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March 23, 2015

How Spring Training became an essential part of baseball

Every March millions of fans flock to Arizona and Florida and it’s not just because of the weather conditions. In fact it has little to do with the weather. Fans migrate to one of these two states to see their favorite baseball teams in action even before the  beginning of the season. There, they can even get a ball signed or a chance to talk to their idols. Spring Training is an incredible one-month experience. Only last year Spring Training in Arizona and Florida drew 3,172,910 fans to 435 games, which equates to an average gate of 7,294. This is how important Spring Training is to fans:

But not only fans, also the host cities devote incredible amount of effort and funding to provide suitable training conditions for the MLB teams. The tradition of Spring Training is around 140 yers old now. But it all started in a very different way. The first club that ever went “Down South” to get away from the winter conditions was Boss Tweed’s Mutuals, that spent some time in New Orleans in 1869.

However it is generally accepeted that the birth of Spring Training happened year after that, in 1870 when the Chicago White Stockings and the Cincinnati Red Stockings made spring trips to New Orleans, not only to hold baseball camps, but also to play some exhibition games. Compared to today’s standards, the early spring trainings were simple and far from fancy, but in those days the whole deal of traveling South was considered an advancement. Before the trips the trainings were done in local gyms, rented halls, sheds, rinks, or any other shelter available.

In the 1870s other clubs also followed the example of the White Sox, Reds and Mutuals. New Orleans was a favorite training base at that time, but clubs also went to other places like Washington (Cleveland), Savannah (Louisville, Pittsburgh and Detroit), and Charleston in South Carolina (Phillies). One of the main reasons for the teams to make trips to spring trainings was to get the players physically prepared for the season.

But one baseball legend reveals also another story. In February of 1885 the White Stockings player and manager, Baseball Hall of Famer Cap Anson spotted one of his players in a bar. The pitcher was wearing a too-tight vest from “living the winter good life” and downed several beers in front of his manager. At this moment Anson decided to take his players to Hot Springs, Arkansas, to “boil out alcoholic microbes” out of his players.

Albert Spalding, who was the team owner at that time supported the idea and later told a newspaper reporter:

I have written to a professor down there, and he is making arrangements to build a vat in which he can boil the whole nine at once… I boil out all the alcoholic microbes, which may have impregnated the systems of these men during the winter while they have been away from me and Anson… If that doesn’t work, I’ll send ‘em to Paris next year and have ‘em inoculated by Pasteur.”

It seems this “sweating out the toxins” worked; at least, the Chicago White Stockings won two straight championships, in 1885 and 1886. Soon after, the boiling-out process was considered essential for getting rid of the effects of winter “lushing,” as drinking was called then, and Hot Springs became a center for big league clubs.

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It was about that time that teams went for the spring training to Florida for the first time. The first team that went to train to Florida were the Washington Capitals who went to Jacksonville for Spring Training in 1888. No northern professional team had traveled this far south before. The team traveled for two days.

As Connie Mack told about their experience:

“When we arrived in Jacksonville, four of our 14 players were reasonably sober. The rest were totally drunk. There was a fight every night, and the boys broke up a lot of furniture. We played exhibition games by day and drank much of the night.”

The team had quite a lot of problems with accommodation, they were turned away from several hotels due to their bad behavior and just for being baseball players. Northern players namely didn’t have a great reputation down south at the time. The Jacksonville trip didn’t do any good for the team, they had an incredibly bad season. After this, it would take spring training baseball 15 years to return to Florida.

But not all were fans of travelling to the South. Some claimed the players were subject to “sore muscles and cold” when they returned to winter after six or eight weeks in the South. Some players rather stayed at home, worked out by themselves and played in informal scrub games wherever they were spending the winter. The spring training in the South quickly started becoming an attraction and developing into a business. A. M. Gillam, writing for the Philadelphia Record, offered three dollars a day for short bulletins on 1887 training camp activities, scores of games, merits of players, and so forth, because he understood the interest people would have in the games. By 1890 a newspaper announced that the South was overrun with Northern ball players, and in the course of the decade spring training in the South was adopted by all major league clubs.

The man who truly redefined spring training was Ned Hanlon, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. He brought his team to Macon, Georgia, where he drilled them for 8 hours a day for eight weeks. The team went on to win a pennant in 1894 and the two following years.

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By the 1910s the spring training was already a marketing institution and around that time the Grapefruit League became an official league. St. Petersburg’s mayor Al Lang helped get a waterfront stadium built specifically to lure teams to St. Petersburg. First he got a deal with the Braves in 1923 and then with the Babe Ruth’s Yankees in 1925. It was significantly later, around World War II that spring training happened in Arizona.

The teams had traveled west for spring training already at the turn of the century, though. The Chicago Cubs were the first to travel to Southern California for Spring Training in 1903, first near downtown Los Angeles, two years later they moved to Santa Monica. The New York Giants, The Chicago White Sox, and the Boston Red Sox followed the Cubs’ example and spent the spring in Los Angeles for several years. The Cubs returned to South California in 1917, this time to Pasadena, and moved to tropical Catalina island in 1922. There they practiced and played exhibition games at a field that was an exact replica of their home field in Chicago.

One of the most important factors that contributed to spring training making its way to Arizona during the 1940s was the war. During this time, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis established the “Potomac Line”. This line was a compromise worked out between the Commissioner and Joseph B. Eastman, director of the federal Office of Defense Transportation to ensure teams would spend their spring training close to their home bases, north of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers and east of the Mississippi. During wartime the trains were crammed with supplies and troops, and in that context transporting baseball players and their fans seemed to be a frivolous use of precious resources. The Cardinals, the White Sox and the Cubs were limited to training in Missouri, Indiana or Illinois, the New York Yankees ended up training in Asbury Park, N.J., while the Red Sox trained Tufts College in nearby Medford, Mass.

After the war, the teams were again allowed to travel west, but during the time passed the teams’ owners had already considered new spring training locations. The Cactus League’s origins can be at least partially traced to a visit made by Giants owner Horace Stoneham in the late ’40s to a place called the Buckhorn Mineral Wells and Baths in Mesa, not far from the current location of HoHoKam Park. Originally the site of a gas station, the Buckhorn location was converted into a motel that offered mineral baths and massage treatments after a hot-water aquifer containing significant deposits of potassium, silica, magnesium and iron was discovered on the property. Stoneham was introduced to the Buckhorn baths by officials from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce while scouting for possible training sites, and was so enticed by the rejuvenating effects of the baths and therapy treatments that he thought it might make an ideal place for players to get in shape.

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Around the same time, Stoneham received a call from Bill Veeck, the owner of the Indians who had a winter home in Tucson. Veeck had already been thinking about moving his team to Tucson for Spring Training, and thus, the Cactus League was born. Spring training has come a long way from since its humble beginnings.

Every March 15 MLB teams play in each league, the Grapefruit League in Florida and Cactus League in Arizona, and they all hope that the good work they do in the spring will add up to a victory in October.

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