The Florida Gulf Coast, which has cornered the market on white sand, shuffleboards and septuagenarians, also has a near monopoly on spring baseball. In the short strip of water-washed preserve from Clearwater south to Sarasota, a distance of perhaps 50 miles as the locker-room rumor flies, no fewer than seven ball clubs are dug in, waiting for April as impatiently as lovers.
Tampa, where the big planes come in from the North, is no real resort city but, once in town to look over the White Sox or the Cincinnati Redlegs, visitors can cruise down to the docks to watch the white motorships up from Central America disgorge their green bananas, or the fleet of 250 shrimp boats, most of them operated by Negro crews, edge into harbor from long excursions off the Campeche shrimp banks. Nor would I miss a look at the fantasia of the University of Tampa, housed in the old Tampa Bay Hotel, which opened in 1891 complete with 13 silver minarets and uncounted Moorish arches. Although it was said to be a copy of the Alhambra, its Victorian red-brick walls and the bearded water oaks that surround it tend to disrupt the illusion.
Aside from this faint echo of Granada, Tampa has, in the district known as Ybor City, some 40,000 Latins, most of whose antecedents moved with the cigar industry as it migrated from Havana to Key West and finally to the Gulf Coast. The 100 cigar factories of Ybor City turn out 3 million cigars a day, and most of them will welcome visitors. (Check the Chamber of Commerce, as visiting hours change.) There is no saving if you buy stogies where they are put together; the only advantage is guaranteed freshness.
Two famous Spanish restaurants in Ybor City, Las Novedades and Columbia, are in hot competition to peddle a paella. Las Novedades is built like a Moorish courtyard, with orange trees in the corner and a banderilla of naranjas, more Sunkist than Seville, slung over the grillwork windows. It has that slightly seedy air of a true gourmet corner—you can order crawfish nine different ways—but there is also a table d'h√¥te dinner at $3.50 which includes Spanish beans, Spanish mixed salad, sea bass, Spanish yellow rice with chicken, egg custard and inky coffee. There is a coffee and pastry shop adjoining where you can pick a kind of deflated napoleon, called a se√±orita, or a guava turnover out of the banks of cakes.
On the other hand, Columbia is an awesome maze of nine dining enclosures, the most elegant of which is the Siboney Room, where the waiters wear gold sashes and there is a regular show, usually imported from Spain. Troubadours stroll the other suites, where diners can pick dinners ($2.50 to $4) from a 26-page menu that has everything from a chicken sandwich to Spanish squid and rice.
A CUBAN DAGWOOD
Anybody in a hurry for the ball park might look into the Silver Ring on East Broadway, an unpretentious short-order den where a meat-slicer works in one window, a sandwich-maker in the other, their joint product being a Cuban Dagwood which includes ham, pork, salami, cheese, mustard, lettuce, tomato and pickle, all mounted on foot-long Cuban bread. Price: 50¢, 35¢ if you leave off the lettuce and tomato.
The Redlegs stay at the Floridan and train at Cuscaden Park, and the White Sox put up at the Tampa Terrace and work out at Al Lopez Field, a handsome cantilevered stadium not five minutes from the airport and named, of course, for the local sportsman, who is to Tampa approximately what Napoleon is to Corsica. Also within shootin' distance of the runways is the Cigar City Gun Club, where a man's sights are just as likely to be filled with a plane as a pigeon.
The Philadelphia Phillies are tucked away in the modest resort of Clearwater on the Gulf of Mexico, dead west of Tampa. The Fort Harrison Hotel where they stay is scented with the manly effluvium of hair tonic and cigars, but in the back it has appended a curvy pool, a putting green and a collection of tables and chairs where bathers can eat and drink. The coffee shop is better than par, and the rooms run $10 to $15 single, $13 to $20 double, all with bath.
Gulf Coast resorts from Clearwater south all the way to Fort Myers offer most of their swimming on the white sand keys that lie just offshore, near enough in most cases to be reachable over a causeway. Clearwater Beach is public and unpretentious, with gulls squawking overhead, the wind rustling through the dry fronds, an artist making sand paintings and a sign warning visitors that no alcohol, obscene language, or more than one rod per person will be tolerated on the beach.
That starched swank of past patrician days is still preserved, however, in the neighboring community of Belle-air, particularly at a manicured preserve known as the Belleair Biltmore, where once upon a time the private railway cars of society's pillars were stacked up at the hotel's private siding like Eldorado Cadillacs today. Anyway, the grounds, roughly the size of Rhode Island, are dotted with white frame buildings, tennis courts and a pair of 18-hole golf courses. Meals are served in a skylight-covered armory, the tables set out on either side of a 100-yard straightaway. There are 375 aging rooms, $36 to $46 for two, American plan, and a boat will fetch you to and from the cabana beach club.
One of the most delightful excursions is the ride up to Tarpon Springs just 12 miles north of Clearwater where a colony of several thousand Greeks sail out in their curved-bow caiques to comb the floor of the Gulf for sponge. If you have 25 minutes and a dollar to spend, the Greeks will take you downstream a few yards and give you a sponge lecture while a diver goes over the side to demonstrate the technique.
Pappas Restaurant, nestled among the sponge stalls on the clock (it also has a branch in St. Petersburg), is a real find if you stay with such Greek dishes as pastitsio, a sort of Aegean lasagne flavored with cinnamon; Greek salad, which has roka, a Greek watercress grown locally by an Italian farmer, yellow Salonica peppers, black olives and chalky feta cheese, all imported from the old country; and keftedes, a Hellenic hamburger which, since it is flavored with mint, comes with its own built-in digestive. A tiny shack known as Sophia's next door serves Turkish coffee and Greek pastry supplied by Tarpon Springs' three Greek bakeries.
Down at St. Petersburg, at the corner of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, the annual arrival of the Yankees and Cardinals, both of whom train here, does serve to leaven the average age of transients. But no one ought to labor under the notion that St. Pete is all canes and cardiacs. At Mirror Lake Park the members of the Lawn Bowling Club, Inc. bowl on the sandy lawn, shuffleboarders push the pellets by day and under floodlights at night, often to a full grandstand of spectators, and the roque players swing their abbreviated croquet mallets with whacking gusto, sending the hard-rubber ball caroming off the octagonal steel-sided court toward wickets that have only one-sixteenth of an inch clearance on either side. Across the street in the Coliseum there is dancing in a huge ballroom, and down on the pier the city gives square-dance lessons daily. Twice a week the Kids and Kubs, a pair of teams whose members are required to have reached their 74th birthday to be eligible, play each other in a rousing game of softball, complete with four umpires on the field, spotless white uniforms, a white-haired bat boy and, frequently, a red-faced rhubarb.
The Yanks work out at Miller Huggins Field, the Cards at Al Lang Field, where most exhibition games are played, both in town. However the better mid-city hotels, such as the social Vinoy Park and the transient Soreno, have made no price adjustment because of their age. The Soreno extracts $16 a day for an outdated single room without meals, and the Vinoy, which takes guests on recommendation, asks $19 to $24 for singles, $28 to $38 for two with meals. The keys that lie offshore from St. Petersburg—Reddington Beach, Madeira, Sunshine and Treasure Island—are studded with motels and hotels either flush on the sand or across the street from it. Newest and grandest of all is the Doctors' Motel, which is not on the offshore sandspit but at the very entrance to the Sunshine Skyway, an over-the-water causeway that leads south to Bradenton and Sarasota.
The Milwaukee Braves roost in Bradenton on the south side of the skyway, occupying quarters in the sleepy Manatee River Hotel, a pink stucco palace decorated inside with standing chrome ashtrays and plants wrapped in silver foil. Manatees or sea cows floated in the local waters in bygone days, but the only one left today lives in a tank alongside the Chamber of Commerce, a gray, bloated Shmoo that rolls over on command. The River Queen, last of the red-hot stern-wheelers, has just tied up at the Bradenton docks, fresh from its most recent cinema appearance with Clark Gable in Band of Angels. It is to be a permanent fixture with restaurant, museum and Gay Nineties theater.
If Bradenton is quiet, there is enough going on down the line at Sarasota to keep a man both broke and breathless. Aside from the gymnastics provided by the itinerant Boston Red Sox, snakes slither at the Reptile Farm, dogs race at the Kennel Club, flamingos preen at the Jungle Farm, actors tread the boards of the Players Club, and the circus, which is in winter residence here, begins rehearsals, open to the public, on March 1. Meanwhile, there is a Sunday circus at Little Madison Square Garden, and visitors can watch aerialists and animal acts at almost any hour.
John Ringling's home, built like the outré abode of a Venetian doge, is now a museum, and besides that he also built a museum whose corridors are filled with mammoth oils and whose Versailles-sized courtyard is filled with Greek and Roman statuary, not excluding a bronze casting of Michelangelo's David, all collected in the course of talent searches on the Continent. There is a Museum of the American Circus on the Ringling grounds, and the circus Hall of Fame, privately operated, offers exhibits and exhibitions. The Bobby Jones Golf Course has 27 holes ($1.50 for nine holes, $2.50 a day), the Lido Beach Casino offers free beach or pool swimming. And while the Sarasota Ski School teaches the sport to humans, Sunshine Springs & Gardens exhibit a water-skiing elephant. Motels out on the beach strip come high, the newest running $18 to $28 a day, and reservations only.
The Boston Red Sox inhabit the—what else?—John Ringling Hotel, which comes complete with a M'Toto Room, and play ball at Payne Park. The best places to eat in Sarasota are the Plaza, a cool, dark and pleasant den of many nooks that features Spanish food but serves everything; the Holiday House, a full-scale supper club on Route 31; and Casa Canestrelli, near the winter quarters of the circus. Mama Canestrelli sings, Papa juggles, and daughter Tosca is billed as The World's Only Bounding Rope Sensation. The cuisine is Italian, the whole place is built like an arena, and when the circus show goes on nightly at 9 there is no telling when you are liable to get a flying young man along with the fettucine.
White Sox Redlegs
WHERE TO WATCH THE CLUBS
Boston Red Sox: Sarasota, Fla., Payne Park, U.S. Route 301 at 100 South Washington Boulevard, one block south Sarasota Terrace Hotel.
Chicago White Sox: Tampa, Fla., Al Lopez Field on Dale Mabry Highway, U.S. Route 92, at Tampa Bay Boulevard.
Cincinnati Redlegs: Tampa, Fla. Practice and B squad games at Tampa Plant Field, North Boulevard and Cass Streets. Exhibition games at Al Lopez Field.
New York Yankees: St. Petersburg, Fla. Practice at Miller Huggins Field, Fifth Street and Twelfth Avenue North. Exhibition games at Al Lang Field, First Street and Second Avenue South.
St. Louis Cardinals: St. Petersburg, Al Lang Field, First Street and Second Avenue South.
Milwaukee Braves: Bradenton, Fla., Braves Field, U.S. Route 301, Ninth Street at corner of Fifteenth Avenue West.
Philadelphia Phillies: Clearwater, Fla., Jack Russell Stadium, corner Seminole and Missouri Avenues.