Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Forward: Babe Ruth in Aripeka

The New York Yankees have used Tampa as their spring training grounds for over one hundred years now, and stories still circulate about the days when The Babe was king. His his hard drinking, drug use, womanizing, and general rock star behavior are well-documented, but during his time in Florida, Babe Ruth most often fed a different addiction.
He was known to disappear from spring training without any warning. The assumption was that he was on a bender, or had taken up with a new lover, but then he would reappear in Tampa, sometimes weeks later, his car loaded down with smoked fish, venison, and alligator skins. He had been out in the wilds of Florida: hunting, fishing, and exploring.
Multiple Gulf Coast towns North of Tampa claim they were The Babe’s favorite destination. And in Aripeka, a still-miniscule fishing village in Pasco County, a hand-painted sign was nailed on to the outside of an old cabin that read:
Babe Ruth Cabin: It was here at Uncle Pearl's Fish Camp that Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey often played poker with Butch Lynch.
Tons upon tons of sea turtles and fish have been caught here, and more fish stories bragged and exaggerated here than anywhere else in the U.S.A.

  The Babe Ruth Cabin in 1986 (Photo courtesy of Florida Memory)

As of the last census, Aripeka is a town of 308 people, I can only assume that in the early 1930’s is was even smaller. It sits on a narrow road that winds through the tall grass of brackish coastal scrubs, out into a prehistoric-looking landscape.
And in that time, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey were two of the most famous men in the country, and while Butch Lynch, a New Jersey middleweight, wasn’t quite as famous as Ruth or Dempsey, he was also something of a star in his own right. One version of the story goes that the three men appeared in Aripeka in the early afternoon, loaded down with hunting rifles, fishing poles, and several bottles of bootleg rum. They would fish for black bass all day, then drink and play poker all night, often with the entire town of Aripeka sitting up to watch.
There is, of course, no way to know how true or untrue an of this is. No photos exist, and the further we get from the moment, the more it gets clouded, the more it’s remembered, the more it’s mis-remembered, and as the sign outside the cabin said, fishermen are known to exaggerate.
In Latinate languages, Florida is a verb, it means to blossom, bloom, it can also mean to molder. Either way, it denotes a state of change, of impermanence, of beginning as one thing, then shifting into another, of constant churning. Like the story of Babe Ruth in Aripeka, where the facts were lost long ago, A story can Florida into something quite different. And stories never stop Florida-ing, they continue to change, shift, bloom, decay with every telling. Just like the constantly shifting landscape of the state itself.
The plan for Florida Is A Verb, is to be part tour guide, part story-teller, part bullshit-artist; to happily Florida all over the place, and to hopefully teach others to Florida in a convincingly authentic manner. I’ll cover destinations, stories, stuff to do, food, and anything and everything about Florida that isn’t a theme park, cruise ship, resort, or casino. I hope that I can help to navigate the ever-shifting madness, teach about some of the underlying reasons behind that madness, point the way to some adventures, and tell some fun stories.