Henley Field is site of baseball history

Less than two miles from Joker Marchant Stadium, the spring home of the Detroit Tigers, is a nondescript, sort of ragged old ball diamond. You’d be forgiven if, during your drive through Lakeland, you went past it without noticing.

This is Henley Field, a ballpark where baseball legends once roamed in their spikes and wool uniforms in the blistering Sunshine State warmth.

For more than three decades beginning in 1934, the Detroit Tigers trained at Henley Field in Lakeland, located on North Florida Avenue in the north central part of the city.

Ted Williams took swings there. Charlie Gehringer worked on his double play pivots in the middle of the diamond. Hank Greenberg hit balls over the fence in left field, and center, and right field.

Babe Ruth played at Henley Field in his Yankee duds with teammate Lou Gehrig. The great Bob Feller stood on the mound and tossed his famous fastball toward home plate. The same place where young ballplayers work on their pitches today.

The Tigers abandoned Henley in the mid-1960s, moving to a modern facility at what is now still called Joker Marchant. But for years (save for a couple years when spring camp was called off during World War II), every player who wore the Old English D played on this field.

Dizzy Trout, the great Tiger pitcher of the 1940s, was famous for riding his motorbike right to the clubhouse door at Henley. He was so reckless that manager Steve O’Neill once ordered him away from the field while he was revving his engine.

When Johnny Groth, a Detroit outfielder in the 1950s, spent his time at Henley he was a favorite target of his pranking teammates. Groth was deathly afraid of bugs. Teammates once filled his glove and spikes with ants, spiders, and any other insects they could corral at Henley.

The story goes that Ted Williams hit a ball so far over the fence at Henley that it nearly landed on a football field located beyond right field.

A shy, fresh-faced teenager Al Kaline once saw his older teammates nail Vic Wertz’s spikes to the floor of the tiny Henley Field clubhouse. The manager’s office was a tiny space located in the corner, surrounded with chicken wire. The towering Hank Greenberg probably bumped his head on a low-hanging beam far too many times. The Tigers couldn’t even wash at the ballpark, which only had a a few rickety water fountains but no plumbing for showering.

In 1997, Henley Field was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. In 2002, years after the Tigers had moved on from the quaint ballpark, it was renovated for $250,000, updating the seating and sod.

A few years ago, Henley was sold by the City of Lakeland to Florida Southern College, who use the ballpark for their baseball team.