In the early days of baseball, major league baseball teams conducted spring training, but it was limited. Since all of the teams were located in the north and northeastern part of the country, it was difficult for them to train outside during February and March. Due to the cold weather, many teams used gymnasiums or other inside areas for training. In 1886, Albert Goodwill (A. G.) Spalding, president of the Chicago White Stockings of the National League, decided to train in a warmer climate. Thus, Hot Springs (Garland County) became one of the first spring training locations south of the Mason-Dixon Line for major league teams.
On the front page of the maiden issue of the Sporting News, March 17, 1886, the baseball world read that the Chicago White Stockings, forerunner of the Chicago Cubs, planned to conduct their spring training in Hot Springs. (In 1901, a team named the Chicago White Stockings entered the newly formed American League. Soon, this franchise became known as the Chicago White Sox. However, this American League team should not be confused with the earlier National League team called the Chicago White Stockings, which became the Cubs.) Spalding was quoted as saying, “I wonder whatever made me think of it?” He and his playing-manager, Adrian “Cap” Anson, wanted to send a physically fit team onto the field when the National League opened the season in April. The main reason Spalding sent his team to Hot Springs for two weeks was for the players to bathe in the hot springs in hopes of clearing their bodies of alcohol, thereby losing weight and enhancing their physical condition. Spalding, in addition, believed that the Southern weather would be more conducive for training than the colder weather in the North. The players could get their legs in shape and build stamina by climbing mountains.
The Daily Gazette reported on Wednesday, March 17, 1886, “The Chicago base-ball club are in the city (Hot Springs) and will practice every day as soon as suitable grounds can be made.”While in Hot Springs, the National League team played on a field behind what is now the Garland County Courthouse on Ouachita Avenue. The Avenue Hotel (later the Majestic Hotel) on Park Avenue, near the junction of Central and Whittington avenues, accommodated the Chicago visitors. The team featured such notables as Adrian “Cap” Anson, John Clarkson, and Mike “King” Kelly, all of whom were later inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as was Spalding. With them was the “fastest man in baseball,” outfielder Billy Sunday, who later became a famed evangelist.
Spalding’s spring training idea of 1886 was the signal for other major league teams to head south, many to the Arkansas resort. The floodgates opened wide, and major and minor league teams, as well as individual players, flocked to the spa city from 1886 to the 1940s. These teams included the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Browns (later the Perfectos and, after that, the Cardinals), Philadelphia Phillies, Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Highlanders (later the Yankees), and many others. Exhibition games, pepper games, infield practices, cut-off plays, sliding practice, calisthenics, mountain climbing, and soaking in the tubs took place every spring in Hot Springs.
Many of these players participated in local life, too. In 1904, John McGraw, player/manager of the New York Giants, visited Hot Springs and was arrested, along with friend C. T. Buckley, for gambling. In 1912, Honus Wagner, a Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop, assisted in officiating a high school basketball game between Hot Springs High School and Memphis High School at the Bijou Skating Rink in Hot Springs. Babe Ruth visited Hot Springs many times. In addition to practicing baseball, Ruth enjoyed golfing and attending the races at Oaklawn Park.
John Taylor, owner of the Boston Red Sox, built a practice field in Hot Springs for his team in 1909. The field, then dubbed Majestic Park and located on Belding Avenue, is now the site of baseball fields owned by the Hot Springs Boys and Girls Club. In 1910, the Brooklyn Superbas (later the Dodgers) were in town practicing at their location on Whittington Avenue. One afternoon, Bill Dahlen, Brooklyn’s manager, gave his team a break from afternoon practice, and the players headed across town to scrutinize the first game between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds at Majestic Park. Most of the Brooklyn players sat on the newly built stand with about 200 other spectators. During the fifth inning, the small structure collapsed. Nobody was hurt, but Tommy McMillan, shortstop for Brooklyn, landed in Cy Young’s lap.
In the 1930s and 1940s, many baseball stars taught at the Ray Doan’s Baseball School in Hot Springs. Young men traveled from all parts of the country to attend this school, hoping to sign a professional baseball contract. At its peak, the school drew between 300 and 400 baseball students to the month-long session. In the late 1940s, Rogers Hornsby took over the school, and he managed it until the mid-1950s. Fireball pitcher of the Cubs and Cardinals, Lon “The Arkansas Hummingbird” Warneke, was a mainstay instructor at the school along with Dizzy Dean, George Sisler, George Earnshaw, and Grover Cleveland Alexander. George Barr, major league umpire, initiated an umpire’s school in the city.
African-American teams—such as the Kansas City Monarchs, Pittsburgh Crawfords, New York Black Yankees—as well as individuals, also trained at the resort. Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Wilber “Bullet” Rogan, Oscar Charleston, “Smokey” Joe Williams, and Josh Gibson were among the many Negro League stars who used Hot Springs as a training ground. In addition, several minor league teams, as well as the House of David team, traveled to the Arkansas spa city. Jackie Robinson played an exhibition game in the city during the 1950s. Scores of Hall of Famers also traveled to Hot Springs for spring training, including Chief Bender, Joe DiMaggio, Carl Hubbell, and Bobby Wallace.
Though many major league teams continued to send their pitchers and catchers to Hot Springs for pre-spring training until the early 1940s, most teams abandoned the city by the 1920s. Several minor league teams continued to train in Hot Springs until the early 1940s, but major league teams gradually shifted their spring training bases to other parts of the country. By World War II, most of the teams were training in Florida, Arizona, or California. Reasons for the move to other states included warmer climate, less rain, better practice facilities, and teams training within close proximity. Today, spring training is a multi-million-dollar business, as fifteen major league teams train in Florida (the Grapefruit League) while another fifteen train in Arizona (the Cactus League). In March 2012, the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail, consisting of twenty-four markers commemorating historic events related to spring training in the city, was dedicated.
The world premiere of the documentary film The First Boys of Spring was held at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October 2015. The film, narrated by actor and Hot Springs native Billy Bob Thornton, details the role of Hot Springs in the early days of professional baseball spring training.
For additional information:
Bauer, Robert. “Gilded Age Gladiators: Hot Springs and the First Major League Baseball Spring Training.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly77 (Spring 2018): 1–20.
Duren, Don. Boiling Out at the Springs: A History of Major League Baseball Spring Training at Hot Springs, Arkansas. Dallas: Hodge Publishing Co., 2006.
Heard, Kenneth. “Spa City Trail Marks Rich Baseball History.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 1, 2012, pp. 1B, 3B.
“Honus Wagner Was Referee.” Sentinel Record. March 16, 1912, p. 2.
“M’Graw’s Winter Graft. Defendant in Police Court.” The Sporting News. January 23, 1904, p. 1.
“State Specials.” “Hot Springs, Ark.” Daily Gazette. March 17, 1886, p. 4.
“The White Stockings.” The Sporting News. March 17, 1886, p. 1.