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Road Scholar: Daytona Beach, Florida - Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Jackie Robinson and the Tortugas

Lemme shoot straight with you. When it came to Daytona Beach, Florida, I was close-minded and presumptuous, guilty of stereotyping one Florida beach town because of others. I envisioned sun-seared strips with the unapologetic commercial bloat of trinket stores, t-shirt shops and tourist traps. Maybe that exists somewhere in this town, but if it does, it’s across the bridge on the other side of the Halifax River.

Because the Daytona Beach I saw was nothing like that. Instead, within about a one-mile radius, I was struck by the old downtown area and its history. What’s new, right? You likely notice a pattern of my chasing interesting history, baseball and a combination of the two. So it was with this side trip to Daytona Beach during several days in horse farm and citrus country of north central Florida.

We mainly traveled quieter two-lane roads to get there, sometimes just to avoid the daytime craziness of the interstate and sometimes because it was the only way to get around thick state forests and any number of attractive lakes that could leave Michigan envious.

I like seeing Florida this way. Individual character, oddities and eccentricities come out. It’s more authentic.

This part of Florida had been rainy the previous several weeks and we didn’t escape a steady afternoon shower as we approached Daytona Beach coming out of DeLand. Turns out, the weather helped us. Though plenty of cars lined the street, we had the sidewalks to ourselves.

I had two objectives in this town. Visit the campus of historic Bethune-Cookman University and take in the surroundings and a game at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, home of Cincinnati’s affiliate in the Class A Florida State League – the Daytona Tortugas.

With a couple of hours before the gates opened, I headed toward Bethune-Cookman while my parents and sons took a highly enjoyable (and free) tour of the Angell and Phelps Chocolate Factory on South Beach Street. A remarkable collection of buildings defines this street, some with Spanish-style architecture that evokes the Old Florida of its roots. It didn’t come off as pretentious and stuffy, either, which I appreciated. Zappi’s Italian Garden, with a piazza featuring a blaze of flowers and a fountain, looks like a wonderful place to eat, as does The Original Stavro’s Pizza House. The Kress Building, with its eye-popping Art Deco presence, is one of Daytona Beach’s noteworthy historical landmarks. It’s part of a 100-acre area of Daytona Beach recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.

Again, all of this was unexpected. I thought Bethune-Cookman and Jackie Robinson Ballpark would be wedged into the strip malls that surely must connect gargantuan Daytona International Speedway to the ocean beaches. Not even close.

Bethune-Cookman is a few blocks west of Beach Street and easy to find. Considered one of the flagship Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), Bethune-Cookman’s enrollment is about 4,000 students. Because of the rain, which had passed by the time I arrived on campus, and it being a weekday afternoon before school was in session, I had the campus to myself.

Bethune-Cookman University sign

I wanted to walk these grounds to see the physical evidence of what Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune created in October 1904. As a 29-year-old woman, Dr. Bethune opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls “with $1.50, faith in God and five little girls: Lena, Lucille and Ruth Warren; Anna Geiger; and Celeste Jackson,” as the B-CU website puts it. Dr. Bethune oversaw the school’s continued growth and 1923 merger with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville while securing the school’s prestigious affiliation with the United Methodist Church.

Dr. Bethune is now known for her remarkable career in education, which included co-founding the United Negro College Fund, and her role as vice president of the NAACP, along with many other important accomplishments.

She lived in a house right on campus, a few steps away from White Hall on the college’s original grounds. Both buildings are treated as the impressive historical sites they are. White Hall, which houses a friendly group of administrators who were more than happy to guide a lost stranger, feels like a polished museum that echoes every footstep today and through history. I’m certain Dr. Bethune’s home does too, but it was closed when I was there.

Gates opening to historic White Hall

Chapel inside of White Hall

Dr. Bethune's former home on campus

Imagine what it was like for Dr. Bethune to undertake her initiatives in Florida in 1904. What a strong woman of remarkable vision and perseverance.

Dr. Bethune was a highly respected member of the Daytona Beach community and a local leader for African-American residents. So was local pharmacist and businessman Joe Harris. The two of them played a significant role during Spring Training in 1946 when a young man named Jackie Robinson came to town.

Robinson was playing for the Montreal Royals and were scheduled to play against the Brooklyn Dodgers, their parent club. The Dodgers tried to play this exhibition contest in Jacksonville, Sanford and DeLand, but all three towns refused to allow Robinson to take the field with white players.

Daytona Beach, and its charming City Island Ballpark built in 1914, became the site, thanks to Dr. Bethune and Joe Harris intervening. And on March 17, 1946, City Island Ballpark hosted the moment when Jackie Robinson took the field and became the first African American to integrate modern professional baseball.

The view from the visitors' center across the street

The view from the Magnolia Avenue bridge

From local reports about this game and the events leading up to it, Robinson and his wife Rachel lodged with Harris at his home because of segregated hotels. And to note, Montreal also had former Negro League pitcher Johnny Wright on its roster in Daytona Beach.

It’s said that after church services that Sunday morning focusing on the importance of Robinson’s barrier-breaking efforts, members of local black churches walked hand-in-hand to the ballpark. Dodgers officials also invited wounded World War II vets from a Daytona Beach hospital, 250 of them African American, to attend the game and sit wherever they pleased.

Traditionally, there was a segregated bleacher section for black fans. The space is now repurposed by the Tortugas, but still there. Mixing blacks and whites in the grandstand would’ve been a radical thing to see in Florida. But it worked out, and many white fans cheered Robinson when he came to the plate. Bethune-Cookman offers an interesting glimpse into the connection between the school and Jackie Robinson back then.

One of my favorites is, “Robinson went through a horrendous hitting slump after the exhibition games began. When Robinson finally got a hit, Bethune-Cookman sent over supplies so that Mrs. Robinson could cook a celebratory dinner.”

Looking back at historic downtown Daytona from the island

Jackie Robinson Ballpark, as it was renamed from City Island Ballpark in 1989, is one my favorite minor league ballparks. You get to it by crossing the Halifax River using either Orange Avenue or Magnolia Avenue from Beach Street. And the original name is accurate. The ballpark sits on an island in the river. Climb high enough in the bleachers down the third-base line and you can watch riverboats ply the waters or gaze at sailboats bobbing lazily in the marina. Evenings settle in with streaks of coral, orange, blue and purple coloring the sky from left to right field.

At one point in the earliest days, the ballpark was the only thing on the island. Now there’s a courthouse, library, the Daytona Beach Welcome Center and a farmer’s market that operates out there.

I love the location. “Hey, what are you doing today? Let’s walk out into the river and watch some ball.”

By the way, this is the same ballpark where a young pitcher named Stan Musial badly injured his pitching shoulder diving for a line drive in the sandy outfield while playing for Daytona in 1940. After the injury, the Cardinals decided Musial would focus on playing outfield instead of pitching, despite Musial winning 18 games that season, because they thought he could hit pretty well, too.

A lot of maintenance work goes into a ballpark built in 1914, and The Jack (as the locals call it) is no exception. Plenty of renovations occurred over the years, but not at the expense of the old-time feel. You can sit in the original grandstand with its wooden floors, more modern and comfortable seats, and a wonderful touch for watching baseball on sultry days and muggy nights – huge ceiling fans that look the size of airplane propellers to stir up a breeze.

Grandstand at Jackie Robinson Ballpark

Talking with some of the locals who work at the ballpark, I also heard a funny story about the scoreboard. A few years ago, the Tortugas installed one of the high-tech video boards you see all the time now, figuring they should get with the times and replace the old manual scoreboard whose only high-tech features were the light bulbs that illuminated balls and strikes.

Team officials underestimated the fans’ connection to history, and the resulting uproar caused the team to reinstall the manual scoreboard, right next to the flashy new one.

So, you check the big scoreboard for the lineup, scoring decisions, player bio information and all the electronic ads and announcements. But you monitor the manual scoreboard for runs and hits, enjoying the far-away sound of metal panels clanging throughout the game as a solitary worker walks the scaffolding to update the numbers as quickly as possible. That’s a person I need to talk to when I return.

Not only did Daytona honor Jackie Robinson by naming the stadium after him, they also invested in an outdoor museum that tells Robinson’s story and highlights other barrier-breaking athletes. What a fantastic idea. You can walk around the outside of the ballpark reading various plaques, shooting hoops or practicing your long jump (a nod to Robinson’s time as a basketball player and track star at UCLA) while learning about the man’s accomplishments and contributions. Naturally, I’ll take that over a fun zone of inflatable bounce houses any day.

One thing that surprised me was that the playing surface at The Jack is field turf. At first, I thought that was a little strange, but it makes sense. Bethune-Cookman’s baseball team plays home games here, too, starting in February. That’s a lot of wear and tear with the Tortugas’ schedule running from the first of April through early September – even longer when the Fightin’ Turtles make the playoffs as they did in reaching the Florida State League championship round last year.

Growing and maintaining healthy grass in sandy soil when it’s trampled under foot nearly eight months out of the year must be a tremendous challenge. Plus, the field turf drains exceptionally well, as I was told when I popped into the ticket office during a sporadic downpour.

“And this?” the Tortuga staffer said pointing out the window as he printed my old-school paper tickets. “Don’t even worry about it. It’ll drain away in 15 minutes. We’ll play tonight.”

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