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Jacksonville Baseball History

Jacksonville Baseball History

Before the First Coast had its own professional baseball team, Jacksonville was already known as a baseball town. In 1888, Jacksonville hosted the first ever Major League Spring Training, as the Washington Statesman hosted the Philadelphia Athletics, Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Nationals, and the Cincinnati Reds. Jacksonville would continue to host other Major League Spring Trainings for a few more years.

Professional baseball in Jacksonville was founded in 1904, when the Jacksonville Jays became apart of the newly formed South Atlantic League. Jacksonville hosted the first South Atlantic League game on the Southside of Town at Dixieland Park, when the Jays defeated Macon, 1-0. At that time, there were no bridges in Jacksonville, so fans would have to ride ferries across the St. Johns River to attend a game at Dixieland Park.

 From 1904 to 1917, Jacksonville won two South Atlantic League titles, with the first coming in 1908 with a record of 77-34, and the second in 1912 after a 70-41 season. During this time period, Jacksonville went through some name changes. In 1911, the team was known as the Jacksonville Tarpons, and for only the 1917 the team was known as the Jacksonville Roses.

In 1921, there were a few changes for the Jacksonville club, as they found a new home park at Barrs Field, which would later be named Durkee Field (currently known as J.P. Small Park). Jacksonville also changed its name to the Scouts and debut in the Florida State League (Class C). In 1922, the team changed to the Indians. Jacksonville changed its name to the Tars in 1926 and moved to the Southeastern League (Class B). They captured the Southeastern League title in 1927 before rejoining the South Atlantic League in 1936, but this time as a Class B team and then a Class A team in 1946.

Jacksonville joined the Nergo League ranks in 1938 as the Red Caps made their debut in the Negro American League. The team shared Barrs Field with the Tars. The Red Caps left after one season in 1939, but returned for the 1941 and 1942 seasons.

In 1952, Jacksonville officially had a second Minor League team, when the Jacksonville Beach Sea Birds debut in the Florida State League (Class D). The team played at South Penman and Shutter Avenue which was about a mile from the ocean. The Sea Birds lasted for three seasons, leaving after the 1954 season.

On the other side of town, in 1953, the Tars were purchased by Samuel W. Wolfson and the team became the Jacksonville Braves. Along with new ownership and name change, another great part of history happened as future MLB Home Run King Hank Aaron broke the South Atlantic League color barrier playing for the Braves. In his only season in Jacksonville, Aaron made a mark by recording a .362 average, with 22 home runs, 36 doubles and 14 triples to earn League MVP honors. Aaron made his Major League debut a year later in 1954.

After playing at Durkee Field for more than 30 years, the city opened Jacksonville Municipal Ballpark in 1955, which was later named Wolfson Park. The following year, the Braves won their first South Atlantic League Championship. For the 1961 season, Jacksonville played in its final season in the South Atlantic League as the Jets.

In 1962, baseball became hotter in Jacksonville, as the Suns were born under owner Samuel W. Wolfson. The team also transitioned to Triple-A as a member of the International League. The Suns would be affiliated with the Cleveland Indians (1962-1963, 1971), the St. Louis Cardinals (1964-1965), and the New York Mets (1966-1968) during the 1960's. Jacksonville also hosted three future Hall of Famers in this decade as Phil Niekro pitched in the River City in 1960, Tom Seaver was on the mound for the Suns in 1966 and Nolan Ryan pitched for the club in 1967. Randy Johnson would be the next and only other Hall of Famer to appear for Jacksonville in 1987.

During the 1968 season, the Suns won their only International League Championship in their final season at the Triple-A level. In 1969, Jacksonville was without baseball for the season, but the Suns returned to the diamond in 1970 as a Double-A team in the Southern League. The Suns spent the 1970 season affiliated with the Montreal Expos and affiliated under the Indians once again in 1972. From 1972-1983, the Jacksonville ballclub was affiliated the Kansas City Royals.

 A new era of baseball started in 1985, as Peter Bragan Sr. and his family purchased the Jacksonville ballclub. A few changes were to come, as Jacksonville became affiliated with the Montreal Expos and changed the name from the Suns to the Jacksonville Expos. Randy Johnson and future National League MVP Larry Walker would suite up for the Jacksonville Expos during the 1987 season.

 Jacksonville remained as the Expos until 1991, when the team again became the Suns and affiliated with the Seattle Mariners (1991-1994). Future Major League stars, Alex Rodriguez and Brett Bone played for the Suns during their Mariners affiliation.

After being a member of the Southern League for over 25 years, the Suns finally captured their first title in 1996 in their second season affiliated with the Detroit Tigers. The Suns were declared co-Southern League in the 2001 season in their first year as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Suns played their final season at Wolfson Park in 2002 before moving across the parking lot to the then-newly constructed Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville in 2003. In the stadiums first season, the team set an attendance record of 359,979 and in surpassed that record in 2005 as 420,495 fans walked through the gates.

The then-Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville would be a good luck charm for the Suns as they won three titles in the first seven seasons after the park opened. Jacksonville won the 2005 Southern League Championship before capturing consecutive titles in 2009 and 2010 during the first two seasons as a Miami Marlins affiliate. The 2010 championship was one to remember as the Suns won their first title at home with a walk-off solo home run by Chris Hatcher. In 2014, the Suns rode a hot streak, winning 16 of their final 17 games, to claim their sixth Southern League Championship. Jacksonville also won the 2014 title at home after sweeping the Chattanooga Lookouts, 3-0.

The Bragan Family, the longest tenure owner of any Jacksonville baseball club, rounded out their 31-year ownership tenure in 2015 by selling the franchise to Ken Babby of the Fast Forward Sports Group. Following the 2016 season under Babby, the team would be changed from the Suns to the Jumbo Shrimp. (You can learn more about the change and the logos by clicking here.)

Their inaugural season garnered the Southern League's Don Mincher Organization of the Year, Promotional Trophy, and Jimmy Bragan Executive of the Year, won by General Manager Harold Craw. They also made the playoffs on the field by winning the second half South Division title.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the club welcomed a total attendance of 327,388 come through the gates at the ballpark en route to winning their second Southern League Promotional Trophy in three seasons as the Jumbo Shrimp.