In about 35 days Major League pitchers and catchers report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. It’s a ritual that has been going on since the 1800s. The Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Chicago White Stockings held spring training camps in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1870. The Washington Capitals held a spring training camp in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1888.
By 1900, virtually all teams held spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. Thus began the annual ritual not only of the teams themselves, but also of the fans getting out of the cold weather in the North to sit in the warm sunshine and watch their team prepare for the regular season that opened in early May, or in mid April, as it does today.
Early on, spring training was typically tied to barnstorming tours where the major league teams played local clubs who wanted to see how they stacked up against the big boys. Barnstorming was also a way for major league baseball players to make some money. Even after World War II, the salaries of the typical major league player were very modest.
In his book, White Rat, Whitey Herzog talks about getting along financially as a baseball player in the mid 1950s through the early 1960s. When Herzog was playing for the Washington Senators (1956-58) he lived in a trailer, because that was the most he could afford on his salary.
When Herzog played for the Kansas City Athletics (1958-60) he lived in a home that he built. But, even then, during the off season he umpired at high school basketball games and operated a small construction company just to pay his bills.
Herzog was never a great player, but he was dedicated. His lifetime batting average was .254. He hit 25 home runs and had 172 RBIs in 634 games. Of course, he went on to be one of the greatest managers in the game, being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010. One of Herzog’s greatest lines was, “Baseball was good to me after I quit playing it.” And, indeed while he never really made any significant money as a player, he was well compensated as a field manager. After short stints as a base coach, interim field manager, and in charge of player development of several teams, Herzog became manager of the Kansas City Royals in 1975. There he won three straight American League Western division titles. But, his greatest success was as the field manager of the St. Louis Cardinals where he was famous for “Whiteyball,” the nickname for the team he built on a foundation of base running speed. In St. Louis he won the 1982 World Series and the National League Pennant in 1985 and 1987.
Until 1947, the vast majority of Major League teams held spring training in Florida for the practical reason that the farthest team west was the St. Louis Cardinals. It made no economic sense to train out west, when Florida was much closer to the fan base of the teams. But in 1947 the New York Giants and the Cleveland Indians were persuaded to train in Arizona. It is true that a number of MLB teams had trained out west prior to World War II, most notably the Chicago Cubs, who first trained in Santa Monica in 1905 and then trained on California’s Catalina Island from 1922 to 1942, and again in 1950-51. The incentive for the Cubs to train on Catalina Island was the fact that the team owner, William Wrigley Jr., the chewing gum magnet, was the owner of the Cubs and the owner of Catalina Island where he wintered. Other teams trained in California so that they could barnstorm their way back home, earning money for the players and expanding support for the team.
Similar to the draw for the Cubs to Catalina Island, was the draw of Arizona to the Cleveland Indians. The Cactus League became a reality in 1947, when Horace Stoneham’s New York Giants and Bill Veeck’s Cleveland Indians took up residence in Phoenix and Tucson, respectively. Veeck (Veeck as in wreck he would say) owned a ranch near Tucson. Bill Veeck went on to be the most innovative and future looking, if madcap, owner in baseball.
During his time in baseball, Veeck was the owner of the Cleveland Indians, the St. Louis Browns and the Chicago White Sox. In 1947, he signed the first black baseball player in the American league, Larry Doby, and later that year signed the ageless Satchel Paige, who became, at the time of his signing, the oldest rookie in the history of baseball.
In 1948, Lou Boudreau hit .355 and that propelled Cleveland to its first pennant and World Series since 1920. Not afraid to be wacky, Veeck famously buried the 1948 pennant once it became obvious that the team would not repeat in 1949. One of Veeck’s most memorable publicity stunts was the hiring of the 3 foot 7 inch Eddie Gaedel. On August 19, 1951, Veeck sent Gaedel to the plate to pinch hit. Gaedel’s uniform number was “1/8” and yes, he walked on four straight pitches and then was pulled for a pinch runner.
But, back to spring training. Today, baseball spring training is bigger and better than ever before. The facilities are nicer and bigger than they have ever been. And, it’s often difficult to get tickets to spring training games because the demand continues to grow each year. Tens of thousands of fans make attending the spring training of their favorite team an annual ritual. There’s a special camaraderie among both fans and players as practices begin.
And, then when the actual games begin, the stands fill up. No one wants to miss the first appearance of a heralded rookie, or see their favorite player take the field or hit one out of the park. And, at the beginning of each regular season, every fan holds out hope that “this is the year” for his or her team.
Of course, there are lots of great sports played in the United States. There are the timed rectangular sports of football, soccer, basketball, rugby, hockey, etc. where you score points by making it to the other end of the rectangle and dropping your ball, puck, or whatever in a hoop, a net, or score simply by bringing it across the goal line. These sports can be lots of fun and bring lots of excitement.
But, as for me, give me that special green diamond that is unlike any other sport in the world. It has a special magnetism, a special draw that is different than any other sport. And, I must not be alone in this feeling since the number of people who annually watch baseball at all levels far outnumbers any other sport. For instance, the annual attendance of several triple A baseball teams is much higher than the annual attendance of the highest attended National Football League team. I know, a NFL team only plays 16 games per year, just one tenth of those played by the fellows on the diamond. Nevertheless. Baseball has a certain long term drawing power that no other sport can match.
While the NFL has seen a decline in television viewership and attendance over the last few years, attendance at MLB games has continued to grow. And, the fascination of Americans with baseball isn’t just as a spectator sport. Millions of Americans—young, middle aged and even older—play baseball each year. And, across the globe, in places as far away as Russia and Italy, baseball continues to grow in popularity. Of course, in Latin America and in the far East, baseball is huge.
And, this doesn’t even touch on the fact that more money is spent on salaries of US baseball players than on players for any other professional sport. Nor does it cover the fact that revenues to professional baseball far outstrip any other professional sport in the USA. And, let’s not forget that the most money ever paid for a professional sports franchise is $2 billion, the amount paid to purchase the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But, baseball is not about money, it’s about the love of the game. It’s about hitting an 85 mile per hour curve ball. It’s about the most difficult play in sports, turning a double play. It’s about miracle catches, and late inning walk off home runs. It’s about seeing a young pitcher throw a perfect game. It’s about seeing your son or daughter play the game and come to love it as you do.
Baseball is truly as American as apple pie.
Yes, professional baseball had its problems with drug use. But, I believe that is gone for good. Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and others dishonored the game by using performance enhancing drugs, but last year baseball writers uttered their verdict. They bypassed both Clemens and McGwire for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. They sent a stern message to all professional baseball players, if you want your shot at getting into the Hall of Fame you can’t use performance enhancing drugs to get there.
This year the Hall inducted some all-time great players, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. These are great choices and great players who understand what baseball is all about. It’s about loving and respecting the game of baseball.
So, as for me, I’m packing my bags and heading south, looking forward to seeing the St. Louis Cardinals in spring training in Jupiter, Florida. I’m going to enjoy the warm sunshine, and the gentle breezes, but most of all, I’m going to relish the crack of the bat, the pop of the glove, and the amazing athletic skills of the players on the field. And, while I’m at it, I’m going to root, root, root for the Cardinals. There’s just nothing like a baseball game.