Spring Training: The Short Season
A Cyclical Rebirth
Life is a series of cycles much akin to the seasons of the year. We begin in the spring with our birth and travel into adulthood with the summer. In the fall our hair starts to gray and with winter the leaves descend and our cycle ends. Baseball follows this path ever year, beginning in the spring, bursting with hope from the cold harshness of winter. It is reborn with the promise that all teams are equal and the hopeful fan can watch their gang achieve greatness. Will they? Who knows and who cares? It’s spring time, we are young with not a care in the world. Have hope! Baseball is back and while the spring is short, it is exciting and abounds with possibilities.
A Beginning of Sorts
Spring Training’s origins are much like baseball’s, muddy at best, with no specific starting point. It has been more of a continuous evolution. Ballplayers, before the days of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, trained privately at home. You know the deal, chop firewood, give the oxen a break and pull the plow around the field by your lonesome, and then poof, baseball shape. This technique had a hardening affect on the muscular system, but didn’t take care of the team building aspect that is necessary for a successful ball club.
Hot Springs, Arkansas and Beyond
The initial trips down south for the spring were more barnstorming and less training. Although the ventures had the correct impact and better strengthened teams for the regular season. This caught the attention of Chicago White Stockings’ owner, Albert Spalding and player/manager, Cap Anson . Albert and Cap decided to take the White Stockings, currently known as the Chicago Cubs, down to Hot Springs, Arkansas. They whipped their boys into shape and over the next two seasons won two championships. The White Stockings’ success turned them into trend setters and soon other ball clubs followed suit, turning Hot Springs into the first spring training destination. Hot Springs was ideal because of the warmer weather and the healing properties of the springs.
By the beginning of the 20th century, Spring Training had become an institution. Places like New Orleans, Tulsa, Phoenix, and West Palm Beach hosted teams. Not only was it a great way to get players in shape and ready for the grueling season ahead, but there was also money to be made. In an act of symbiosis, newspaper writers sniffed a story and baseball teams found marketing opportunities. The writers spun tales of players getting back into shape under sunny skies. This peaked the interest of northerners who were missing baseball and tired of the long cold winter. So, what did the frozen masses decide to do? Take a trip down south of course. This translated into money not only for the teams, but also for the numerous towns playing host.
The Grapefruit League
Following World War I, Florida became a popular vacation destination and baseball owners, as well as the towns, spied an opportunity. The owners saw value in building a second fan base and the host towns could increase the already booming tourist industry. More and more teams ventured to the Sunshine State and found homes in places like St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and Lakeland. Floridians became New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves fans and over time the Grapefruit League was born.
The Cactus League
While the Grapefruit League’s evolution was driven by tourism and the almighty dollar, the Cactus League was born out of necessity. In 1947 Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier, while Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation were all over the south, including Florida. During the 1950s black players made up 10 percent of Major League ballplayers and throughout Spring Training many of these players were forced to eat and sleep in different places than white players. Teams needed to find a place where they could have integrated facilities. Arizona’s climate and the fact that it didn’t have Jim Crow laws, made it an ideal place.
Something More on Spring Training
Over time the business of Spring Training has grown. The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues rake in hundreds of millions of dollars every spring both for the tourist industry and the ball clubs that call these places home for a short time. Although Spring Training, while it is a business, just like baseball is a business, means more than money and vacation time. It signifies that beginning of something new. While the seasons change and we grow more worn and weathered with time, we can look forward to the innocence of beginning. We can trust that for now ignorance is bliss. The short season is here! Rejoice!
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