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Cardinals' Visit Is a Homecoming for St. Pete Baseball Fans

For six decades, the St. Louis Cardinals called St. Petersburg home, and made history in the city. For the second time since the Cardinals were forced to leave the Sunshine City, they return to old stomping grounds.

When the Rays begin a three-game series with the Cardinals Friday at Tropicana Field, it's sort of like a homecoming for the visiting club.

For some six decades, the Cardinals called St. Petersburg home. Well, at least for parts of the year. But the Cardinals return for only the second time since leaving the city for good in 2007.

The Cardinals trained in St. Petersburg each spring, had a Florida State League team that played home games at Al Lang Stadium for 33 years and the team's minor league headquarters were in the Sunshine City.

In fact, there are still pockets of St. Petersburg where more Cardinals fans can be found than Rays fans. When the Cardinals won the National League Championship series in 2004, Ferg's Sports Bar was packed with Cardinals fans, all locals.

To this day, a neon Cardinals sign hangs in the front window of the famous El Cap eatery on Fourth Street.

The Cardinals were so much a part of St. Petersburg, the team made civil rights history in the early 1960s.

This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still very much the standard in St. Petersburg, a time before the University of Florida football team had been integrated, over 10 years before Bobby Bowden would arrive in Tallahassee to begin a football dynasty.

The Cardinals, as was the custom in those days, had segregated housing for players. White players stayed at the Vinoy or perhaps like Stan Musial, had their own waterfront housing on the beaches. Players of color had lesser quarters.

Players began to complain to beer baron Gussie Busch, who owns the Cardinals, as was detailed in the book October 1964 by David Halberstam. Busch was oblivious to the situation, so he claimed. Using his significant power and his strong personality, he demanded that local hotels open doors to all Cardinals players regardless of color, or he would pull the team out of the city.

Local businessmen capitulated and at least for baseball, a major victory for civil rights was won in St. Petersburg, becoming the first city in Florida to host spring training baseball where housing for players was integrated.

Later, Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson scoffed that Busch was at least partially motivated to expand beer sales in demanding St. Petersburg hotels change their ways.

The Cardinals last held spring training in St. Petersburg in 1997. They had to make room for the Rays, which was part of the contract with Major League Baseball.

So many of the games greats played in St. Petersburg wearing the iconic Birds on the Bat logo... Stan Musial, Ducky Medwick, Gibson, Lou Brock, Steve Carlton, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter... the list goes on.

Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog, who managed the Cardinals for 11 seasons, waxed poetic in the St. Petersburg Times in 2008 about the St. Petersburg and the Cardinals.

"I loved it there. I was there so much with the Yankees (as a player), with the Mets (as a coach and farm director) and with the Cardinals (managing for 11 seasons), St. Petersburg was like my second home.

"When I first went there in 1955 we stayed at the Soreno Hotel. There weren't any high-rises and we'd just sit on the green benches on the Main Street. And if you saw a woman under 50 you went crazy.”

So don't be shocked if The Trop has a lot of red-clad fans this weekend. It's a homecoming.

A homecoming for Cardinals fans.

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