Readers: We’re in the home stretch of the 2017 regular baseball season — playoffs start Oct. 3 — but this is around the time minor leagues wind down.
That was the case 20 years ago last week, on Aug. 31, 1997, when 1,039 fans watched the West Palm Beach Expos drop a 4-1 tilt to the Vero Beach Dodgers. It was the last game at the historic West Palm Beach Municipal Stadium. Five months earlier, on March 26, 1997, the major league Atlanta Braves had played their last spring training game, after 34 years at the site.
Here’s an update of columns from March 2002 and March 2013:
When the stadium, capacity 4,200, opened in 1963, it was a modern step up from venerable Connie Mack field, now long gone and the site of a parking garage for the Kravis Center.
New England developer Louis Perini had bought the Boston Braves National League baseball team in 1947, moving it to Milwaukee in 1953.
He came to South Florida in the mid-1950s to develop 6,000 acres of scrub west of downtown, and the match was a natural. In fact, he’d first planned to build a stadium for both the Braves and their American League counterparts, the Red Sox, but the Sox couldn’t escape a contract in Arizona.
When the Braves arrived at the $1 million park in West Palm Beach, it still was under construction and in the middle of nowhere. Perini had to build a road from downtown. And with no trees or buildings around, blowing sand blinded the players.
But for a 23-year-old Braves ballplayer named Joe Torre, “It was a lot better than Waycross, Ga.,” Torre recalled in 1993.
Little Waycross was home to the Braves’ minor league spring training camp. This patch of dirt in Florida, as unpleasant as it was, was paradise, because it was the big leagues, recalled Torre, who at the time was manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. He later would skipper the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The A’s — who would move to Oakland, Calif., in 1968 — won 3-0. The winning RBI came from the bat of, of all people, a youngster who’d grown up in Palm Beach County: Dick Howser. He’d go on to manage the Yankees and Royals before dying of cancer in 1987 at just 51.
The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966. In 1969, they began sharing spring training at the West Palm Beach stadium with the Montreal Expos.
In 1997, the Jehovah’s Witnesses bought the facility, along with the West Palm Beach Municipal Auditorium. They kept the auditorium and knocked down the stadium. It’s now a Home Depot.
The Expos, meanwhile, left Canada in 2004 and became the Washington Nationals. And in February 2017, they and the Houston Astros began play at their new spring training home: the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Like the configuration of a baseball diamond, they’d come all the way around.
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