A year or so ago there was an ESPN 30 for 30 short called Borscht Belt Bellhop about Wilt Chamberlain and other African American basketball players who worked as cooks, waiters and valets in the summer camps of Upstate New York back in the 1950s. What I did not know until researching and writing the bit about Spottswood Poles for the WW1 Centennial Commission last week is that there was a similar phenomenon that took place in Florida and California in the early twentieth century. Negro players such as Poles played baseball in so-called hotel leagues during the winter months. In Poles’s case it was Palm Beach. In the years immediately before and after the First World War he played for Royal Poinciana and The Breakers Hotels.
The Florida Hotel League, sometimes called the Coconut League, went back to the 1890s until finally disbanding in 1931. Such leagues played an abbreviated schedule of about fifteen games, usually twice a week from January through March. This was the same period that most ball clubs, white and black, went to Florida, the sunny West Coast, or the Caribbean to train. Gametime was usually scheduled for mid-afternoon between the lunch and dinner hours. That is because the players served double-duty as the waitstaff and in other capacities. Poles led the Florida Hotel League in batting several seasons and led the Breakers to titles in both 1915 and 1916. Poles returned to Palm Beach in 1917. By the end of the year he was in France with the 369th. He saw a great deal of the hard fighting of 1918.
The money was never good in the Florida Hotel League but it did give players a chance to make a few dollars, get out of the cold, play some innings and otherwise get in shape for the regular season.
Enjoy the season.
(Royal Poinciana images, Library of Congress; The Breakers, NYPL)