By: Travis Cornwell
LECOM Park in Bradenton will celebrate its centennial this year. It was originally constructed in 1923 as City Park with its first tenant, the St. Louis Cardinals. Fast forward, LECOM has been hosting the Bradenton Marauders since 2017.
The ballfield at that time in 1923 was east of the current field, as a golf course was converted into a baseball facility. The Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, attended the field’s opening ceremonies. He was flown in on a biplane, which was piloted by Harry Land, a member of Manatee County Board of Trade who approved bringing Major League Baseball to Bradenton.
The ballpark has had many different names and tenants throughout the years, such as Ninth Street Park (1927-1947) being the home of the St. Louis Cardinals (NL), Philadelphia Phillies (NL), Boston Red Sox (AL), and the Boston Bees (NL). During the Second World War from 1941- 47, Ninth Street Park was closed and taken over by the U.S. Army and named Camp Bradenton. “Teams didn’t come to train here in Florida. They stayed at home and the park was used as a haven during the war,” says Pirates Team Historian Jim Trdinich. The name was changed to Camp Weatherford in April 1943 in honor of Pfc. Willie M. Weatherford of Miami, who was killed in the Philippines during WWII. There is a historical marker located in front of the Bradenton Public Works building past left field on 9th Street West in memory of Willie.
From 1948-1961 it was called Braves Field, hosting the Boston/ Milwaukee Braves (NL), and then McKechnie Field (1962-2017) hosting the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics (AL). Since 1969 it has been the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Bradenton’s LECOM Park is the oldest stadium still used for Spring Training games. Its rich history is right up there with Fenway Park (1912) and Wrigley Field (1914) as the third-oldest stadium currently used by a Major League team.
Over the years it has seen many Hall of Fame players such as Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Mariano Rivera, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Lou Gehrig, to name a few. Also, Derek Jeter, Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, David Ortiz, Rod Carew, and Ken Griffey, Jr. among many others have played here. The list goes on.
In 1950, Bradenton became the first city in Florida to allow an African American baseball player, Sam Jethroe, of the Boston Braves. This was a breakthrough because had Florida not allowed him to join, the state would have lost all its baseball clubs.
The 100th season will begin with Spring Training this month when the Pirates welcome a handful of clubs to town as part of Florida’s Grapefruit League. The regular season for the Marauders will start on Thursday, April 7, at 6:30 p.m. Manatee County is anticipating an influx of visitors to the area during this time. With the snowbirds coming back down and the centennial year for the ballpark, baseball lovers are sure to make a pit stop to check this off the list of stadiums visited.
The history of baseball in Manatee County was provided by Pirates Team Historian Jim Trdinich.