Spring Break On The Diamond

Babe Ruth in spring training game in Miami, Florida, March 1920

February 12th MLB pitchers and catchers begin reporting for Spring Training. Position players have their first workouts a week later. In Florida and Arizona there are fifteen teams apiece, each training for the season to come. The hope is that the work they put in during early spring translates to W’s long into autumn. Training continues right up to Opening Day in April. How did this tradition, nearly as old as the game itself, get started?

The first team to head south for practice was the New York Mutuals in 1869. The team spent two weeks in New Orleans. It seems that the training trip did little to help. During the season The Mutuals lost more games than in any of their previous eleven seasons. Still, a tradition was born. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s teams from the northern parts of the U.S. traveled south to take advantage of the warm weather.

Cap Anson

Training was the main reason for heading south but there is a legend associating other reasons to the tradition as well. In the winter 1885 the Chicago White Stockings’ player-manager Cap Anson spotted one of his pitchers drinking heavily in the bar. In that moment Anson decided to take his team to Hot Springs, Arkansas, because the hot springs were believed to have medicinal value. Anson asked permission from Albert Spalding, owner of the team. Spalding 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.”

Clearly spoken with tongue-in-cheek, Spalding made the arrangements and the process, whatever it was, was a success. The White Stockings won both the 1885 and 1886 championships.

The Washington Capitals became the first team to train in Jacksonville, Florida. In 1888 the team traveled for two days from Washington to Jacksonville in a railroad car sleeping two players to a bunk. Not surprisingly, when they arrived the players were not in the best shape for baseball. Catcher Connie Mack, who later became a Hall of Fame manager, said about the 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.” After the Capitals’ visit baseball players from the north didn’t have a great reputation down south and it took a while for spring baseball to return to Florida.

In 1910, spring training returned to Florida for good. Florida was less forgiving than greedy. At the time a major league training site became an essential part of the high-stakes competition for tourists and winter residents. Today there are fifteen MLB teams practicing and playing in the Grapefruit League.

The name of the league derives its origin from a single incident in 1915 involving aviator Ruth Law and Brooklyn Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson. Law was making daily flights in the area, dropping golf balls as a publicity gimmick. Someone got the idea of catching a baseball dropped from the plane. Though none of his players were brave enough, Robinson agreed to accept the challenge. Law forgot the baseball in her hotel room however and instead dropped a grapefruit. When Robinson tried to catch it the grapefruit exploded in his face and the Grapefruit League was born.

Chicago Cubs spring training on Catalina Island in 1939

In the early 1900s there were several teams that, rather than heading south, traveled west for spring training. The Chicago Cubs was the first in 1903 spending two weeks in Los Angeles. Soon after the other teams followed making Los Angeles their spring home. The New York Giants, Chicago White Sox and Boston Red Sox all played in L.A. Between 1921-1941 the Cubs practiced and played exhibition games on California’s Catalina Island in an exact replica of the home field in Chicago. In 1942 the U.S. military started to use the island as a military training facility and the Cubs was forced to find a new spring training facility.

After World War II Arizona became the hub for Spring Training. One reason was that, during the war, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis, working with the Office of Defense Transportation, established the “Potomac Line”. This was a division that stopped teams from crossing the Mississippi River to play. The country needed trains to be available to carry troops, supplies, and other wartime necessities. With games over long distances the trains would unnecessarily be filled with players, equipment and fans, frivolous cargo in the middle of a war. By the time the war was over, and teams were again allowed to travel freely, the club owners had already established new spring training locations. Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck was the first to move his team to Arizona. He wanted another team to join them so he called up the New York Giants owner, Horace Stoneham. The gentlemen made a deal that the Giants would train in Phoenix and the Indians in Tucson. The next day Veeck called Stoneham and said, “It just came to me that I have a ranch near Tucson. How about a switch? Me, Tucson, you, Phoenix?” The Cactus league became a reality.

Today Spring training is serious business for players and teams as well as the states of Arizona and Florida. Players cannot afford to behave like their predecessors. In today’s game spring training performance determines the 40-man roster. This spring players like Dovydas Neverauskas will feel the pressure as they compete with teammates for limited spots.

For teams spring training offers an opportunity to test lineups and position players. With his rookie season now behind him this spring will, no doubt, be a bit more relaxed for Max Kepler who had an outstanding season in 2016. Given his 17 homeruns and 20 doubles last year, the team may well play around with his position in the lineup to make the most of his power.

Spring training is a multimillion business for the states. In 2015 spring training teams, and the ballparks they played in, generate more than $809M in economic impact for the state of Arizona. Included in that number is more than $544M resulting from out-of-state Cactus League fans attending games at the ten Phoenix area ballparks. Big names bring big dollars. No doubt more than a few Dodger fans will make the short trip down to evaluate the team’s $80M arm Jansen Kenley up close. The remaining revenue comes from year-round park-related employment and interaction in the host communities.

Arizona and Florida continually compete for the revenue. Arizona municipalities are known for offering extremely generous stadium terms. Since 2003, six teams have moved their spring headquarters to Arizona, primarily due to these lucrative deals. Arizona also offers a bonus benefit. The facilities in the area are located closer together reducing travel times and expenses.

No matter which team you follow, if there is a European connection, you can bet baseballEBM has it covered. While spring training officially begins for the MLB next week, dozens of teams across Europe are already hard at work getting ready for our own opening days.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick serves as the spring training facility for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies

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