Spring Training From The Beginning

added 2/28/2008 by Gene Elston

“More than anything it’s a game of innocence. Politicians come and go, but they always get booed at the ballpark and now, each day, the words come over the radio, and the pictures fill the sports pages. The pitchers and catchers are in camp, the hitters are on their way, the kids are doing their best. The world is with us, the issues crowd in, disasters loom in like thunderclouds. But still it’s spring. I’m sure of that. And in a few more weeks, when the chill is gone, there’ll be flags flapping in the wind around the ballparks, and someone will walk out of a dugout, spit tobacco on the ground, and hand the umpire the lineup. I’ll see you there.” -Peter Hamill

The first baseball game played under the basic rules, as we know them today, was played on June 19, 1846 when the New York Club defeated the Knickerbockers 23-1 at Elysian Fields in New York. The teams had been organized as a gentleman’s social and fraternal group with the Knickerbockers Baseball Club commonly recognized as being the first organized baseball team with origins in 1842. Although it has been recorded that there were earlier town ball clubs the rules drawn up by Alex Cartwright for the Knickerbockers were certified as those which designed the present-day sport.

The next move in the history of the game was getting the teams playing away from their home grounds, and the first “road trip” was made by the Excelsiors of Brooklyn in 1860. The team made their first stop at Albany‘s Parade Grounds on July 2 with following appearances through New York State at Troy, Rochester and Buffalo. The National Club of Washington D.C. was the second club to “hit the road” playing nine games in the mid-west going as far as Missouri. During this trip the team’s captain declared, ”To accept guarantees would be profaning the social implications of the game”.

Guarantees and social implications stopped in 1869 when the importance to baseball history was born under the banner of the Cincinnati Red Legs – the first professional team. In 1870 while competing in 65 games without defeat while touring the United States, literally from Maine to California, professional leagues became possible, and in 1871 the first major league was formed under the banner of the National Association.

It didn’t take long for some owners, tired of seeing their athletes reporting each spring out of condition after a winter of loafing, many overweight and (in some cases) dissipated, began to take action and they grudgingly decided to spend some money to get players in shape to earn their meager salaries. At first the idea of sending clubs south for conditioning was not immediately in their minds. It took two teams with the idea to leave the cold north and play each other. It took the Chicago White Stockings to do the pioneering along with Cincinnati in 1870, both clubs making a spring trip to New Orleans that year. It may not technically come under the heading of spring training, and the site might well had been picked out by the New York Mutuals who sold to New Orleans the year before.

1870, however, was the beginning of more teams going south as the White Stockings, Red Legs and the Mutuals set the example with New Orleans the favorite “training base”. Not all clubs favored the Deep South – The Cleveland Blues tried Washington in 1883, the Phillies based their charges in Charleston, South Carolina. The Louisville Eclipse, the Pittsburgh Alleghenys and Detroit Wolverines worked out in Savannah in 1886. During this invasion of the South, early training facilities were far from what today’s players revel in – however, in the not-so-good old days their programs were considered very modern as conditioning was held in local gyms, rented halls or whatever was available. For example the owner of the Buffalo Bisons went so far as to rent the YMCA because it was the only way his entire team could use the gym.

The early routine throughout that period was to have a short stay in camp and cap it off with long trips through the South and on their way home to start the season – this was called “barnstorming” a name first associated with itinerant actors who usually performed on farms ("the silo circuit"). The group was called “barnstormers” around 1884 which then applied to ballplayers mostly in their one-day stands during this period.

By 1901 both the American and Nationals Leagues had been established with Florida, Arizona and California leading the way for major league teams to shape-up their athletes. Some clubs over the years settled in permanent places, i.e. the Chicago Cubs. After three different stays on Catalina Island (1922-1942), (1946-1947) and (1950-1951), the Bruins settled in Mesa, Arizona (1952-1965) then returned in 1979 to begin their long and current stay in that sunny state. The Brooklyn Dodgers left the main land in 1947 to train in Havana, Cuba and Ciudad Trujillo, Dominican Republic in 1948. They began their permanent stay in Vero Beach in 1949, and even when the Dodgers moved their franchise to Los Angeles in 1958 they remained in Vero for their spring tune-ups. Nothing is forever - even for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. Recently it came as a shock to some baseball traditionalists that 2008 would be the final season for the Bums in their 49-year stay in Florida. They’ll be moving to Arizona, closer to their new home base, in 2009.

Other teams, as those mentioned above, spent time training outside the USA. The White Sox crossed the border to Mexico City in 1907, the New York Highlanders (yet to become the Yankees) spent the spring of 1913 in Bermuda, the Giants in 1937 and the Pirates in 1953 trained in Cuba. Also in 1937, the Philadelphia Athletics set up their spring camp in Mexico City.

Beginning in 1903, Texas would host the St. Louis Cardinals in Dallas to begin an influx of major league clubs to train in that state for the next 22 consecutive years - through World War I and continuing into 1924. The Lone Star State would play host to 14 of the 16 teams over this period – eight from the American League (the St.Louis Browns, Philadelphia Athletics, Washington, Cleveland, the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, New York Yankees and Detroit ) and six from the National (Boston Braves, Philadelphia Phils, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis Cardinals and the New York Giants.) For some unknown reason not one team showed up in 1925, but from that point on beginning in 1926 through 1941 a total of 18 teams held spring training in Texas with San Antonio hosting 16 of those camps and Dallas and New Braunfels the other two. 1941 was the final spring fling for The Lone Star State with San Antonio hosting the St. Louis Browns.

As the 1941 season ended, the bombing of Pearl Harbor questioned the very life of the game. However, Commissioner Judge Landis pursued the president’s guidance on January 15, 1942 and Roosevelt gave baseball the “Green Light” to continue during the war years as a morale booster. Baseball continued with their spring plans for 1942, but Landis on January 5, 1943 ordered teams to train near their homes and he laid out the specific boundaries – above the Mason-Dixon line north of the Potomac and Ohio rivers and east of the Mississippi. However, the two St. Louis teams could train in Missouri with the Browns selecting Cape Girardeau and the Cardinals moving across the river to Cairo, Illinois. The Red Sox would train at Tufts College in Massachusetts and the Boston Braves to Choate Prep School in Wallingford, Connecticut. The Cubs and White Sox worked out together at French Lick, Indiana and many other Midwest teams also chose the Hoosier State – Cleveland at Purdue University in Lafayette, Detroit at Evansville, Pittsburgh at Muncie and Cincinnati at Indiana University at Bloomington. The New York and Philadelphia teams stayed close to home by setting up camps in New Jersey – the Yankees in Asbury Park, the Giants at Lakewood and the Phils and Athletics at Atlantic City. The Dodgers worked out near West Point at Bear Mountain, New York, while the Washington Senators used the facilities at the University of Maryland in College Park.

With the war ended, baseball and spring training settled back to normalcy in 1946 in Florida, on Catalina Island and California.

We leave remembering the Long Star State’s startling period 1903-1924 when the state hung out the Welcome Banners for 22 straight springs with 14 major league teams accepting the invitations, some more than once. We especially note the 17 Texas Cities, Towns and Hamlets that together established “76” different camps throughout the state and we take off our caps and remember them here: Brownsville, Cisco, Corsicana, Dallas, Eagle Pass, Galveston, Hot Wells, Houston, Marlin Springs, Mineral Wells, Orange, Palestine, San Augustine, San Antonio, Seguin, Waco and Waxahachie.

Gene Elston is the former play-by-play voice of the Houston Colt .45s and Houston Astros (1962-1986) and the 2006 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award given by the Baseball Hall of Fame. For more of Gene's remembrances and historical perspectives, visit Gene Elston's Journal.