The late Tom McEwen, sports editor of The Tampa Times from 1958-62 before being named sports editor of The Tampa Tribune in 1962, graced the Tribune sports section with his award-winning column, The Morning After, and his Breakfast Bonus notes columns were a signature offering from the 19-time Florida Sports Writer of the Year. McEwen died in June, 2011 at the age of 88. His wife, Linda, occasionally contributes past columns and exerpts to this blog.
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A Toast (Hear! Hear!) To Baseball
Posted Feb 24, 2009 by Tom McEwen
Updated Feb 24, 2009 at 07:26 PM
Charley Crist continues his revived Governor’s Baseball Dinner tonight at St. Pete’s Tropicana Field, designed to salute the sport that has meant so much to Florida throughout all of the springs when teams readied for the season ahead, and now, two of our own, the Marlins of Miami and the at home Rays, plus, of course, the world champion Philadelphia Phils who honed their skills up-19 from St. Pete in Clearwater.
This tribute affair has been on and off since it all started a couple of years before World War II with baseball people and sportswriters and radiocasters in an organized drinking and jawing party at the old Tampa Terrace hotel in Downtown Tampa under the supervision of the bartenders at the Terrace Bar. The writers of the 40s, 50s and into the 60s, favored the Terrace for key reasons. One, they could be helped to their rooms, the bar was open until all had left, been thrown out or passed out, because Western Union was around the corner to press rate their stories north, east and west, because Howard Wright was an understanding bartender/manager, because early on there was a late afternoon flight to New York to carry film there.
So, all those years ago, Terrace managers and/or bartenders Frank Winchell, George Mason and Wright decided to have a little whing-ding for the writing and radio crowd at the Terrace, and they did, and they kept doing it until Tampa realized it was a good idea. Did it for years with Ralph Chapman of the Chamber, got tired, gave it up to St. Petersburg and promoter/booster Bill Bunker, got tired, let Orlando have it, and then Lakeland, when Crist revived it when his hometown St. Pete wanted to do it again. So it was held, with Nick Gandy in charge for the state, sold nearly 1,000 tickets at $100, rubbed shoulders with those big names who made it. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said he’d make it.
The Baseball Dinner has waxed dandy, okay and a bummer. The smaller, intimate ones were well attended by writers, casters, owners, execs and players. Joe Garagiola emceed one, Ralph Kiner one, Red Mitchum one, Lindsey Nelson one. Governors have come much of the time. Claude Kirk was a regular, Bob Graham was there often, Lawton Chiles, LeRoy Collins as well. At one, Howard Collee’s introduction of Gov. Fuller Warren went on so long, Frank Grayson of the old NEA weekly network yelled, “shut up and let the man speak for himself!’’ It worked.
Once, a musical group performing was so poor, half the crowd got up and walked out.
Formerly, the program included big deal door prizes, including boats and motors. The prizes were on display before the Dinner in the Terrace lobby. One year, resourceful thieves arrived in coveralls and told the desk guys they were there to get the prizes. They did, loaded them on their truck and left. No one ever saw the prizes again.
Not long ago, I came across an invitation list Winchell once gave me.
Here are some of those sports newsmen attending the Dinner:
Oscar Fraley, Arthur Daly, Red Smith, Lou Smith, Tom Siler, Frank Grayson, Tom Swope, Si Burick, Frank Eck, Harry Grayson, Pete Norton, Bobby Hicks, Red Newton, Wilbur Kinley, Leo Peterson, Jack Hand, Gayle Talbot, Joe Reichler, John Carmichel, Leo Ward, Lyall Smith, Roy Stockton, Dan Daniel, Joe Trimble, Ben Epstein, Milt Gross, Frank Graham, Hy Goldberg and Heywood Broun.
Not a bad staff, eh?
In the papers Winchell willed to me, was a letter dated Feb. 26, 1946 from Frank Winchell, long gone now, but a promoter until his last days, to C. C. Vega in which he said he planned to start the Baseball Dinner. He did. He got it done. Oh, it sputtered, stopped and started, or was jump started again by Gabe Paul, by Chapman, by Earl Hastead, who published Baseball Bluebook with Bill Bunker for a time, so many who have thought enough of it, and its history, to keep it alive.
Howard Wright and Frank Winchell must also be hailed as founders, as well as the cornerstone, the Tampa Terrace bar where the originating newsmen started it and continued it with repeated toasts, even an attempted one that did not.
Wright told me long ago of the writer who came into the bar one morning before heading to a baseball spring camp and ordered a shot of whiskey.
But, as he lifted the glass near his lips, he suffered a heart attack and fell over dead.
Wright said he was certain if he could have gotten the drink down, he’d have lived.
The man on the next stool toasted the fallen writer and drank the shot himself.