Ever wonder how spring training started, or why? Well, here’s a little history lesson after watching a recent repeat of Ken Burn’s Baseball on the MLB Network.
The Early Years
Stories are a bit conflicting with some claiming the first spring training taking place in Hot Springs Arkansas in 1886, by the Chicago White Stockings (today’s Chicago Cubs) and team President, Albert Spalding and Hall of Famer Cap Anson. Others claim that it was started back in 1870 by both Chicago and Cincinnati Red Stockings down in New Orleans. A third story starts with the Washington Capitals in 1888, holding a four-day camp in Jacksonville. Regardless of which story you hear and believe, we know that teams started training down south in the late 1800’s to prior to the start of their seasons.
Now back in the early years of spring training, most players could not survive on just a baseball salary, so they’d go home after the season and find a job somewhere. Those jobs would take a toll and players would be out of shape and out of practice by the start of the season. When it came to playing spring games, it meant mostly against colleges, semi-pro, and at times another Major League team.
In the early 1903, Connie Mack had his Philadelphia Athletics train in Jacksonville, however after a disappointing season; Mack blamed the outcome on the tropical weather and teams focus and didn’t return for 11 years. One of my favorite stories around the A’ in Florida, was about a very eccentric star pitcher named Rube Waddell who wrestled an alligator while down in Florida.
In 1913, teams started making Florida their spring home, with the Chicago Cubs playing in Tampa and the Cleveland Indians playing in Pensacola. The St. Louis Browns and St. Louis Cardinals would train in Florida the following year and with the four teams now in Florida, it gave us the start of what is known as the Grapefruit League.
In 1916, back in Hot Springs, emergency first basemen was needed for the Boston Red Sox with a young pitcher filling the need. That pitcher was Babe Ruth of course, who was playing his first game in the field of his career. Ruth went on to slug two homers that day, including one that was over 573 feet.
By 1929, Florida had 10 of the 16 Major League teams training there before the season and while teams would pick up locations, or train in other states and countries (California, Hawaii, Cuba, Dominican Republic), they always came back to Florida.
During World War 2, FDR decided that it was good for the countries morale to keep baseball going, however using country resources such as trains to get players and fans to camp in Florida, seemed frivolous. With that, there was a compromise known as the Potomac line between Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Director of the Federal Office of Defense Transportation, Joseph Eastman, that spring training games would be held close to home. No teams were to travel south of the Potomac or Ohio River and west of the Mississippi River. The restriction was lifted in 1946 after the war ends.
The Cactus League
It wasn’t uncommon for teams to train or barnstorm through Arizona, however no team or even play other Major League teams there (first game was 1/17/1929 between Detroit & Pittsburgh), however it wasn’t yet an annual destination for teams until 1947. Starting in 1947, the New York Giants put down roots in Phoenix, while Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians would call Tucson home for spring training. With that, the Cactus League was born.
Besides the weather, another very important reason for playing baseball in Arizona was racial. Florida, being part of the deep south, still had a strong racial divide, while in Arizona had less racial tension, and both the Indians and Giants were to quickly sign players (Larry Doby, Satchel Paige, Hank Thompson, and Monte Irvin) after the success of Jackie Robinson.
In 1952, baseball saw the Chicago Cubs move from Catalina Island, their spring home (and owned by Philip Wrigley) for 30 years to Mesa, Arizona. From there, teams like Boston, and Baltimore would train for a year or two in Arizona, however both returned back to Florida eventually.
In the early 60’s baseball expanded, adding four new teams by adding the Los Angeles Angels, The Houston Colt 45’s, Washington Senators, and New York Mets. The Cactus League would add the Angels and Colt 45’s, while the Mets and Senators landed in Florida. More expansion hit in 1969, with the Seattle Pilots, Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, and San Diego Padres being added. In 1977, the Seattle Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays join Major League Baseball as well. The Pilots, Padres, and Mariners end up in the Cactus League, while the Royals, Expos, and Blue Jays ended in the Grapefruit League. From here, with teams moving further out west, more teams would join the Cactus League such as the Oakland Athletics, the Milwaukee Brewers (formerly the Seattle Pilots), etc.
Now in the current day, 15 teams call Florida home, while 15 teams call Arizona home during spring training, with some clubs sharing facilities. It has been long known that spring training could be an economic driver for a team, but I’m not sure that anyone could dream of over 3.3 million people attending games like they did in 2016.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed out little history lesson and if you haven’t been able to experience spring training in person, I highly recommend it as a bucket list item!