1. The first spring training was a spa compared to today’s version.
In one form or another, spring training has always been a part of organized baseball. In the early days of the National League, which formed in 1876, spring training was quite different than today. Teams practiced independently from their league counterparts, primarily playing against themselves in their own cities. But a problem soon arose. Every National League team was located in the north or northeast of the country back then, and the climate in places like New York and Chicago in February and March was not hospitable for baseball. Faced with snow, cold and other rough weather conditions, teams often had to practice in gymnasiums or scramble to find other indoor locations.
In 1886, two men had an idea that changed spring training—and baseball—forever. A.G. Spalding, owner of the Chicago White Stockings (which later became the Cubs) and his player-manager, Adrian “Cap” Anson (later known for helping to create the game’s color barrier by refusing to allow his team to play against minority opponents) decided to hold their spring training in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a resort town known for its spa-like thermal waters. Not only did the Arkansas weather make it easier to play baseball during the late winter months, but Spalding and Anson viewed the springs as a perfect tool to help their players recuperate (particularly those fond of the Hot Springs nightlife) and get in shape for the season
After the White Stockings won the league title that year, Hot Springs got a lot more crowded. Team owners, looking to take away Spalding and Anson’s competitive advantage, started moving their teams to the resort town for spring training, too. Before long, the best players in the country–from Babe Ruth to Ty Cobb to Tris Speaker–were all heading to Arkansas. Training in Hot Springs wasn’t just reserved for major league teams, either, as minor leaguers and several high-profile Negro League teams, like the Kansas City Monarchs and the New York Black Yankees, trained there, as well, bringing stars like Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil to the so-called “Valley of the Vapors.”
Baseball in Hot Springs would not last forever. Although teams still sent their pitchers and catchers to the town for pre-spring training until the early 1940s, most major league teams had stopped using it as their official training site by the 1920s, after finding better weather (along with space for training facilities) in Arizona, Florida and California.
2. Florida’s Grapefruit League got its name because of a marketing stunt gone wrong.
Have you ever wondered where the Grapefruit League got its name? After all, it’s held each spring in Florida, a state known more for sunshine or oranges than it is for the larger variety of citrus fruit. As it turns out, the name literally fell out of the sky over a century ago.
Spring training in Florida in the early years of baseball was a haphazard affair, as a handful of teams would descend on a town or city, and then barnstorm their way around the state to get in shape for the season. Because of the nomadic nature of the schedule, team owners often relied on gimmicks to get fans to come out to the park.
According to legend, that’s what the Brooklyn Dodgers did on March, 13, 1915, when they called upon local aviator Ruth Law. Her task? To fly over the field and drop a baseball from her plane so that the Dodgers’ manager, Hall-of-Famer Wilbert Robinson who was 500 feet below, could catch it in his glove.
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This is where the story gets a little hazy. One version says that Law realized that she’d forgotten to bring a baseball with her, but managed to find a grapefruit instead. The other says that player Casey Stengel, later a legendary manager with the rival New York Yankees, decided to play a prank on his manager by replacing the baseball with the fruit. The oversized grapefruit soon found itself plummeting through the air, directly at the Dodgers’ manager, hitting Roberts in the chest and sending the manager sprawling to the ground. When he saw the red juice and pulp all over his chest, he incorrectly assumed he’d been dealt a deathblow, and began to panic.
As it turned out, he had no injuries to show from the plunging projectile (except for a sizable bruise), and everyone shared a good laugh. According to Robinson’s autobiography, “Uncle Robbie,” Stengel quipped that the manager, “Couldn’t cut it in the Grapefruit League.”
3. Baseball’s first 500-foot home run was hit in spring training.
The legendary Babe Ruth’s prolific home run power made him a legend with the New York Yankees, but he was also dominant pitcher early in his career with the Boston Red Sox. It was as one of the leaders of the Sox’ pitching rotation that the 23-year-old Ruth reported to Hot Springs in 1918. Because of the power displays Ruth put on during batting practice, the hefty lefty had been lobbying manager Ed Barrow to let him bat more often. Barrow acquiesced, and Ruth rewarded him with a historic home run that changed the perception of what could be accomplished by squaring up a ball on the barrel of a baseball bat.
In late March, Ruth hit a ball so deep that no one knew how far it truly went for nearly a century. According to legend, it landed in a gator-infested pond in the Arkansas Alligator Farm across the street from Whittington Park. In March 2011, Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs National Park Convention and Visitors Bureau, hired a firm named B&F Engineering to investigate the legendary homer. Luckily, the gator farm was still in operation, and the pond remained, and using archival and modern photography, B&F was able to determine the original location of home plate, allowing them to measure the home run at an astounding 573 feet—one of the longest in baseball history.
4. Arizona’s Cactus League formed because of racial intolerance in the American South.
In the mid-1940s, Bill Veeck, owner of the then-minor league Milwaukee Brewers of the AAA American Association, was taking in one of his team’s spring games in Ocala, Florida, and started chatting up some fans in his section. Unbeknownst to him, that part of the stadium was designated for African American fans. In the segregated “Jim Crow” South of the 1940s, this was a huge deal, as laws kept black fans from being able to sit with white spectators. Veeck’s unintentional actions soon attracted the attention of local law enforcement.
“Within a few minutes, a sheriff came running over to tell me I couldn’t sit there,” Veeck wrote in his autobiography “Veeck as in Wreck.” The Brewers owner refused to move, and soon the mayor himself was threatening to force him to sit in another section. Veeck countered that if he were forced to move from his seat, he would move his team to another city. When Veeck also threatened to make the reason for the move public, the irate mayor finally backed down.
Veeck eventually sold his stake in the Brewers, but later purchased the Cleveland Indians in 1946. He never forgot that incident in Ocala, however. Turned off by the intolerance he’d witnessed first-hand that spring, and because he was planning to sign a black player to the Indians roster (he ended up signing Larry Doby in 1947), Veeck decided to hold his team’s spring training in a more tolerant area of the country.
Veeck chose Phoenix, Arizona, as the Indians’ spring training home for 1947. Although Arizona was somewhat more racially tolerant, Phoenix itself was still mostly segregated (and would remain so until the 1960s.) Despite that, the warm weather helped Veeck convince the New York Giants to join his Indians in Phoenix so that the two teams could prepare for the season. In the years to come, more teams–specifically those with back players–followed Veeck to Arizona, and the Cactus League was born.