the ballpark that once served as the training site for a team of aging legends. It didn’t matter that the Joe DiMaggio Legends Game never was a serious contest, and the fans spent more time searching for an autograph and a bucket of sticky, cheese-drenched nachos than they ever would spend keeping track of the score. A website is devoted to the history of the park and what it was like when it first opened in 1962.

“If you were a baseball purist, interested only in the game and not modern-day amenities, Fort Lauderdale Stadium was not a bad place to watch a game. The grandstand provided ample shaded seating for those not interested in sitting in the sun. And if you were a fan of the old ballparks, Fort Lauderdale Stadium certainly had earned the distinction of being one of the oldest still in use in the Grapefruit League. For almost 50 seasons, major league baseball teams trained at this palm tree lined outpost located just blocks from Interstate 95. From 1962 until 1995, the stadium was the home to the Yankees, and in 1996 the Baltimore Orioles moved their spring training home to Fort Lauderdale, leaving St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Field. In 2010 the Orioles returned to Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida, where they had trained for one season in 1991.

“After that 2010 season, the Orioles and the City of Sarasota undertook a $32 million renovation of the ballpark. The Orioles now play in one of the nicest ballparks in the Grapefruit League and hold a 30 year lease on the stadium, finally ending their nomadic spring training existence.”

“Through the years, Fort Lauderdale Stadium remained relatively unchanged from the time when the Yankees began play there in 1962. The front entrance, with its quaint marquee sign, welcomed fans to spring training baseball 1960’s style. The ballpark had separate entrances for the reserved seat grandstand and the general admission bleacher sections. The grandstand seats- even those closest to the field- were considerably higher from the ground than today’s spring training venues, making it difficult for fans to interact with the players. Autograph seekers congregated near the player walkway between the grandstand and the bleachers. The long dugout on either side of the grandstand also acted as a barrier for player/fan interaction.”

AYLWARD AND A LEGENDARY TEAMMATE

The temperature soared well above 90 degrees and the humidity seemed to be even higher. It was still winter in Tewksbury, but the University of Miami football team was playing their annual spring football game in Fort Lauderdale. With what would soon be known as Hard Rock Stadium in Miami still undergoing renovation, the Hurricanes and new coach Mark Richt were showcasing their team with the new, improved attitude to 16,000 fans in search of some shade. I happened to be one of those fans, although my thoughts were not centered on shade.

A year ago, I remember being excited that the Hurricanes were playing in Fort Lauderdale. I had never been inside Lockhart Stadium, and I was surprised that a college football scrimmage was a bigger draw than the Miami Marlins home opener at Marlins Stadium, a spectacular venue located in the heart of Little Havana on the footprint of what had been the Orange Bowl, home of the 1972 undefeated Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins.

After what seemed like a mile walk after parking my car, I took a quick glance at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and felt a bit of sadness come over me. After watching baseball for several winters there, I realized that there would never be another baseball game played at the place. It was in bad shape. I had no idea that Lockhart Stadium was almost just as bad.

Many former great Miami Hurricanes were gathered at one corner of the field, as Richt had the good sense to play this scrimmage as part of an Alumni Weekend celebration. Having been a Hurricanes’ fan as far back to when they lost to Doug Flutie in the ‘Hail Mary’ game, I was ready with my camera and still looking for a place to sit with the game already well into the first quarter. Several photographs and about a pint of perspiration later, I realized that I’d had about enough blazing sun for the day. And as it turns out, so did a former Miami Dolphins great, running back Jim Kiick.

I didn’t realize that Kiick and one of his University of Wyoming Hall of Fame teammates, retired Tewksbury Memorial High School Athletic Director and varsity football coach Bob Aylward, were also interested spectators that day. No one recognized Kiick, and that was a shame, since he was an important player on that undefeated Dolphins team of 1972. For many years after his retirement from the NFL, Kiick worked as a private investigator for the Broward County Public Defenders’ Office.

It was fortunate that someone offered to get Kiick and Aylward out of the hot sun and into the cooler climate of the press box, which wasn’t saying much, since that space had seen much better days as well. Many of the high school recruits invited to watch the game also were in the general vicinity, so Richt and his staff were interested in putting the new, improved attitude of the program on full display. I finished up my day picking wood splinters out of my backside, since I hadn’t noticed that most of the wooden seats in the stands were rotting, loose and falling apart. The one saving grace was that the college and high school football fans were never going away here in Fort Lauderdale. These people will go anywhere and anyplace to watch some football.

WARE SHARES HIS MEMORIES

The first time I saw a Joe DiMaggio Legends Game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium I not only met my new friend Myrna, but was graced by the presence of former Tewksbury High School varsity baseball coach Bob Ware. Bob has wintered for many years here, spending much of his time at spring training camps all over the State of Florida. On that day, Bob encouraged me to get the autograph of former Oakland Athletics’ shortstop Bert Campaneris. I settled for retired San Francisco Giants’ relief pitcher Bob Bolin. That day marked the beginning of my brief baseball love affair with Fort Lauderdale Stadium. There was something ‘old timey’ about the place that had me thinking back to my childhood. It was sad to see it slowly slipping away. Not long after that day, Bob Ware made his last trip to ‘Dodgertown’ in Vero Beach, Florida.

It was March of 2008, and Ware got retired Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda to autograph a photo. Bob says he especially loved the Dodger Fantasy Camp where he got to see legends Duke Snider and Carl Erskine. Ware says that Erskine was “one of the nicest guys that you could ever meet.” He got plenty of baseballs signed over those years in Vero Beach. Where else but spring training could you get up-close-and-personal with a baseball legend? ‘Dodgertown’ is gone now, replaced by what some are calling a new, improved era of spring training baseball here in South Florida. Somehow it’s not the same.

Over the years here, I’ve seen two spring training baseball games- one in Viera to watch the Washington Nationals with Ware, and the other in Jupiter when my wife and I made the short trip north to see the Marlins in action. Then last year came the real thing- the home opener between the Detroit Tigers and the Marlins in Miami. I was hoping to see the late Jose Fernandez pitch that night, but he was recovering from arm problems and had his start moved to the next day. Sadly, it would be my last chance to see Fernandez pitch, as the young star died in a boat crash before the end of last season.

NEW ERA OF SPRING TRAINING

With Yogi Berra’s death two years ago at the age of 90, Whitey Ford is really The Last Yankee. One of the last times that Berra and Ford, former battery mates in some of the greatest baseball games ever played, were together was an Old-Timers Day at Yankee Stadium. Even that stadium is sometimes called ‘new and improved’- although some will say that it is new, but nothing about the place is improved. It could be said that spring training baseball here in South Florida is new, but maybe not really improved. Time will tell.

This spring saw the opening of The Ballpark of The Palm Beaches, where the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals trained for their respective seasons. There was a time when as many as seven major league baseball teams held spring training in South Florida. Now there are two teams training in a sparkling new facility that with a capacity of 6,500 fans.

Whitey Ford sat in a golf cart and waved to the crowd on that Old-Timers Day before being escorted to the dugout by the late Billy Martin’s widow. She pointed out friends and fans showing their appreciation for all that Whitey had done for baseball. When my new friend Jan Lendi told me that there might be a chance to speak with Ford for this story, I was genuinely excited. I placed that phone call and waited for an answer. I would call Whitey “Mr. Ford” because I shudder to think what my late dad- a lifelong Yankee fan- would think if I called the Hall of Fame pitcher by his first name. That would be the ultimate sign of baseball disrespect. When the call came and I was told the Yankee legend was unavailable, I was disappointed, but I took to Wikipedia to brush-up on some of Whitey Ford’s baseball history.

Whitey Ford was a Yankee for his entire 16-year career and was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1974. He was a 10-time all-star and a six time World Series champion. He won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards in 1961. He led the American League in wins three times and earned run average twice. The Yankees retired “Mr. Ford’s” number. He also had something in common with my dad, serving in the Korean War in 1952. The year that I was born (1955), The Last Yankee led the American League in complete games and victories. His 236-106 record ranks first in winning percentage (.690) among pitchers with 300 decisions.

I decided that this story would work just as well without speaking with the Hall of Fame pitcher. Sometimes we are better off with just our memories. Whitey Ford is known here as The Mayor of The Galt Ocean Mile- holding a baseball round-table with friends and fans at the Ocean Grille and the Silver Fox. He is The Last Yankee.

I take a photograph of a padlocked, rusty gate. There is paint peeling off a cement wall and a dead palm tree hangs limply behind the entrance to the stadium. I imagine what the place must have looked like when Mantle, Maris and Elston Howard strode to the plate from the on-deck circle. There is The Last Yankee, warming up for a spring training appearance. There is the stadium, sitting ghost-like in the blazing sun. I can almost hear the crack of the bat when I close my eyes. For a moment at least, baseball is back at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

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