February, 2014. Spring Training, Lakeland, Florida. Walt Whitman Had It Right.

Posted on February 19, 2014

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I see great things in baseball.  It’s our game – the American game

 – Walt Whitman.

The history of baseball is intertwined with the greater history of America.

The sport has been around since Colonial days, and it’s been a stable force during troubled times from the Civil War to 911.

Its heroes are our heroes; its home fields our homes. The game is ours, because we’ve all played it, watched it, and been involved with it, even if that involvement was just catch with dad in the back yard.

It’s a part of our childhood we never have to give up; it’s a part of our childhood we share with just about every American.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that a visit to the Detroit Tigers’ spring training in Lakeland, Florida, also revealed a couple local slices of American history.

Joker Marchant Stadium

Joker Marchant Stadium

The Tigers’ Shared History with Lakeland

We think most Michiganders – at least those who don’t head south for spring training – probably believe the Tigers’ winter home is called Joker MERCHANT Stadium.

We did.

It’s not.

JokerMarchantThe stadium, built in 1966, was named in honor of Marcus Thigpen Marchant, Lakeland’s first city parks and recreation director. Famous for his rubber cockroaches and whoopee cushions, it’s no wonder his co-workers at city hall quickly nicknamed him ‘Joker’.

Marchant loved baseball, and played for Florida Southern College in the 1930’s. He was hired by the City of Lakeland while still in college to take care of swimming pools. After becoming parks director, Joker helped solidify Lakeland’s long-standing spring training relationship with the Tigers by always making sure their facilities were well-prepared for their arrival.

And it has been a solid relationship. This year will be the 78th time Detroit has returned to Lakeland for their winter warm-up.

That’s a lot of shared history.

flying Tigers logoThe Tigers’ Affiliate Honors WWII Pilots

Joker Marchant Stadium is also home to the Tigers’ single A affiliate – a ‘High A’ club competing in the Florida State League called the Flying Tigers.

Tiger Town, a complex consisting of dormitories, a cafeteria and administrative offices as well as the stadium and training facilities, is located on the site of the former Lodwick School of Aeronautics.

Cadets at Lodwick.

Cadets at Lodwick.

Between 1940 and 1945, 8,000 U. S. Army Air Force cadets and 1,200 British Royal Air Force cadets attended flight school there. Around 6,000 cadets graduated and headed for combat. Some Lodwick alumni flew over China during World War II as part of the “Flying Tigers” fighter group.

The Flying Tigers, previously known as the Lakeland Tigers, adopted both their new name and insignia in 2006 in honor of these men.

Parts of the old flight school still stand – two massive airplane hangars are still in use, largely unchanged in appearance since their construction, and the school’s original mess hall is used today as the Tiger Town cafeteria.

Further improvements to Joker Marchant Stadium are in the wind, so hopefully the Tigers and the City of Lakeland will continue to make history together for many years to come.

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Posted in: Travel - Florida